When my daughter last year suggested she study Arab women and the blogosphere as a subject for her master's thesis, I was wholeheartedly supportive of her research choice. It has always been my belief that new media, especially social networks like Facebook and Twitter, are enabling Arab women to articulate their identities and ideas in forums rarely seen in conventional media. In the many academic and policy meetings I attend around the world, I have been a staunch advocate of online media as an empowerment tool that Arab women should harness to assert themselves as leaders in their communities.
Recently, however, new media has become something of a liability for female users. Local UAE police reports suggest that the proliferation of online services across the country and the region have given rise to increasing cyber abuse not only against children, but against women as well. Indeed, there have been an increase of reports of Arab women being blackmailed by men who threaten to expose indecent photos unless demands are met. In a region where a woman's reputation is a family's badge of honour, this exploitation presents our communities with serious challenges.
In order to stem the potential consequences of such malicious practices, we need to redefine abuse in cyberspace and redouble our efforts to police it. But no matter what you call it, harassment of women on the web will only be defeated through the collaborative efforts of legislators, law-enforcement, the media, and most importantly, women themselves.
Cyber-crime against women is not unique to Arab communities. I have come across terrifying press accounts of women subjected to online extortions the world over. I was particularly saddened by the recent story of a 24-year-old Filipina for whom a popular social networking site became a source of public shame when a former boyfriend posted lewd photographs of her in an account he had created under her name.
Sadly, this is just one example; the list of cyber-crimes against women is long. So-called cyber-stalking is the most common form of online abuse. In this scheme, the stalker enters the same chat room or discussion groups as his target, and floods the victim with obscene emails. Another criminal tactic, morphing, involves the posting of a computer-manipulated photo of women on a website, often in a disparaging light. Criminals may then demand money, or worse, to cease their harassment.
These crimes know no geographic boundaries. In India, for instance, officials are growing increasingly concerned with the prevalence of cyber-stalking. The UAE is no exception. According to published police reports, by August 2010, the number of criminal cases involving online abuse in the UAE surpassed 50, with all but eight involving extortion, threats or insults. One case involved a Pakistani visitor charged in Dubai with the violent sexual assault of a Filipina resident. He was accused of photographing the victim and threatening to publish her images on the Internet via Facebook. Last week, a report in this newspaper retold the agonising story of a local girl who was subjected to such threats by a male friend.
These cases are egregious, but thankfully, they are receiving official attention at the UAE's federal and local levels. Hotlines have been established to report abuses, and educational awareness campaigns have been launched to enlighten women about the potential threats online. The issue is also gaining attention in other GCC countries, like Saudi Arabia, where a special unit has been established to deal with these types of extortions.
These are positive steps, but much more attention is needed if these threats are to be eliminated.
Women in this region will continue to see cyberspace as a new window of opportunity for communicating their views and articulating their evolving identities. That, I imagine, is what prompted my daughter to begin her study of Arab women online in the first place.
But with online abuse against women reaching alarming levels in recent months, we need to re-think how we protect women on the internet. The web has enabled women from around the world to connect, emboldening them in ways once thought unthinkable. We owe it to them to ensure their new domain is free from abuse and manipulation.
Muhammad Ayish is a UAE-based media researcher and adviser