By Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff
In the spring of 2007, what began as a series of insults and criticisms of blogger and game developer Kathy Sierra of the blog Head Rush1 took a grim and sobering turn as the insults became increasingly threatening, progressing to threats of death and sexual violence, including via private e-mail, threats which included published photos of Sierra with a noose near her head and with a rubber sex doll’s face cut out and covering Sierra’s face. Frightened, Sierra blogged about the threats, in part in an attempt to out the persons responsible for threatening her. She received support from prominent, sympathetic bloggers, at least one of whom shut his own blog down for a week in protest,2 but in the end, Sierra never learned who it was who made the most serious threats against her. She canceled her speaking engagements, stopped blogging and, for all intents and purposes, went silent.
Although I had never read Sierra’s blog before learning of the threats against her, I could well imagine the content of the threats she had received and how deeply she might have been affected by them, because as a writer and speaker, I had received similar threats and harassment over many years’ time. The ongoing threats and the harassment I received in 1994 and 1995 via e-mail, regular mail and on my internet bulletin boards became an important factor in my decision to sue eight organizations on the Religious Right in 1997.3 The threats and harassing letters and e-mails themselves became important evidence during my lawsuit and at trial.4 As a feminist writer and blogger over the last 10 years, I have continued to receive threatening e-mails and threatening comments, posted to my blog and my bulletin boards,5 particularly when I’ve blogged against pornography and prostitution, but also when I’ve blogged against war and American militarism. Sometimes I am threatened and harassed by Americans for having written in opposition to war generally, or the war in Iraq specifically; sometimes I am harassed and threatened with death, rape and violence by those who simply hate Americans, and American women in particular.
I know that I am far from alone. Any woman journalist who speaks out steadfastly and strongly against war, violence, imperialism, militarism, nationalism, capitalism, pornography, prostitution, who writes as a feminist or as a human rights advocate, can expect to be harassed and attacked online and offline. In general, she will be attacked not only for her specific views and perspective, but in ways that are distinctly sexist. Her appearance will be mocked or denigrated, she will be described as a man-hater, her writings, activism and life’s work will be dismissed and trivialized, she will be called shrill and strident, or she will be threatened in ways that are sexual.
• Iranian blogger Farnaz Seify was one of three Iranian women’s rights activists arrested and imprisoned last spring, around the same time Sierra was threatened and stopped blogging. Farnaz and two other woman journalists were detained at the airport on their way to a women’s journalism conference, their homes and personal effects were searched by authorities, and their computers were seized.8
• Last June, Afghan woman journalist Zakia Zaki was gunned down in her home, the second Afghan woman journalist to be gunned down in a week’s time. She had been previously threatened with death if she did not shut down her radio station, “Peace Radio.”9
• Last October, Russian woman journalist Anna Politkovskaya, winner of numerous journalism awards for her fearless critiques of the Kremlin and of oppression of Russian citizens under President Putin was shot point blank in the head outside of her apartment in what was believed to be a contract killing after having nearly died by being poisoned by Russian agents in 2004.10
• Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi, 75, author of 30 books and a lifelong champion of the rights of Egyptian girls and women, fled Egypt around the same time Sierra went public about the threats she was receiving when El Saadawi’s play, “God Resigns in the Summit Meeting,” was banned in Egypt and all copies were destroyed by the publisher because the play was said to “offend religion.” Public criticisms of El Saadawi reverberate with sexism and echo the attacks on vocal feminist journalists everywhere in the world, accusing Saadawi her of being “egotistical,” and a “man-hater.”11 Responding to an article in Rose Al Yusef magazine that accused her of having “sexual issues” and characterized her exile as “a media stunt for her massive ego” designed to publicize an agenda of “hatred for society and religion” and “anti-male racism,” Saadawi refused to be intimidated. “I have always been threatened,” she said. “I live in fear—it has become a part of me.”12
According to Reporters Without Borders, as of International Women’s Day in March 2006, seven woman journalists were imprisoned in connection with their writing: Unusamy Parameshawary (Sri Lanka), Saidia Ahmed (Eritrea), Serkalem Fassil (Ethiopia), Rabiaa Abdul Wahab (Iraq), Umida Niyazova (Uzbekistan), Agnes Uwimana Nkusi (Rwanda) and Tatiana Mukakibibi (Rwanda). In addition, of the 82 journalists killed worldwide in 2006, nine (11 percent) were women. Nearly 13 percent of the journalists killed in the course of their work in 2005 were women. According to the report, “The proportion of women journalists killed was never so high.”13
