Trigger Warning: Sexual violence and harassment.
The year 2020 was a turning point in Egypt. When one courageous woman called her aggressor out, the chips fell where they should have long ago. In a matter of a few weeks, we learned from women’s stories that even if you haven’t experienced harassment first-hand, you can still feel the thorns of its rippling effects.
We witnessed momentum, a catalyst for change, as well as new layers of trauma, fear, and silencing. Assault Police quickly became the first of several online platforms and communal spaces that would be a home for women to share their stories – but more importantly, to be believed. Their mission, however, didn’t come without consequence.
They put cultural attitudes that aim to shame, silence and victimize women under the microscope and challenged the very essence of individuals’ interference in socio-cultural affairs. The resolution to participate in and drive public discourse came with a lot of praise, international media coverage, and some support, but it also came at a heavy price. I can only begin to imagine the amount of death threats and online volatility the admins of the page endured. Where have they gone? What battles are they fighting after Assault Police ceased to exist in the very spaces it helped push open?
One woman’s pain is a piercing blade into another woman’s heart. One woman’s struggle is another woman’s reason to fight. I found myself taking part in a movement that, in my age and time, would never have had such an electrifying impact unless birthed within the walls of social media. I never really knew what my role was or what I had to bring forth. I knew I wanted to lead with heart, but mine was withering away with every story I heard of men’s presence threatening women’s lives. And there were many of them, and tons more within circles we thought were safe.
What emerged from the ruins was call-out and cancel culture, which became important – and in many was the only – tools of what we perceived as social justice. They nurtured an awareness that any single act of harassment is not just between two people but is an indicator of a larger cultural issue, and that popular narratives about what is considered harassment do not undermine any infrequent or small dose of pestering of any kind.
It became a form of resistance to which women resort, unpretentiously born of a causal and consequential effect: when the structure fails to protect women, we find a way to visibly navigate discrimination and hate. For a while, social media platforms felt like a safe space for the previously unheard, an outlet to enforce social norms or reimagine new ones, signal refutable behavior, and hold individuals accountable for their condemned actions.
Ideally, these would be the reasons guiding such online conversations, however, the ways in which these tools were repeatedly used sparked conflicting opinions, uneven results, and are now subject to scrutiny and debate. Skepticism around these resistance tools may blind the successes of it, and if someone gave me the opportunity to talk freely, to not be restrained by any fear of backlash, I would gladly, as I do today, give reflective context to the threads that generate controversies with no clear consensus around the pitfalls of such tools.
Socio-politics can play subtle and insidious games. Everything happening online is but a leaking extension of what happens offline. Where does one end and the other begin? Does men’s systemic offline aggression against women feed the mirroring anger enmeshed in the digital space? And if so, how are we expected to lead and take part in online conversations? What is our role as individuals? What do we owe to the movement?
I am a staunch supporter of the practice of self-attunement, self-awareness, and learning to understand one’s own motivations. In 2019, I opted to call my aggressor out. Reaching out to a feminist collective seemed to be my only source of validation and support, never believing that anyone would listen deeply and intently in the way I wanted to be heard.
I was hesitant in telling my story, only half-heartedly and vaguely recalling instances. They wanted me to own my narrative. They introduced me to the idea that personal stories have greater messages and resonance than those with no substance. At 20 years of age and having been subjected to physical abuse, I was engrossed in hostility and aggression. I only made sense of my journey through an aggressor’s eyes. My experience was no longer mine. It was tainted with feelings of insignificance and grievance of a lost self. So steadfast was my resolution on fighting back with power, and not with poise, or compassion, or authenticity. So unyielding was my single-minded resolution to have everyone recognize what kind of person I knew my aggressor to be.
For so long, breaking these barriers of fear seemed impossible. With nothing but a collective and momentous action to speak out, put ourselves on the line and share the deepest parts of ourselves and stories of the women in our community – questioning the only tools and methods we’ve had at our disposal and how we’ve used them may seem difficult and, to some, defeating. As if, in a way, allowing ourselves to critique them might once again put us in a compromising position, taking away or diminishing our efforts to create a safe space, and hindering the movement once more.
The issue, however, lies not within the tools and methods themselves, but with those who ignore the substance of what is being said. The perilous place from which these tactics arose is unsurprising, but the desire to keep using them in the same ways, unchecked and in the absence of a more structural justice, is what we need to reconsider.
Perhaps it’s time to shed light on these conversations that have been happening in closed circles, where it might feel safer to avoid it not sitting well with public discourse, where there is no fear of backlash. We do this as an effort to consolidate our collective benefit, and (hopefully) progress.
