From Vagina Drawings to TikTok Videos: Why Governments Are Censoring Women on Social Media

Censorship and free speech have been hot topics these weeks, with Harpers magazine’s open letter in defence of intellectual freedom – signed by celebrities including JK Rowling – attracting significant backlash. Although the principle of free speech can be weaponised against marginalised people (for example, when defending bigotry), it is also essential to upholding our rights. Women, in particular, have fought to have our speech valued like men’s, facing prejudices about our ‘inferior’ minds: in Aristotle’s words, “Silence is a woman’s glory”.

Feminists have long battled the idea that women should be passive, quiet, and ‘modest’. We have advocated for the right to speak about what matters to us without fear of sexist censorship, harassment and violence. But we’ve still got a way to go. And COVID-19 certainly isn’t helping.

COVID-19 is a gendered pandemic. Although men are more likely to die from the virus, women are at the forefront of the care work essential to a functioning society. This is always the case, but during crises, the pressure on women - both political and economic - to fulfil the traditional gender role of mother/housewife increases.

Whether in Ireland or Iran, Sweden or South Africa, women bear responsibility for reproducing the ‘nation’: physically through childbearing, and socially through teaching its values to our children. We also maintain the family home, make food, and provide care for the unwell – all for low or no wages. The COVID-19 crisis has intensified the need for this work. With whole populations urged by governments to ‘stay home’, women do more reproductive labour than ever, from home-schooling to cooking meals to replace those once provided at schools and workplaces.

Because society’s continued functioning depends on women’s unpaid work, governments seek to further stigmatise women who threaten traditionalist family ideology, hoping to prevent us straying from our assigned role. Women using social media to disrupt or entertain, rather than to fulfil our feminine role of nurturing and care-taking, are perceived as dangerous, particularly if our content is perceived as sexually provocative.


Recent months have seen a spike in what British feminist writer Laurie Penny describes as ‘cybersexism’. Cases of 'revenge porn’, a form of online sexual abuse usually directed towards women by male perpetrators, have skyrocketed in Europe during lockdown, coinciding with a heavy spike in domestic violence reports. Forms of gendered violence such as ‘revenge porn’, rape, and domestic abuse are all united in their function of keeping women in our ‘place’. Sadly, we live in a world where women experiencing crimes at the hands of boyfriends and exes is so widespread that it no longer shocks us. But when that violence is meted out by bigger powers, like the state, it has the potential to send shockwaves through a society.

Russia and Egypt are recent examples of states that have arrested and detained female citizens for accusations of ‘immoral’ behaviour on social media. Their actions directly threaten the health of the accused women, putting them at risk of COVID-19 (in addition to the sexual violence and torture, commonly experienced by women in prisons).

27-year-old feminist artist Yulia Tsvetkova faces trial for charges of distributing ‘pornography’. She expects up to six years of prison. Why? Because she uses social media to share body-positive drawings celebrating female bodies and sexuality, and to support Russia’s persecuted LGBT community (which she was fined for on July 10th). Tsvetkova’s supposedly ‘pornographic’ cartoons include a naked, smiling woman with visible body hair posing comfortably, accompanied by the Russian caption: ‘Real women have hair on their bodies — and that's normal’.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, the Arab world’s largest country, authorities have arrested numerous female ‘TikTokers’ during the pandemic for ‘promoting debauchery’. The videos provoking these charges feature the women dancing to Arabic pop music, which conservatives compare to prostitution (a crime punishable with three years in jail). Though dressed modestly by Western standards, they are seen as profiting from immorality, threatening to corrupt Egypt’s Islamic moral order.


What about Western ‘democracies’ like the UK? Undoubtedly, there is relative freedom for women to express ourselves online without fear. Nonetheless, algorithmic bias on platforms like Instagram punishes women for non-violent self-marketing and expression, while allowing harmful behaviour from men (e.g. sexual harassment) to flourish.

The estimated 72,800 people who sell sex in the UK (mostly women), are particularly vulnerable to censorship over ‘inappropriate’ content. Many sex workers on Instagram are allegedly ‘shadowbanned’, meaning they can post content, but it won’t show up on their followers’ feeds. And because sex work exists in a legal grey area (having sex for money isn’t illegal, but brothel-keeping and curb crawling are), workers lack much in the way of recourse.

Social media censorship of sex workers has been particularly problematic during the COVID-19 crisis. For one, the pandemic’s economic fallout has led many women to sex work for the first time. The stakes are also higher for women reliant upon online self-promotion to get work: not only is physical contact with clients a risk that many cannot take, but mass unemployment means more sex workers are now the primary breadwinner in their families. Taking away women’s platforms puts their livelihoods at risk, and fears that authorities could discover what they ‘really do for a living’ deter many sex workers from claiming benefits. If left without incomes, the most vulnerable face destitution.

It is difficult not to read this catalogue of injustices and feel despair. But none are happening without pushback.

In Egypt, an online campaign was launched this month supporting women arrested for content offending patriarchal moral standards. The Memorial Human Rights Center have declared Yulia Tsvetkova a political prisoner, targeted for her role in Russian feminism. Solidarity demonstrations have occurred in Russia, where supporters held a ‘vulva ballet’, and internationally, for example at London’s Russian Embassy. A petition by LGBT organisation All Out demanding her charges dropped has attracted over 133,000 signatures.

Finally, the UK’s English Collective of Prostitutes (who have campaigned for decades for safer working conditions for women in prostitution), are lobbying for decriminalisation of sex work and for pandemic-specific accommodations for sex workers in crisis, such as emergency grants. Further afield, the sex workers and tech geeks at US organisation Hacking//Hustling are working to document and reduce anti-sex worker discrimination online. They have provided virtual trainings on digital literacy and harm reduction for online sex workers, available on their YouTube channel.

Going forward, it is impossible to predict COVID-19’s long-term effects on women’s freedom of expression. What can be said is that as long as women are relied upon for most domestic work, men will try to control our ‘public’ behaviour. If we stray too far from the ideal of the ‘mother’, we become its opposite in patriarchal logic: the ‘whore’. Men’s suppression and censorship of women’s speech will continue as long as societies devalue the work women do. In fact, we need a society where ‘women’s work’ no longer exists as a concept at all.


Written by Sarah Staniforth 

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