The price of being a public figure or participating in politics should not be one’s preparedness to stoically suffer obscenity, death or rape threats, Tarmo Jüristo says in Vikerraadio’s daily comment.
Head of the Tallinn City Center Police Department Kaido Saarniit said on Thursday that there will be no criminal proceedings regarding the men who threatened opposition leader Kaja Kallas via Facebook last week. The reason given was that the men are not currently in Estonia, which is why there is no cause to believe the threat will be carried out.
As pointed out by many commentators already, the incident that admittedly merited above average attention is in no way extraordinary.
The same fake Facebook account was used to send a threatening message to journalist Vilja Kiisler, and after Kaja Kallas went public with hers, several women active in politics and public life have reported similar experiences.
The problem is hardly characteristic of Estonia either. Studies show that every third woman in Europe has encountered physical or sexual harassment. In addition, over 20 percent of young women (18-29) have experienced online harassment.
Threats of abuse, death and rape
Considering that a lot of such cases are never reported, the true extent of the problem is likely more serious still. Women are twice as likely to encounter online harassment as men and thrice as likely to receive disparaging comments and messages of a sexual nature.
If we lower the bar a little from harassment and look at insults and verbal abuse in general, an Amnesty International survey from two years ago that questioned 4,000 women in eight wealthy and democratic countries found that 76 percent of them had such an experience from social media.
If a woman also happens to be a public figure or, God forbid, a politician, things quickly get worse. An international IPU survey from 2016 found that 45 percent of female delegates had received abuse, death or rape threats while in office.
Unfortunately, threats have not always remained threats. A week before the Brexit referendum in 2016, the British public was shocked by the coldblooded politically motivated murder of MP Jo Cox.
It is little wonder then, in light of all this, that recent years and months have brought news of women leaving politics in connection with harassment that has become unbearable. No fewer than 18 British MPs have said they will not be running in the next elections, with many of them giving as the reason online harassment sporting a sexual innuendo and rape threats.
California Congresswoman Katie Hills recently announced her resignation, citing “thousands of loathsome emails, calls and messages.”
A frequent recommendation one can hear in this situation is to “grow thicker skin.” I only recently heard a speaker at a major conference say how such unpleasantness is something politicians will simply have to learn how to cope with.
I must admit the remark bothered me quite a bit. I do not want to agree that the price of being a public figure or participating in politics should be preparedness to suffer obscenity and death or rape threats.
To me, it sounds similar to someone saying that going out one’s front door is dangerous business and that one should count on being assaulted in the street or learn to fight.
While I suppose that would be one way to solve the problem, we would soon have a public space made up exclusively of brawlers. And that would be a serious loss.
Women’s participation in politics is a fundamental matter of equal rights that has specific and measurable benefits. A UN study looking at peace treaties signed between 1989 and 2011 pointed out that having women participate in peace talks yielded on average more durable agreements.
Having women participate in politics will result in greater versatility in terms of proposals and proposed solutions; greater representation of women creates more opportunities for various minority policies and places more emphasis on matters regarding general quality of life and social security. These are things that should matter to all of us.
I was glad to see rapid and serious reactions to threats against Kaja Kallas. Several well-known and respected people for whom Kallas is probably not likable as a politician publicly and resolutely spoke out against such threats and harassment.
This gives hope that perhaps we are not about to get used to these things and that it could remain the case that threats of death and rape will never become a part of politics or the normality of public life.