It seems that the more we call out and communicate online, the more our efforts could be read as cyberbullying, leaving very little room for aggressors to learn from their mistakes. Instead of being the ones causing commotion, they are themselves now the ones who feel attacked, assaulted, and not heard. When anger is met with anger, how much can things really improve? Even if these tactics had worked perfectly so far, even if they had instilled a newly found sense of collective power – when we face a wall, what do we need to do to move forward? To move upward?
If a “mob mentality” hinders any chance of redemption or accountability and pushes us into a vicious cycle, then what needs to change? Do we invite forgiveness to our parley? Is forgiveness possible in the face of heinous crimes? When rumors circulate more widely than corrections or debunking attempts, what happens when information circulates on such grounds? Viral content? It already sounds diminishing of any woman’s experience. Is this the kind of ethos and feminist rhetoric we want to be adopting?
The challenge is to find a discourse that stays true to women’s experiences without being tainted by the general culture, which is one of normalized aggression and online violence hidden behind the cloak of free speech. If one assumes the right to speak up against someone, does the other assume the right to defend themselves in any way possible?
Social media becomes a space where unrest is informed and mobilized, and where the community remains focused on animosity towards targets without digging into the kind of social and cultural values we now want to instill. We end up maintaining the same ethos of hostility and dehumanizing behavior that fed the culture of harassment in the first place. What have we won? What did I want to achieve when I called my aggressor out to a small group of feminists?
To me, it was a sort of political sub-activism that was “not about political power […] but about personal empowerment,” as Maria Bakardejva writes in her essay “The Internet and Subactivism.” It attuned me to other types of digital activism that take unconventional forms. I see women who take on the role of activists seeking informal justice when they find themselves victims of hate, attack, or harassment.
“I see individuals who metamorphose into microcelebrity activists and socially conscious members of the online community by achieving visibility and building user’s image,” states Zeynep Tufecki in her paper titled “Not this one: Social movements, the attention economy, and microcelebrity networked activism.”
What persists is that victims of harassment and aggression are rarely responded to through formal criminal justice settings, and take it to the digital world by shifting the responsibility onto survivors instead of existing institutional value systems.
My understanding of justice was about empowerment and a journey back to the self. What does it look like to someone else and do we get to question their authenticity? And if we do question a person’s truthfulness, what are we aiming to challenge? Some might accuse those who publicly take the side of women of hindering and hogging the movement through performative practices. How counterproductive could it be to reflect the same cancel culture that has intrinsically silenced us?
Narrative correctness and source-checking still need to be important parts of our methods. Instead of collecting receipts, screenshots of messages and social media activity pointing to problematic behavior, how can we renew our evidence-finding practices to generate positive change? This is a question Busang Senne raises in an article titled “Man, F*ck Your Pride: Why call-out culture isn’t toxic.”
We need to decide on the kind of movement we want to lead: Is it a personal, collective, or messy one? Why are we so confused? We’re so used to being told what to do that when we decide to take matters into our hands, we end up repurposing what we’ve previously known and been conditioned to do without questioning, challenging, dissecting, or demystifying.
Our efforts have unleashed the shackles of rage, grief, communal healing, nostalgia, deception in existing social norms and discernment in how we stand up for what we think is right, however, the rules that hold us together aren’t yet enough to stop groups from splintering and to stop the repetition of the same cycles of anger, hate, and gender-based segregation.
Nawal Al Saadawi was the first feminist I encountered in my life. Her novel “Woman at Point Zero” changed me to a degree I never was able to gauge until this day. I learned what defeatism meant, and have actively and consciously tried to shut down any skepticism, unconstructive criticism, and bland stoicism arising from my idealistic dreams to alter any given status quo.
I rest my mind on Al Saadawi’s words that voices who symbolize truth are “spreading fear wherever [they go], the fear of the truth that kills, the power of truth, as savage, and as simple, and as awesome as death, yet as simple and as gentle as a child that has not yet learned to lie.”
The power of truth. The power to alter structures that can devalue feminist rhetorical practices, including methods such as cancel and call-out culture that foreground social justice. The power to believe that power itself is intersectional, polymorphic, and shifts very quickly. The power to believe that our collectivity ceases the perpetuation of exclusionary relationships. The power to believe that knowledge is co-produced, and when a controversy arises, we need not be gatekeepers of culture or knowledge. The power to believe that we have the power to resist the systemic disempowerment of women and other marginalized groups, and the power of my own positionality as a writer to invite you to learn to analyze your own motivations.
What purpose do our resistance tactics serve? Who are we aiming to educate? Are we looking to shock society, or gracefully introduce ideas one after the other? Any movement emerges from culturally situated bodies: there is no use in trying to come up with universal conclusions to the questions raised in this piece. The emancipatory potential it offers, however, lies in habitual rituals of confrontation, and the willingness to talk about where we might have been misled in order to redirect our mission and achieve positive cultural change.