Intimidation, censorship and defamation in the virtual sphere

In Syria, hundreds of thousands of people have died since 2011. Numerous human rights violations have taken place during the Syrian crisis - arbitrary detentions, torture, assassination of journalists and the violent repression of protests, make Syria one of the most volatile countries in the Middle East and North Africa. This region has the worst record for human rights globally; crackdowns on civic and democratic rights are frequent and widespread, and journalists and human rights defenders continue to bear the brunt of authoritarian regimes. Life is particularly hard for women; across the region, the repression of women and those advocating for women’s rights continues.  

Originally from Syria, Weaam Youssef is Programme Manager for Women Human Rights Defenders for the Gulf Region and Neighboring Countries. This is her story:

Report, block, speak up, reflect, seek help digitally, and practice self-care

As an exiled human rights advocate and a feminist coming from a volatile country, I find the online space is sometimes the only cosmos where I can interact with fellow activists and feminists from the same region and beyond. Yet the virtual world is packed with complex challenges and uncertainties. Its backdoors and obscure pathways can lead to jeopardies, persecution, and unanticipated impairments.

As someone who works on women’s rights by profession and embraces feminism by passion, I tend to use my words as my advocacy tools - written, spoken or conveyed in any way through solidarity and compassion. It is imperative to be assertive in a changeable world, but most importantly, to be ready to be proactive in an interactive space.

Before the COVID-19 crisis and the world awakening to the misinformation and information associated with it, and even before we were all forced to work online as part of the imposed lockdowns, activists from all around the world had already resolved to use online spaces as alternatives to the vicious physical ones. But even in the online sphere, we have been faced with constant intimidation, censorship, prosecution, defamation and electronic armies that strived to confiscate freedoms and attempted to steal our voices, our words. 

There have even been unarticulated threats, such as the development of Cyberlaws and anti-cybercrime laws, that are mainly designed to silence rights activists and defenders’ free speech and control any anti-government tweets and posts.

After the Syrian revolution started in 2011, and by taking inspiration from other revolutions in the region, social media contributed to breaking the fear imposed on us for decades and helped to mobilise efforts, convey solidarity and share learnt lessons. However, this has put many at risk of detention and resulted in a severe backlash from the government’s forces. The violence perpetrated by the Syrian government has put hundreds of thousands in prisons; many have been detained, tortured or have forcibly disappeared

Sometimes, if we survived, we found ourselves in the limbo of exile, participating in online demonstrations and campaigns. Safety remains relatively challenged. If we are unharmed physically, we may lose ourselves in the oblivion of self-flagellation for our insufficient activism, helplessness and inability to be physically present to be part of these unprecedented demands for freedom and dismantling authoritarianism. Yet, despite the internal struggle, we are often called traitors, home country destructors, agents for foreign agendas and more.

These challenges have never stopped for once, as online harassment mainly affects us as women and, even more, if we are activists. However, this form of gender-based violence continues to vary in its techniques yet is uniform in its cruelty.

As someone who is - most of the time - wearing so many hats, my work in human rights makes it extremely difficult for me to alienate myself from the other women activists and feminists, especially when speaking up about harassment in all forms and shapes.  Every single story I heard, every online incident I witnessed, every case I documented or supported has not only touched me, but it scared me forever! And pushed me to do what I do every day. Despite the burnout, the blemishes and the vulnerability that might put me off for days, these stories push me to work determinedly for years.

A week ago, I found myself navigating the newest social media platform, Clubhouse, speaking about the status of women in Arab countries, their challenges and risks; they are called extremist, hysterical, social disruptor, a traitor to religions, traditions and Arab society morals, only for advocating for women’s rights and speaking up about equality, abolishing patriarchy and demolishing authoritarianism. 

The struggle is real and continues to correlate with the COVID related challenges, as harassers are now spending the majority of their time online to enjoy their favourite hobbies of fabrications, gender-specific verbal abuses, virtual sexual harassments and cyberbullying. 

It is unfortunate that harassment reporting mechanisms remain chaotic and arbitrary in many cases, as abusers tend to create multiple accounts with fake names and identities to expand their abuse scale and make it difficult to track them and end their online violence. At the same time, online protection remains unfitting when women are twice as likely as men to experience sexual harassment online and less likely to take action and ask for help. For now, my advice to myself and all women: report, block, speak up, reflect, seek help digitally and practice self-care! 



25  Owl Street, 6th Floor
South Africa,
Tel: +27 (0)11 833 5959
Fax: +27 (0)11 833 7997

CIVICUS, c/o We Work
450 Lexington Ave
New York
NY 10017
United States

11 Avenue de la Paix
Tel: +41.79.910.34.28