Rising above the Hate Online – Indian Muslim Women Speak Out

Indian member of parliament and actor, Nusrat Jahan has also been targeted.

By Mariya Salim
NEW DELHI, India, Oct 23 2020 – When a minority woman with an opinion doesn’t comply with stereotypes, she is targeted with online hate, says award-winning journalist and senior editor at The Wire, Arfa Khanum Sherwani in an exclusive interview with Inter Press Service.

Sherwani has been at the receiving end of online violence and hate, including rape and death threats, like her other women journalist counterparts, because she questions policies and performance of the present Indian government. What makes her experience of facing gendered and sexist online abuse different is the added layer of her identity: that of being a Muslim.

“The right-wing in India, like everywhere else in the world, likes to put certain communities in boxes. Muslim women are supposed to dress a certain way, speak a certain language or perhaps not speak at all. As a Muslim woman, with an opinion who does not fit their imaginary stereotypes, they use violence against me online,” Sherwani says. “When the trolls question my journalism, they make sure to question my religion and make the majority community look at my work through the lens of my religion alone to discredit my work.”

Arfa Khanum Sherwani, award-winning journalist and editor, finds her religion highlighted in online hate campaigns.

In 2018, five Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations urged India to urgently provide protection to author and journalist Rana Ayyub, who had been a target of an online hate campaign which included calls for her to be “gang-raped and murdered”. During the online assault, her contact details were made public, and there were references to her “Muslim faith”.

India has an ever-growing percentage of internet users and the various social media platforms act as a window for India’s marginalised communities to be able to express their opinions, seek an audience and build community.

Where on the one hand the internet has enabled participation in the public sphere with greater ease for marginalised groups, the increasing amount of online hate and violence, especially against women from these communities, has left them feeling vulnerable and, in many situations, threatened with physical harm.

The violence exacerbates when those with an opinion online identify themselves as women from a religious, racial or ethnic minority, or the LGBTQIA community.

In India, the increasing Islamophobia and violence against its largest religious minority, Muslims, is mirrored in the virtual spaces as well. Women from the Muslim community are targeted explicitly with slurs and sexist abuse, directed towards their religious identity.

Nabiya Khan, a 24-year-old Muslim poet and activist, is threatened online for her headscarf and Muslim identity than for her activism.

Nabiya Khan, a 24-year-old Muslim poet and activist, endured threats online.

“Some call me Jahil Jihadan (meaning illiterate terrorist, with the word terrorist here having an Islamic connotation), others ask me to remove my headscarf and then speak up against any kind of social injustice. I am often asked to go to Pakistan accompanied by rape threats of the most vile kind.”

It is not only those who are on the platforms who are targets. The spreading of false news narratives against minorities, mostly religious and caste oppressed minorities like Muslims, Christians and Dalits has often led to women from these communities, even if far removed from these platforms, at the receiving end of real-life harm.

Sexual violence against women is a tool to humiliate and punish the broader community and strip it of its honour and integrity.

In 2013, for instance, a fake video depicting Hindu boys being brutally killed by a Muslim mob, posted on the Facebook page of a Minister from a right-wing party, went viral. The post led to massive communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, in Uttar Pradesh during which scores of women from the Muslim community were raped.

Seven years later there has not been a single conviction in any of the reported cases.

The video was removed. However, it had stayed on the platform long enough for Muslim women in a village in rural India to experience irreparable harm.

A post written by Nabiya after she received rape and death threats on Facebook.

International human rights organisations, like the United Nations, have also taken cognisance of the growing vitriol online, with the office of the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Dr Fernand de Varennes having made “hate speech, social media and minorities” a thematic priority at the start of his mandate.

De Varennes, in an interview with IPS, was particularly concerned about the effect of hate speech on minority women.

“To reduce what is occurring online as strictly only a matter of gender, exacerbated and normalised by hate speech in social media, is to hide the significant role of religion and caste which contribute to the specific continuing and even increasing stigmatisation of minority women,” he said.

He added that raising awareness of the extent to which hate speech had become a mainly minority issue had become one of his main tasks for this year.

The “disease of the mind”, he says, that constitutes hate speech may pile up, with misogynist attacks against minority women finding fertile grounds to propagate, since it becomes “more acceptable” for some to spew hatred against women who belong to supposedly “despised minorities”.

The intersectionality of online violence against women needs, therefore, to be acknowledged.

Nusrat Jehan, an actor and Indian Member of Parliament, has received online threats and violence for her career and personal choices both from within and outside the community.

“I keep on getting judgements, fatwas, death threats, etc. from religious extremist groups,” says Nusrat, a public representative. She had to seek additional personal security while in the UK after receiving online threats for posing as a Hindu Goddess on her Instagram page in September this year.

“I do not pay heed to the trolls and their judgments. Yes, there need to be stricter laws for account creation etc. on these platforms, but whatever be the rules and laws, things won’t change until mindsets change,” she adds.

Social media companies need to take the violence faced by women on their platforms more seriously and proactively block and take down harmful content.

