Gendered impact of COVID-19 and cyber violence in Kurdistan
In the last few weeks and in the context of the COVID-19 lockdown, media outlets around the world have reported an increase in domestic violence, violence against women, and cyber violence. While UN agencies, the EU, and some governments have warned against domestic violence and proposed measures to prevent and protect victims, little has been done in relation to cyber violence.
Cyber violence includes different forms of online behavior targeting women and girls, intended to intimidate, to coerce, to cause fear, anxiety, humiliation, and extreme emotional distress. According to the US definition, certain forms of cyberstalking can lead to severe injury and even murder of targets (1). Cyber violence is committed in the form of rude and hateful comments, bullying messages, threats, hypersexualised or pornographic images and surveillance through email, messaging apps, and social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Viber, and WhatsApp.
Coronavirus has forced all of us to remain inside our homes and has created a challenging situation filled with fear and uncertainty, which in many countries has led to depression and violence. According to media outlets, during the Coronavirus lockdown, domestic violence has increased around the world: In Brazil, there has been a rise of around 50 percent in reported cases of violence, in Catalonia an official helpline is 20 percent busier, and in Cyprus, calls to a similar hotline rose 30 percent in the week after March 9, when the island had its first confirmed case of coronavirus (2). In Britain, the number of women murdered by their partners has doubled from two to four per week since the lockdown started belatedly on March 23 (3). In France, according to official statistics, domestic violence has risen by 36 percent (4). The French government has invited women to report confidentially on domestic violence in local pharmacies and supermarkets by using a special code word. The situation is even more alarming in poor areas and among isolated groups, such as within asylum seekers, migrants and refugee communities.
What is more, during lockdown, people spend more time online and many women and girls conduct their work and pursue their studies through video conferences and internet platforms. Cyber-abusers have taken this opportunity to launch attacks targeting women, girls, and children. According to UN Women, during the movement restrictions of COVID-19, the use of online platforms has increased and has been used by some as an opportunity to groom women in particular, and young people in general into exploitative situations (5).
Traditionally, cyber violence targets women and girls because of their identity, based on their gender, sexual orientation, political and/or social activism, religious practices, or simply for personal reasons (such as refusing to date a man or leaving a boyfriend, or divorce, etc.). Furthermore, in the context of COVID-19, women working in the health sector, particularly in residential care and nursing homes, have been stigmatized for carrying the virus, transmission risks of which made them especially vulnerable to online threats. These forms of violence and coercive control start by constructing an identity of the targeted person as the ‘Other’, who is different from ‘Us’ and thus represents a danger to the collective identity and its well-being.
Last month, UN Women published a report stating that ‘‘…before COVID-19, one in 10 women in the European Union reported having experienced cyber violence since the age of 15, including having received unwanted, offensive and sexually explicit emails or SMS messages, or inappropriate advances on social networking sites’’ (6). UN Women quoted Europol by saying that online activity by those seeking child abuse material has increased during the Coronavirus lockdown. Examples of these forms of cyber violence include bullying messages, hateful comments, threats, video clips through Instagram, and unsolicited pornographic videos received while they are dialling into a social event via a virtual chat room.
In the Kurdistan Region, reports by local authorities claim that during the lockdown, domestic violence has decreased. This is good news, but we cannot be sure how much the report reflects social reality (7). Kurdistan is no different from the rest of the world; lockdown and the confined presence of men at home may well have put pressure on women who cannot call police or social workers. Also, there are no effective systems for collecting data on domestic violence during lockdown, let alone about cyber violence. We should also not forget that violence here is not only physical- it is also emotional, psychological and sexual, as defined by the UN.
To give but one example, last month, a human rights activist, singer, and advocate for gender equality, Dashni Morad, has been personally targeted while she was involved in voluntary work with the Barzani Charity Foundation (BCF), distributing food packages to vulnerable people in poor areas in the Region. She received both anonymous and non-anonymous messages from cyber assailants falsely accusing her of ‘selling herself’ and receiving favors, including ‘large sums of money and property’ from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). This form of cyber bullying not only causes the targeted person severe psychological and emotional distress, but also aims to dishonor her and tarnish her reputation in the community. As ‘honor’ is centered around women’s bodies and sexuality, it unfortunately represents the most valuable ‘asset’ in the collective imagination and such a message can even lead to murder in the name of ‘honor’.
