Refusing to Conform in Digital Spaces
Shoshi (not her real name) runs an online business on Facebook. This means having to deal with unwanted messages from men on a regular basis. Sometimes, these even include pornographic videos. A university student and young entrepreneur, Shoshi spends much of her time online, communicating with friends, staying abreast of news and views, and even making it a point to write positive comments on public posts which receive a lot of negative comments.
Once, when Shoshi congratulated a celebrity on her maternity photo shoot post, a man sent her a private message, saying that such photo shoots were vulgar. Then he began to send her pictures of himself, followed by images and videos of his genitals. Shoshi's own photos have been used to create fake social media profiles. When she wrote an article on the importance of financial independence for women before marriage, she was attacked in the comments section for spreading "filth." She even received messages through an anonymous app from people at her university, saying that she should wear more decent clothes, or else…
These are just some stories, of only one woman. Research in the Bangladesh context has found that over 70 percent of women are subjected to online harassment, with the majority of them aged between 18 and 30 years. Receiving abusive comments and profane messages, offensive images and videos, and having one's photos distorted and distributed or used to create fake social media profiles are a part of everyday life online for women and girls. Revenge pornography—disclosing private sexual images without consent—and photographs and videos of rape are used to harass or intimidate women into entering or continuing relationships, or for blackmail.
From catcalls on the street to molestation in public—and private—places, sexual harassment of women has been widespread in physical spaces. With the development of communication technologies, the internet and social media, this has spilled over to virtual spaces as well. A range of research on cyberbullying, cyber-aggression and cyber-hate has found that women are subject to substantially more online hate than men. The nature of harassment is also different, with men experiencing more name-calling and physical threats, while women are more likely to experience severe forms of sexual harassment. Such research argues that the gendered hate online is in fact rooted in traditional misogynistic discourses, which insist on the inferiority of women, the "natural" dominance of men, and on restoring women and men to "their places."
Gendered online harassment is essentially offline misogyny moved to a new arena. It tends to rely on "hyperbolic and sexualised derision, and it commonly includes charges of unintelligence, hysteria, and ugliness in combination with threats and/or fantasies of violent sex acts which are often framed as 'correctives'," according to Dr Emma Jane of the University of New South Wales in Australia, whose work focuses on the social implications of emerging technologies. Online harassment comes with additional challenges, such as its rapid spread, long lifespan and potentially anonymous nature. The anonymity factor also causes an "online disinhibition effect" among harassers, enabling them to disassociate their "real" identities from their online actions and act in more negative ways online than they would in real life.
The truly insidious thing about gender-based harassment is that it conveys a message to women as a group, reminding them of their "rightful place" in the social hierarchy. As a result, women may feel that they don't belong in the public sphere, and become more cautious about or even withdraw from expressing their opinions and participating in public debates. According to Dr Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University in Canada, group-based harassment—for example, against sexual and other minorities—has wider consequences and is more painful, because it affects not only the direct victim, but also the wider community sharing the victim's identity traits, even those who have no personal experiences with harassment or hate speech.
"Technology violence" is a term that has been coined by Dr Jenny Ostini and Susan Hopkins of the University of Southern Queensland in Australia to highlight the ways in which technology is used to assert control and power where, essentially, only the method is different from traditional forms of violence. Although this notion is yet to be widely accepted in our society, online sexual harassment or "technology-facilitated sexual violence and harassment" leaves women feeling no less violated.
We have all experienced this violence in some form or another. Strange men send messages telling women what they should wear, say, write, do, think; they send lewd pictures, make sexual propositions. Classmates and friends comment on pictures saying they're "hot" or send messages saying they're feeling "horny," asking to have sex. One woman interviewed for this article said that receiving messages with sexual innuendoes, propositions and vulgar pictures from strangers is disgusting, but getting them from known people is traumatising.
Multiple research work on online sexual harassment of female academics and journalists indicate that women who speak out are under threat of being attacked, and that harassment is a means to silence them. Whether women are politically vocal, socially active, or just personally present on social media, the nature of online abuse against them is rooted in deep misogyny. Their appearance, clothing and character are attacked; they are labelled as "sluts" and "prostitutes"; body parts such as breasts and hips are commented on; they are threatened with rape, often by dogs and other animals. While women in T-shirts or sleeveless blouses are referred to as "naked," women in burqas are asked to wear loose-fitting ones which do not reveal the shape of their bodies. A woman I spoke to for this piece, who maintains purdah and niqab, said that her pictures were circulated by men wanting to know if she's "sexy," "hot or not," asking her friends to share "hot pictures" of her.
Sometimes, former romantic partners expose private moments of relationships that have ended in order to ruin women's reputations. Tania (not her real name) had made several attempts to break up with her boyfriend but in vain. When she was finally able to do so, within minutes of the break-up, her personal photos were shared in social media groups, leaving her and her family feeling ashamed and helpless. When she went back to university a week later, things seemed normal enough, but behind her back, people were pointing at "that girl." Her family would not allow her to take legal action, but have been consulting a psychiatrist to help her deal with the trauma.
Shame, anger, fear, insecurity, distrust of men, trauma—these are some of the emotions felt by women subjected to such violence. Some women remove men from their friend lists, and even start to avoid men in the real world. Some stop posting pictures and comments, or withdraw from social media altogether. Some women overcome their trauma, but others continue to live with the consequences, such as emotional distress, self-censorship, withdrawal from social media and other online spaces, and even self-harm and suicidal ideation.
Women who face online sexual violence often don't seek legal redress, fearing social stigma and further harassment by law enforcement agencies. Those who wish to take action are often discouraged by their families, friends, teachers and employers. One woman interviewed for this article said that she had screenshots and voice messages as proof of harassment by a university batch-mate, but when she complained to her teachers, they asked her to pray, wear purdah, and forgive her harasser, because "forgiveness is a virtue."
How long can we allow this to continue? Online sexual harassment must be recognised as a form of violence, against which action must be taken, and where the perpetrators and not the victims are blamed and shamed. Education programmes and digital literacy are the key here, with young people being provided knowledge not only on ICT, but on online safety and etiquette, cybercrimes and their consequences, and technologies of power as well. Legal mechanisms need to be strengthened towards awareness of cyber crimes, and of their prevention and consequences. The legal process must be made more accessible and secure for survivors. Acknowledging online harassment as violence is the first step towards ensuring that justice is done for crimes which leave no physical bruises, but which can change people's lives forever.
Dr Kajalie Shehreen Islam is assistant professor at the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka.