Delete Profile: Online abuse of women in Kosovo threatens political participation

Online abuse of Kosovo women is taking a toll on their readiness to engage in political and public life.

But if many of the responses her work elicited were positive, many were not. Kastrati, who was born in Germany to Kosovo Albanian parents, appeared to strike a nerve among other ethnic Albanians in particular.

With the help of an IT professional, Kastrati was able to identify the rough area from where the message was sent.

She suspected a former friend, a fellow ethnic Albanian whom Kastrati said had grown increasingly insulting and aggressive in his online communication with her. She went to the German police, but was too scared to name the man she suspected of threatening her and the case went no further.

The backlash and abuse, the threats of rape and death, had become unbearable.

Six years later, Kastrati no longer uses either Facebook or Twitter under her real name.

“It is a very toxic environment,” she said.

Kastrati, who currently works at a kindergarten in Germany, said she remains a feminist activist, “but I don’t make any public appearances.”

“I never stopped my activism, but I choose not to spend too much time online,” Kastrati told BIRN. “Online activism is emotionally draining and it takes too much time. And that is currently not my priority.”

Elone Kastrati. Photo: Courtesy of Elone Kastrai

Her story speaks to the impact of online misogyny on women who choose to make their voices heard, particularly in the Balkans, where largely conservative, patriarchal societies are often resistant to changes in ‘traditional’ gender roles and seek to deny women a political opinion.

The loss to public debate and political life cannot be overstated, experts say.

Online violence not only targets the individual, but also public perceptions of the validity of women’s political participation in general, said Nita Bicurri, programme manager at the National Democratic Institute, NDI, in Kosovo and who has years of experience working with women in politics.

“The clearest example is the rise and trend of gender disinformation and misogynist messages,” Bicurri told BIRN. “Messages tend to create narratives that women are not worthy of being active participants in the public discourse.”

Making women disappear

Experts characterise online violence against women as an extension of the violence women face offline and it is commonly manifested in the same forms – for example, verbal abuse, sexual harassment and stalking. It is frequently reinforced by the way women are portrayed in the media.

According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, online violence against women and girls “can manifest as various forms of violence, including sexual, psychological and, as growing trends would indicate, economic, whereby the victim’s current or future employment status is compromised by information released online.”

Yet it is not strictly defined or recognised in law in the Western Balkans as a form of violence, nor is it conceptualised or legislated against at the level of the European Union.

“To me, online violence against women is a toxic environment where the words and opinions of women are ridiculed, degraded, and might result in actual threats and acts of violence offline,” said Hana Marku, an Albanian-Canadian lawyer and former activist in Kosovo.

To avoid it, some women ‘erase’ themselves, San Francisco State University assistant professor Bridget Gelms wrote in a text published as part of the 2019 book Digital Ethics.

“One of the ways in which women can actually control the amount of online harassment they experience is through silence and self-erasure,” wrote Gelms, whose work concerns social media rhetoric and the cultural and material dimensions of social media. “Harassment online is making women disappear.”

Gwen Taylor, programme manager at GLITCH, a UK charity that works to end online abuse, said that victims of online abuse are frequently “people with intersecting and marginalised identities”.

“Offline and online violence is linked,” Taylor told BIRN, and identified “women in politics, black women or women with marginalised identities” as showing a particular interest in GLITCH’s crowd-funded workshops.

Protected only on paper

In Kosovo, legal experts say that there is already a solid legal foundation for authorities to tackle online violence against women.

“When you tell a person, ‘I will kill you’, it is a criminal offence,” said media lawyer Flutura Kusari. “It does not matter whether you have said it verbally or have typed it online.”

“When you call for violence, particularly against women, whether you did that online or offline, it is a criminal offence,” Kusari told BIRN. “If you sexually attack someone, be it online or offline, it is a criminal offence. All is regulated with Kosovo’s Criminal Code, which is quite advanced.”

