The Internet has primarily been my “office” for the few years I have been doing feminist movement building. It has fronted the birth of great movements I am thrilled to be part of. I have had the amazing opportunity to be part of a remarkable team of young feminists who organized an entire march against femicide solely online, created a Kenyan feminist collective using digital platforms and generated vast feminist knowledge on the internet. I do not for one minute doubt that the Internet has tremendously facilitated my growth as a radical feminist.
A question I get asked a lot, however, is how I survive on the internet as a radical, black feminist and for many years my answer was, “I just do.” I mean, it had never really crossed my mind that I was ‘surviving” on the Internet or even subconsciously finding ways to manoeuvre the Internet as a feminist. I had over time realized that some of the platforms I used to spread my feminist propaganda were violent to me, other women and queer people. So I automatically shifted into ‘survival’ mode because violent online spaces or not, feminism had to reach the people and that was my primary goal, to get as many people as possible to personally and politically identify with the movement.
Owning your feminist identity on the Internet immediately opens you up to an unabridged household of abuse.
The Science behind this is really quite simple- feminism, as an ideology comes with eclectic misconceptions, feminism as a practice, threatens the status quo and people generally would rather attack or belittle things they do not understand and people also, would rather not have their privilege redistributed, thank you. Therefore, saying you’re a feminist on the internet means instant attacks upon attacks to your personhood and family.
I have not been spared from these attacks. Over the years as I articulated my feminism more and more on the internet, the backlash increased with each post I made. I remember the first time I was exposed to online abuse, back in 2014. I wrote a post on my Facebook declaring my infinite support for abortion. The backlash I received was viral, extremely arctic, unrelenting and vicious.
In 2014 I was 20 years old, just beginning to understand Feminist theory and practice, having little language to respond to the nearly a hundred venomous comments on my post, and so I deleted the post. I was really not okay with being called a ‘tall ugly girl with a dirty womb’ or a ‘killer’ or able to substantiate claims that I was in fact, a serial aborter. These comments served their purpose. I did not write a “controversial” post for nearly two weeks. (Yes, it was seemingly VERY controversial to support reproductive health for women)
I tested the waters again. Facebook was my major platform. I posted about sex and even had the pluck to ask if women really experienced orgasms in heterosexual sexual relationships. The backlash manifested in collapsing masculinities, and for the first time, I got slut-shamed. The conversation rapidly progressed to the number of men I had slept with, the tightness of my vagina or lack there-of and the types of clothes I wore. It was bad.
It was dawning on me that if you were a woman on the internet and you had opinions, insults would be your reality.
After this baptism by fire on the Internet, I was okay-ish. It seemed to me that I had become quite numb to the insults I would get after every ‘radical’ post I made. And at some point, I even began dishing it right back. It was an eye for an eye, if- you- go- low,- I -go –lower- than –Satan- lower- kind –of- thing. Fighting back definitely reduced the trolls in my space and made me more confident to put more feminist content out there and attracted feminists to my space. The backlash has continued since then, it never really stopped.
I have been the victim of defamatory campaigns on YouTube channels as a bad example of a feminist to follow, that is, a bitter toxic feminist, I have had random people reach out to my family to say that I am ‘wilding’ on the Internet, I have received rape threats and I have been dragged right down to the wig I was wearing.
I speak of these experiences because as radical feminists who organize on the Internet, we can easily be desensitised to this abuse-I know I was. We can think, oh well, job hazard. We can think the abuse automatically comes as part of the work. It got to a point where I told myself that if I was to be a feminist on the Internet, then I had to develop thick skin especially since I could witness other feminists fighting back too despite having their nudes leaked online or their photos posted in group chats or pages. Everybody was fighting to survive, best I developed some tough skin too and joined the fight. But I realized that in many ways, we had normalised our own abuse.
We were resigned to the fact that this was and would always be our reality as feminists on the Internet. The reality of online abuse. A reality of anxiety induced by online abuse. A reality of depression because of the constant slut-shaming and body-shaming we are victims of.
I wanted it to stop. For myself and other feminists. I wanted to reconcile the paradox that the Internet had not only facilitated my growth but had also facilitated violence on my person. I wanted to find ways we could make the Internet safe for everyone, but especially, ways feminist organizers would be safe on the Internet. I did stumble on a few techniques, (which I will list below) that I have recently been using and have been working amazingly for me.
My online space is cleaner than ever, my friend list is mostly feminists and I limit who can comment on my posts. These suggestions do not in any way mean that it was your fault that you got bullied online because you failed to employ these tips, or that this is the roadmap for online safety-it simply means that these are some of the things we can do as feminists to protect our peace online, enjoy our online organizing and manoeuvre movement building in a digital age. The imperative vision that remains is finding sustainable feminist ways to make the Internet safe so that we do not resort to performing ALL these things just to exist on the Internet.
- Read the Feminist Principles of the Internet by the Association for Progressive Communications. These are amazing principles that will guide your day to day interaction with the Internet as a feminist and motivate you to join the pursuit for a feminist Internet.
- Practise digital abstinence periodically. Detox from social media. Rest from developing content, find other activities in offline spaces that you like, clear your mind and come back re-energized and refreshed.
- Practise anonymity. You don’t have to develop content using your real name. It’s okay to open a pseudo-account to put your content out there. Anonymity is, however, a double-edged sword and you may still be affected by the violent comments on your posts.
- Renovate your social media profile. Untag yourself in unnecessary posts. Delete information that your followers really don’t have to know. This helps a lot with privacy and reduces your online footprint.
- Separate your accounts. You can have a professional account that solely talks about your feminist content and a separate personal account with your friends and family where you can talk about much more intimate things.
- Deep cleanse your social media account. You don’t have to add everyone. Vet the people you add, delete some people, follow more feminists, moderate comments, limit who can see your posts, limit who can comment on your posts, use the block button unapologetically.
- Have a support system. Online abuse, especially for feminists will still happen. That is a sad reality for now. You can mitigate the harm it does to you by having a support system to reach out to whenever it happens. People who can hold space for you or people who can come to your defence and back you up through it.
Our pursuit of a feminist internet is my loud call to action. I hope we can be able to rally in solidarity behind free radicals and young feminists who organize on the Internet. There are definitely more tips and nuances that may come up from your different experiences and I hope we can have conversations about them. I wish nothing but joy, radicalism and safety in abundance for feminists as we organize on the Internet.
Vivian Ouya is a Lawyer and Co-Founder Feminists in Kenya. Find her on Twitter @OuyaVivianne, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Edited by Rosebell Kagumire and Edna Ninsiima. This blog is part of African Feminism series on online violence against women capturing lived experiences of African women with nonconsensual sharing of intimate images, the struggle to get protections both on and offline, and the pursuit of justice. This is made possible with a grant from the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF), an initiative of the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) to advance digital rights.