By Reem Gaafar

On Friday, the 25th of March, 2016, a picture of 6 Sudanese women went viral, after the picture was posted on the exiled religious leader Uosif Ali Taha Alkouda’s Facebook page, which he in turn had shared from a shady, previously largely ignored page called ‘Sudanese Women Against Hijab’. The picture was of a group of cousins, sitting around a table and enjoying their evening at a popular cafe in Khartoum. It was posted on the page with the caption: ‘Preparations are now complete for the upcoming protest against hijab in Khartoum on June 29th’. And in true Sudanese fashion, all hell broke loose.

To get an idea of exactly how loose hell broke, we need to step back a little and take a wider look. Over the past several months, a number of young women (none of whom wear hijab) complained that a Facebook page was stealing their profile pictures and making statements in their names about how ‘ridiculous and primitive’ hijab is, and ‘how beautiful they look without hijab’, and even how ‘animalistic’ women who believe hijab is a cover for them are. The women reported the page to Facebook administration, repeatedly, and received the following response, repeatedly:

facebook message

The issues took a slightly different turn when pictures of female activists started to appear on the page with the inflaming statements. The page was again reported (to no avail) and the page admins – who were and remain anonymous – were contacted several times with demands to take the pictures down and apologize. A journalist threatened the page with legal action, and eventually her picture was taken down with the excuse that ‘the picture and statement had been delivered to them by someone without their having investigated its legitimacy’, and of course the public apology was deleted a few hours later. Then, the picture of the 6 cousins was posted, followed by a large banner with the Sudanese flag in the background calling for a grand protest on June 29th, in the eastern yard of Khartoum University, to march against hijab. The picture and statement, in themselves inflaming, were picked up by religious leaders and extremists, the most damaging of whom was Yousif Alkouda, a prominent cleric currently exiled in Switzerland, who has almost 15,000 followers on his Facebook page alone. Alkouda posted the picture with his statement that ‘these women are the women behind this page, if a woman doesn’t wear hijab but still admits it is an order from Allah then she remains Muslim albeit a non-practicing one, but to get together and publicly denounce leaves no doubt that this is outright blasphemy’, i.e. a direct accusation of apostasy.

To get a clearer idea of what this means, let’s step back a little further. Sudan is and always has been a relatively conservative and spiritual country, despite its diversity in backgrounds and religions and ethnicities. Even when it was the norm for women and girls to walk around in short skirts and dresses, and all classes enjoyed the movies and the night clubs, people were still respectful of their boundaries and their faiths. Islam in Sudan has had a gentle Sufi colour, and people have been free to practice as they see fit. However, in the past 2 decades, this has changed dramatically with the introduction of Islamic fundamentalism which has changed this colour to a darker, stricter version in which – almost always – women are the main target.

According to the latest Sudanese penal code, protesting in Khartoum can get the accused up to 5 years in prison. ‘Indecent clothing’, a deliberately vague term which includes not wearing hijab, warrants fines and public flogging. And apostasy, the most hateful and dangerous of all crimes, warrants the death penalty. So publicly accusing a person/people of any of the above does not just make them unpopular – it gets them into serious, serious trouble. And even if the law doesn’t get their hands on them, there is no escaping the people: at the time of writing this article the picture of the 6 women with the false statements on the Facebook page was shared 1,030 times, with almost 9,000 comments on that post alone, with an unknown number of shares on other social media platforms and through mobile phones and WhatsApp groups. They have been called whores and apostates, and have been openly threatened. Even the newspapers have picked up on the news, using pictures of the accused women on the front of their articles.

So how is it than one irresponsible and lowly Facebook page can cause this much damage right under the social media giant’s nose? Facebook’s mission is ‘to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected’. According to Facebook’s page on Controversial, Harmful and Hateful Speech on Facebook, the overall goal is provide a media where people can share content and ideas freely:

“To facilitate this goal, we also work hard to make our platform a safe and respectful place for sharing and connection.  This requires us to make difficult decisions and balance concerns about free expression and community respect.  We prohibit content deemed to be directly harmful, but allow content that is offensive or controversial. We define harmful content as anything organizing real world violence, theft, or property destruction, or that directly inflicts emotional distress on a specific private individual (e.g. bullying).  A list of prohibited categories of content can be found in our Community Standards at standards.”

The community standards have 4 sections, namely: helping to keep you safe, encouraging respectful behavior, keeping your account and personal information secure, and protecting your intellectual property. In this particular instance, the first section is the most important. Facebook states that in order to help keep you safe, “we remove content, disable accounts, and work with law enforcement when we believe there is a genuine risk of physical harm or direct threats to public safety.” This section further breaks down into 8 sub-sections, of which direct threats, and bullying and harassment are part. While all this sounds quite promising, none of it actually does cover a page that steals people’s profile pictures and claims they have made blasphemous statements. Neither does the second section on ‘encouraging respectful behaviour’, in which hate speech against many things including religious affiliation may warrant the speech and content being removed by Facebook – but the page does not directly attack Islam, it only attacks hijab. And even if it did attack Islam, the website is crawling with anti-Islam pages that are active and enjoy thousands of followers and are as comfortable as you please. The third section on ‘keeping your account and personal information secure’ addresses fraud and spam, and ensures users that any breach of security will be investigated, and may be referred to law enforcement. Again, not helpful.

Facebook assures us that this approach allows it “to continue defending the principles of freedom of self-expression on which Facebook is founded.” However, this approach has a major loophole that does not threaten ‘the principles of freedom of self-expression’, but actually threatens people’s lives and well-being; a fact that is being obstinately ignored by Facebook.

Throughout this mediocrity the page’s admins have remained anonymous and hidden behind their gleeful and hate-ridden posts. Some people boast they know them personally, but, of course, wish to protect their privacy and refuse to expose them. Others support a conspiracy theory that the infamous National Intelligence Security System is behind the page and is using it to incite hatred against female activists – some of whom have had their pictures posted – as a way to turn public opinion against them and their causes. Whatever the motive and whoever is really behind the page, the damage they are doing is very real, very extensive and very, very serious. Currently, an online petition has been released by those affected by the page, several complaints have been made against the page the religious leader Yousif Alkouda, and the hashtag #SudaneseAtRisk is now trending on Twitter. But at the rate things are going and the way the accusations are escalating, we might very soon be sharing a petition to ‘stop the death penalty against innocent women accused of blasphemy and apostasy.’

Is it time that Facebook realized just what an impact its freedoms and privacy policies have on people’s lives? Of course, there’s no doubt about that. But what price do we need to pay to reach this realization?

I hope we don’t have to find out the answer to that.