Feminist practice of digital security in MENA

A cornerstone of APC’s work is to enable communities and social movements to use ICTs to transform the world into a better place. Women’s movements in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have long recognised the power of ICTs as platforms for advocacy and organising – effectively shifting the power dynamics between information creators, owners and users. However, as ICTs and the internet continue to proliferate in the region, so do the online risks and threats to women’s rights defenders and women human rights defenders.

This is why it is one of our goals to build the capacity within women’s movements in shaping technology and to explore digital security issues within the women’s right agenda, which was the subject of our workshop last February in Tunis as part of the Building a Culture of Digital Security in MENA project, working with journalists, trainers, human rights activists and women’s rights advocates from the Middle East and North Africa.

The workshop came after a five-day digital security training of trainers at the Digital Security School 216, an institution established as part of the same project to build a practice of digital security within the region and to empower and support local and regional movements with digital security knowledge and resources.

Threats facing women human rights defenders

The workshop covered secure online communication (SOC) and practice of technology from a feminist perspective. For many of the participants, particularly the male ones, the concept of online security threats that particularly face women did not come to them intuitively. For the women participants, it was abundantly clear that women not only face a variety of threats that are gender-based, but that gender also affected the intensity and severity of all online threats.

The participants also reflected on how local media coverage affected perceptions around online violence against women (VAW). They discussed several cases where the media would often gloss over the statistical and systemic violence, and would only cover high profile cases shallowly. This was a critique of how local media appropriate stories of online VAW in order to generate views, and often employ victim blaming and other patriarchal practices.

Local contexts and local threats

The participants also shared particular cases of gender-based discrimination from within their own contexts. Women’s rights activists in Palestine and Sudan noted that due to limited resources, organisations and families would often prioritise ICTs based on sexist biases, often meaning that women end up having to share laptops, while men would have a laptop of their own. Not only does this make it harder for women to use ICTs effectively, it often also creates risks of invasion of the women’s right to privacy, and limits their right to access information.

Effective encryption and (pseudo-)anonymity

A big part of the workshop centered around the effective use of encryption and SOC tools and grounding the practice of these rules in the reality of women’s rights activists and women human rights activists in the region. While many of the participants stated that they were comfortable with using the tools that were taught at the digital security course, they were wary about the need for more capacity building so that they can use such tools in their activist networks. In general, they found tools that are easier to use, like Cryptocat, more helpful than tools such as PGP mail.

Anonymity and pseudoan-onymity enabling tools, on the other hand, raised some interesting cultural differences. Activists from Palestine and Tunisia, with a culture of using aliases, found them extremely useful, but wondered how effective they can be in high-risk situations, citing arrests and privacy breaches by the Israeli occupation and the former Ben Ali regime. In Iraq and Sudan, however, activists found it unusual to separate your online identity from your offline identity, and therefore found such tools to be not so useful to their work.

This discussion raised the importance of differentiating between general practice of digital security and digital security for activists on the front lines who face targeting and engage in high-risk activities.

Staying safe and staying secure

The feminist practice of digital security centres around shared learning, knowledge creation and building the capacity of women in technology. As more women learn, use and develop digital security tools, the more women become safe online, but that cannot happen without the active participation of all, with equal representation. We need projects like EROTICS and Take Back the Tech! to help build our understanding of how gender, sexuality and the internet intersect, and how online VAW can be ended. ًWe need to couple this with the exchange of knowledge that happens at local workshops similar to this one, to ground it in the realities of all women everywhere.

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