August Issue 2015
License to Harass
On Valentine’s Day in 2015, a prominent news channel ran a news package about a group of young men randomly stopping women to give them flowers. In one disturbing incident, a woman kept trying to sidestep the man blocking her path, offering her a bouquet. This is a disturbing thing to happen, to be out in the open with no one trying to help you, no one thinking that you even need help, maybe even thinking that you should just accept flowers from some random stranger, simply to ‘spare’ yourself the trouble. It falls on the woman to ‘avoid’ experiencing this fact of life called harassment, rather than addressing harassment as an issue that should be eliminated from society altogether. This real-life menace has also crossed over to harassment online: the first response is always to delete or to avoid, and rarely are such incidents reported to the relevant authorities.
Just like street harassment, online harassment comes in many forms. At its most benign, it is verbal harassment in the form of deliberately embarrassing comments or name-calling, or invasive actions such as sending friend requests to women on social media with whom there is no previously established connection or relationship. There is sexual harassment, where a woman is subjected to lewd comments and sexually explicit media. Harassment can be a one-time occurrence or continue for a sustained period of time. Frequently, the nature of online harassment, be it repetitive or a singular occurrence, in the form of graphic threats, and when directed at women these threats become sexually violent.
“About two or three times, I have received penis shots in my ‘other’ inbox on Facebook from real accounts of men. That has been a really disturbing experience,” says Amna Khan, talking about the harassment she’s faced online. One such instance of sexually explicit messages occurred at work; Amna immediately deleted the message, fearing it would show up in her browser history. Other instances occurred when she was at home, but her instinct was always to delete the message; never did it occur to her to report the message to Facebook, or find a way of reporting the harasser to local authorities.
Such is the nature of online harassment. When a woman is harassed in public spaces such as on a street, she learns quickly enough to simply avert her gaze or stare straight ahead, and not react in any way, removing herself from the situation as soon as possible. The same attitude is adopted when it comes to online harassment. Women assume that sexually explicit messages or graphic threats of violence are a norm when you are active online, whether you are engaged in any kind of advocacy, or simply a passive user.
Tooba Sajjad, an activist and member of the Awami Worker’s Party, uses social media for activism and has paid the price for it in the form of frequent harassment. “It was very hard to deal with it in the beginning and still is. Sometimes I get terrified by these messages as some of them are very graphic and detailed,” she says when talking about her years of harassment. “I often have nightmares, but I’ve learnt to live with it. Sometimes I respond — which usually ends up in more harassment.”
For Tooba, the abuse comes in various forms. There was an incident on Twitter where an oncologist kept referring to her as “honey” in his tweets. Uncomfortable with the over-friendly endearment from a stranger, Tooba asked him to stop, only to be called a “psychotic bitch” in return. As an activist, she also engages with people online on political and social issues. She narrates an incident that she considers the most frightening. “An army officer with whom I was having an argument over foreign policy said, ‘I’ll rip your tongue out of your throat,’ followed by name-calling. Later my friends on Twitter intervened and told the guy to back off.”
It is disconcerting to note that Tooba’s experience, while unnervingly vicious, is not an isolated incident but a distinct pattern where anyone who differs from the norm is targeted. Tooba herself pointed out that she’s been harassed frequently online, ‘‘simply for having a different opinion.’’ At the end of the day, especially for those engaging in online activism, the choice is to simply keep fighting. “For the kind of politics I advocate and the kind of views I hold, it’s very likely that you’d get trolled and sworn at at least once a day and that’s only if you’re lucky,” she explains. “On a regular basis I get five messages a day on Twitter telling me how I’m such a horrible little bitch for talking about women’s issues, like rape, openly. I’ve been threatened with rape for talking about rape and sexual harassment online.”
