In Tunisia, 4 out of 5 women have been the target of online violence and 7 out of 10 have been called « whore », according to a study carried out by the Center of Research, Studies, Documentation and Information About Women (Crédif).
From October 19 to November 2, Crédif held an awareness-raising campaign on cyber-violence against women. As part of the program « Moussawat », the campaign was a collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in the context of the Advocacy for Equality Between Women and Men in Tunisia.
Under the slogan of « Digital violence is a crime #Même_ici_il_sera_poursuivi (« Even here he will be prosecuted », translated literally from Tunisian Arabic), the campaign is based on the results of a study carried out by Crédif in 2019. According to Crédif Director Najla Allani, the study, « Violence against women in the digital space: Facebook as an example », was informed by a survey and analysis of the most popular Facebook pages in Tunisia.
In the continuity of our work on violence against women, we have addressed the topic of cyberviolence because we consider the internet to be a part of public space. What’s more, cyberviolence can begin online and move into the real world, and vice-versa,
Cyberviolence, a Daily Norm for Women
Online violence is widespread. For some women, it has become an inevitable consequence of their being on social media.
« Any girl who has a Facebook account has experienced some form of cyberviolence. Just take a look at their « Others » messages [message requests from strangers on Facebook Messenger] which are filled with what are more or less indecent propositions. There are also strangers who have been added to the « friends » list. With those, it all starts with the repetitive « Hi, how are you? », and « you are beautiful, can we get to know each other? ». If we ignore or reject these, they turn into vulgar insults », 23-year-old Roua told Nawaat.
While some women deal with harassment from strangers who have been added to their social networks, others are confronted by acquaintances, in which case the discomfort is even more difficult.
You respond politely to his greetings, then he invites you to go out with him. You gently decline, but he keeps coming back. You ignore his messages to no avail. You get the impression that he is watching you. In other cases, you are having a normal conversation with someone and all of the sudden it turns into sexual insinuations. With people you don’t know, you block them without hesitation. With acquaintances, it’s more embarrassing; you tell yourself that he’s going to chill out, that he’ll eventually understand, but in vain,
recounted 32-year-old Mariem.
« Erasing Women from Public Space »
For some women, just expressing themselves freely on social media about public interest issues draws personal attacks. That’s the case for 42-year-old Sonya. Politically active on Facebook, Sonya says that she sometimes receives threats. « Sonya, you are a whore, I’m going to rape you one day », someone wrote in reaction to her comment denouncing sexual harassment on a Facebook post.
For Yosra Frawes, President of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), it is not happenstance that women active on social media are commonly targeted.
The lynching of women who express themselves freely on social media, of activists or female politicians, aims to erase women from public space,
Frawes told Nawaat.
Harassment on social media can take on a more harmful form towards threats of a sexual nature. 26-year-old Mayssa has still not recovered from an incident that took place on Facebook.
« Late one night, I received a call from a girlfriend on Messenger. I responded naturally, believing that it was her, but it turned out to be a man. He ordered me to undress and turn on the camera or else he would share naked photos of me on Facebook. I was sure that I didn’t have any such photos, but he was so threatening and seemed to know me very well. I was afraid that he might share photoshopped images. I hung up but he didn’t stop calling. It was horrible. I was in tears. I had a fiancé, and feared the worst. The next day, my friend told me that her account had been hacked », she recalled.
There are increasing numbers of victims of this kind of behavior, says Sarra Ben Said, Executive Director of Aswat Nissa. Her association has called for victims of cyberviolence to share their testimonies.
« Often the problems come from an ex-boyfriend or fiancé who threatens to share compromising photos of the victim. Distraught and afraid of their families, these women seek the help of Aswat Nissa » she explained. Called revenge porn, this threat to publish erotic photos of an individual without her permission is very common, says Yosra Frawes, whose organization provides support for the victims of such violence on the internet.
Psychiatrist, psychotherapist and sexologist Ines Trabelsi describes the profile of the ideal prey for those who commit cyberviolence:
We’re talking about victims who are fairly passive. They are inexperienced, immature and don’t have enough self-confidence. Many of them are adolescents.
