Disinformation Proves an Effective Weapon in Misogynistic Spaces

In the MENA region, the public sphere has become a minefield for women

lying down on the streets instead of her home — this is why she didn’t have more children.” So claimed a man on a Bahraini TV program when discussing the well-known activist from the country, Zainab al-Khawaja.

This is not the only slur on her character al-Khawaja has had to endure in her work as a coordinator with the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR). When she was imprisoned in Bahrain in 2016, she faced what can only be described as a gendered disinformation campaign. Newspapers published articles claiming she was “exposed” during her arrest, which simply wasn’t true. She knew that “it was a tactic to humiliate me publicly as a woman,” she told New Lines.

Hundreds of women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have faced similar disinformation attacks during the last decade. This is not only a widespread phenomenon but a growing trend of coordinated, systematized campaigns, with the effect of pushing many women out of the public sphere.

Lucina Di Meco, a leading gender equality expert, has described this trend as “gendered disinformation,” defining the latter as the spread of deceptive or inaccurate information or images used against women in public life. She notes that this is not simply false information — it also uses “highly emotive and value-laden content to try to undermine its targets.”

Politicians, human rights defenders and women journalists, especially, are targeted in this way. The International Center for Journalists’ latest global study of online violence against female journalists shows that 73% of those surveyed have experienced online violence.

These attacks pose a particular problem in the MENA region, where patriarchal standards are strong and sexist rules and expectations are routinely applied. Crucially, women are often held responsible for preserving the “honor” of the whole community. In situations of targeted online campaigns, al-Khawaja told me, female activists lose the support of their families, which puts these women under an “unbearable amount of pressure.”

“Families are women’s worst nightmare and deepest weakness,” says Sanar Hasan, an Iraqi journalist. In 2020, Hasan was living in Baghdad when a colleague pressured her to have an affair with him. When she rejected him, he threatened to use her pictures on a porn video. “The pictures he had were bio pictures I use for my articles, but I knew my family wouldn’t believe me; instead, they would blame me and my work for this scandal.” Hasan was horrified and eventually left her home and family. She is currently living in London.

Threatening women with “deep fakes” is serious, as we saw last year when the 17-year-old Egyptian teen Basant Khaled committed suicide when faced with this threat. When these threats come true, the worst is to be expected.

This became a trend during Iraq’s national election in 2018, when deep fakes emerged to discredit female candidates. Thanks to a women’s quota, implemented in a bid to increase representation, there were over 2,600 women competing. Among them was Dr. Intidhar Jassim, who was running for the Victory Alliance of former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. She was forced to withdraw her candidacy after a fake sex tape of an alleged affair circulated online.

Hasan believes that the disinformation targeting female candidates in Iraq is “always viciously personal, questions her ethics and honor, especially of women who don’t wear the Islamic headscarf.” She also thinks that many communities in Iraq can’t accept the fact that a woman could be qualified to succeed or lead “without having to sleep with a man for it.”

In the Syrian context, the situation appears very similar. Noura Aljizawi was a vice-president of the Syrian opposition coalition. Now a senior researcher with the Citizen Lab at University of Toronto, Aljizawi was also accused of sleeping with the head of the delegation when she participated in talks in Geneva. She told me, “No one cared about my role within the delegation; I was described as a whore providing sexual services to the men members, and that’s why they took me with them to Geneva.”

Aljizawi was also described as an ugly woman “who speaks about democracy while wearing a headscarf” during the campaign against her. On another occasion, while she was testifying to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Twitter accounts posted a poorly made video of her in which they had pasted her profile picture onto the body of a porn actress. The video was shared as a reply to all the tweets related to her intervention in the conference.

Later, a blog post accused Aljizawi of stealing $1 million from Syria’s opposition to buy a hotel in Istanbul. Aljizawi mocked this blog on social media, but even now, after eight years, some people still ask sarcastically, “What happened with your Turkish hotel?” She goes along with the joke, but with pain, because, as she says, such “ridiculous, harmful misinformation lives for this long.”

The disinformation that Aljizawi still cannot laugh about concerns the accusations of her lying about being arrested by the Syrian regime. Such comments aim to discredit women’s experiences, accusing them of being shallow and emotional, with constant sexual hints, objectifying them and, by extension, all women. Most of the disinformation targeting Aljizawi was posted by real account-holders, not bots.

Aljizawi believes that her younger age compared to other women within the political opposition played a role in increasing the sexual disinformation targeting her. Suheir Atassi, a well-known Syrian political figure and Aljizawi’s colleague in the opposition, agrees with her about the role of intersectionality in such attacks. For Atassi, her secular beliefs increased the disinformation attacks she faced when she was a member of the High Negotiation Committee and of the Syrian Coalition. “Being a woman and a secular figure turned me into a rich source of disinformation to all media,” she says.

The first disinformation campaigns Atassi faced were led by the Syrian regime, but then the “revolution audience on Facebook,” as she calls it, took over. Atassi thinks that those who wanted more “likes” and reach would either create or share disinformation about her, in abusive language.