The problem, however, is in the implementation and the double gender standards and patriarchal values that pervade public institutions, she said.

“You report to police that someone is threatening you with rape, murder… that they’re going to hurt your daughter, etc… But the police will commonly respond: ‘But why are you speaking up? Can you not simply engage?’ Or even worse: ‘Why don’t you pay attention to the language you’re using?”

Flutura Kusari, Photo: Courtesy of Flutura Kusari

Even Kosovo’s highest office is not spared.

“Unfortunately, to be a woman present and active in the public sphere in Kosovo, but beyond as well, means encountering high levels of online violence perpetually,” said Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu, who has been the target of much online abuse before and since becoming the second woman to hold the post in April this year.

“While online violence is a widespread phenomenon and affects almost everybody, it is significantly more directed towards marginalised groups, as well as girls and women,” with an impact on their motivation “to engage in public life,” Osmani-Sadriu told BIRN in a written statement.

According to recent polls by NDI, 51 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that violence against women in politics is widespread in Kosovo and 45 per cent agreed that online violence targets women in politics and that this discourages them from participating in politics.

“NDI research shows a relatively high presence of misogyny on online and social media, particularly towards women involved in politics,” the organisation told BIRN. “Much of the misogynistic discourse constitutes online violence against women. Misogynistic narratives are also disseminated in online and traditional media without being considered as such.”

In Serbia, research by the Autonomous Women’s Centre, AWC, an NGO, in 2019 found that 57 per cent of girls between the ages of 14 and 19 had been exposed to online comments with sexual connotations and nine per cent said their privately sent videos or photos had been posted online. Some 55 per cent of boys within the same age range have experienced threats online to their physical safety.

AWC project coordinator Sanja Pavlović said it was common for women with a public profile to become targets of online abuse.

“I believe that the most affected are women and girls who spend more time online and those who are visible and active in public life [like journalists and politicians], and they are usually exposed to different forms of cyber violence committed by men who they don’t know in person,” Pavlovic told BIRN in written answers.

“On the other side,  what we see through our practice of direct services is that women of all ages are not spared when it comes to partner violence and that violent partners don’t hesitate to use different digital tools to impose control and isolation over their victims.”

Pavlović stressed the need for more detailed research on the types of online violence, involving women and girls of different ages. Indeed, a lack of data in the region is undermining efforts to address the phenomenon.

BIRN asked the police in Kosovo for official data concerning online violence against women but was sent statistics on the most common cyber-crimes. Cyber violence against women was not among them.

Kosovo’s public prosecution service and the Basic Court of Prishtina also did not respond to requests for data.

Virtual bazaar

Facebook is the most widely used social network in Kosovo, becoming for many Kosovars the go-to place to receive and give out information, promote one’s work, communicate and socialise. Marku likened it to a “virtual bazaar.”

The social media giant is also a forum for feminist activists in Kosovo to fight back against a culture of denial that violence against women even exists as an issue, a culture reinforced by media outlets that frequently promote sexist tropes. And Kosovo is not alone.

In neighbouring Albania, feminist sociologist Ermira Danaj said that the way Albanian media portray women is a form of violence. “The parliament begins its work and the news in Albania is centred on what the women politicians are wearing,” said Danaj.

In Kosovo, Kusari advocated training for journalists on how to report gender issues and represent women on television. But there is little interest, she said, and it is not simply about the financial cost.

“There is simply a lack of will because the patriarchal beliefs are so deeply rooted in the media that even when they try to include women they do it the wrong way and only end up doing more harm,” Kusari said.

Xheni Karaj, a prominent LGBT rights activist in Albania, Photo: Facebook

Xheni Karaj, a prominent LGBT rights activist in Albania, experienced this first-hand when comments she made on a TV talk show in July regarding how the UK deals with the issue of child adoption by same-sex couples resulted in an article headlined, “LGBT Community Wants to Remove the Term ‘Mother’.”

