Somali media manager and journalist, Fatuma Abdulahi, has expressed her frustration at the growing sexism and dehumanisation of women online.
Speaking to a group of women in media, technology and civil society in Kampala this week, Ms Abdulahi, noted that while social media and digital platforms have empowered women to find a voice and tell their own stories, the reaction to this has often been vicious and hateful.
“The contempt against women in Africa is incredible,” she lamented.
Ms Abdulahi, founder of the progressive Somalia-based online publication Warya Post, was in Kampala to deliver the Annual Lecture on Media and Politics in Africa organised by the African Centre for Media Excellence on 18 November, 2015. Her address focused on the impact of social media on democracy, political inclusivity and debate in Africa.
Currently serving as Country Director of Internews Somalia, Ms Abdulahi said many entrenched biases about women and of the issues of concern to them are often amplified online. She said that she had learned this through experience, when an article published on her educational experience elicited more than 400 hate mails and a long stream of online abuse.
“I got torn, I got harassed, I got bullied on social media. I withdrew (from social media) for a month and I kept asking myself, ‘what did I do?” she narrated.
Ms Abdulahi said the problem is compounded when it involves high profile women in leadership, politics and business. She made reference to Fadumo Dayib, the first woman to contest for the Somali presidency.
“The most educated Somali presidential candidate is a woman but online she is discussed like a piece of meat,” she stated.
For Fatuma Abdulahi, her experience drove her creativity. In 2014 she launched Warya Post, an online news and information site where she, together with a team of five staff, publish a variety of articles, even those considered ‘taboo’ in her country Somalia.
“On Warya Post, there’s no taboo, we talk about everything.”
Ms Abdulahi said that in order for women to break away from unfair confinement by societal beliefs and practices, they should speak out.
“Nobody in my family ever spoke to me about periods. I suffered because I didn’t know what it was and that was because of a culture of silence,” she said.
“It led me to want to know more, to share more.”
Soraya Chemaly, a feminist, writing in Time magazine, asserted that “a lot of harassment is an effort to put women, because they are women, back in their ‘place””
“For girls and women, harassment is not just about ‘unpleasantries’. It’s often about men asserting dominance, silencing, and frequently, scaring and punishing them,” she wrote.
In her essay, Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet, Amanda Hess, says women are often told to “ignore the barrage of violent threats and harassing messages that confront them every day online”.
“But these relentless messages are an assault on women’s careers, their psychological bandwidth, and their freedom to live online. We have been thinking about Internet harassment all wrong.”
A 2014 survey by Pew Research Centre – young women experience particularly severe forms of harassment online.
“Young women, those 18-24, experience certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels: 26% of these young women have been stalked online, and 25% were the target of online sexual harassment. In addition, they do not escape the heightened rates of physical threats and sustained harassment common to their male peers and young people in general,” the survey indicates.
About Fatuma Abdulahi
Ms Abdulahi is the country director of Internews Somalia. In July 2015, the respected Financial Times newspaper of London named her one of “25 Africans to watch” — one of the “continent’s rising stars”.