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November 13, 2023 - Comments Off on How are women in politics perceived on social media apps in the run-up to elections?

How are women in politics perceived on social media apps in the run-up to elections?

Wasfiya Sheikh

Remember the deeply misogynistic stunts from a time long before the emergence of social media, during the 1988 elections, when doctored photos of Nusrat Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto were air-dropped from helicopters in different cities of Punjab? Multiple individuals, including Nawaz Sharif and his media team, faced accusations in connection with this reprehensible act. However, in a recent podcast on 'The Pakistani Experience' with Shehzad Ghias Shaikh, Hussain Haqqani denied these allegations and instead pointed the finger at the military, a stance he has taken previously.

In another barbaric incident in Gujranwala, a female dog was paraded with a lantern attached to its collar, mimicking the symbol of Fatima Jinnah during her 1965 election campaign against General Ayub Khan. This shocking act of misogyny marked the inception of a highly divisive electoral contest.

Violence against women politicians is not a recent phenomenon and pre-dates the advent of social media. Women have always been subjected to a barrage of personal, religious, moral, and sexist comments and seen as vulnerable targets. These tactics, employed by political leaders, their parties, and followers, aim to establish moral superiority and perpetuate the notion that women do not belong in the political arena, but rather, they should adhere to traditional gender roles as homemakers. This also stems from the belief held by some men that they are the custodians of political heritage and that women can be objectified for political and selfish interests.

Only last year, Fawad Chaudhry, then a member of parliament associated with the ruling party, used derogatory language in a tweet, disparaging Hina Rabbani-Khar as a 'low-IQ woman' and insinuating that her fame rested solely on her choice of personal accessories. However, these sexist and/or derogatory  comments extend beyond just women. According to Dr. Asif Akhtar, LSE Fellow at the Department of Media and Communication, these misogynistic behaviours and remarks, regrettably, are not limited to male politicians targeting women. These comments are also targeted towards politicians who may not adhere to traditional notions of masculinity. They are embedded within Pakistan's broader political environment, highlighting a systemic issue.

For example, PML-Q's Mr. Moonis Elahi caused outrage when he asked women MPAs to share their vanity kits with Hamza Shehbaz. In another incident Pervez Musharraf commented on Bilalwal Bhutto's way of chanting in a video message, suggesting that he should first learn to chant like a man.

Women themselves can sometimes perpetuate these attitudes, even directing them toward other women. For example, Maryam Nawaz accused Imran Khan and Jemima of having their children raised by Jews. In response, Jemima mentioned that in 2004, she had to leave the country due to anti-Semitic attacks, which, to this day, have not ceased. These attacks were initially triggered by Imran Khan's comment about Junaid Safdar playing the aristocratic sport of polo in the UK.

The proliferation of social media accounts and globalisation has compelled even traditionally-oriented political parties to establish and maintain their presence on these platforms. In Pakistan, this transformation became evident during the run-up to the 2013 elections, as political parties turned towards social media to expand their reach. This shift occurred concurrently with the launch of 3G and 4G services in Pakistan and the increased availability of affordable smartphones. PTI was among the first political parties to successfully embrace social media as a tool for mass communication. Others, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, which did not initially see the need for a strong social media presence during the 2013 elections, have since recognized its significance and harnessed its potential in recent years, particularly in the lead-up to subsequent elections.

Twitter is increasingly the preferred platform for political elites to gain public acclaim and disseminate their political ideologies. The discourse on Twitter demands a critical examination of linguistic structures and strategies to reveal the intricate relationship between language and social practices. In the realm of political communication, a constant struggle for power and public approval unfolds, often at the expense of denigrating opponents. When their interests are at stake, politically aware elites employ a variety of linguistic structures, strategies, and rhetorical manoeuvres in opposition to other powerful groups. The rise of social media has amplified this discourse, giving birth to new strategies and approaches in these dialogues.