As for the aggressor, she describes him as a « pervert who, in order to gain the confidence of his victim, shows himself as being interested in the person before beginning to ask for increasingly intimate photos. Some victims give in. But the blackmail continues as he asks for more and more. After the victim blocks their account to stop this vicious cycle, he pursues her using other fake accounts ».
To stop such cyberviolence, victims generally block their aggressors, « whereas they must take a screenshot of the discussion, get it certified through a notary and press charges », insisted Sarra Ben Said.
What Does the Law Say?
Law 58 of 2017 regarding the elimination of violence against women does not explicitly mention cyberviolence, Najla Allani of Crédif said. Allani points out that, according to the Crédif study, 95 percent of cyberviolence victims do not press charges. She suggests that the slow pace of judicial proceedings dissuade some from taking legal action.
Having participated in the drafting of Law 58, Yosra Frawes of ATFD explained the circumstances that resulted in the exclusion of cyberviolence from the law in question.
Regarding the omission of cyberviolence, we were told that a law on cybercrime in general was soon to be adopted, in accord with a gender-focused approach. At that time, we were reassured by this response. It’s really unfortunate that, as always, nothing has been done since then,
The ATFD president condemns « the archaic laws that govern this issue, such as the Penal Code and the Communication Code, which have become anachronistic… Cyberviolence demands a legal framework that defines it, details its different forms and effects, and above all places the victim at the center of legal proceedings. Unfortunately, currently under Law 58 victims cannot obtain an order from an investigating judge to stop a lynching campaign on Facebook or to erase a video as quickly as possible. The Tunisian justice system is not up-to-date to deal with this kind of very particular case which requires a certain technical treatment, » said Frawes.
In the absence of a clear reference to cyberviolence, cases are assessed according to judges’ discretion, the ATFD president explained. To support victims of online violence, the ATFD provides a lawyer from the association shoulda victim wish to press charges. For its part, the association Aswat Nissa provides victims with legal advice, in partnership with Lawyers without Borders.
Another option available through the ATFD is strategic litigation.
« If the victim requests it, we make the case public by creating a media and advocacy campaign. We did this when defending Bochra Bel Haj Hmida, Leila Toubel and even the feminist activist Wafa Frawes against the lynching and denigration campaigns of which they were the victims on social media », she explained.
Ena Zeda, a Turning Point
Whether or not they decide to take legal action, some women, who consider themselves to be victims of different forms of violence including cyberviolence, have decided to break the silence around this issue, publishing their experiences on Ena Zeda, the Facebook page and group. Launched in the wake of the worldwide #MeToo movement, these spaces dedicated to violence against women host many testimonies. « We receive about a dozen testimonies each week » said Sarra Ben Said, whose association AswatNissa manages the #EnaZeda group which has 40 thousand members.
The EnaZeda page is managed by a group that presents itself as « a group of independent Tunisian citizens and feminist activists who are fed up with feeling discriminated against, harassed, and constantly in danger in public and private spaces », according to one of its representatives, Najma Kousri Labidi.
In October 2019, the page was launched following the case of Zouhair Makhlouf, a member of parliament accused of sexual harassment and indecency, with proof to back it up. The public needed proof to open its eyes to the reality of our society. And this time, proof is what the public got. The testimonies have multiplied since,
said Kousri Laabidi.
In less than one year, she tells us, the page has reached over 60 thousand members, 63 percent of them women. On the same page, over 2500 testimonies have been read nearly 43 million times. Kousri Labidi points out that the page is totally independent from the group with the same name. « As far as we’re concerned, it’s a safe space, and there are rules to follow in order to publish a testimony and also to post a comment. We think that asking a victim to share her experience, and then letting her get lynched is not an act of activism but an amateur act », she explained.
Both Kousri Laabidi and Ben Said stress the importance of women and some men who are victims of violence speaking out about their experiences. Cyberviolence is a widely shared experience in these community spaces, on display through the published testimonies supported by screenshots of Messenger conversations.
« We believe that silence only amplifies the pain. By sharing and describing their suffering, female and male survivors alike no longer feel alone and the world will better understand the horror that we face », remarked Kousri Laabidi.
