Harassed Online and Nowhere to Go! - Take Back the Tech! 16 days x 16 stories

Islamabad, 25 November 2012: *Farzana was checking her Facebook, as usual, from the school’s computer lab and noticed she had a friend request from one of her female colleagues, *Daniya Habib. She accepted the request and went on to check out her friend’s profile. A few moments later, she hurriedly ran off to find Daniya.

Daniya’s profile contained embarrassing fictitious information about her private life, intimate pictures of her with her husband and a number of other fictitious details alleging her of not good character.

It was quite obvious that the profile was fake and Daniya, a 30 year old teacher, was horrified when she saw it. As she went through the pictures and vulgar insinuations in the status updates, she panicked and started screaming.

“I kept thinking about my son,” says Daniya. “He studied in the same school and was quite a frequent Facebook user. I feared for how the other students would treat him if they saw that profile.”

It took weeks of medication and regular counselling to get Daniya back to functioning normally.

But what about the profile creator? Daniya’s colleagues reported the incident to the school authorities because it was quite obvious to them that the perpetrator was connected to the school.

It was established that the fake profile creator had most probably copied these pictures from Daniya and her son’s Facebook profiles or stolen from her personal computer and was someone from the same school since few of the photos were taken at different school functions.

However, the culprit was never found because the school authorities had no idea how to track him or who to contact. They also preferred to cover up the issue to protect the school.

Daniya and her son left the school and eventually moved to another city.

“The incident still haunts us both,” Daniya says. “I have since learned a lot about dealing with online harassment and reporting it. That fake profile is now gone so I can’t do anything about it, but I do make sure that I educate other women around me about what to do in such a situation.”

According to a report, 68 cases of online female harassment were registered in 2011. This number is far from accurate considering that most women and young girls are either too scared to report the harassment or have no idea what to do.

Online harassment and impersonation are quite common and something very few people are equipped to handle. While the annually increasing number of registered cases might hint at an increase in such cases, it might also be evidence of the increasing awareness about what to do to report such harassment.

In Pakistan, an increasing number of women are using social networks and blogging platforms to establish their home-based businesses and promote them. Additionally, an even greater number   regularly uses Facebook, Twitter and other networking tools to connect with friends and family.

But how many of them know what to do when someone harasses them? A very small number. Online harassment comes in a number of forms. One example is sending a vulgar message or picture on Facebook or Twitter. This is the most common form of online harassment that can sometimes be the most difficult to deal with.

Women who are targeted by this kind of harassment usually resort to blocking such people. However, they often have no way to deal with the distress and embarrassment that are a common result of such insulting practices. And what about the culprit? He has been allowed to stalk other women and send them similar expressions of his sick desires. Should he not be punished and stopped?

In a culture such as Pakistan’s, a woman who has been harassed online (or offline) is often ignored or blamed. Most of our societal norms emphasise the importance of modesty in women. The reasoning goes that a woman who puts herself out there in front of the world is solely responsible for the attention she attracts and “deserves”, as some vehemently affirm.

This mindset largely contributes to the hesitation of harassed women in reporting such crimes. Changing this mindset and empowering women may sound like a daunting task but it is not impossible.

The Take Back The Tech (TBTT) Campaign aims to create awareness about different forms of violence against women and has also taken into account the ways in which people can use technology to perpetrate crimes against women. As a result, more and more women are learning to take more control over their digital lives and organizing to stop such crimes by reporting and raising awareness among masses.

As a woman using technology in Pakistan, what can you do to stop such harassers and help other women?

While a lot is being done to counter violence against women, the need for more initiatives and support is ever increasing.

It is time for women to take the power of the internet into their own hands and stop people who would rather keep women closed up in their shells for fear of competition.

*Names changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

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Rabab Khan, a Take Back The Tech Campaigner and Social Media Guru in Pakistan contributed this story for Bytes for All, Pakistan.