Originally initiated as a means for friends to keep tabs on each other due to the high cost of SMS messages, Twitter has since evolved into a crucial tool for political engagement, activism, and campaigning. Despite these positive developments, it is disheartening to note that women still endure relentless abuse on the platform. This online political interaction has also paved the way for what some refer to as "social media warfare," where politicians seek to defame their rivals in pursuit of public favour. Within this social media domain, numerous power structures are at play, and multiple political leaders employ strategies to expose the weaknesses of their adversaries.

Abuse and harassment in online spaces are not limited to women in Pakistani politics; they extend beyond Pakistan and even beyond the realm of politics. According to an Amnesty International study published in 2018, women are subjected to abuse on Twitter every 30 seconds. In 2020, a group of Pakistani female journalists and activists issued a statement, urging the government to respond to a "coordinated" effort aimed at harassing and intimidating them on social media. This campaign was carried out by accounts openly expressing support for the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

Another Amnesty International study, published in 2020, highlights that women in politics often pay a higher price as compared with men, especially when it comes to online trolling. The study, focusing specifically on women politicians in India, stated that these attacks are not solely based on their political views but often take the form of personal attacks. Between March and May 2019, 95 Indian female politicians received nearly 1 million hateful mentions on Twitter, with one in five of these mentions being sexist or misogynistic in nature.

For this article, I analysed tweets from three different Pakistani politicians in October 2023. These politicians are Maryam Nawaz (PMLN), the daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Senior Vice President of the Pakistan Muslim League; Shazia Marri (PPP), who served in the National Assembly of Pakistan from August 2018 to August 2023; and Sharmila Faruqi (PPP), a former Pakistan Minister of Finance

On October 24th, Maryam Nawaz tweeted about her father's return to Pakistan on October 21st after four years of self-imposed exile in London which attracted multiple comments from accounts owned by men. These comments not only made derogatory and misogynistic remarks about her appearance, character, and competence, but they also went so far as to compare her to an animal. Importantly, all of these attacks were entirely irrelevant to the content of her original post. It appears that these accounts were merely waiting for her to make a post so they could launch such dismissive attacks.

In contrast, Shazia Marri's Twitter account had no negative comments. She had restricted her comment section to prevent random comments, which is an effective way to self-regulate and limit harmful interactions on women politicians' Twitter accounts, compensating for the weak policies on social media platforms

On Sharmila Farqui's tweets about visiting religious sites, commentators, particularly men, demanded that she post pictures with her husband, questioned her intelligence, and made derogatory comments about her honesty. One comment even included edited pictures of Sharmila, implying that her political social media presence was only valuable when accompanied by a man.

The underrepresentation of women in Pakistani politics is exacerbated by the backlash they face and the challenges of entering male-dominated establishments. Persistent intimidation forces women to abandon political positions, directly impacting the democratic process.  This risk is compounded by the fact that women's seat quotas exist in both the national assembly and the senate, but they only account for 17%.

According to a 2019 Digital Rights Foundation report on ‘Online Political Participation of Female Politicians in Pakistan’s General Election 2018’, Facebook data analysis revealed that female politicians often receive comments like "sexy," "queen," and "beautiful," while their male counterparts are more likely to receive comments such as "lion," "thief," and "hero." The top-ranked comments in this analysis were categorised as sexist, politically victimising, involving personal abuse, ethnic-based, and containing threats. This suggests a stark difference in how men and women are perceived on social media. Feminity is often subjected to attack and sexualization, while masculinity is often celebrated.

At the beginning of this year, Twitter had 4.65 million users in Pakistan. Globally, Twitter's gender statistics show that there are 63% men and 37% women on the platform. However, it is important to approach this data, as well as Twitter's gender data, with caution because the platform doesn't distinguish between bot accounts and real human accounts

All the comments analysed in this article were made by men. This leads to the question: Who gets to take up space on social media and in conversations related to politics and political figures? This, in turn, raises another question: Who has access to these spaces?