The online watchdog, Pakistan Feminist Watch (PFW), was started in 2013 by feminist Nabiha Meher Shaikh and Adnan Ahmed. Starting out as a watchdog against online sexism and misogyny, their website has countless examples of women receiving vicious, violent threats. One young woman who expressed anger at being called a ‘slut’ was viciously attacked both publicly and in private messages. Another young feminist received a sexually violent message out of the blue for disagreeing with the aggressor on a Facebook post. Moreover, shortly after PFW was established, the founders found themselves receiving emails from young girls and women facing online harassment, threats, stalking and blackmail, asking for help.
PFW often deals with cases where the people involved are just teenagers. This isn’t difficult to comprehend, when in real life little girls get groped in public places like crowded markets. Zara faced similar online harassment when she was just a teenager. As a 17-year-old blogger, she was enthusiastic about issues pertaining to feminism and this, in her opinion, resulted in male Twitter users calling her a ‘loose character.’ “I tweeted in favour of an influential personality’s views on secularism saying, ‘We should have a (famous person’s name) in every city!’” she says about her first experience with online harassers. In response, she was told, “Well if we have ‘famous person’s name’ in every city, then we will also have a tawaif like Zara in every city.” In another instance, she was approached by a man on a chat application with indecent proposals, and when she asked why he’d make such a proposition to her, she was told, “Your tweets are of a sexual nature and I expect pretty girls like you to have fun on your mobiles.” This was not an isolated case — many men forced indecent pictures on her.
Constant harassment and abuse resulted in paranoia, and search terms for her WordPress blog held terms such as “Zara sex long time,” “Zara pregnant” and “Zara want sex.” By the age of 18, Zara finally quit social media.
Even now, Zara receives what she refers to as “loving messages” on Facebook. Her reaction has been to hide. She says, “I tell myself it’s because I don’t have time to deal with scum, but the issue is much more deeply rooted.”
When women face such severe harassment, their reaction is often driven by fear and a desire to hide themselves to avoid further harassment. Zara has it right when she analyses her own reaction to online harassment: “It was exactly what we would expect of a girl in our society after being harassed: silence and disappearance. I never took on these men because I feared if I caused a ruckus it would hurt me.” Moreover, she points out that women are not taught how to deal with harassment at any point in their life, nor can they be sure of family support.
The gender aspect of online harassment is unavoidable. There are women like Amna who are not involved in online activism but are still targeted simply because they’re there. They exist. They occupy space. And, therefore, they are fair game. There is a clear connection between the nature of harassment in real life and online. The modus operandi is the same in both cases — if a woman is present in a public space, hoot at her, brush up against her, loudly proclaim ‘mashallah,’ or worse, make lewd, sexually explicit comments. In more extreme cases, men expose themselves to women as well.
While Amna does not engage in online activism like Tooba, she finds that expressing her opinion can often be an excuse for harassers. “Whenever I tweet any secular views, I get tweeted back at, with the tweeter saying ‘that’s not what a good Muslim Pakistani girl should say,’” she explains. And this isn’t an isolated experience. Any opinion which deviates from the norm is met with hostility online, whether it is expressed by a man or a woman. The only difference is that when women express such opinions, they’re more likely to get threatened by sexual violence. And really, isn’t that the basis of a violent patriarchal society that uses violence to punish a woman’s transgressions, or to ensure that she falls into line?
While social media offers tools for reporting such harassment, companies such as Facebook and Twitter often come under fire for not being proactive in tackling harassment. Facebook seldom removes abusive users, even when they are engaging in violent threats. Twitter advises users not to engage with abusive users — this is not just Twitter’s approach, but also an old adage pertaining to netiquette, “Don’t feed the trolls.” Rather than taking action against the abuser, the abused party is told to ‘avoid’ such situations online. This might be why women do not generally share stories of online abuse with friends or colleagues.
A woman should not have to avoid being harassed online — social media companies should ensure a better system of checks and balances, but that is a debate that has been going on for years. While it truly is difficult to monitor what millions of users are saying every day, the system of reporting abuse, as well as how seriously reports are taken, also needs to be taken
into consideration. But something needs to be done while these debates continue.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s August 2015 issue.
Some names have been changed.
Ghausia Rashid is a Research Associate at Bolo Bhi