By Manar al-Zubaidi
Hanaa Edwar is a long-time human rights activist who heads the Al Amal Association in Iraq. She has won a number of international awards for her work in promoting democracy and advocating for women’s rights.
The Panterblog met with Edwar to discuss how hate speech against females has developed in Iraq, in local media and online, and what impact this has on local women and activists.
Panterblog: How do you think hate speech has contributed to violence against Iraqi women?
Hanaa Edwar: The widespread use of social media in Iraq has unleashed a wave of hatred against women. These sites are used to slander women, attack their positions and demean them for their gender.
A number of female activists and champions for free speech have been threatened, intimidated and even killed because of campaigns against them on Facebook.
It was before the 2018 federal elections here that hate speech really emerged in Iraq, especially with an increased number of female candidates – they made up 29 percent of the candidates. These candidates faced a number of virulent campaigns where their posters were removed or their pictures distorted on social media.
Panterblog: Which platforms are worst when it comes to hate speech against women?
Edwar: Facebook is the most prominent. For example, a scandalous sex video was circulated to defame Intithar al-Shammari, a candidate from Baghdad. After this, her party decided to exclude her and she was also dismissed from her job. Facebook was also used to launch attacks against female activists who took part in anti-government protests. They were abused and accused of being agents of a foreign government.
Panterblog: Have there been actual crimes committed against Iraqi women because of Facebook?
Edwar: Between August and September 2018, there were four separate murders of prominent local women. The first were the murders of Rafif al-Yasiri and Rasha al-Hassan, who both ran beauty salons in Baghdad. Their deaths happened in mysterious circumstances. The third woman killed was Suad al-Ali, a civil society activist in Basra. She was assassinated during the day on the street. Just days later, a former Miss Iraq and fashion model who was very active on social media, Tara Fares ,was assassinated on a Baghdad streets.
Her death provoked a huge uproar. Against this backdrop, these women’s reputations were further maligned on social media. A number of female activists who were also subjected to intimidation, were later forced to go into hiding or to leave the country.
Panterblog: Did these crimes stop with the deaths of these four women?
Edwar: They did not. In 2019 and 2020, there was a fierce and systematic escalation by the so-called electronic armies, who specialize in defaming activists and civil society organizations online.
An incitement campaign was launched and eventually led to the murder of Reham Yaqoub, a prominent activist. Yaqoub led anti-government demonstrations in Basra and she was assassinated on August 19, 2020. Another young female activist was kidnapped by armed men because of her active involvement in the protests. She was tortured during her one-week abduction and forced to appear in a video talking about her sexual relationship with a member of the Iraqi parliament. The video was published at the end of October 2020 and she was forced to leave Iraq.
I myself have also been subjected to almost continuous defamation. The latest attack involved a video, circulated widely in 2019 and still available on social media at the moment. In this video, I was accused of being a spy for Israel’s Mossad. My honour and reputation were attacked.
Panterblog: Did criminal investigations into the murders of these women have any result?
Edwar: No, not at all. Investigations revealed nothing and the perpetrators remain unknown. In my opinion, the escalation in hate speech levels is closely associated with the fragility of the rule of law and the successive waves of armed conflict in our country since 2003. The weakness of the judicial system contributes to this. And then if we also add to this the rampant corruption in our state institutions, it starts to become clear how assailants remain unpunished and unknown.
In some of the cases, the victims’ families asked for them to be closed. In others, such as Tara Fares’ case, the crime was captured on camera but still nobody was arrested. In that case, the former Minister of the Interior appeared in the media and said that he knew who the killers were and that they were being investigated. He promised to arrest them but nothing happened. I actually asked him about this later and he told me that he’d left the job and it was not up to him anymore. Impunity in the murder of women is common.
Panterblog: What is the role of local women’s organizations in combating hate speech?
Edwar: As an organization, we submitted an extensive report on abuses and attacks against human rights defenders to the Special Rapporteur of the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights at the beginning of October 2020. In the report, we documented retaliatory campaigns against female human rights defenders and we called on the international community to pressure the Iraqi government to pass the law on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. We also want the Iraqi government to abide by the rule of law and to impartially investigate crimes and threats against human rights defenders.
We are extremely concerned about the escalation of hate speech against civil society organizations that are pushing for a new law to combat domestic violence in Iraq.
Panterblog: Do you think that law will be passed?
Edwar: We are doing our best and we believe that we can pass it despite existing objections. Recent figures released by the Ministry of Interior confirm that there is a significant increase in domestic violence here. This law must be passed as a first step to address this.
Panterblog: What about the cybercrime law being discussed in parliament? Do you think that could stop hate speech against women online?
Edwar: I do not think so because the content of the law has already caused great concern among civil society organizations and media professionals. It has been described as a law that muzzles freedom of expression because of its vague wording. I think the law would need to be amended in order to contribute effectively to the reduction of hate speech.
Panterblog: Can you propose any solutions to combat hate speech against women in the media, and especially on social media?
Edwar: Programs that broadcast this kind of content need to be censured. At the same time, female-positive media content also needs to be created. I see a role here for the associated United Nations’ bodies, the European Union and other international and regional human rights organisations. Their role shouldn’t just be limited to issuing statements of condemnation and denunciations of violations.
Impunity has led and is still leading to an increase in risks to the lives of activists. That danger will increase as long as perpetrators are still free. They pose a danger to all women. This is why I say that we are still living in dangerous times.
*This interview has been edited for brevity.