Now, more than ever, there are more women participating in politics worldwide. After decades of fighting for inclusion and opportunities, the Internet has allowed women to get involved and openly express their views in the public domain.
But this seemingly liberating tool brought another form of violence against women – online harassment. As women’s political participation began to grow, so did the frequency and intensity of violent responses towards their presence. This is one of the reasons why women still remain overwhelmingly underrepresented in politics worldwide.
With their political opinions constantly being met with sexism and hatred on social media, it creates a barrier for women to participate safely, fully and equally. These acts of violence are aimed to exclude women, by using fear and intimidation to discourage their participation.
We spoke to Aliya Ashiqin, the co-founder of StandUp Malaysia, as well as the publicity secretary for DAP Socialist Youth – DAPSY Damansara, to hear about her experience, as well as how we can overcome the online harassment of women in politics.
What pushed you to start StandUp Malaysia?
I always felt that women and girls in Malaysia were not safe, whether online or offline, from catcalling on the street to physical violence, slut-shaming and sextortion (revenge porn/leaked nudes) by an ex-intimate partner. 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced violence in their lifetime – statistics have proved that women are more likely to encounter sexual harassment/abuse compared to men. Recognizing this issue, my co-founder and I decided to start a non-governmental organization (NGO) named StandUp Malaysia. We founded StandUp Malaysia to fight against any forms of violence targeted towards women.
What has your experience been like as a woman in both activism and politics?
Definitely a rollercoaster ride! Besides my involvement in StandUp Malaysia, I do actively participate in politics. Considering my contribution as a Publicity Secretary for DAPSY Damansara, I engage and execute various activities such as creating content, organising political forums for youths, distributing flags on Merdeka Eve, visiting Orang Asal villages, and many other things. Suffice to say, it is quite fun actually, and the best part is that our organising committee recognises gender equality by having a female, YB Lim Yi Wei, as our Chief. (Yay!) However, I found things a tad challenging when everything moved to a digital platform. This is because people are sitting behind the screen, spending 12 to 24 hours on a keyboard, and they start commenting nasty things to you – which they wouldn’t dare to say in front of you. Like I mentioned earlier, women are most vulnerable in an online space. I have experienced a situation where my first “Come Join My Political Party” poster was shared by many on Twitter, and later on Facebook. The misogynists started commenting in a very disparaging manner. They called me things like, Trigger Warning: “DAP whore, untuk jadi barua pelacur??, gundik??” and commenting in lewd tones such as, “standard ni kat petaling street pun banyak, masuk spa etc”. After going through that experience, I feel as though our society is still not ready to have the First Woman Prime Minister of Malaysia. It’s kinda frustrating for women in politics to go through this all the time.
In Malaysia, why do you think that a low number of women participate in politics?
Tracing back the history, I found that there were several women groups – Kaum Ibu UMNO, AWAS, who mobilised and participated in political movements – fighting for national independence. In fact, in 1960, we had the first woman representative in legislature by the name of Ganga Nayar. Over the years, we can see the number of women in politics, and running for office, increasing. However, it still remains low – women’s representation in Parliament is less than 20%. I think the low number of women who participate in politics is mainly because of external factors. Some women perceive politics as “dirty politics” because there is a lot of dirty business going on – corruption activities, political blackmailing scandals. And most importantly, gender inequality and systemic challenges. One pressing issue is gender inequality. Gender inequality exists in families, workplaces, political parties and other situations. Women often being assigned to subordinate roles in rank (gender roles) further hampers them and limits their opportunity to run for office. We have recently seen political forums that put all men as panelists for women topics, which I think is irrelevant. Also, I think women don’t run for office because it is their personal choice. They feel being in politics subjects them to public scrutiny – people check your background, family and others. But women are participating in politics. They vote during the election, participate in online discussions, sign petitions and protest on the streets.
How can we encourage more women to participate – why is it so important?
It is so important to participate in politics because politics deals with our life. The government formulates policies that affect us and we can’t ever run away from that. To narrow down the discussion, we have to determine women to participate in politics or to run for office. We need more women to run for office for our voices to be heard. There are women issues that need women representatives to decide and debate on – men cannot make decisions on behalf of women. Therefore, equal representation of gender in Parliament is crucial. One of the approaches to encourage women to run for office is by providing them with training – public speaking, debating, data analysis and so forth. I feel political parties must set a quota for women to be equally contested in the election. For instance, party A allocates 25 out of 50 seats for women candidates. Women can always partake in discussions about current issues by creating more spaces for them.
What advice do you have for women who are afraid of entering these spaces because of the gender-specific abuse?
Women should live fearlessly.
Why do you think women are targeted in these spaces?
This is because of the patriarchal mindset that has been deeply-rooted in our society for decades.
How do you cope with the bullying and harassment?
I usually ignore, block and report them. But if the degree of harassment and bullying is not tolerable, I call them out on social media.
What measures can be taken to prevent and condemn attacks on women in these spaces?
I think we need to reform and modify some laws to safeguard all genders, including minors. I acknowledge that there are Acts – the Communication and Multimedia Act to protect us, but I think we need to enforce and strengthen it. Secondly, we need to actively advocate a safe space (online and offline) and promote healthier discussions in our community. Finally, I feel we should educate our generation on treating and respecting women, such as implementing gender subjects in schools.
Remember when fighting for change was an activist’s job? As humans, caring about social issues is only the right thing to do, but if you find yourself constantly refreshing social media and checking the news for emerging threats worldwide – you might be addicted to bad news, and like all addictions, it can be harmful.
No, we’re not saying ignorance is bliss. When tragedies keep us glued to our screens, it can cause compassion fatigue – a form of burnout that’s commonly found among caretakers and healthcare professionals. But the rise of social media activism has manifested an unfair expectation for everyone to stay on top of every single issue, leaving us feeling either guilty or exhausted.
So is compassion fatigue caring ‘too much’? According to GoodTherapy, the concept also known as second-hand shock or secondary stress reaction is “a type of stress that results from helping or wanting to help those who are traumatised or under significant emotional duress”. Below are a few symptoms of compassion fatigue:
- Feeling overwhelmed or hopeless when hearing how others are suffering.
- Feeling detached from yourself or your surroundings.
- Having less empathy.
- Reacting sensitively or insensitively to tragedy.
- Constantly thinking about the suffering of others.
- Constantly blaming yourself or wondering how you could have done more.
- Downplaying your own accomplishments or success.
- Having unhealthy or destructive coping mechanisms.
- Not finding pleasure in activities you used to enjoy.
If you experience any of these signs, it’s time to take a break – your mind needs to rest, just like your body does. Here’s how you can cope with compassion fatigue and prevent burning out:
- Has Social Media Gotten Too Overwhelming?
- Have You Been Feeling Burned Out?
- Dealing With Stress During A Pandemic
- Digital Wellness: Developing A Healthier Relationship With Social Media
As the activist and writer, Audre Lorde, once said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare”. Don’t feel bad about taking a step back because there’s an increasing number of people ready to carry on where you left off. You can’t stand up for social justice when you’re barely hanging on, so do what you need to do to stay positive, strong and healthy.
If you still feel overwhelmed, please seek help from a mental health professional.