A prominent activist of one of the most visible online campaigns in recent years reflects on a life led with the constant threat of attacks and online gender based violence, and the need for resilience as well as policy changes to protect online diversity.
Aisha, co-convener of the famous “#BringBackOurGirls” movement, a movement pushing for the rescue of the 276 girls kidnapped from a boarding high school in Northern Nigeria by a terrorist group in 2014, never calls herself an activist or even a human rights defender. She says she is an ordinary citizen, who is active.
Aisha was born and bred in Kano, in Northern Nigeria, and remembers challenging authority, from as far back as when she was only 4-years old. She was a very vocal child, sometimes to the chagrin of close family and friends. Her father was a strong vocal personality, who believed in girl-child education and encouraged his girl-children to have independent informed opinions about current issues.
In 1992 while in the university, Aisha joined her first public protest. It had been against the clear instruction of her parents who were afraid she may be expelled from University. They had paid a huge price for Aisha to have access to quality education despite their financial difficulty which made it even difficult to feed the family at times. Aisha’s dream from childhood was to be financially independent. “When you are poor, you are nameless, faceless, and voiceless,” she says, and she gets livid when she sees politicians weaponizing poverty. “It’s a debilitating thing. It cancels you. The greatest ‘cancel culture’ is poverty, nothing else. People look right through you and don’t see you at all.”
The beginning of a crisis
On February 25, 2014, 59 boys were killed at the Federal Government College of Buni Yadi in Yobe State, Nigeria. 24 buildings of the school were also burned down as a result of the attack. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but according to media and local officials, the radical Islamist militants Boko Haram were suspected to be behind the attack.
Barely two months later, 276 girls were kidnapped in the dead of the night from their high school dormitory by the same terrorist group. On the 30th of April, Aisha marched in street protests for the rescue of the girls to the Nigerian National Assembly. Aisha did not even know about ‘Twitter’ until a few days afterwards. It had been planned at the protest that protesters were to share ‘the #BringBackOurGirls’ hashtag hourly. So Aisha downloaded the Twitter app, and her very first tweet was ‘#BringBackOurGirls.’
The online movement grew, drawing enormous local and global attention, putting the government of the day under immense pressure and forcing them not only to focus on the kidnapped girls but the issue of terrorism happening in North East Nigeria more broadly.
An intensely personal pain
The kidnapping forced Aisha to sit back and reflect on her past and this forced reflection shook her deeply. “31 years ago, I was the ‘Chibok girl’ who would have been kidnapped.” says Aisha. “I was fighting to stay in and to finish school. I was fighting to take care of myself and my family.” During the protests, as she led the march to the office of the then chief of defence staff, Aisha had broken down and wept. “I just put my head in my hands and I cried. It was a lot of emotions to deal with. It had been very difficult for me to go to school, because many people in my community did not want the education of a girl-child. I know what it is like being insulted and attacked for being in school. And I knew if I would have been abducted while writing my final exams in high school in 1991, my parents would never have been able to challenge anyone into action because they were poor and no one would have paid them any attention. I knew I could have been abducted several years ago and not been alive today. So for me, the whole thing became quite personal.”
The ‘#BringBackOurGirls’ movement continues to have up to 100 active members at any given time, and is given to peaceful protests and advocacy with government for the rescue of all kidnapped girls in captivity of terrorist groups in Nigeria. Beyond these issues, Aisha has gone on since 2014 with consistent activism to demand for government accountability and an end to impunity, pushing back against human rights violations, advocating for women’s rights and for democracy and good governance. She actively criticises government’s work in context of policies and programmes and as expected, she has attracted both good and ‘not-so-good’ attention, making quite a number of enemies.
Refusing to be silenced
Aisha is very vocal on Twitter and is particularly critical of the Nigerian President and his government. She has, inevitably, faced abuse for her activism. “People expectedly have come after me but I typically don’t mind what people are saying. The aim of these online attacks is to silence you. And one thing I have noticed is that a lot of people’s voices have been shut down by these attacks online, especially female voices. Many are now afraid they will be attacked and are afraid of airing their views. That’s why I take on the bullies, I learned that bullies thrive on people’s silence. They will come in droves but we need to fight back.”
Aisha has also been constantly abused online about having a “big mouth,’ with someone once tweeting a picture of her side-by-side with a baboon. She has been called “mentally challenged” due to a curse, while others accuse her of being an ‘immodest woman’ especially for leading protests wearing the Hijab. People often also spread lies online about Aisha, for instance insisting that she is being sponsored by some foreign or partisan groups, or that her husband who is a retired public servant has been convicted of corruption.
