International Women’s Day: “Gender Equality and Technology: Women’s Inclusion in the Digital World”
On March 6, 2023, The Arab Institute for Women, in collaboration with the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), hosted a panel discussion under the title: “Gender Equality and Technology: Women’s Inclusion in the Digital World”. The discussion focused on the gender divide in the digital world, the role which women play in technology, the difficulties endured by these women, and the many ways available to use the virtual space as a tool to promote women’s rights and gender equality.
In an opening word, Director of The AiW, Ms. Myriam Sfeir, introduced the institute’s long-standing commitment to promoting interdisciplinary approaches to knowledge building on gender equality and spotlighted the significance of understanding women’s contested role in a digital space governed by a pervasive culture of discrimination and exclusion. Then, Executive Director of AGBU, Ms. Arine Ghazarian, delivered a welcome note and reiterated the importance of this discussion in bringing attention to the exclusion of women from the digital realm and understanding the repercussions of the gender divide on women’s agency.
Panel 1: The Digital Space: A Double-edged Sword
Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism and Communication at LAU, Dr. Gretchen King, who served as the moderator of the first panel, presented a brief overview of the multidimensional, complex, and sometimes problematic relationship between traditional media, the digital space and women’s inclusion, before launching the panel discussion.
To usher the discussion, Executive Director of the Social Media Exchange (SMEX), Mr. Mohamad Najem, focused on the rising figures of gender-based violence on virtual platforms in Lebanon and the Arab region. As he explained, around a 300% alarming increase in digital threats, between the years 2021 and 2022, has been documented and reported, and the main targets of violence have been journalists, political figures, and LGBTQ+ activists, among others. According to Mr. Najem, this rise has only been, to a very limited extent, curtailed, amidst the absence of enforceable policies which prevent the escalation of violence, the wide digital divide which allows access of certain groups to social media, in contrast to others, and the social norms which continue to perpetuate violence in all its forms. Together, he argued, these factors have greatly contributed to the rise of digital threats and gender-based violence online.
Then, Media Officer at Maharat, Mr. Habib Akiki, presented some recent figures on gender-based violence against vulnerable groups in the cyberspace, particularly in Lebanon. As he explained, the groups which are the most vulnerable to gender-based violence have been women (of which 80% report having experienced gender-based violence in the cyberspace in Lebanon), journalists, migrant domestic workers, LGBTQ+ community members, Syrian and Palestinian refugees, and people with disabilities. As Mr. Habib further described, the most prevalent types of threats include cyberbullying, hate speech, sexual harassment, threats and intimidation, shaming, and cyberstalking, among many others. These forms of threats, he lastly argued, continue to be reproduced in most cyberspaces, while the action plans to counter violence remain incomplete, unapplied, and thus ineffective in most instances.
Finally, Executive Director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, Mr. Ayman Mhanna, analyzed the rising rates of violence against journalists in Lebanon, the Arab region, and the world, on one hand, and underpinned the critical role of educative programs in mitigating the risks associated with gender-based violence against journalists, on the other. As he explained, journalists, which usually are some of the most vulnerable groups to violence, suffer from the consequences of the shrinking civic and freedom spaces in the world, especially in a landscape of conflicts and wars, acute political divisions, and ideological differences. As Mr. Mhanna further argued, women journalists, in particular, endure increased challenges, primarily as a result of the perpetrator’s impunity, unaddressed violence, politicized justice, and surging digital risks. To address all these complex challenges, he lastly highlighted, it is critical to promote media literacy, apply safety programs against violence, implement legal protections, increase awareness, and promote trainings to mitigate the physical, digital, legal, and psychological risks associated with violence against journalists.
Panel 2: Cases from the Region: Future of Women in the Digital World
The moderator of this panel, Journalist at SEEDS, Ms. Lina Jarrous, welcomed the panelists and introduced the main theme of the session. Then, Representative of UN Women in Lebanon, Ms. Rachel Dore-Weeks, opened the discussion with a focus on the latest studies on violence against women in politics in Lebanon. According to the most recent figures, she explained, a growing trend of cyberbullying, belittling, and ridiculing can be observed against women candidates in online spaces. The consequences of violence, Ms. Dore-Weeks added, adversely affect women’s mental health and well-being, and can, in some instances, lead to increased levels of depression and suicidal thoughts. Cyberbullying, in all its forms, she argued, has limited women’s involvement in the public and digital spheres, and has confined the latter to the very traditional realms, like the private sphere. To overcome these difficulties, Ms. Dore-Weeks at last pinpointed, enabling accountability, enacting protective legislations, and calling out harassment are some of the many ways which can contribute to protecting women in the public and digital spaces.
Next, Founder of Nazra and Human Rights Activist, Ms. Mozn Hasan, presented a general overview of the violence which women have long endured in traditional and virtual spaces in Egypt, and some of the strategies which they have employed to counter violence effectively. Gender-based violence in Egypt, Ms. Hasan explained, includes a wide range of abusive physical, sexual, and psychological behaviors which highly limit women’s agency and freedom. These forms of violence, she argued, are omnipresent in the traditional and digital spheres, both of which are increasingly “hostile” and “unwelcoming” to women. To surmount these challenges, she stated, Egyptian women transformed social media into a tool for popular mobilization, community building, networking, and instant communication. By creating safe spaces online, she argued, women have been able to bypass traditional cultural restrictions and have voiced out their concerns and demands with relative freedom. For example, Ms. Hasan further mentioned, women utilize online platforms to name and shame harassers and create pressure groups to enact accountability. A recent achievement, she finally underscored, was the successful role of online pressure groups in advocating for a sexual harassment law at the American University of Cairo (AUC).
The final panelist, Founder of Harasstracker, Ms. Nay El Rahi, discussed the opportunities to counter cyberviolence via the creation of safe online spaces. Harasstracker – “an online platform for the anonymous reporting of sexual harassment in Lebanon” – she explained, has helped many women and girls to document and report sexual harassment in public spaces in Lebanon. These reports, she argued, are important to understand behavioral patterns, collect data, and map harassment. The platform, Ms. El Rahi further stated, has created many opportunities to foster solidarity, debunk common myths, prevent or limit future incidences, and advocate for accountability and change. Thereby, she confirmed, platforms like “Harasstracker” have played an important role in bringing to light cases of harassment. Ms. El Rahi finally emphasized the need to pass enforceable laws and policies to protect against sexual harassment in Lebanon.
The session concluded with a short Q&A session.