The first pornographic picture sent shivers of shock through Amal as she stared in horror at the phone screen. Until now, she had responded politely to the older man who had been messaging her on Facebook, hoping to deter his questions about her life with curt, one-word replies.
More lurid pictures followed, some from pornographic magazines, others of the man himself in sexual poses. “I started to blame myself and feel that I invited this because I had replied to him,” says the 21-year-old, who is a university student in Amman, Jordan.
Amal kept the messages secret from her family, afraid they would punish her and block her access to social media. Nor did she confide in female friends. “The pictures were so bad. I couldn’t tell anyone in case they asked why this man selected me and thought maybe I encouraged him.”
Similar fears silence many women and girls being targeted online as digital harassment spikes across the Middle East and north Africa. In nine countries in the region, including Jordan, a UN Women survey found online harassment was the most commonly reported type of violence against women during the pandemic. Social distancing and other Covid restrictions have led abusers towards social networks as a “new space” for their harassment, according to another UN survey.
It’s a double assault on women, who have to grapple with the impacts of online abuse as well as fears of victim blaming from their family and community.
Dr Ibrahim Akel, director of the Institute for Family Health at the King Hussein Foundation in Jordan, says: “In a traditional society like ours, the family will look at this and see the girl not as a victim but as the one who allowed this to happen and she will be subject to violence.
“Often she’s afraid to tell her parents, which makes her even more vulnerable and the person doing the harassment uses this to control her even more.”
For many women, it begins with a casual conversation on Facebook groups that moves to private exchange on Messenger or WhatsApp. “Sometimes they have a friend in common, or it’s someone from university,” says Hadeel Abdel Aziz, executive director at the Justice Center for Legal Aid in Jordan. “It starts like a regular conversation, then things escalate and it takes on a sexual aspect.”
Mostly, women seek her support after it has developed into blackmail – a common form of cybercrime in Jordan. The perpetrator will threaten to tell the woman’s family about their interactions or publish compromising photos, placing her at heightened risk of violence and so-called “honour crimes”, says Abdel Aziz.
Many victims of online harassment resort to domestic violence hotlines after their families find out. “The reaction from the families is very bad,” says Areej Sumreen, a case worker with Jordan’s Institute for Family Health. “They punish the girls physically, saying you exposed yourself to this violence by opening a line of communication with this man.”
The pressure can have devastating effects on women’s mental health, with online violence linked to depression and in some cases suicide. “They think it’s the only way to solve the problem,” says Hawraa Hassan Jammoul, a case worker with the Lebanese organisation Abaad, which campaigns for gender equality. “The women are riddled with anxiety and they don’t know who to tell, they are lost.”
Alaa, who lives in Lebanon, had to move house after her landlord, who had been bombarding her with sexual material on WhatsApp, turned up at her door. “I was having a shower and the kids let him in, they didn’t know,” says the 33-year-old. “The bathroom has a slide door, it can’t lock, and he opened it while I was naked.”
Panicking, she cried out, backing into the tap and scalding herself with hot water. “He ran away when I screamed. The kids were terrified.”
Separated from her husband at the time, Alaa felt frightened and alone, unable to tell anyone about the sexually explicit videos and messages he sent her or the stalking, which began after she blocked his number. “I was worried about my daughter too, I don’t feel safe any more,” she says.
Lebanon’s internal security forces recorded a 184% increase in cybercrimes during 2020, with 41% committed against girls and young women aged between 12 and 26.
“The Covid crisis has left us with various internet platforms as the only outlet to go on with our personal and professional lives,” says Hayat Mirshad, co-founder of the Lebanese feminist collective Fe-Male. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen an extension of the violence we experience offline to the online world.”
In Egypt, too, the pandemic has intensified a shift that was already under way, moving harassment from the street to social media.
Of complaints received by the Egyptian organisation Women’s Centre for Guidance and Legal Awareness, 70% are related to online harassment – up from 25% before the pandemic. In some instances, perpetrators even use hacking devices to access a woman’s phone and steal pictures, says the executive director, Reda Eldanbouki
Fearing social stigma if online abuse is revealed, many families restrict women’s internet access or confiscate their phones. “Some families refuse to even allow their daughter to study online for fear of being attacked,” Eldanbouki says.
Egypt, like Lebanon and Jordan, has laws against online harassment but these do little to protect women if family and friends find out.
In Jordan, Amal’s case was referred to the cybercrime unit in the country’s public security department and her abuser was forced to sign documents promising never to contact her again. But she is no longer outspoken in the online groups where she used to enjoy discussing social issues and women’s rights.
“I don’t participate as much and share my ideas now,” she says. “I don’t want a new man to repeat this experience, it’s scary.”
* Alaa, who is from Homs in Syria, is using a pseudonym to protect her identity