Online Sexual Harassment: Exposing dark secrets in the digital corners of Bangladesh | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 31, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 07:22 PM, May 31, 2019

Online Sexual Harassment: Exposing dark secrets in the digital corners of Bangladesh

A 21-year-old woman grew up with an ambition of pursuing a career in law, but today, her future seems bleak. It all started two years ago, when she entered into a relationship with a 28-year-old man. Raised in a conservative religious family, she refused physical advances before marriage. Consequently, the man manipulated her religious convictions and swore on the Quran: “From this day onwards, we are husband and wife.” Disguising browbeat with spirituality, he took her to a hotel, demanding that they were now obligated to consummate their marriage. Two weeks later, he convinced her to legalise their relationship in a Kazi office in Dhanmondi, without involving their families.

Moments before signing the papers, the man recanted, “You are not the one”. Crestfallen to her core for the next few days, the woman visited a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. Emotionally dependent on the man who abandoned her, the woman begged him to revert his decision. He told her that he would only remain in her life if she adhered to every single one of his orders, and if not, he threatened to circulate a video of their intimate encounter, which he had taken without her consent. The last time they met was in 2017, but he continues to subjugate her into performing venereal acts online, as he claims that she is still his wife, owing to their religious oath. Shackled in endless agony, the woman attempted suicide. 

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Cyber-crimes mirror a multi-layered malady, and victim-blaming in this society is far more ingrained than intentional.

This perilous nightmare is the lived reality of a human being. Most adults in this society are unaware that such vengeful games lurk in many corners of the digital community of Bangladesh—rather concerningly in youth circles. Recently, a hailstorm against online sexual harassment has been spreading around Facebook, overhauled by a viral exposé of a vice-ridden group chat with mostly male participants from grade X in English medium schools. The platform was used to barter personal images of around 32 girls of the same age, outside their consent.

Scrolling through a litany of videos, photos and allegations, I was unsettled to see that a few young women were also complicit in weaponising female bodily autonomies by intimidating their female peers with incendiary images. Yet, I was not particularly shocked. Sexism and misogyny mostly marginalise women, but are fostered by everyone—men, women, children, adolescents and adults. The rise in virtual harassment is inarguably an extension of the normalised thrust for uneven power dynamics in real-life.

To counter the cyber-harassment pandemic, Nuzhat Minhaz, a student of Computing and Information Technologies at Rochester Institute of Technology, founded PrivaC—an organisation that aids victims of cyber-crimes by guiding and referring them to verified legal services and professional psychological counselling, along with any other relevant services that may be of benefit to families, relatives, and friends of victims, such as information and statistics. She was awarded JP Morgan Chase &Co’s “Best Hack for Social Good” at Women in Computing Hackathon by creating a demo website for PrivaC, and has been actively helping victims ever since. Among several other cases including the aforementioned account, the founder informed me of a case that included the usage of a Google Drive folder, that was discovered in 2017.

This online archive, perniciously titled “Gentlemen,” was created and used by male students from the nation’s well-reputed educational institutions to trade intimate photos of each other’s female partners, without their consent or knowledge. When faced with allegations, the perpetrators stated, “Why does it matter? Their (expletive) photos are in everyone’s phones anyway.” Such heedless responses combined with the jarring frequency of online sexual harassment flagrantly reveal a misogynist herd mentality in social media today. And undoubtedly, the proliferation of the cyberspace has adversely activated a crude entitlement to depersonalise everything, which evidently makes it easier for the strong to attack the weak.

It also doesn’t help that Bangladeshi society suffers from a perpetual famine of awareness on what constitutes inappropriate, or even criminalised behaviour. Online sexual harassment is in fact, a heinous crime punishable under multiple laws—Information and Communications Technology Act (ICT) Act 2006, Pornography Control Act 2012 and also Women and Children Repression Prevention Act 2000 (amended in 2003). Yet, most victims, who have approached PrivaC this past week, were unaware that the acts that violated their trust were “legitimate crimes.” When I personally approached victims to learn whether they were aware that they could lodge a complaint with the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) by calling their cyber-crime helpline, most of them had never even heard about it.

According to Minhaz, the victims, commonly females, also eschew legal solutions, as they worry their conservative parents will torment them. This apprehension is entrenched in pervasive punitive parenting in Bangladesh: a young victim of violence and coercion who reached out to her family, was not only denied comfort but also unsparingly shamed and physically abused. Cruel treatment towards a sufferer from her own parents is like throwing sharpened daggers into an open wound. When I advised her to speak to the National Helpline for Violence and Children to orchestrate a mere dialogue with her family, she was immensely frightened that her parents would retaliate more. Imprisoned in this helpless situation, she attempted to end her life, as that seemed like the only way out of her misery.  

So, if it is “normal” for children to not be able to simply express their trauma to loved ones at home, then perhaps adults ought to reconsider what values they impart to the younger generations. From an outsider’s standpoint, I could suggest some straightforward solutions: Parents must transparently communicate with their children, and educators must start teaching consent. But cyber-crimes mirror a multi-layered malady, and victim-blaming in this society is far more ingrained than intentional.

Many adults trivialise virtual harassment as only a signifier of teenage immaturity. The truth, however, is that adults can also be involved in such crimes. A nauseating incident in this current social media wrangle involves a fairly well-known Biology teacher of a private coaching centre, who routinely exchanged perverted images of female students with a teenage male student. The latter profoundly apologised for his share of collusion and provided the screen recordings of their degenerate conversation where the teacher can be seen perversely asking for images and videos, even of a student’s mother.

When I interviewed the student group that exposed this teacher on Facebook, they disclosed that they had been trying to launch complaints against him for quite some time, but dropped the case when a gang in Gulshan had extended violent threats to purchase their silence—the stereotypical move in cover-up culture of one-upmanship.

It is difficult to consume such stories and admit that we are trapped in a brutal cultural moment today—one that has been prevalent for many years, and one that uplifts normalised abuse of power. And through the sordid glimpses of victim-blaming, we see a paradox: individuals, especially parents who marginalise sufferers, genuinely believe it is the right thing to do. So how can we navigate out of this iniquitous crisis? The answers lie somewhere in introspection. 

Ramisa Rob is currently pursuing her Masters in NYU.

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