These violent acts are deeply rooted in the patriarchal mentality and in gender inequality, reproducing gender stereotypes as well as social and political stigma. Also, the mindset of those hostile to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leads many of these individuals to use historical antagonism between the two leading parties - the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - accusing women of corruption and sympathising with one party or another. Even if such accusations are based on false rumors, once the rumor is publicly disseminated, it creates unnecessary stress and a difficult, potentially dangerous social milieu for these insulted women. So far, these cyber-attackers have worked effectively and caused intense psychological and emotional distress for many Kurdish women.
There is no doubt that there is a great deal of gender-related stigma, sexism, misogyny, and hatred enmeshed with structural social and political violence. Women lacking strong family, political or tribal links, and support are particularly vulnerable; they are caught up at the intersection of sexism, tribalism, and structural violence, which is proportionally escalated during crises, such as the Coronavirus outbreak. Dashni Morad’s cyber persecution is the perfect example of such a scenario. She comes from a modest family background; her family fled Kurdistan in 1991, during the Ba’ath atrocities against Kurdish civilians, and they have been living as refugees in Holland. She returned to Kurdistan alone in 2007 aiming to contribute to the reconstruction of her homeland after decades of war and genocide. In addition to the abovementioned cyber bullying, she has also been targeted this week through social media receiving hundreds of stalking messages, sexualised images, and video clips accusing her of ‘immodesty’, of not being a ‘genuine Kurdish woman’ and bringing in ‘European lifestyle and perverting Kurdish norms and traditions’. Her body, and the way she dresses and appears in public, have been pruriently scrutinised by cyber-attackers. Some of these messages are particularly distressing, giving the impression that they seek to kill her symbolically. The perpetrators behind some of these messages are known, but so far no one has been brought to account.
Patriarchy, combined with the challenge of COVID-19, has fostered a situation where sexism, gender stigmatization, disparaging stereotypes, and the harmful, engrained masculine standpoint in Kurdistan have been left unchallenged, both in real life and in cyberspace. Women and girls in general, those who are at the forefront of the fight, and those in marginalised settings have been particularly challenged. There is no doubt that this will detrimentally affect not only women’s emotional and mental health, but also women’s rights activism, putting at risk the gains which have been achieved over the last two decades. This situation requires urgent attention through a multifaceted approach, bringing together national and international organisations, government members, civil society groups, intellectuals, media companies, academic institutions, and families working to address strategies to tackle these pressing issues. If justice and equity are to be upheld, this demands in-depth debate and analysis resulting in effective countermeasures, backed up, if necessary, by punitive legislation.
Dr. Nazand Begikhani, Vincent Wright Chair and Visiting Professor at Sciences Po, Paris and Honorary Senior Research Fellow, University of Bristol, UK, is an academic, poet, and human rights advocate. She is a leading researcher on sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and has worked as an expert advisor with a range of national and international organizations and government departments, including the United Nation’s Assistance Mission to Iraqi (UNAMI), UN Women, the UK Metropolitan Police, the Swedish Ministry of Integration, Amnesty International, and currently advises the Kurdistan Region’s President on Higher Education and Gender. Begikhani is also an internationally known poet who has won several poetry prizes, including France’s Simone Landrey’s Feminine Poetry Prize in 2012.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.
Editing by John J. Catherine
- See: 18 U.S. Code § 2261A
- Emma Graham-Harrison, Angela Guiffrida, Helena Smith, Liz Ford, ‘Lockdowns around the world bring rise in domestic violence’, The Guardian, March 28, 2020.
- Anna Moore, 'Every abuser is more volatile': the truth behind the shocking rise of domestic violence killings, The Guardian, April 22, 2020.
- Marlene Thomas, ‘Les femmes en première ligne face au coronavirus, les violences conjugales en hausse, l'IVG attaquée… mars dans la vie des femmes’, Libération, March 31, 2020.
- See ‘Covid19 and Ending Violence Against Women and Girls’, [Accessed on April 29, 2020].
- Nazand Begikhani, A woman’s Corona Diary (in Kurdish), [Accessed on April 29, 2020].