In 2019, a decisive election year in Nigeria, the attacks advanced beyond being called names online. “In the year 2019, it would seem that about every two months or so, my Twitter account would be taken down. I think there was mass reporting. I didn’t do anything wrong. And I said if Twitter would get my account suspended, I’m not going to come back to Twitter again. But there were people who actually took up the case and worked on it and then Twitter kept restoring my account each time this would happen.”
All in a day’s work
Aisha generally thinks of being attacked offline or online as a job-hazard. She isn’t quiet in the face of bullying and doesn’t run from a fight. She had joined the 2020 #EndSARS protests in Nigeria with excitement and enthusiasm, happy that the Nigeria youth had finally woken up and were taking the lead in the struggle for human rights. She had taken to Twitter to encourage the young Nigerians leading the protests to focus and avoid all distractions, until the government met their conditions.
Aisha is used to triggering people just for being a woman who does not fit the stereotypes. However, some attacks have been too sinister for Aisha to gloss over.
“I can ignore a lot of things,” Aisha says. “But not things like being looked upon as a terrorist. For an investigative journalist to allude to the fact that I am a terrorist-sympathiser on Twitter? People asked me to just ignore him, but I know where he’s coming from. When someone is linking a Muslim hijab wearing woman to terrorism, that is deliberate, they know what they are doing! You can’t just ignore them.” Livid, Aisha dared the journalist to come forward publicly with any data he may have on her and she fought back.
“Silence encourages bullies. There is such a thing as self-defence. People threaten to beat me up and say openly they’re going to kill me. People called for my killing during the #ENDSARS protest, there was an actor that mentioned that I should be lynched. I have three sisters who look like me, and some people actually confuse us for one another. One of them, her husband, has had to make her cover her face completely, because of harassment she has been subjected to publicly. Another was once attacked in the market. So online attacks sometimes are not just exchange of words, they can also have serious ramifications offline.”
Aisha is very conscious about her security. Geolocations features are permanently turned off on phones and apps and she makes no posts about where exactly she is at or about where she is going to be. But she also doesn’t take threats too much to heart because she thinks that if it’s her time, she’ll die anyway. “When it’s time for my death, I’m going to die anyway, and if anyone wants to take that decision to be the one to kill me, fine and good.”
Finding a safety net
In the midst of these attacks, Aisha says she has had tremendous support from various stakeholder groups. When her Twitter account was being repeatedly taken down, people stood up for her.
“A lot of people in tech and advocacy fought for me and reached out to help me. Nigerians defended me on Twitter. I felt Twitter’s support at this time and there were just many Nigerians from within and outside the country in the tech and advocacy ecosystem, who did everything to ensure that so I had that level of support. Honestly, I think my supporters may be the silent majority. Most of them just don’t say anything publicly for fear of backlash. But when I meet people privately, they are following my work and telling me how much what I do means to them. These people who support me publicly and privately are my support system. My family is amazing. My husband is a huge support. My husband is a gentle giant, he won’t speak or hurt a fly, just as long as you don’t touch Aisha.”
Aisha thinks stakeholders are not doing enough to keep citizens safe online, especially women and girls who suffer disproportionately from online abuse as a continuum of the systemic inequalities and barriers faced offline.
The Nigerian Cybercrime Act of 2015 does not specifically criminalize cyber violence against women, gender-based slurs, or misogyny online. Still the law addresses certain important aspects of cyber violence in mentioning ‘cyberstalking’ and ‘pornographic messages.’ However, there are no clear reporting mechanisms, the police hardly takes reports of violence against women online seriously, and official rate of reporting is not known. Evidence suggests that women are generally more prone to behaviours such as self-censorship or not using social media or data due to online safety concerns. In the recent context of COVID-19, the restrictions on movement and the spike in the rates of violence against women (both offline and online) limited access to justice, support systems and social services even more severely.
Aisha wants a safer environment for people online, in order to bring more diverse voices to the online space and to ensure freedom of expression for everyone. In terms of coping with online violence, Aisha doesn’t think much help is coming from ‘outside’ anytime soon. She thinks it’s best to focus on building internal resilience meanwhile and this is Aisha’s way of dealing with bullies. “Twitter is a bit more proactive than the rest. The issue with my Facebook account has still not been resolved till date. Sometimes, it seems nobody is really listening and nothing is being done. It is very important for people to know and be accepting of who they are and not be on social media to seek external validation. You have to get to the place where you can accept and assert yourself, flaws, imperfections and all. Knowledge is also very important. That’s one of the key things that you can use to engage meaningfully online. Learn more, read more, and be very open. And at the end of day, you know, develop that thick skin.”
This story was told with assistance from Tech Societal, a member of the Women’s Rights Online (WRO) network.