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Writing What’s On Your Mind, Even If Your Hands Shake

The problem of online harassment of women journalists has been drawing increasing attention of late.

“Pacific Standard” magazine’s January cover story titled “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” triggered an avalanche of media buzz about the issue in the United States. In the article, blogger Amanda Hess catalogues her own collection of sexually violent threats she has received in response to her blogs dealing with relationships, culture, and entertainment, and cites a 2005 survey from the Pew Research Center concluding the “vilest communications” online are directed at women.

Similarly, freelance journalist and blogger for “The Guardian” Caroline Criado-Perez made headlines last summer when her campaign to have British literary figure Jane Austen featured on a ten-pound note elicited numerous threats of rape, maiming, and graphic sexual violence on Twitter.

Women bloggers are often targeted in comment threads and social media with rape threats, sexual insults, and a general level of invective that some argue goes beyond the backlash that men can experience when they express controversial opinions in their blogs. This, despite the fact that blogging has been touted as a democratic opinion platform capable of rectifying, at least in part, the scarcity of women op-ed columnists in U.S. mainstream media.

Women make up less than 27 percent of opinion columnists writing for the country’s most respected newspapers, according to research cited by the Women’s Media Center in “The Status of Women in the Media Report 2014.” The number of women’s bylines on opinion pieces in some of RFE/RL’s broadcast regions, where women are less visible in public life, is presumably even lower.

While there isn’t much quantitative data available measuring the amount of vitriol hurled at women bloggers, the anecdotal evidence abounds, and many English-language bloggers have recently begun speaking out about their experiences. Not being “welcome” on the Internet is a problem women journalists and bloggers from RFE/RL’s broadcast regions report facing as well.

Salome Asatiani blogs for RFE/RL’s Georgian Service about human rights, gender issues, sexual minorities, and violence against women, all topics with the potential for provoking controversy in a society Asatiani says is still highly patriarchal and strongly influenced by the teachings of the country’s dominant church.

“The backlash and negative reaction is the highest, is the most gendered, when I address gender issues, of course,” said Asatiani. “Things get especially aggressive if I touch upon our clergy and the Georgian Orthodox Church, which is a taboo topic and a very misogynist institution. If you’re going to write about gender issues in Georgia, there is no way you can avoid the church, and when you do that, that is when the hate mail starts coming.”
Georgia -- RFE/RL Georgian Service blogger Salome Asatiani.
Georgia -- RFE/RL Georgian Service blogger Salome Asatiani.

When thousands of antigay protesters led by Orthodox Christian clergy prevented a gay-rights rally from taking place in Tbilisi on May 17, 2013, Asatiani wrote a blog in response, and recalls an especially virulent backlash.

In 2012 she wrote a blog in response to a sermon delivered by the Georgian Patriarch, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, in which he called on women to be subservient and “wash the feet” of their husbands. This post also elicited a hostile reaction.

“I got really seriously negative and threatening messages, and the messages come in gendered terms, of course,” said Asatiani. They called me a ‘bitch’ and a ‘slut’ and a ‘westernized fallen woman.’ One man wrote on Facebook that he would take pleasure in hitting me with his car and running back and forth over my corpse.”

Tamar Guchiani, also from Georgia, has experienced similar reactions to her posts on gender-related issues in her human rights blog.

“LGBT rights is the topic that causes immediate moral panic in Georgia,” she said. “I always see the reaction on social media networks, [and] as a rule they are gender-specific. Once, when the magazine ‘Liberali’ published an interview with me, there were numerous comments about my appearance and make-up, and one of the commenters even wrote that I have a ‘lesbian smile.’”

Among women bloggers who have written high-profile commentary about this phenomenon, most say women’s rights, LGBT rights, and sexuality are the subjects that expose them to the most noxious comments and threats.

Ruth Jacobs, a Huffington Post blogger focusing on sex workers' rights, anti-sexual exploitation and anti-human trafficking, says she also received horrendous messages, and that their potential to lead bloggers to self-censor is real.

“It’s a silencing tactic,” said Jacobs. “I have to decide, do I publish and then take the backlash?”

So far, despite the intimidation, all three women continue to blog.

“I am scared to death sometimes, but I know there are thousands of underprivileged, oppressed human beings whose voices I try to make heard by writing these blog posts,” Guchiani said, adding that she finds strength in a quote from American human rights activist Maggie Kuhn: “speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.”

--Emily Thompson