Hashtag Activism (and The Black-and-White Selfie)

They do the rounds every so often, don’t they? The “I chose to tag you because…” photo challenges, inevitably involving some sort of selfie (makeup-free, perhaps, or “with your children, to celebrate motherhood.”) Selfie after selfie swims into view on social media as a result.

The latest one, tagged #womensupportingwomen and characterised by a black-and-white photograph, gained traction in my Instagram feed this week.

As it did so, I was intrigued to notice lots of selfie-posting participants from my friends list, all of whom I would not necessarily have expected to participate in something as trite as a ‘selfie challenge.’ Lots of celebrities were also posting monochrome selfies in amusing or seductive poses. Whatever the cause, this particular challenge seemed to be getting inexplicable airplay.

Unusually for me, I jumped on the bandwagon. I posted my own black-and-white selfie with a slightly joke-y caption. I didn’t think too deeply about it as I posted the snap, but at the back of my mind, I felt that the increased participation rate must be to do with a perfect storm of recent-lockdown boredom, the media coverage of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’ confrontation of Ted Yoho in Congress for his sexist abuse, and — let’s face it — the fact that a black and white photo is really quite flattering and likely to garner lots of attention, comments, and likes.

The message with which I was tagged did not specify a cause or a reason beyond #womensupportingwomen. This notion, in and of itself, appeals to me (the women in my life are everything), but after I posted the photo with that hashtag, I remained slightly uneasy about, well, the point of it. Obviously, yes, vanity.

But for a trend to have taken off in the way that this had, I felt there must be more to the story.

I didn’t have to look far. Dr. Pragya Agarwal, under her own black-and-white selfie, stated that “It is not just a mindless challenge…It is a very serious gesture of defiance in support of Turkish women.” Dr. Agarwal went on to point out that the challenge was started by Turkish women in defiance of the threat by the Turkish government to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention.

The Istanbul Convention is a human rights treaty to protect victims of domestic violence. Its remit is particularly vital in Turkey, where 474 women were killed in 2019 (a terrifying 200% increase since 2013). The recent murder there of Pinar Gultekin is, according to Dr. Agarwal, the reason that the selfie challenge took off in the way that it has.

It was designed apparently to highlight the way that, too often, the newspapers print black and white photos of murdered women who are quickly forgotten.

Somewhere along the line, it seems, the original #enforcetheistanbulconvention and #saynotoviolenceagainstwomen hashtags were lost, leaving in their wake a far more lighthearted generic hashtag about feminism and friendship.

Chastened, I amended my own Instagram caption. I made an extra donation to Women’s Aid.

I have a particular and personal interest in domestic violence legislation, but I had not been aware of the surge of recent dissent in Turkey, nor of its spectacularly high femicide rates, nor of the horrific risk to its female citizens.

I have now educated myself about those things and contributed in a small way to the ongoing work of protecting women from living in fear of domestic violence. But I was not educated directly by the selfie campaign. I was educated by my own curiosity and desire to do further research. The fact remains that the original point of the message has been thoroughly sanitised from the chain of social media posts that promote it.

Sometimes, social media campaigns have real and lasting effects. The apparently comedic ice bucket challenge in 2014 raised enough money to make an unarguable change to research into ALS, a devastating disease. In the same year, a challenge involving makeup-free photos raised £8 million for cancer research in less than a week.

Keyboard activism can be trite and easily derided, but it is not always worthless.

Likewise, the #womensupportingwomen monochrome selfie campaign does not have to be worthless or a vanity exercise. But if we participate in it, we need to modify our captions. We need to change our hashtags. We need to remember why we’re doing it. It’s not just about the moody lighting or the flattering shadows and it’s not even just about supporting our fellow women, either.

It’s about remembering and highlighting a specific group of women who need our support, asked for it, and now risk being forgotten in the noise they created.

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