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Written by Shara Jazzar

We often consider that working from behind a screen would protect us from the forms of violence we are subjected to on a daily basis. That, however, is simply not true. Social media platforms, such as Facebook, have become increasingly convenient tools for many forms of gender-based violence (GBV).

This article aims to give a glimpse into the lived experiences of Jordanian women online, particularly Facebook, as one of the most popular social media platforms in the country and the world. For this purpose, we initiated a conversation on a Jordanian, closed, women-only Facebook group. This article summarizes the patterns and stories shared by the women who responded to our inquiry. These testimonies were complemented with findings from studies and papers that show and clarify the patterns of harassment and online violence throughout the region and the world.

Echoing global trends,1 misconceptions around GBV and the online experience abound in Jordan, the latter being predominantly associated with physical aggression only while dismissing online forms of violence as insignificant. The definition of GBV, however, encompasses “all acts of gender-based violence that result in, or are likely to result in, physical, sexual, psychological or economic harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”2 This means that any type of unsolicited attempts at bonding, friend requests, insults or threats on Facebook - and other online platforms – can constitute GBV.

The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) uses the term technology-related violence against women, defining it as “acts of gender-based violence that are committed, abetted or aggravated, in part or fully, by the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as mobile phones, the internet, social media platforms, and email.” Similarly to other forms of GBV, technology-related violence against women should not be tolerated, the victims should be believed and supported, and perpetrators should be reported and held accountable.

In Jordan, it comes as no surprise that GBV is evolving to continue to haunt women in different ways. Men, and often boys, frequently utilize technology to harass women from the comfort of their homes and offices. It is not unusual for them to create fake accounts, going as far as pretending to be women in order to ease contact with their victims. This anonymity is further reinforced by the fact that the servers of social media networks are located far away and beyond local authorities’ legal reach. Though anonymity and privacy are important and should be protect, they are, in these cases, abused to evade accountability as well as facilitate the act of harassment.3 So, they harass more women, often at the same time, with little cost or risk to themselves.

In the conversation we held, a number of women spoke of the “other”4 folder of private messages on Facebook. They referred to it as a “goldmine” where they receive all sorts of unsolicited and unwanted texts, mostly from men they do not know and have expressed no interest in knowing. From their testimonies, it seems that these predators would particularly target females who would ‘dare’ to post their own pictures on Facebook, thus assuming that these women are ‘inviting’ the attention with their beauty, and therefore should be willing to suffer the consequences.

The respondents’ testimonies uncovered other patterns as well. For instance, predators often attempt to initiate the conversation with a bait message, saying for example: ‘may I ask a question?’ The vague content might elicit a response from the woman and, therefore, give him access to her page and photos. Other times, they just send a “hello” in the hope that their female counterpart would interact with them.

A woman told the story of a teenager who had created a number of fake accounts using female names and repeatedly tried to add her as a friend. The woman, of what was going on, declined all invitations. However, he kept sending messages, begging for access to her pictures. Eventually, the woman found out from an acquaintance in common that the teenager had found a way to access her pictures without her permission. In this particular case, the parents of the teenager were informed and intervened to hold him accountable, but that outcome is far from representative of the experience of women with online violence.5

Sometimes, these individuals would invest a lot of effort to portray themselves as unthreatening. Some would show themselves as sensitive and educated. One respondent reported once receiving a short poem as a private message. Using traditional Arab poetry tropes, he praised her beauty, describing the state of madness her pictures left him in, the poem then proceeds, “As always, I am at a loss of words when trying to describe your beauty. I am intoxicated, lost in the letters and words of my poem. I loose breath and balance. I feel the torment of Nizar6 in my attempts to unveil the source of the magic, but also the confusion of Gibran.”7

Another approach would be to try and impose a false sense of familiarity and intimacy. One respondent told the story of a stranger sliding into her private messages to call her endearing nicknames and send her emoticons and hearts. The person in question would not relent, he kept sending messages attempting to initiate small talk.

