Social media has given Somali women the space to be free, the opportunity to connect with their fellow sisters, as well as a platform to showcase their talents and growth from both personal and professional settings. Unfortunately, though, alongside this freedom and newfound liberation, there comes a heavy price where women are subjected to higher cases of bullying, trolling and harassment than their male counterparts.
Since 2009 when I first created a Twitter account, I’ve been following the online trolling, hate speech, harassment and bullying Somalis face. However, I’ve also seen another trend worth mentioning. While all forms of hate speech, trolling and bullying is wrong, one will be surprised to see the disproportionate consequences between men and women in a Somali context. More often than not, the terms and phrases used to lash out against Somali women’s online active presence are more derogatory, offensive, degrading and more destructive than they are for men.
Simply put, these online trolls tend to spew their misogynistic views by digging deep into women’s private and personal lives. They use language that is harmful, extremely sexualized and deeply personal. As a result, many Somali women end up bearing the brunt of fake news and rumours that men spread in an attempt to taint their online presence/character. To illustrate, fake nude pictures are created with their bodies. Moreover, they are called derogatory names such as ‘bitch, westernized prostitutes’. Somali women are punished, demonized and criminalized all for voicing what they believe in, or for what they share online which in twitter language is seen as endorsing any of the above. The opposite is for men.
It doesn’t matter whether you are veiled or not, once you cross the boundary, you will be trolled. A good number of women that I know have all disclosed being subjected to or having some sort of experience with sexist cyber hate speech and trolling. So, what do you do when your personal or family photos are manipulated and exposed online? How far is too far? How much freedom are Somali women allowed online? How destructive can online campaigns be on hate speech?
Unfortunately, the line has already been crossed for most Somali women. Because of the ongoing fearmongering, many of them have begun to minimize their online presences or left social media altogether. For the few who’ve stuck behind, they are forced to conceal their identities and hide behind fake profiles because of the limited freedom. Those who bravely spoke and shared their experiences under the topic #SomaliMeToo are no longer present on twitter.
As luck would have it, in 2020, we are seeing a dramatic shift and change in Somali women. More of them are becoming expressive and unapologetic. Most of these women have large followings on social media, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands. Whether it be vlogging, blogging or tweeting, Somali women have been voicing their solidarity with each other across geographic divides. In addition, more women are making money online by selling their merchandise, as well as their talent and more recently their products. We are seeing more local women who are working alongside women from the diaspora to organize online events, fundraise initiatives and arrange conferences via zoom that highlight and recognize each other and their causes.
All things considered, the use of social media has definitely paved the way for a new culture of liberation, solidarity, community and self-reliance for Somali women across geographic, physical and digital divides. Time and time again, these abusive campaigns target the right to self-expression that many Somali women are deprived from.
With an active social media presence, Somali women are risking their “image” and “reputation”. Some of the content that women post, or share is seen to be indecent and labelled immoral. Social norms in Somali society, which are also present online dictate how women are expected to speak act, dress, and conduct themselves. If she carries herself in a manner that isn’t considered to be decent, this will reflect on her family. A common phrase will be, “…ooh maad gurigaaga iska joogtid oo iskaba dhaaftid social media, ma gabar yar baad tahay?” “Why don’t you just stay in your house and quit using social media as if you’re a young girl?” For those who address these matters and speak about the wrongdoings they face, they are either told to keep away from the internet or accused of misbehaving improperly. Men see these types of Somali women as not being respectable enough to be wives thus further shunning them from fully expressing themselves online.
Social norms are not only limited to what we think or believe in society, however they also greatly influence how we behave online. So, it’s not only important that we maintain those norms, but also remember to carry over that respect and decency through our words and actions online when dealing with one another. Raising awareness and addressing the mental and psychological harms of cyberbullying will lead to change and understanding. This is a subject deserving of its own in-depth research to identify and explore the trends and patterns of trolling, harassment and online hate speech. In addition, women need to be trained in ways to protect their identities online and how to properly use the internet safely whilst having the freedom to be themselves. Rather than be ashamed into silence, we need more women to speak up and speak louder about these issues that impact their lives personally and professionally.