Dear Mrs. Erdoğan could you please include cyberbullies, trolls to your list?
At a time when Turkey’s Interior Minister says that killing women is a “shame” (whatever happened to the perfectly good words “a crime that must be severely punished”?), what choice do I have but to pin my hopes on the First Lady’s words on the International Day of Elimination of Violence Against Women? Dear Mrs. Erdoğan, now that you have taken a stance against mafia bosses, could you please include cyberbullies and trolls to your list?
“How about making wild, uninhibited love all night long?” The message appeared on my computer screen at work. It was mid-2001 - my first week at a new job in an English-language newspaper and my first day using ICQ, the forefather of Messenger.
I blushed a deep crimson and turned to the colleague who had made me install ICQ. “Oh, you have to make yourself invisible,” he said comfortably. “If you do that, only the people in your friends list can see that you are online. While at it, you may want to delete the bit where you ticked off your gender as woman. Women get many of those messages.”
First lesson learned, I quickly made myself invisible, but not before sending back the horny intruder a rude message and muttering curses under my breath. I remember being more amazed than angry - Why would one send such a message to an unknown woman in the middle of a workday? What would one expect, “Sure, I will be at your doorstep right after work and bring my own handcuffs”?
It took me years and many other similar messages, either to me or other women, to pin a name to this form of abuse. Since early 2000s, “digital violence” or “cyber abuse” has taken many forms both abroad or at home. As social networks took over the function of alumni reunions, bars, workshops and the Hyde Park Corner, I have seen friends and colleagues (mostly female, but male, too) stalked, defamed, insulted, abused and criticized online for their views or simply for being who they are. With women, the message was often sexual/sexist and frequently violent.
Once, horrified by a tweet to a journalist friend that described in detail how the sender and his band of “true nationalists” would place her on a pole and rape her one after the other, I called her. “I get those ten times a day,” she told me. “I blocked the pervert.” Another journalist friend, well versed in fighting trolls, slapped a judicial suit on one that claimed that he had “grabbed” her and a number of her female colleagues (myself included) working for a publication they considered anti-Erdoğan. When I posted my last column on sons-in-law on Facebook, some of the messages I have received made the old proposal of “making wild love all night” seem as innocent as a blushing teenager’s declaration of love.
In Turkey, journalists, along with women’s rights defenders, public figures and politicians, are particularly exposed to digital harassment, which can include (sexual) harassment and threats of rape, sexual assault or murder. Perpetrators range from anonymous individuals to ignored fans who become arch enemies or, most often, trolls who are either on the payroll of a party – or the enthusiastic amateurs who hope to catch the eye of a troll farm so they can be gainfully employed.
I still shudder at a tweet where an anonymous individual wrote which of the opposition journalists and politicians he would “rape” and which he would not “deign to do.” It was retweeted thousands of times, with other trolls bringing in their perversity on just what they would do with the women named. No satisfactory legal action was taken on the grounds that there were no sufficient laws to deal with cyberbullying. Canan Kaftancıoğlu, the Istanbul head of the Republican People’s Party and one of the women targeted, ran a long thread of trolls’ statements, asking for legal action, to no avail.
A Council of Europe declaration that was made earlier this week, on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, called on governments to take cyberviolence seriously.
“Cyberviolence affects women disproportionately, not only causing them psychological harm and suffering but also deterring them from digital participation in political, social and cultural life,” Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, said earlier this week. She pointed out that this had increased under the COVID-19, when time spent online was greater and the digital divide made women more exposed.
“Under the Istanbul Convention, perpetrators [of violence against women] should be duly prosecuted and sanctioned. To make this happen in the field of cyberviolence against women, this specific form of violence should be covered by criminal law and should not remain unpunished,” Mijatovic said.
In Turkey, where physical violence against women is common – 50 women were killed and died in suspicious circumstances in August alone - cyberviolence is often brushed aside as a side issue, even by the women who are on the receiving end.
“It is not. It is an ever-growing, key part of overall violence against women,” Idil Kandil, the co-founder of Women’s Auto-Defense Association, told Duvar English. “According to statistics, women are 27 times more exposed to cyberviolence, which can take all forms, from online threats to pressure to hand over social media passwords to a partner.”
Kandil and her team carry out trainings to men and women to combat cyberviolence and protect themselves online. In Turkey, online threats are sometimes an early signal that a man – a rejected admirer, an ex-partner or an estranged husband – intends to inflict physical harm. Unfortunately, this warning is not always taken seriously. Instead of saving the message and reporting him, the woman retorts by blocking the man and only worries if he shows up physically. “We tell women not to wait until the physical contact but report the online threat,” Kandil said.
At a time when Turkey’s Interior Minister says that killing women is a “shame” (whatever happened to the perfectly good words “a crime that must be severely punished”?), what choice do I have but to pin my hopes on the First Lady’s words on November 25, the International Day of Elimination of Violence Against Women? “Let’s stop seeing bullies, mafia bosses and killers as role models,” she said, in a thinly veiled reference to popular TV series. On screen and in real life, from your mouth to your husband’s ear, Mrs. Erdoğan. Could you add rapists, cyberbullies and trolls to your list, as well?