Sometimes, the opposition even built on the regime’s gendered disinformation. This happened in August 2015, when the Lebanese pro-Syrian-regime newspaper Addiyar published an article claiming they had interviewed Atassi. The article quoted her as confirming that she stole $20 million of aid meant for Syrian refugees.

A basic Google search reveals that the newspaper’s chairman, Charles Ayoub, has confirmed receiving funding from the Syrian regime himself. Still, dozens of pro-opposition outlets circulated the false claims about Atassi. Most of the reposting ignored the source of her “interview,” and it is still being spread today, while the clarifications that Atassi published, in which she denied speaking with Addiyyar, went unnoticed.

Aljizawi believes that the disinformation targeting her also originated with regime affiliates, only to be picked up by others who were supposed to be on her side.

Besides the baseless embezzlement accusations, Atassi faced gendered disinformation campaigns when a picture of her wearing a swimming suit was leaked. But a revealing photo of a woman isn’t required to provoke such campaigns. Even formal pictures taken of Atassi at the Arab League in 2017 (in which the opposition coalition represented Syria) motivated disinformation campaigns against her. Many posted that she was “taken” to the Arab League “to seduce the Gulf royals so we can fund our work,” Atassi recalls. “Such things were shared with close-ups of my body parts.”

This frequent and systematic vitriol directed at women online confirms that many still can’t see women except as sexual bodies, regardless of what the women do. This view was confirmed by all the women I spoke to.

These tactics were also used against women who risk their lives to challenge their regimes. During the October 2019 demonstrations in Iraq, the society stigmatized women demonstrators “as being morally decadent,” according to Hasan, which led their families to ignore the causes their daughters were fighting for, their courage and their patriotism, in their concern for the families’ honor. The sexual rumors targeting the women protesters made the pressure even worse.

In other demonstrations also in October 2019, this time in Lebanon, pro-Hezbollah media claimed that one prominent protester, Nidal Ayoub, was Syrian, before switching to a more dangerous and damaging misinformation campaign, accusing her of being paid by the West and of being a traitor to her homeland for defending refugees.

One example shows how difficult it is to combat such vicious lies. The pro-Iran journalist Hussein Mortada posted a video accusing Nidal Ayoub of being a CIA agent. Ayoub filed a defamation complaint against him, but she was the one who ended up being questioned. About this, Ayoub says, “He accused me of being a traitor, which is an incitement to kill. When I filed a case against him, he responded with a counter one, and I am the one who ended up being interrogated by the Cybercrimes Bureau.” The interrogation included charges for insulting the president and undermining the prestige of the state.

In addition, Ayoub faced gendered disinformation. She said: “I am called a prostitute, lesbian, street girl and many more bad things. I also received tons of pictures of penises and sexual threats, including rape.”

The Egyptian human rights defender Mozn Hassan was also investigated by the government for her activism. Founder of Nazra for Feminist Studies, Hassan was interrogated in a case known as the “NGO foreign funding case.” As a result, she was banned from traveling for seven years. Unlike her colleagues who were facing the same charges, however, she was accused of something that might be translated as “encouraging women to irresponsible liberation.” As Hassan told me, “This patriarchal charge was thrown at me because I am a feminist working on violence against women, and I am single.”

According to Hassan, all the women who took part in the Egyptian #MeToo movement or supported its victims were targeted by various disinformation campaigns. They were called “whores” or “impure,” and their ethics were questioned, even by male activists who had been comrades during the January 2011 revolution.

Similar to what Aljizawi and Atassi faced, the disinformation targeting Hassan and other women who took part in Egyptian demonstrations was launched by state actors first. However, when Hassan’s organization, Nazra, started publishing the testimonies of women who were sexually harassed in Tahrir Square, disinformation attacks started coming from non-state actors as well.

“We were threatened with rape; all the attacks became very sexualized and personal,” said Hassan. “Our society has a problem with our presence in public, which forces women to fight on all these fronts.” This has inevitably resulted in self-censorship by women in the public sphere.

I myself stopped publishing in Arabic for about three years because of the disinformation and bullying attacks I faced after publishing an article about Syrian feminists being targeted online by their secular comrades. And I am no exception. Thirty percent of the women journalists surveyed by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) answered that they self-censor on social media.

Sanar Hasan confirms that many of the Iraqi women journalists she is communicating with request anonymity when working on feminist-related pieces. This complements another statistic resulting from a survey taken by the International Center for Journalists: 20% of female journalist respondents withdrew from all online interaction due to harassment and threats. The attacks targeting women focus on their sexuality and honor, using sexist terminology, which “demonizes women as women and as journalists as well, which pushes many to shy away from engaging,” says Dr. Zahera Harb, Director of the M.A. program in International Journalism at City University of London.

While researching gender and misinformation in the region, Harb spoke with many young women journalists who quit journalism altogether because their families were concerned that they might be subjected to these attacks.

