Yemeni women become mobile phone technicians to curb sextortion

Devices containing private images can become a sexist weapon in this Middle Eastern country. When a phone breaks, the user can go years without fixing it, for fear of suffering blackmail

Mujeres Yemen
Tahani al-Jaafari works repairing mobile phones in a corner of his house in Taiz, Yemen.CEDIDA POR Tahaani al-Jaafari

On one summer’s day in 2022, Warda Seif roamed the streets of Yemen’s city of Aden under the blaring sun for two hours looking for a mobile phone repair shop to fix a software glitch in her device. She knew the problem could be sorted out within an hour, but when the male technicians asked her to share her password and leave the device for a day or two, she refused, and moved on to the next store.

Her refusal may seem peculiar, but the risks she dreads are grave: Yemen’s conservative society is one of the world’s worst performing countries on the Gender Inequality Index, ranking 155 out of 156 countries in 2021. Deeply-ingrained patriarchal norms and gender roles dictate women’s choices and actions, and place women as bearers of their families’ honor, making them easy targets of extortions and blackmails.

And mobile phones store a lot of that honor in the form of personal images and confidential information, even if these images are neither explicit nor revealing.

“Widespread IT illiteracy amongst women and their reliance on strangers to set up their emails or fix their devices makes them prone to extortionists,” said activist Mokhtar Abdel Al-Moez, founder of Sanad, a nonprofit organization with around 400 volunteer digital experts offering support to cybercrime victims since March 2020.

Ultimately, Warda gave up, joining the ranks of many women who go for months, even years, without mobile phones because they’re unable to fix technical mishaps that can befall any device, and are unable to buy new ones.

Rana Fadl, a 27-year-old in Aden too, worked in an international relief organization when her phone broke down in 2021. Unable to fix it herself or find someone trustworthy enough for the task, and since she could not afford buying another phone, she couldn’t perform her job properly and ended up leaving it. “My brother insisted I do not leave my phone in a strange male’s hand,” she explained.

Recent cases of female victims of extortion were too fresh to ignore. In late 2020, a brutal murder brought the issue of extorting women to the fore. Abdullah Al-Aghbary, a young man from Taiz, was reportedly beaten to death weeks into being hired in a mobile phone repair shop after he allegedly began collecting evidence of the store’s male technicians using content from female clients’ phones to blackmail them. The crime coincided with a number of testimonies in the local press by women who fell victims to sextorting technicians.

“We receive between 15 to 20 cases of cybercrimes each day,” said Al-Moez. “Some women end up being dragged into prostitution” in hopes their compliance would stop the blackmailer from publicizing their personal images, he explained. “Others end up with mental and emotional scars, or face domestic violence, divorce or even commit suicide because they’re scandalized, or fear that,” he said.

One of the mobiles that Amal al-Suroori fixes, who has converted part of her house in Aden into a small workshop.
One of the mobiles that Amal al-Suroori fixes, who has converted part of her house in Aden into a small workshop.

Tech maverick

In 2020, amidst a global pandemic and in the heat of Al-Aghbary’s murder, Anisa al-Salami decided to end Yemeni women’s dependence on male mobile phone technicians.

The 29-year-old resident of Yemen’s southwestern city of Taiz had gone for four years without a phone after hers broke down. “It just laid there, and I’d look at it, frustrated that I can’t do anything with it, or about it. Four years. Until I decided I’d fix it on my own,” she told El Pais.

To achieve that, she did the frowned-upon act of breaking into the male-dominated field of IT and mobile phone repairing, by first studying at the Technical Institute for Computer Programming and Maintenance (TICPM), and then opening a shop to offer her services to women struggling to protect their privacy.

“I was criticized and mocked by relatives and strangers, but I decided once and for all that no woman should go through living without a phone because there aren’t any female technicians she can entrust with fixing her device,” said al-Salami.

In Yemen, whose years of turmoil and unrest have added to the layers of discrimination and inequality against women, the disparity between men and women in economic participation and opportunity is among the widest in the world, with only 28.2 percent of the gender gap bridged in 2021. Cultural, social and security restrictions bar women from participating in jobs or fields deemed unfit for them by society.

“I was defamed by male technicians who accused me of working for extorters, and are now refusing to sell me spare parts they monopolize, forcing me to buy the needs of my business all the way from Sanaa, at a great financial cost because of the difference in rates between the two cities,” explains al-Salami, referring to the political hurdles and divisions splitting her country between two warring administrations, and adding to the challenges she’s encountering as a business.

Tahani al-Jaafari's repair shop, in his home.
Tahani al-Jaafari's repair shop, in his home.CEDIDA POR Tahani Al-Jaafari

But because of the massive need, al-Salami’s store in one of the commercial streets of Taiz, Yemen’s third biggest city, is bustling with clients that she hired other female technicians whom she trains to assist her. “On some days, I can receive 10 clients or more — mostly females — at the store. They come from nearby and faraway places. Some men come too because they worry about the images of female relatives they have on their phones. I serve them all, as well as give guidance on online privacy protection, securing information, helping illiterate women set up their phones and show them the basics,” she explained.

‘Incredible step’

According to cyber security trainer Zainab al-Qadi, Yemeni women breaking into that sector is “an incredible step” that will help cut down extortion cases among women. “This is not to say that sextortion of women stopped or that the issue is resolved, but women becoming technicians and fixers of their own devices will at least eliminate that risk for women,” she told El País.

Moez agrees, saying women penetrating this field is helping Sanad’s efforts immensely in combating such crimes, “as they’re useful in dealing with victims of extortion.”

Eyeing al-Salami’s success, a number of other women were inspired to walk into her footsteps.

In a small corner of her home in Taiz, Tahani al-Jaafari set up a small shop to repair and fix phones of women who seek her expertise, having studied at TICPM, like al-Salami did.

“It’s a small effort on my part, but it’s what I can offer to help women and protect them from what ended the lives of many of them, metaphorically and literally,” said the 27-year-old.

Women who fall victims of sextortion face grave consequences, against the backdrop of the society’s austere conservative nature. Doing their utmost not to be scandalized, many comply with their sextortionists, giving money or sexual favors, and those who ultimately get discovered by their families face the imminent risk of domestic violence, death, or suicide.

Anissa al-Salami
La tienda de reparación de móviles de Anissa al-Salami en la ciudad suroccidental yemení de Taiz, en 2020.CEDIDA POR Anissa al-Salami

For that, Amal al-Suroori completed a programming course, and in May 2023, turned a small part of her home in Aden into a mobile phone repair shop to receive female clients. “Mobile phones are a necessity, and buying a new phone each time yours freezes is ridiculous. And trust in male technicians no longer exists. So I learned this job to serve my interests, and those of others,” she said.

Picking up her phone after it was fixed by al-Suroori, 32-year-old housewife Azhar al-Jaafari said she is so relieved for the services women technicians are providing. “They’ve taken such a heavy burden off our shoulders as women. I no longer panic each time my phone breaks,” she said.

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