Reports by some CSOs have brought to light how “Facebook lacks clear user hate speech reporting mechanisms for Indian caste-oppressed minorities” and how despite a year-long advocacy with the company, nothing changed at their front.

The experience of many women, from marginalised communities, concerning the reporting of hate online on these platforms, whether Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, has been far from satisfactory. Many of the women have had their accounts taken down for revealing the identities of their abusers.

India does not have laws specifically dedicated to dealing with online violence against women, let alone those that are specific to women from religious and caste oppressed minorities.

Experts point out that what is needed is the implementation of existing cyber laws in India rather than the introduction of new ones.

Khanum points out that she has little trust in the law enforcement mechanisms and therefore refrains from reporting it to the authorities. One of the factors of this mistrust is her fear that, because she is Muslim, her concerns will not be treated seriously. What concerns her is the impunity – where a great deal of hate directed towards her comes from the verified social media handles of people in positions of power, political and otherwise.

The writer is a Fellow at IPS UN Bureau

 


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Budgeting for a Better Future, for Every Child

A child is weighed at a ‘posyandu’ (community-level health post) in Sidorejo village, Central Java province, Indonesia. Credit: UNICEF/UNI350112/Ijazah

By Joanne Bosworth and Jennifer Asman
NEW YORK, Oct 23 2020 – 2020 has not turned out as planned. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact populations around the world, governments have been forced to take a fresh look at their spending and how to meet additional costs of pandemic response as they expect a fall in revenue. Budget information has become even more critical.

Critical knowledge

When it comes to children, it is important to have a detailed view of spending in key areas like health, education, social protection and water and sanitation. Without this, it is difficult to know what services are supported or how money has been spent.

Although total spending on health has increased in many countries as part of the COVID-19 response, in many cases, funding for essential basic services like routine immunization has been cut, increasing the risk to children’s lives.

Access to quality budget information has enabled UNICEF to keep advocating for and supporting governments by avoiding cuts to essential investments in children’s futures. Here are a few examples:

Myanmar: When the Government of Myanmar was developing a supplementary budget for its COVID-19 response, UNICEF used the budget information on health, education and social protection presented to parliament, to make the case for protecting and expanding spending on critical programmes.

By reviewing proposed allocations and prioritizing immunization, social welfare and safe and healthy school environments, we developed an analysis that was instrumental in increasing the government’s budget in all three sectors by $176 million by mid-year.

Tunisia: After the collapse of global oil prices, the Tunisian government reduced fuel subsidies. Using information on funding for these subsidies, UNICEF demonstrated that child grants would bring greater benefit to poor children. In line with this analysis, the government also launched temporary cash transfers for at least 623,000 families with children.

Somaliland: Through the UN Joint Programme on Local Governance and Decentralized Service Delivery, UNICEF supports the use of “community scorecards” in Somaliland to monitor decentralized services such as water and sanitation, and the maintenance of community health and education infrastructure.

Communities provide real time SMS feedback to elected officials, strengthening oversight, which in turn can help inform better budget planning.

Suaafi Mahamed Abdi, 15, cleans his hands at an EU-funded, UNICEF-supported water point in Tog-wajaale, Somaliland. The clean and sustainable water system is the town’s first ever and provides clean water for 70,000 people. Credit: UNICEF/UN0300832/Knowles-Coursin

The economic fallout of COVID-19

As the pandemic continues, the impact on children is increasingly evident. As a result of disrupted schooling, according to the World Bank, children stand to lose the equivalent of $872 of their future earnings per year— a global loss of over $10 trillion.

Progress on infant mortality will be set back by between five and 15 years; and deaths from malaria are predicted to go back to pre-2000 levels with children-under-5 accounting for 70% of them. An additional 150 million children could be pushed into poverty.

We need urgent efforts to ensure children are protected from this long-term economic impact. This means ensuring vital social spending, and that funds are used effectively to help children and their families cope with and adapt to these new economic conditions.

Challenges in budget transparency have existed since before the pandemic. The 2019 Open Budget Survey examined sector budget transparency in education and health budgets in 28 countries.

While almost half of those countries provided complete information on spending objectives and how much funding was allocated to specific programmes, most provided partial information. A majority provided no information on how spending was distributed across different districts or provinces.

Essential to recovery

As the Myanmar, Tunisia and Somaliland examples show, improved budget transparency is not only central to an inclusive recovery but also encourages governments and partners to come together to identify more effective ways to achieve policy outcomes.

It is vital to monitoring spending, improving efficiency and ensuring resources are used effectively. This is particularly important now that many governments are making adjustments to spending plans or using emergency provisions where new programmes need not go through normal budget processes or controls. Making detailed, accurate and easy-to-understand spending plans transparent means citizens can monitor progress and highlight problems early on.

Building a resilient future

We are living in unprecedented times where every national and local government is forced to adapt and learn. Clear data on budgets, reprioritization and implementation of budgets will help us understand the impact of spending decisions on children’s lives.

UNICEF continues to work with governments and partners including the International Budget Partnership: to promote more open and transparent budgets, build this knowledge into longer term recovery programmes and improve the resilience of systems and services for the future.

 


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