Now Covid has meant we have opened our lives to the internet, we must treat online abuse as robustly as we would in real life
I knew that getting involved in politics would entail encountering some misogyny and sexism, but the abuse continues to grow with no consequences or accountability.
Ever since March 2020, Covid-19 has locked us up for long periods, and as a result we have opened our lives to the internet. As the pandemic has increased our reliance on social media, more and more people in politics face online abuse.
As politicians or political activists, being active online is part and parcel of politics, but with that comes sexism and abuse. We’ve been forced to learn quickly — how to block, mute, and report abuse. But that is no longer enough.
As a political activist, I welcome questions on policies and my views – after all, Britain is one of the most democratic countries in the world, but personal attacks and abuse are unacceptable. Sadly, they are an increasingly common experience for politicians at all levels and in all parties. Recent research from the University of Sheffield found cases of online abuse of MPs more than doubled between 2015 and 2019, increasing from about 25,000 cases during the 2017 general election to just under 40,000 during the 2019 general election.
I’ve received significant amounts of abuse on Twitter over the years, attacking both me and my family for my views and identity as one of the first British-Afghan Tories. Some say that it goes with the territory if you’re an outspoken young woman, but recently things have escalated and I’ve received a barrage of threatening and abusive tweets from those I least expected it from: left wingers within my own Afghan community.
It’s abundantly clear that online abuse is driving women away from politics
Whilst leftward leaning Afghans might not agree with my politics, surely we can agree on the importance of democracy and a right to freedom of speech without persecution: particularly when you think about what we left behind in Afghanistan when it comes to political institutions and corruption.
Although there is a plethora of reasons for the shortfall of women politicians, it’s abundantly clear that online abuse is driving women away from politics — and to be frank, who can blame any woman for not wanting to subject herself to it? In 2019, 19 out of the 59 MPs that stood down were female, and many had received a daily stream of online and physical abuse.
Labour MP Diane Abbott received almost half of all racist and sexist tweets in the run-up to the 2019 general elections – 45 per cent. Surely, we as a society can be better than this.
Sadly, as one of the few openly conservative British Afghans, I have been subject to relentless trolling, called many names and been labelled unfairly – however, I have persevered and continue to fight to ensure Afghans become more integrated into British society and that causes close to their heart are respected. I knew that getting involved in politics would entail encountering some misogyny and sexism, but the abuse continues to grow with no consequences or accountability.
There is no doubt that these personal attacks can affect our ability to campaign and bring about change. But, worse than that, it can affect mental health, and make women intimidated and worried for their safety.
If we’re serious about ensuring our politicians represent our communities, our people, and do the things necessary to make our country a better place, we need people with different lived experiences to stand for parliament. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix, but it should start with political parties setting clear expectations about the conduct of their members, prohibiting intimidatory behaviour with a zero-tolerance approach to bullying behaviour. Inter-party name calling and nastiness gets us nowhere.
British democracy has always been robust and oppositional, but I think we can all agree that a line is crossed when disagreement descends into intimidation. At the end of the day politics is about people, not parties, and whatever your political views, you have a right to make your voice heard, and yes disagreed with, but not attacked. What could be more fundamental to our democracy?
Shabnam Nasimi is the executive director of Conservative Friends of Afghanistan.