In the public discussion following the threats against Kathy Sierra, prominent bloggers worked to develop a “Bloggers Code of Conduct,” which is still a work in progress.14 The code focuses on accountability, encouraging bloggers to reject anonymous comments or comments made under pseudonyms, and recognizing the right of bloggers to delete threatening or harassing comments without being accused of “censorship.” In the meantime, woman bloggers have responded in their own ways to online harassment, by, for instance, creating the “Kind Blogs” campaign in which bloggers post a banner announcing their agreement with these intentions:
By posting this badge, I’m declaring that in addition to humor, intelligence, wit, sadness, snarkiness, passion, exuberance, peace, stillness, excitability, anger or any other emotion you may witness on my site:
1) I will never intentionally hurt other people, whether I know them or not, whether they blog or not, whether they’re celebrities or not, either through my words or my images. It’s just not my style; and
2) I hope that by the time you’ve clicked away from my site, I’ve helped in some way to make your day just a little bit better.15
On my own blog, “Women’s Space,”16 women have been discussing commenter Stillwater’s idea of creating a “Safe Space for Women” banner that bloggers and web owners could display to indicate that harassment, threats and attacks against women will not be tolerated.17 As women bloggers and board administrators, most of us do all we can to keep our online communities safe. In order to comment to my bulletin boards, which are women-only, registrants must apply and be approved, and the same is true for other radical feminist bulletin boards, like the antipornography board Genderberg.18 Most radical feminist bloggers find we must consistently moderate all comments because of the number of harassing and threatening comments we receive.
As valuable and important as these measures are, they do not even begin to address the issues of harassment, arrests, imprisonments, stalkings, poisonings and murders of women journalists worldwide. It is clear to all of us that the intent is that we be silenced. Beyond agreeing to our own silencing, what options do we have to ensure our own safety? The irony in the United States is that the attacks against us—all of the ways we are harassed, threatened, violated—are understood to be matters of someone’s “freedom of speech,” while our objections and our outcries, are called “censorship” by some. And yet it is this “freedom of speech” of some that ultimately silences us and robs us of our own freedom of speech. The seven imprisoned woman journalists worldwide are silenced. Anna Politskovaya and Zakia Zaki are dead, silenced forever. Nawal El Saadawi and the jailed Iranian journalists and other women journalists internationally will continue their writing only so long as they are able to bear up under the constant threats and attacks against them. Kathy Sierra has been all but silenced. Although I won my lawsuit, my publication was effectively driven from the marketplace by those who intended to silence me. Kim of “Den of the Biting Beaver” [see interview with her in this issue], Alyx of “Mad Sheila Musings.” Nectarine of “From Anger to Activism,” Stormy of “A Stormy Blog,” Nubian of “Blac(k)ademic” and many other fine feminist bloggers have gone silent because of harassment or threats, some after blogging only for a matter of months.
As Andrea Dworkin once said in an interview in off our backs in which she was discussing having sued Hustler magazine for publishing pornographic depictions of her:
“I went to court and I said I’ve been raped, these people raped me. They took me, they took my sexuality, they took my body and they made pornography out of it. The court said, well if you hadn’t opened your big mouth, it wouldn’t have happened, so it’s your fault. I don’t understand how anybody is supposed to live with that unless the accommodation that they come to is one of female silence. That you never open your big mouth again…”
There are a lot of things I would like to talk about, and I do not want to read about them in Hustler. I don’t want my life used against me, I want to use my life for women. That’s the part I really do not know how to deal with. Where I think that there are personal experiences that it’s appropriate for me to talk about now, I will not talk about them. I can’t. People talk about freedom of speech, and all of these civil liberties assholes go into court about what is going to chill speech somewhere for someone. I mean I want to tell you that my speech is fucking freezing to death and I am a writer. It does matter what has happened to me and it does matter how I learned what it is that I know and women do have a right to have some idea of what those things are… [but] I cannot survive having that discussion. My speech is as chilled as it can be.19
As Nawal El Sadaawi, the Egyptian feminist who has fled Egypt, once said:
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