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On or off, the line is vague

Why online sexual harassment persists, or what could be done to battle it?

On or off, the line is vague

Last month, a female student in Lahore received doctored images of herself via her ‘Others’ folder on Facebook. The threat accompanying the photos was that if the woman didn’t send the blackmailer real nude images of herself for his pleasure, he would publish the fake images online.

It was a Catch-22 situation from hell. Writing an official complaint to the Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) Cyber Crime Wing, officially called National Response Centre for Cyber Crime (NR3C), took her nowhere. She continues to live with the threat that her blackmailer may make her photos public at any point.

Online sexual harassment, which comprises blackmail, threats, cyber stalking, ‘revenge porn’ and some more imaginative methods to distress victims, is as old as the internet itself.

“When the internet was first created it was heralded as a place where you could free yourself of traditional norms, but this is disingenuous,” says Shmyla Khan, head of the Cyber Harassment Helpline at Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), an advocacy NGO that focuses on online human rights and digital governance.

In a country of 121 million people, the team in charge of dealing with online sexual harassment comprises less than 200 people. Out of these, there are less than 10 women in any position of authority within the NR3C.

“The sexual harassment you see online is not radically different from what you experience offline. It follows the traditional model of structural oppression, and as more and more people are getting on the internet, it’s fast becoming a reflection of the ‘values’ we have in our physical world.”

While online sexual harassment is not a new phenomenon, the forms and mediums of harassment on the internet are altering and growing every day.

First came MIRC, the infamous chat forum. This was as early as the mid-1990s. The harassment on MIRC was gendered, vile and explicit. Next came perverse harassment via email, with a helping of Orkut on the side; then text messaging. And today, we have Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. So, despite the fact that new apps and mediums that could be used for sexual harassment continued to be developed, and that internet access kept growing in leaps and bounds, in Pakistan there was almost no push to draw laws for online sexual harassment.

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For very big cases, lawyers and the FIA interpreted archaic electronic crime laws but the slow process couldn’t keep up with the pace of the internet. In 2011, Nighat Dad, a lawyer that later founded DRF, received a case of sexual harassment that was rare for its time. Then, she had said that the case was horrific but our laws and their enforcers didn’t know how to deal with it. Two men, using the pseudonym ‘Gandageer Khan’ found photos of female students from Edwardes College in Peshawar. They then doctored these photos to make them appear pornographic and emailed them to the women. The threat was that if the women didn’t want these pornographic images of themselves released on the internet, they must send ‘Gandageer’ phone credit and personal details of other female students at Edwardes. It took the authorities four long years to locate and arrest ‘Gandageer’.

Today, online sexual harassment can be dealt with using Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016’s (PECA)Section 21 that deals with ‘offences against modesty of a natural person or minor’ and Section 24 that deals with ‘cyber stalking’, among other sections.

But what if you have a case of harassment that isn’t sexually overt or explicit, but still harasses the subject? Do messages have to mention body parts or abuses, or be accompanied with nude pictures to be considered as “sexual” or there are other ways to establish the nature of the crime?

According to both, the NR3C and DRF, there are other ways. “For instance, is the victim of the crime targeted because of their gender? If so, then it is sexual harassment,” says Shmyla Khan of DRF. “A woman repeatedly receiving non-sexual messages or even persistent friend requests can fall under online sexual harassment, if they make her feel harassed,” says Shahid Hassan, the Deputy Director of the NR3C. “But it is also important to understand how serious, dangerous and urgent the harassment is.”

This paves the way for a question everyone who has been on Twitter has asked. Or anyone who has ever opened the comments section on Facebook under a post about Malala or Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy or Ayesha Gulalai or Marvi Sirmid or Sherry Rehman or Maryam Nawaz or … this list could take a while. Is a generic rape threat on Twitter or Facebook sexual harassment? Is it serious sexual harassment?

“Of course it is!” says Shahid Hassan. “Threatening someone with rape is very much online sexual harassment.”

Every day on Pakistani social media, thousands of trolls describe in detail the way they will carry out a rape in response to famous and ordinary women and men who hold and express opinions different from theirs. If these victims began reporting these cases to the NR3C, what would happen? Would this create a momentum and would the NR3C start taking serious action against the criminals?

Shmyla Khan laughs out loud in response, “I think the NR3C would break. They simply don’t have the manpower to handle what Pakistani trolls can offer them. And if, in some parallel world, they did begin implementation of each of these cases the internet might break,” she says. Her point is that these trolls are a representation of structural patriarchy and you can’t stop them until you invert that structure.

“One realistic reaction might be that the bar for sexual harassment will be raised. If there was a flood of complaints against sexual trolling, I can anticipate a judge saying that rape threats that aren’t physically dangerous can’t be seen as criminal any longer,” says Khan.

But this conception already seems to be in place. No one will admit to classifying them as such but online rape threats are divided into two categories: generalised that don’t need attention and more specific ones that do need investigation.

Some time ago DRF carried out an experiment. They reported to the NR3C a Facebook account that persistently made derogatory memes about Nighat Dad, and filed a complaint under Section 24 of the Cyber Crime Bill. The crime fit the bill of Cyber Stalking, but the NR3C put the case on the back burner.

Upon inquiry of the case, Dad was told: “Aap ko toh waisay bhi buhat [threats] aatay hon gay?” Implying that the public figure that she is probably receives tonnes of such messages and threats, that they’re probably harmless and this can’t be their priority right now.

In the defence of NR3C and their lack of success in battling online sexual harassment, here are a few facts: NR3C was created in 2007 and then it was given a law. Three years later, that law lapsed and for the next six years NR3C was expected to battle harassment online, without a law in place. Now, they have a law, but their workforce and resources have dwindled to below what they were being given in 2007.

Here are the numbers: In a country of 121 million people, the team in charge of dealing with online sexual harassment comprises less than 200 people. Out of these, there are less than 10 women in any position of authority within the NR3C, and this is despite the fact that the most common complaint they deal with is women being sexually harassed and blackmailed via Facebook.

In the light of these facts, it becomes almost futile to further investigate why online sexual harassment persists, or what could be done to battle it.

Maham Javaid

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