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Syrian Women Are Learning Mobile Repair To Fight Back Against Cyber Extortion

Syrian women break the silence and fight against electronic blackmail

The intense psychological pressure experienced by “Lamis” when she became a victim of cyber extortion drove her to contemplate taking her own life, as a way to end the constant threats, fear, and blackmail that haunted her. The perpetrator skillfully disguised his intentions, pretending to offer her a job and help her secure employment, which made her feel at ease. This led to communication through WhatsApp and Messenger, where he requested all her personal information, engaged in video calls, and obtained her photos. The relationship soon shifted from its initial premise of “acquaintance and friendship” as he began probing into her personal and family life. He eventually hacked her phone, obtaining photos of her without a hijab and in casual attire, and then started threatening to publish these photos on social media unless she paid him. “I felt I had to end this interaction at any cost,” she says to MILLE. “Fear and anxiety overwhelmed me, and I was on the brink of madness. I went from being a calm and organized woman to one filled with tension and worry, isolating myself and living in constant dread.”

Cyber extortion, a new criminal phenomenon, has been infiltrating societies with the rise of social media and online platforms. Its prevalence varies across communities, with a notable spread in northern Syria, where specialized gangs or individuals engage in it for financial gain or sexual exploitation. Cyber extortion involves threatening to release compromising photos, videos, or confidential information about the victim unless they pay a ransom or perform unlawful acts for the extortionists. The motivations for cyber extortion against women range from financial gain to coercing them into sexual relationships.

Lamis Al-Salloum, a 25-year-old from Idlib in northwestern Syria, asserts that Arab society does not show mercy to women, often blaming them even when they are victims. Feeling helpless, she was compelled to pay the demanded amount to avoid scandal. However, the extortion did not stop after the first payment. The perpetrator continued to blackmail her for three months, forcing her to delete all her online accounts and confide in her older brother. Despite his efforts, he couldn’t uncover the extortionist’s true identity, as the criminal hid behind a pseudonym and a fake account.

Despite significant progress in Arab societies, many women remain under the so-called “patriarchal system,” where men hold the ultimate authority over women, who are seen as their subordinates. Women’s bodies are viewed as integral to this system’s control, which is lenient towards men’s sexual behavior but imposes severe consequences, including death or stigma, on their female counterparts.

Social counselor Samah Al-Mohammed, 33, from Idlib, discusses the cyber extortion faced by Syrian women, telling MILLE, “The rise in cybercrime is a result of the widespread use of technology. Women and underage girls are the primary targets of these crimes due to their vulnerability. Women are often exploited online with the aim of establishing a sexual relationship under the guise of love or marriage promises, followed by threats and blackmail.”

She explains that there are two main ways perpetrators obtain information about their victims. The first is by building excessive trust with the victim, initiating blackmail as soon as they acquire private photos or personal information. The second method involves electronic hacking, due to many Syrian women’s lack of knowledge about essential security measures to protect their phones and devices.

Al-Mohammed advises, “To avoid falling victim to extortion, one should act wisely by not sharing or sending private photos or videos through online applications. It’s crucial to enhance security and privacy settings on social media accounts, cover the camera on computers and mobile phones to prevent unauthorized recording or photo capture, and avoid chatting with or meeting strangers online. The person you are talking to might not be who they claim to be, as they could be using a fake identity and information.”

She also discusses the psychological impacts of cyber extortion: “Victims may become isolated, fearful of shame, scandal, and social stigma. This can lead to family disintegration, domestic violence, loss of self-confidence, and distrust in others. Additionally, victims often experience fear, anxiety, depression, self-blame, shame, regret, and a decline in academic or work performance. In severe cases, the victim may contemplate suicide.”

With tears and a trembling voice, Salwa Al-Sayed Ali, 21, recalls the period when she was subjected to cyber extortion and subsequent violence from her family. She recounts, “At the end of 2023, I was shocked when a stranger contacted me, sent me my photos from his phone, and threatened to post them on social media unless I had an online sexual relationship with him. When I ignored his demands, he contacted my family, claiming I had willingly sent him the photos. My family didn’t believe my innocence; they beat me and confiscated my phone, which led to severe depression.”

Salwa explains that before the extortion and threats, she had sent her phone in for repairs and suspects that the technician extracted her photos to use them against her. She admits her mistake was staying silent and not reporting the incident due to fear of her family’s reaction and societal judgment.

Despite the widespread occurrence of cyber extortion, few cases make it to court due to the fear of social stigma, preventing many women from reporting online abuse and thus losing their chance for justice. Often, women prefer to resolve such issues through traditional means, like involving a relative or deleting their online accounts, rather than seeking legal recourse.

On the legal front, lawyer Ali Al-Sayeh, 40, from Idlib, explains to MILLE: “Article 636 of the Syrian Penal Code stipulates that anyone who threatens to expose, reveal, or report something that could harm a person’s reputation or that of their relatives to obtain unlawful benefits shall be punished with up to two years in prison. Article 26 of the Cybercrime Law prescribes imprisonment from two to three years and a fine of three to four million Syrian pounds for anyone who threatens to publish or actually publishes indecent photos, videos, conversations, or audio recordings of someone, even if obtained with their consent. If the crime involves a minor, the punishment increases to five to seven years of temporary imprisonment and a fine of four to five million Syrian pounds.”

Al-Sayeh emphasizes the absence of specialized centers for handling extortion cases and protecting victims. The role of organizations is limited to raising awareness and providing legal and social consultations, without assisting in identifying or stopping the extortionist, especially when victims are unwilling to file legal complaints.

In response to the need for privacy and protection, women in northern Syria have started learning mobile phone repair to safeguard their personal information and protect themselves from harassment and exploitation. Among these women is Ghadir Karakesh, 29, from Idlib. Despite having studied education, Ghadir, along with other women, pursued mobile phone repair. She explains to MILLE, “Many women in Syria feel extremely uncomfortable taking their phones to repair shops because they fear that the technicians might access their private photos and conversations. As a result, many choose to leave their phones unrepaired or replace them to avoid the embarrassment of visiting a repair shop.”

A woman in Syria doing phone maintenance.

Ghadir decided to break cultural norms and learn smartphone repair. She participated in multiple training courses at the women’s organization “Barqah Amal.” After completing her training and mastering the skills, she opened a mobile repair and programming center. This center serves women and girls who need their phones repaired, ensuring their privacy and security. Additionally, she offers advice on digital security and safe internet use. Proudly, she says, “I succeeded in a profession once dominated by men and created a source of income. Women in my community now have a safe place to repair their phones without worrying about their privacy being violated.”

Ghadir is also preparing to hold training sessions for girls, encouraging them to enter this field. These sessions will cover disassembling and reassembling mobile phones, replacing screens, conducting regular phone check-ups, diagnosing damage, and testing electronic components to ensure their functionality.

As cyber extortion against Syrian women becomes increasingly prevalent, initiatives like Ghadir’s provide essential support. By establishing safe repair centers, these initiatives help women protect their personal data, information, and photos from potential extortionists.

Illustration by Aïcha El Beloui

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