And the Presumption of Innocence?
Social media networks where cyberviolence occurs have also become spaces for public denunciation. But is it ethical to display what is part of our private lives in cyberspace? Does publicly revealing the identity of a presumed aggressor undermine the presumption of his innocence? In other countries, some feminists such as the feminist philosopher Elisabeth Badinter warn against this potential slippery slope. Aswat Nissa defends its approach, noting that revealing the identity of a presumed aggressor identity is always done at the request of the victim, who will assume eventual lawsuits. For Sarra Ben Said, the main problem in Tunisia is the systematic questioning of victims’ accounts. « By publishing evidence [of the violence that victims endured], we help [others] to better appreciate their suffering », she said.
As for the collective behind the Ena Zeda Facebook page, they consider that « the sexual violence that women suffer on a daily basis must be a public concern. To confine this violence to the private space is to reinforce the culture of silence. Ena Zeda believes in the word of victims. We are openly on the side of the victims, not on that of the aggressors. Moreover, we always encourage survivors to press charges, even if we are fully aware that the overwhelming majority of them will not do so because they do not trust the Tunisian judicial system which defends male dominance ».
For the feminist and jurist Monia Ben Jémia, « naming the aggressor enables the prevention of other potential victims. It’s just fine to name, but we must warn victims that they can be sued for defamation », she explained to Nawaat. She is calling for the creation of specialized associations for each form of violence:
It is important to name rape, incest, harassment and cyberviolence, and that associations specialize in providing support for each of these forms of violence.
While some women no longer hesitate to speak about the cyberviolence they suffer on social media, some men remain silent. For Chawki, « speaking about harassment by another man remains taboo. If the harasser is a woman, I think it threatens a man’s ego in the sense that men are used to taking the first step ». The same is true for 30-year-old Amine: « Publicly complaining about harassment online by a man or woman is not a very masculine quality. When confronted with provocative advances by someone on the internet, I reply with insults before blocking the person. And it stops there », he says.
The Necessity of Adequate Support
For victims who choose to speak out about the violence they have experienced, their decision is not without consequences. Some can suffer a new form of cyberviolence through comments blaming them or misplaced judgements. This is according to doctor Ines Trabelsi, who underlines the life-saving virtues associated with victims speaking out, but specifically when this is done with the support of an expert. Yosra Frawes says as much: « When we open a wound, we must be well-equipped to treat it », she said, insisting on the necessity of offering victims adequate support.
Cyberviolence has harmful effects on victims. According to the study carried out by the Crédif, 78 percent of victims live in a state of anxiety, 94 percent have trouble communicating with their families and 44 percent have cut their social ties. Doctor Trabelsi explained that « victims of cyberviolence may sink into a debilitating anxiety. They feel guilty, limit their social interactions or develop a strategy of avoidance. Faced with blackmail by their aggressors, some become depressed. Over the long run, this can influence their emotions and relationships. This is why it is necessary to provide victims with support as soon as possible ».
Through the campaign of her association Crédif, Najla Allani advocates for educators to be made aware of the cyberviolence that young children face. In this context, she stresses the need for sexual education.
Starting from seven years of age, a child must know his private parts and not let anyone touch him there nor expose them to others. Parents of adolescents must let their children know about the phenomenon of cyberviolence and monitor their use of social media,
warned Doctor Trabelsi.
Trabelsi explains that cyberviolence between adults is the consequence of a deficient sexual education beginning in childhood, a deficiency which engendered frustrations and inaccurate images of sexuality. Cyberviolence also raises questions about the use of social media networks which have become meeting spaces for men and women.
« People no longer know what can and what cannot be said. We no longer try to seduce others for fear of being called a harasser, of seeing our private lives shared on social media. It only takes one woman labelling you a harasser for your reputation to be forever tarnished », said 27-year-old Marwan.
What distinguishes seduction from harassment is the presence of consent, Trabelsi noted. « If one of the parties clearly expresses his or her refusal of the advances made by the other party, and the latter insists regardless, this is a case of harassment, » she said. « The expression of desire must be the continuation of an evolving relationship, and not its prelude ».