One of the Arab women journalists who have been a target for disinformation for the last decade is Ghada Oueiss, a senior Al Jazeera anchor. Her case was highlighted in another study by the International Center for Journalists, which detailed “cheap, fake” porn images, false allegations of corruption and efforts to misrepresent her as an Israeli soldier. Despite all of these slurs against her, Oueiss is still active on social media.

Nidal Ayoub, too, refuses to leave her work. She says, “They do all these campaigns to scare us off and push us away from these spaces; they wanted to terrorize me, and I won’t give them this.” However, Ayoub must now be more cautious about her movements, due to fear of being attacked by those who believe the disinformation about her. Anyone who believes she is a CIA agent could kill her for being a traitor and be seen as a patriot. As a result, Ayoub is wary of trial-by-public.

What happened to the Iraqi activist Riham Yacoub is proof of what Ayoub fears. This Iraqi graduate in sports science, who ran a women’s health and fitness center, was killed by gunmen in 2020, after a disinformation campaign initiated by the Iranian state news agency Mehr. The conspiracy they promoted accused a group of young people, including Yacoub (all of whom participated in an exchange program funded by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad), of being agents in a U.S. plot to orchestrate violent protests in Basra.

Even death doesn’t stop disinformation campaigns against women. Just last month, the murder of an Iraqi blogger, Taiba al-Ali, by her father motivated a series of disinformation claims that she had been living in Turkey with a man she was not married to. These were untrue allegations used to justify her murder. Her partner was forced to post their legal marriage certificate on Facebook to debunk the disinformation about al-Ali a week after her murder.

In fact, there is a clear link between online and offline abuse. According to the International Center for Journalists’ survey, 1 out of 5 women has been attacked or abused offline in connection with online violence.

This happened to Aljizawi. The disinformation escalated into two offline attacks. Aljizawi was physically assaulted twice in Turkey in 2014-15, and armed men threatened her sister and mother. When asked why she didn’t speak out about this, she answered, “It would provoke yet another misinformation campaign accusing me of being an attention-seeker.”

Physical attacks are one type of offline harm women are facing, affecting their family as well as themselves. To minimize the risk, Atassi avoids media and social media. Neither she nor her son are capable of handling such potential trauma, she says.

Many women don’t respond to the disinformation campaigns, because in their opinion it is “useless.” The women I interviewed all confirmed that they receive many supportive messages privately, but these supporters don’t dare to put themselves in the public eye, for fear of being attacked themselves. According to Roua Al Taweel, who worked with Syrian feminist and women-led organizations for years, these coordinated campaigns are pushing women out of the public spaces, even if they are not themselves being attacked. This includes herself. She says, “I think ten times before sharing anything or participating in any event.”

For years, Hassan was worried about her mother, who faced bullying and pressure from the extended family because of Hassan’s actions.

I know the feeling. It’s why I force my mother to deactivate her Facebook page whenever there is a wave of disinformation targeting me. Like Aljizawi, the frequency and severity of the attacks I have faced in past years have shaken my confidence. No matter how confident a woman is, these expressions of hate cannot fail to undermine her confidence, at the very least, and at the worst, force her offline and out of the public eye completely.

“Why should I stay around?” Aljizawi asked me.

Hassan confirms this feeling: “Being in the public sphere is exhausting on all levels. Women must do a lot of calculations before any action they take, in their private, social, financial, or professional life.”

Yet these forced withdrawals come with their own negative feelings. Al Taweel still feels guilt about leaving the public sphere because of the misogynists, as she puts it. Further, when women are forced out because of the campaigns against them, this discourages other women from getting engaged. Hassan, Atassi and Aljizawi all told me stories of young women who said to them, “I am stepping back because I don’t want to face what you went through.”

Affected by the disinformation campaigns, both Aljizawi and Atassi quit their political work. That is to be expected, according to Di Meco, whose research has confirmed that gendered disinformation undermines women’s credibility, poses obstacles to their electoral success and ultimately represents a significant reason why many women abandon political careers.

Aljizawi even deactivated her Facebook account because she shivered when opening it. “All my traumas got triggered,” she says.

For Hassan, the damage women have faced during the previous 12 years is “unbearable.” Despite this, women and feminist movements in Egypt have succeeded in some ways, not least in forcing the topic of sexual violence into the open. Hassan believes the new generation is more daring than her own. This aligns with the beliefs of Ayoub, who mentioned the example of the protests in Iran, which were supported by women activists across the region and beyond.

That support and cross-national solidarity have a real effect in countering the efforts that are pushing women away from the public sphere. Ayoub says, “During our uprising, people we didn’t know were responding to our struggle and supporting us, and that empowers us.” She concludes, “I am optimistic.”

Along with the solidarity campaigns, belonging and community support are essential in giving women the strength to navigate this work, which is precisely why the Gulf Center for Human Rights creates safe spaces for women to meet and communicate. Its coordinator, al-Khawaja, says, “Helping women across the region to network makes many women who are targeted feel less alone and [gives them] a chance to share their experiences in a supportive place.” There is still a place for women, despite the best efforts of a small but vocal and belligerent few.

published in NewLines Magazine

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