Ali Cheema, Shandana Khan Mohmand and Asad Liaqat’s IDS working paper –  titled  'Invisible Citizens: Why More Women in Pakistan Do Not Vote' – delves into the gender gap that exists in electoral turnout in Pakistan. It discusses how patriarchy manifests in various ways: women are not expected to actively participate in politics, and they are also discouraged from leaving their homes unless it is absolutely necessary. This limited accessibility extends to the social media political space, compounded by the underutilization of mobile phones by women. According to a recent report by the UNDP, in Pakistan, 50% of women own a mobile phone, while 81% of men do. This means there are 22 million fewer women with mobile phones than men. Women in Pakistan are also 49% less likely to use mobile internet, resulting in 12 million fewer women using it compared to men.

Dr. Shandana Khan Mohmand, one of the authors of the paper – who is also currently leading the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) Governance research cluster and the IDS Pakistan Hub –  believes that political social media spaces are male-dominated, regardless of their democratic nature. She also stated that such engagement of comments leads to gendered disinformation.

Gendered disinformation encompasses the deliberate dissemination of misleading or harmful information with two primary aims. First, it involves attacking or diminishing individuals based on their gender, perpetuating stereotypes or engaging in harmful practices. Secondly, it employs gender-specific narratives to further political, social, or economic objectives, effectively weaponizing gender-related stories to manipulate public opinion or achieve specific goals. Such attacks or behaviours lead to systematic exclusion of women from politics.

Subsequently, gendered disinformation reinforces the fact that politics is a gendered space, gendered stereotypes and social norms. These gendered stereotypes extended into internet spaces, where offline inequality and violence against women continue to persist. Moreover, the technological possibilities of social media – its unwieldy bounds and absence of geographical borders – have radically increased the flow of anti-feminist ideas and information between groups and platforms existing across cyberspace.

According to a study published by the Pew Research Center in January 2021, women are three times more likely to be subjected to online sexual harassment, with percentages increasing in younger women (under 35). Sexism and misogyny have a considerable – and concerning – influence on the online world, with one in two women encountering some form of gender-based online harassment. These statistics are staggering and alarming, and are only compounded by vaguely worded hateful conduct regulations governing social media sites such as Twitter – which make it difficult for women and other gender minorities to seek recourse.

The relentless criticism of women in politics by men – in both, online and offline spaces – and the sexist tropes they perpetuate, have a cascading effect on how people discuss women in politics, in the broader political landscape. The call for increased representation of women in national assemblies underscores the complexity of the issue. Online trolling, while undeniably detrimental, has various consequences, impacting victims on personal, political, mental, and physical levels, often misleading voters.

Consequently, social media transforms into an archive where sexist and misogynistic comments are documented, potentially influencing others to participate in or reject such narratives. At the same time – the matter is not confined to online spaces. The enduring influence of patriarchy means that women often find themselves burdened with the task of explaining themselves on public platforms, parliamentary settings, or on social media, especially when confronted with false information.

It is pertinent to note that social media platforms – and governments – have failed to promote equal democratic participation in online spaces. Sexist remarks used against women on the floors of assemblies and rallies – such as the Firdous Ashiq Awan “dumper” comment or Ali Amin Gandapur’s sexist comments about Maryam Nawaz in a rally in Gilgit Baltistan in December 2020 – have trickled down into everyday election-related discourse on Twitter.

Subsequently, hate speech has become part and parcel of the daily routine for women politicians and communicators – it is regarded as an inevitable consequence of being visible and online, and these abusive practices are intended to silence them or limit their activities. In the run-up to Pakistan’s 2024 General Elections, it is high time that women’s political participation moves beyond just mere recognition. Failure to do so would be a disservice; not just towards women in politics, but also towards the country’s democratic values and its citizens.

Published by: Digital Rights Foundation in Digital 50.50, Feminist e-magazine

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