[Cyber parasites] Recently, while using my personal Facebook account, I came across an image on the side bar, of a fairly familiar face. The image was titled ‘sharamnaak’ (shameful). As revolted as I was by the objectionable album title, I was curious to see what, after all, was so ‘shameful’.
As I clicked on the link, I cringed when I saw personal photos of a female talk-show host. In my opinion, there was absolutely nothing disagreeable about the photos. However, that is irrelevant. They were personal pictures taken at home, with friends and ‘selfies’ in the bedroom. It would be a reasonable enough assumption that they were meant for personal use and not for a sponsored ad on Facebook. Under almost every candid photo was a vile, condescending comment about the indecent clothes she had worn and the suggestive (according to them) poses she had made.
Almost every day, people – that includes women – get their pictures taken for memories, personal Facebook use and Twitter accounts. However, when these are acquired illegally by having your cell phone stolen or your account hacked and then uploaded online with offensive titles, followed by deprecating comments and judgements, it becomes a problem – rather, a crime.
This is online harassment or cyberbullying. Pakistani women are an easy target of cyber bullying. This is because we live in a country where honour is easily tied to how you dress and conduct yourself in public. Jeans, sleeveless shirts, smoking, being seen in the company of men, etc can easily be discerned as attributes more suitable to women who lack morals and character and this is what sadistic bullies prowling online are often aiming to do – ‘expose’ women.
Harming individuals through the use of the internet and related technologies is becoming increasingly common in the west and taking over Pakistan too with the use of social media.
Recent cases of young teens committing suicide over cases of cyber bullying have been haunting. In May this year, a 12-year-old girl, Gabrielle Molina, from Queens, New York, was found hanging in her home, having left behind a suicide note that mentioned online bullying, according to police. In January, Carolina Picchio, a 14-year-old girl from Novara, Italy, jumped out of her bedroom window from her family’s fourth-floor apartment and died instantly.
Before she jumped, she updated her Facebook status with an unsettling note saying, “Forgive me if I’m not strong. I cannot take it any longer.” In her bedroom, police found a note to her ex-boyfriend, whose friends had been circulating a suggestive video of her, in which she appeared tipsy and dishevelled. The boys had also been sending her offensive text messages and cyberbullied her on Facebook with insults.
While in the west legislation and awareness campaigns have been made to combat it, Pakistan does not have stringent laws on cyberbullying. In 2007, former General Pervez Musharraf introduced the Prevention of Electronic Crime Ordinance (Peco). Even though there is consent between most stakeholders, it has not yet become a law. In the absence of cyber crime laws through which disciplinary action can be taken against those who commit crimes online in Pakistan, people are increasingly and easily susceptible to abuse on social media sites.
The cyber world is a completely different virtual society often hidden from adults and parents. When personal pictures are made public, it can be damaging for those who are the subjects of these photographs. Some deal with it, choosing to ignore and finding solace in talking to friends but in some cases, excessive bullying, derogatory comments and the feeling of public humiliation when seen in compromising pictures etc leads young girls to commit suicide as cases have been reported in the media recently.
I was personally affected by this myself when, during my brief stint as a news anchor on a private news channel in Pakistan, I discovered YouTube clips of myself with the video zoomed into my face in unflattering ways. Pictures from my Facebook profile were somehow accessed and made public. It was not embarrassing enough for me to get suicidal thoughts but then I am not a teenager. I felt my privacy being exploited and felt vulnerable to judgement in a society that is predominantly conservative and quick to judge your character based on your clothing.
I had the maturity to handle it by simply choosing to ignore it after whining and complaining to my friends for a few weeks. However, when you’re in your teens, where emotions take over logic or reasoning, drastic reactions seem but natural.
In a conservative society such as Pakistan’s, where a family’s honour usually resides in the conduct of a woman, the clothes she dons, how chaste she appears, women are even more vulnerable to becoming easy targets of scorn and shame.
The cyber world has become a fertile ground for stalkers and bullies. Pakistan’s cyber laws have been in prominence recently due to the ban on YouTube in order to restrict access to porn and blasphemous content. However, online harassment, stalking etc – which are truly a violation of personal rights – have not been given much attention. Stringent laws are needed to curtail this.
We need proper counselling in schools where youngsters are able to confide in professionals so that we can avoid tragic incidents of young women taking their lives over feeling ‘exposed’ and ‘dishonoured’.