The internet we have today has become as real as any social spaces we occupy in-person i.e coffee shop, schools, shopping malls, public streets etc. So much of our lives are integrated digitally now – from paying bills, reading news, tracking pandemic hotspot, accessing healthcare to falling in love and protesting the arrest of activists. Opting out of the digital space is no longer a choice for us. Today, to be online is to exist and to be seen. This article discusses the insights gained through monitoring the online aggressions targeting LGBTIQ+ persons, in particularly through the 2019 Women’s March in Malaysia.
Over the years, a great deal of attention and resources had been invested in connecting everyone to the internet. In 2020, almost 60 per cent of the world population was online, a 7 per cent increase from 2019. In Malaysia, the percentage of internet users stood at 88.7 per cent in 2020. However, very little attention has been given to what happened after we bring everyone online –lack of meaningful access to the internet, economic inequality, and online gender-based violence particularly for women, girls, and LGBTIQ+ persons. Contrary to the early promise of an egalitarian world, the digital space is inevitably a space underpinned by the “old and depressingly predictable phenomena [such as] androcentrism, sexism, and misogyny”. The prevalence of online gender-based violence (read here for types of online gender-based violence) and the inadequate response by the state, digital platforms and society illustrate that this form of violence is not incidental but a continual process of societal and political control of those who do not conform to gender roles and heteronormativity.
There are objective challenges in addressing online gender-based violence given it is not a mere legal issue, but structural and cultural discrimination against women and LGBTIQ+ persons that are embedded and normalized in every aspect of our lives – all these are further compounded by technological challenges where online gender-based violence is persistent, replicable, and scalable.
Gender hierarchy and the Malay Muslim identity
Despite the stride the world has made on women’s rights, the normative construction of womanhood as feminine, graceful, loyal and caring remains highly prized. In many online gender-based violence cases, women and girls are punished for diverging from what is considered as unacceptable roles and behaviors and for non-conforming to gender norms i.e. holding a placard stating that she wants to be the next Prime Minister, a trans woman posting a selfie, or for not wearing hijab “the right way”. Many hold on to the essential truth of men and women being two distinctive categories and our biology predisposes us to differ mentally and behaviorally. Consistent with the binary gender essentialist outlook is the belief of gendered division of social roles based on predetermined characters – men as leaders, bread winners, warriors, fighters and women as homemakers, care takers and followers.
In Malaysia, gender hierarchy is further complicated by the politicization of Islam in governance, electoral system, and Malay nationalism. The Federal Constitution defines Malay in Malaysia as “a person who professes the Muslim religion, habitually speaks Malay and conforms to Malay custom”. Culturally, not only is Islam a key symbol of “Malayness”, but has become a crucial feature of Malaysian Malay identity. To maintain relevance and dominance in a Malay-Muslim majority nation, the many political parties have resorted to an ethno-patriotic religious discourse where patriotism is appended to racial and religious identities where one group of identities is framed as superior to others. This is often done with the reinforcement of Islamic authority through the bodies of men. This brand of masculinity – the dominance of women, compulsive heterosexuality, exclusive religiosity and right-wing nationalism – inflict a toxic burden on men, delegitimize homosexuality, transgender and contribute to the making of a society rife with homophobia and misogyny. The production of Malay Muslim masculinity as the leader of the nation relies on men being racially and religiously superior to women and others.
One such example is the attack against the Women’s March in 2019. The women’s march organized in Kuala Lumpur adopted an intersectional approach where elimination of violence based on gender and sexual orientation was raised as one of its demands and pride flags and LGBTIQ+ rights-centric placards were shown. Organizers and participants received misogynist, transphobic and homophobic attacks on social and mainstream media. Several Islamic figures, political leaders and Members of Parliament condemned LGBTIQ+ persons for misusing the democratic space, “polluting” the women’s march, and causing “great destruction to social institutions”. In less than a week, police called up seven individuals connected to the march for investigation. Photos of visibly Malay Muslim young women holding pride flags went viral and many had expressed shock and fear of the erosion of morality among them. The visibility of LGBTIQ+ persons in public spaces (both at the march and on social media) disrupts the expectation of the Malay Muslim masculinity as essentially heterosexual and destabilize the imagined cohesiveness of the heterosexual Malay-Muslim man as the mirror of the nation’s strength and the epitome of Malaysian Islam.