When asked about their reaction, most women stated that they often ignore these unsolicited requests and messages, preferring not to give them too much importance and laugh it off instead. Nonetheless, discussing these incidents is not always easy because of prejudices as the victim might be accused of “attracting the attention”, or that she would not have received such texts if she had known how “to set her boundaries.” In fact, some respondents denied ever facing such incidents because they “would never allow it,” though the latter statement requires further investigation for which this article does not have the space, it does however illustrate the pressure that is laid on the shoulders of the victim to prevent the attack.

Furthermore, when the content of the message is explicit and crude, the victim is less likely to feel comfortable to speak up in general, as well as report it in the investigation mechanism we used to collect testimonies.

Regardless of the reason for the silence, victims could end up feeling isolated, unable to seek advice or support from anyone.

Without going into the different forms of damage these practices could have on the victims, we wonder, what entitles these men to send unsolicited messages to women they often don’t even know? Why should women have to read them, repeatedly and persistently?

Finally, it is important to keep the conversation on online violence embedded within a larger GBV work, the former cannot be understood without understanding the mechanisms of violence and impunity of other forms of GBV. However, modern information and communication technologies have created a specific ecosystem of violence on the basis of gender, and the few studies conducted in that regard confirm that more and more violence is hiding behind screens,8 as well as innovative and transformative forms of resistance, which we did not have the space to explore in this article.

The cycle of GBV seems endless. If walking in the street, commuting, going shopping or being at work were some of the most frequently denounced spaces where GBV takes place, reality is now unfortunately worse. Opening a Facebook account for a woman can be the gateway for all sorts of harassment and violence that may target her behind presumably safe walls, from all over the globe. How can women protect themselves from such aggressions? Who can they turn to? Would someone even listen to them complaining about ‘virtual’ threats when authorities across the world are expert at disregarding claims of obvious physical violence?

A copywriter and translator based in Amman and fluent in Arabic, English, French and Spanish, Shara holds a B.A in Political Sociology and two Master Degrees - one in Intercultural Mediation and another in Islamic Studies and Christian Muslim Relations.

At the beginning of her career, Shara has worked as a journalist and researcher, and later joined UNHCR in Lebanon as a Resettlement Assistant.

Since 2011, she has been mainly working as a freelancer. At the moment, Shara is a Communication Consultant for the Women Empowered for Leadership program at Hivos in Jordan.

1 According to APC’s report Online gender-based violence: A submission from the Association for Progressive Communications to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences, “women’s experiences of violence online as a series of isolated incidents affecting relatively privileged women, to an understanding that these are part of the wider context of unequal power relations and systemic gender-based violence and discrimination.”

2 Art. 3 a, Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

3 According to APC’s report Online gender-based violence: A submission from the Association for Progressive Communications to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences, “while the gender-based violence is not new, the technology dimension adds elements of searchability, persistence, replicability and scalability which facilitate aggressors' access to women they are targeting and can escalate and exacerbate harm.”

4 Facebook currently organizes private messages between regular Messages exchanged between contacts, Message Requests which are sent by someone you are not connected to but that Facebook algorithms assume you may know, and Filtered messages which are sent by someone you are not connected to and which Facebook algorithms assume are spam. The term Other inbox refers to an older version of Facebook Messenger which was later split into Requests and Filtered, which are both still commonly called Other.

5 According to From impunity to justice: Improving corporate policies to end technology-related violence against women, published by APC in 2015, even when cases are reported, 60% will not be investigated

6 Most likely referring to Nizar Qabbani, famous Syrian poet.

7 Most likely referring to Gibran Khalil Gibran, famous Lebanese-American writer and poet.

8 According to the report Violence and Harassment against Women in the News Media: A Global Picture, published by the International Women’s Media Foundation in 2013, “more than 25% of “verbal, written and/or physical intimidation [to female journalists] including threats, to family or friends” took place online”