By Mila Koumpilova Star Tribune staff
Yasmin Ali didn’t leave her home for weeks after a video of her having sex with a former boyfriend showed up online.
Caught in a wave of community backlash, the Savage mother of four obsessively checked her social media accounts and contemplated suicide. Then she turned to the police for help.
Ali is among what advocates say is a growing number of Somali-American women pushing back against online harassment or shaming, often led by former partners with compromising images or video.
Minnesota and more than 30 other states have passed so-called “revenge porn” laws against sharing such images in recent years, but Somali and other immigrant victims can face steeper hurdles in asking for help — and especially devastating consequences from humiliation on the internet. Now, cops and women’s advocates are urging them to come forward, even as the national #MeToo conversation and a starker spotlight on sexual misconduct have clashed with an imperative to stay silent about matters of sexuality.
“Two words you hear frequently as a Somali female are ‘aamus’ — ‘be quiet’ — and ‘ceeb,’ or ‘shame,’ ” said Ruqia Abdi, a Hennepin County associate librarian and community leader working on spreading awareness about harassment.
But more women and men are tackling the topic openly. A Somali-language video of a Minneapolis police officer calling online shaming “a major problem” and explaining the state’s 2016 “revenge porn” law garnered almost 10,000 views on YouTube.
Support for victims
Minneapolis police Sgt. Abdiwahab Ali responded several years ago to a “horrific” call: A young Somali-American woman had attempted suicide after a man had posted nude images of her online. Under Minnesota law at the time, police had no recourse to go after the man. Frustrated he couldn’t do much for the victim, Ali was haunted by the case for months.
Ali recently ran into the woman, who left the state after that incident but later returned. She and other community members urged him and his colleagues at the Somali-American Police Association to take a public stance on the issue.
So in March, Ali went on KALY 101.7 FM, a Minneapolis Somali-language radio station, to talk about the 2016 Nonconsensual Dissemination of Private Sexual Images law, which makes the offense a gross misdemeanor or, in some cases, a felony. He urged victims to contact police and warned perpetrators they could face charges, even if victims willingly shared the images with them. He also encouraged parents to educate youngsters, who can get into deeper legal trouble if those featured in images they share are underage.
The association highlighted the issue on its website, directing victims to the national Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, which offers guidance on removing abusive posts from the web.
“More people are talking about this issue in the community, and there is more support for victims,” Ali said.
Anisa Ahmed, a Metropolitan State University junior, says she braces for new compromising photos or videos of teens or young women each time she logs in to Twitter or Snapchat. They tend to be widely shared and draw many comments — disparaging the women and rarely questioning those who post the images.
“It’s always only shameful for the girl,” said Ahmed, who recently received a Women’s Foundation of Minnesota grant to launch a nonprofit that would embolden young Somali women to speak up about sexual harassment, both online and offline. “It’s a huge problem with the younger generation.”
There is no evidence that the problem is more widespread in the Somali or other immigrant communities than in society at large. Many of the 14 metro-area convictions under the 2016 legislation involved white perpetrators. Still, some feel that because of an enduring stigma against sex out of wedlock and an emphasis on female dignity, Somali-American women might face harsher backlash.
Michael Cain, an attorney who has recently represented about 10 Somali women in cases involving internet harassment, says in a tight-knit, connected community where reputations are negotiated in lively online discourse, trying to contain the damage from an abusive post can be hard.
Abdi, the Hennepin County librarian, says the online shaming of women has gained traction as more offline abusers are harnessing social media as “a weapon to harass women.” Women often don’t recognize what they experience as harassment and don’t know they can seek help from authorities or social media providers. They can also face language and cultural barriers.
“Being a victim of this type of crime, you feel guilty,” said Ali, the Minneapolis officer. “Victims want to hide from the community. They might move away or lose their jobs.”
More cases emerge
Yasmin Ali, the Savage mother, said her ex-boyfriend threatened repeatedly to post a naked photo and a video of them having sex that she said was taken without her knowledge. She said she was shocked when the images turned up online earlier this year with her name and other personal information attached.
She said harsh texts and social media messages started pouring in right away: “You must be ashamed because you’re the first Somali porn star” and “Who is going to marry you now?” Family members condemned her from as far away as Kenya. For weeks, she says, she was too embarrassed to leave her home.
“I just wanted to die,” she said.
With encouragement from a relative, she reported the incident to the Savage Police Department and obtained a domestic protection order against the ex. More recently, police arrested a woman on suspicion she violated the 2016 Nonconsensual Dissemination law in Ali’s case and a harassment restraining order Ali had against her.
Savage Police forwarded Ali’s case to the Scott County Attorney’s Office for possible charges and continues to investigate, said Police Chief Rodney Seurer, noting his department is seeing more such cases across the board.
A lawyer for Ali’s former boyfriend did not respond to a request for comment; the woman who was arrested could not be reached. The Star Tribune is not naming them because they have not been charged.
Advocates say more Somali-American victims are starting to come forward. Last year, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office pressed charges against Mohamed Omar after a woman reported to Minneapolis police that he recorded video of them having sex. She said he used the video to coerce her into more sexual encounters and, when she ended the relationship, sent it to several relatives — an act Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman dubbed “as low as it gets.”
Omar told police he shared the video so the victim’s family “could see what type of person she is and so they could keep her on track.” Omar was convicted of a felony last May and sentenced to 90 days in the Hennepin County workhouse.
Sgt. Ali says the Somali-American Police Association plans to do more outreach on online shaming, including talks at schools and community centers. Mahamed Cali, the KALY 101.7 station owner, said that after an overwhelming response from listeners to Ali’s interview, the station plans to bring in more guests on the topic.
“This is a big issue for our community,” he said. “But some still don’t know how serious this is.”