The heightened persecution against the Women’s March in 2019 also took place at a time where Malaysia, for the first time in history, elected a new political coalition, Pakatan Harapan to the government, long after being ruled by the same political coalition Barisan Nasional since the nation’s independence in 1957. Narratives of failure of Pakatan Harapan in protecting the welfare and interest of Malay Muslim proliferated in the digital space. Any attempt to stand up for the rights of LGBTIQ+ persons was deemed as disrespectful and an atrocity to the religion Islam. The propagation of anxiety around social order, gender hierarchy and status of the Malay Muslim in the nation was then weaponized to upset and destabilize a newly elected government. Social media has proven to be an effective tool to transmit and popularize the fear of propaganda based on race and religion, in particularly Facebook pages belonging to right-wing conservative groups. Invariantly, any attempt to address the issue of gender inequalities cannot be done without understanding how sexuality and gender hierarchy intersect with nationality and citizenship.
Power of discourse
Like any social space, the internet is a place where identities and social relations are embedded through digital infrastructure and data networks. It is a place where we can play out our identities through the construction of a digital self and bodies via choice of name, visual photographs, profile descriptions, friends or followers list, our expression, and the contents we share, like and respond to. Through self-organizing, self-narrating and self-publishing, the digital spaces make it possible for a diversity of actors to disrupt the normative discourse that permeates our everyday lives. Here, LGBTIQ+ persons had actively engaged in the labor of information and knowledge production within their closed communities and beyond by encouraging a kind of learning and adoption of new codes and language.
These acts of content and discourse creation are powerful, they are what Judith Butler described as “phantom [who are] supposed to remain invisible and inaudible”. They are nonetheless, exertion of one’s rights to freedom of expression, dignity, and broader human rights. They also expose and oppose ways in which the LGBTIQ+ community has been excluded by society and institutions through which they imagine and enforce its own gender roles and norms. Against this backdrop, online gender-based violence is a continual process of punishing and rejecting discourse that subserve and contest the norms – to annihilate the voices, lives, and love of LGBTIQ+ persons.
The attack against the Women’s March in 2019 is an example of how a physical event was connected digitally through the hashtag of #womensmarchmy, photographs, news reports, social media posts. Contents and visuals from the march were an attempt to destabilize the normative discourse around gender hierarchy and sexuality. The subsequent disproportionate persecution by mainstream media, outraged social media users, Members of Parliament and religious authorities was a manifestation of the disparity in access and control over narratives and digital technologies. Photos of participants were widely circulated, shamed, and attacked. Some had received death threats for attending the march; some were doxxed and their private information were shared on social media; some received warnings from their university and employers for being associated with LGBTIQ+. Central to the online violence against #womensmarchmy is the contestation of discourse and power based on one’s gender, religion, ethnicity, disability, age and other social identity markers. The intensity of violence differs greatly from person to person as it interacts and interweaves with layers of power and dominant axes of identities within specific context e.g. trans women, fat women and young Malay Muslim women were targeted disproportionately during the Women’s March.
These performances of social precarity and of questioning and disrupting the normative discourse are powerful. Not only because they are making claims of what is their human right, but it also works as a lighthouse that gathers community that is historically isolated. In 2018, a community-led Twitter campaign #campurLGBT (Translation: #includeLGBT) that called for the inclusion of the community as human beings was trending in Malaysia. Despite the negative response, the campaign saw many LGBTIQ+ persons speaking up about their own stories and struggles and it started a much-needed conversation on oppression against LGBTIQ+ persons in Malaysia.
Many LGBTIQ+ persons are forced to actively negotiate for human rights, often at the risk of harassment and violence. In some cases, it also led to state prosecution i.e. canning of Muslim lesbian women under Syariah laws, or death. In a nation where LGBTIQ+ rights are highly politicized, muted, and persecuted, the internet provides a safer space where they are better able to negotiate for their power and right to expression through anonymizing or performing a different self within a specific community or context. It is also an important space where the community can connect with people they trust, access resources and knowledge, to mobilize for donation and support at times of the pandemic and to participate in and contribute to public and political life without hiding their gender and sexual identities.
While we are far from elimination of online gender-based violence and from creating a safe digital space for all, the internet has in many ways shown its potential in connecting an array of actors of similar values and visions who are isolated, working in silos, separated by geographical location and other barriers. Finding one’s own people and knowing that one is not alone is important in movement building – it gives a deeper sense of political belonging and it is what binds and sustains a movement.
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The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.
This article was first published by HBS Southeast Asia.