“When I woke up in the morning I found thousands of rape and murder threats, comments on my Instagram pictures, aggressive comments not just towards me but towards the LGBT community in general,” Karaj recalled.

She reported the abuse to Albania’s media regulator, “because I think that such a collective hysteria was encouraged by the narrative that the media itself created.”

Violence, said Karaj, creates “a cycle of fear”, leaving victims afraid to accept themselves or tell their loved ones, who can also become targets. She cited comments made online directed at her mother, ‘who has given birth to a monster, not a child.’

“It affects everyone, not just the victim but his/her parents, close ones, partners, friends and the community at large.”

Kusari also complained of the dominance of ‘male influencers’ in Kosovo, particularly high-profile ‘commentators’ on political talk shows.

“Let’s say a woman activist has 2000-3000 followers and as such has a small community of people who follow her and generally approve of her posts. Then a man with more than 100,000 followers appears and criticises you vainly and recklessly. Of course, it will discourage you,” said Kusari. “But the message for other women is: ‘Look what will happen if you dare to do the same’.”

Marku said that many men in Kosovo, even those who consider themselves feminists, find it deeply humiliating to be told by a woman, “‘You’re wrong, you’re so wrong.’”

“It is just as much culturally ingrained to say to a woman whenever she expresses an opinion: ‘Shut up. What do you know?’,” she said.

Such responses “carry weight,” said Karaj. “Hate speech but also discriminatory language reinforces prejudices against the community,” she told BIRN. “There are direct physical consequences. It does not simply remain in the virtual world.”

Osmani-Sadriu, Kosovo’s president, said the mere existence and acceptance of such language “in politics and the public sphere, legitimises misogyny.”

Say their names

Kastrati’s 2015 protest, hashtagged #padsagainstsexism, earned her an invitation to give a TED talk a few months later in Kosovo, the country her parents had left in 1994 as socialist Yugoslavia fell apart in war.

Under the title ‘My name is not sweetheart,’ Kastrati spoke with humour and strength about the absurdity of menstrual shame in Kosovo, about the experience of seeing the shopkeeper wrap sanitary pads in newspaper so other shoppers would not see them.

She spoke out about the harm of marrying too young and the weight of expectation on Albanian women in the diaspora to marry Albanian men.

The audience seemed engaged and entertained. But there was nothing entertaining about the response when her speech was posted on Facebook, drawing 14,000 clicks.

The comments ranged from ridicule to petty criticism, threats of rape and death. The administrators at TEDxPrishtinaWomen disabled the comments page.

Hana Marku, Photo: Courtesy of Hana Marku

Marku, who was part of TEDxPrishtinaWomen at the time of Kastrati’s talk, said digital spaces remain unsafe for young women to navigate.

“We should have done more to protect Elone from the violent backlash,” she said. “We’ve were naive to believe that her speech was going to be inspirational, despite the fact that she spoke about the most obvious matters regarding the rights of Albanian women.”

Marku said it was vital people be held accountable for their words.

“In the virtual sphere, the perception dominates that words do not carry significant weight and that they are meaningless in our everyday life,” she told BIRN. “That makes people more contemptuous… because the consequences are zero. That is why I believe in keeping those people accountable, saying their names.”

Kastrati never told the German police the name of the man she suspected of sending her the death threat in 2015. “I was too afraid,” she said.

Earlier this year, however, Germany passed a new law explicitly recognising online violence. Those found guilty of threatening murder or rape online now face spending up to three years in prison. The new law and the fact she now has insurance to help cover the cost of a lawyer have put Kastrati in a different position.

“Today, I would have uttered his name,” Kastrati said. “If I decide to reopen my case, there is a great chance that he could end up in prison and his career would be over.”

“If I decide to go online again as I used to, I will be safe.”

Kastrati said she still believed online equality was possible.

“The hetero-cis man [a heterosexual man whose gender assigned at birth matches his sense of identity] is no longer the centre of attention,” she smiled. “Our culture is becoming queerer.”

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