Discrediting of women public figures online: exploring gendered hate speech against women politicians, lawyers, activists and others in Sri Lanka

In recent years, gendered hate speech targeting women public figures has become more prevalent online. Written and visual content which aims at discrediting and harassing women in the public sphere (including through the use of derogatory and misogynistic language) form this gendered hate speech. This is within a context where women are in general the largest target for harmful speech online. 

Hashtag Generation’s team of Social Media Analysts identified that 25% of all harmful speech on social media platforms in Sri Lanka in 2021, targeted Women. Furthermore, Discriminatory Expressions (with a focus on Misogny) was the second-highest category documented in 2021, with a record of 64.85%. This category includes any expression of hatred or violence against women. 

This article will first explore instances where women politicians, lawyers, activists and public figures have been subject to gendered hate speech on Facebook and YouTube, the most popular social media platforms in Sri Lanka, and discuss briefly the role of traditional media in further perpetuating such forms of violence against women. 

International actors, politicians and activists

Sexist and misogynistic language has been observed against UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet due to her comments on custodial deaths in Sri Lanka. Similar language was also seen against US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Alaina B. Teplitz, due to her comments on the release of former Parliamentarian and murder convict Duminda Silva under a presidential pardon.

Female politicians such as Rohini Wijerathna, Hirunika Premachandra, Diana Gamage, Harini Amarasuriya, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Sitha Arambepola and Geetha Kumarasinghe were targets of Harassment. In most instances, statements that they made were met with contempt and derogatory reactions from social media users. Some of these instances are described in detail below.

Member of Parliament Diana Gamage faced harassment over her proposal to extend the opening hours of bars and other liquor sales outlets as a way to boost Sri Lanka’s ‘night economy’. She also proposed the growing of cannabis for medicinal purposes and the legalization of sex work. Harassment included misogynistic language that referred to her as a ‘political prostitute’. MP Gamage’s ‘competence’ to hold political office was called into question and there were attempts made to discredit her.

Member of Parliament Dr. Harini Amarasuriya was the target of disinformation narratives with false statements being attributed to her. 

This is a false statement attributed to MP Harini Amarasuriya of the National People’s Power party.

Throughout the latter part of the year, harassment against lawyer Nadiha Abbas and Bisliya Bhuto, a member of local authority in Puttalam, were noted in relation to remarks they had made on the contested reforms to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of 1951 (MMDA). This included a defamatory harassment campaign involving the non-consensual sharing of their images with captions which sexualised and objectified them in an attempt to delegitimize their advocacy efforts. 

This post is intended to defame and discredit this Lawyer who works for MMDA reforms. 
This post includes a misogynistic, sexist caption which discredits and derogatorily refers to Bisliya Bhuto as a sex worker in order to demean her character. This post also contains non-consensual sharing of her image.

Environmental activist Bhagya Abeyratne appeared on Who Wants to be a Millionaire and stated that there was widespread deforestation in the Sinharaja forest reserve. This resulted in her being harassed, predominantly by pro-government factions that accused her of ‘spreading political propaganda’ of the opposition political parties National People’s Power and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.

Other public figures 

National karate champion Dinusha ‘Dinu’ Perera appeared on a popular local talk show, and the video’s thumbnail carried a ‘clickbait’ quote which was taken out of context, suggesting that Dinu Perera ‘thought that men were worth nothing’. Many derogatory comments were targeted at Perera following this incident, including the use of queerphobic slurs and insinuations that she was a lesbian.

A video featuring a woman who bears a resemblance to singer Umaria Sinhawansha also circulated on Sri Lankan social media around the same period. The video contained sexual content, resulting in widespread harassment of Sinhawansha, who later issued a public statement denouncing the sexual harassment she endured. Another significant event that unfolded online was repeated transphobic and queerphobic attacks perpetrated by local YouTube channel Talk With Heshitha. Heshitha, the owner of the channel, created several videos doxing and harassing several queer and gender non-conforming Sri Lankans. Heshitha subsequently deleted the said video based on a police complaint filed by several LGBTQI+ groups.

Actress and model Piumi Hansamali faced widespread misogynistic attacks including non-consensual sharing of private details and threats of sexual violence following her public protest against mandatory quarantine on her social media live after having been arrested for violating lockdown regulations. These attacks were seen in content created on YouTube as well as in the comments sections of those videos.

Traditional media coverage

Relatedly, the mainstream media coverage of incidents of sexual harassment and gendered violence mirrors the manifest sexism we see online. While this coverage is not tantamount to violence, it often sensationalizes incidents, ascribes passivity to the aggressor, and is rife with tacit he-said-she-said language, sometimes even insinuating victim-blaming. 

Considering women public figures, this is compounded by political partisanship that seeps into reporting. In the recent case of SLPP MP Tissakuttiarachchi sexually harassing SJB MP Rohini Wijeratna in Parliament by using a double entrendre to discredit her speech on soaring food prices, a majority of mainstream media reports described Tissakuttiarachchi’s behaviour as “alleged sexual harassment” despite clear-cut evidence of the incident. This was reflected on online platforms, too, where users questioned whether the incident could even be ‘seen as violence’. The normalization of gendered violence through dismissive language in this way also speaks to a lack of gender sensitivity within the larger media apparatus, which has expansive consequences of delegitimizing and even retraumatizing women who are targeted. 

Harassment against women public figures online hinders their ability to be able to make use of online spaces to discuss political, social, legal and economic issues and express their voices. The Sri Lankan Government, social media platforms, civil society groups and all individual social media users have a responsibility to ensure that social media spaces remain safe for all women using such spaces.

By Hashtag Generation

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