It seems there is no end to the list of crimes against women in Pakistan. Rape, honour-killings, forced marriages, forced conversions, violence against women, these are an everyday occurrence for a country where the foundations of patriarchy might shake and tremble every now and then, but remain firmly entrenched all the same.
Rape is a heinous act, but to film the violation of a woman’s body and use it to blackmail her, is an even greater evil. That’s exactly what happened in February 2015 to Sakina (name changed), a young woman from a typical village in Pakistan who went out to buy a school uniform for her sister, and was abducted, gang-raped, and her rape filmed in order to blackmail her into silence. While the survivor suffered in silence with no hope for justice, the video was shared online and via Bluetooth, to the point that her uncle saw the video, recognised Sakina, and informed her father.
While the perpetrators have been caught, the video remains online, as is the case with most content on the Internet. It is a universal fact that it is virtually impossible to remove content from the Internet. In some form or the other, the content remains online, disseminated through various channels.
Perhaps men who upload personal photos of women or videos of raping women are more aware of this fact than anyone else; after all, the aim in either case is to violate a woman’s dignity and personhood, whether by sharing private images and videos, or by filming and sharing criminal acts against women. It becomes redundant to focus on removing the incriminating content from the Internet, and a waste of time and resources to do so as well.
That we live under a patriarchy makes matters worse, since in order for the patriarchy to remain strong, it must stand on the trampled rights and dignities of women. Indeed, the reality of a woman’s life in Pakistan, is burdened with socially constructed notions of family honour.
Constructivism proposes that each individual mentally constructs the world of experience through cognitive processes while social constructionism has a social rather than an individual focus (Young & Colin, 2004). The social construction of gender begins with the sexual assignment of gender at the time of birth, and continues as a child’s primary socialisation revolves around the concept of separating gender into two binaries, and raising children based on the social perception of gender binaries. (A good example would be the concept of pink as a ‘girl colour’ and blue as a ‘boy colour’, or the gendered division of children’s toys).
Henceforth, along with the burden of honour, a woman’s value is also based on another social construct — virginity. And that is exactly what men like Sakina’s attackers exploit in order to control, possess and use women, knowing that these social constructions of honour and chastity are greatly internalised by women. First they rape, then they use evidence of the crime as a tool to shame and control, using social media to degrade their victims.
There are countless cases — often unreported, where women are also victimised in cyberspace. Women fear social censure and the culture of victim-blaming that occurs when they dare to speak out about their abuse. That there are no cybercrime laws to challenge such villainy against women makes matters even more difficult.
Take the particulars in the case of Sakina, for example. Along with the charges of gang-rape and kidnapping, the accused are also charged with distribution of pornography, which is absolutely ludicrous. Even as a sex-critical writer, it would be a folly to imply there is no consent in porn; radical feminists have done so in the past and this writer has no intention of making a mistake so offensive to a woman’s agency, to suggest a sex worker is sans choice.
To compare pornography to the heinous violation of a woman’s body; the sexual oppression of a woman coupled with recording that act so she can never forget and ensuring it is preserved by sharing it and uploading it online, is a grievous crime in itself. It is therefore an erroneous move to charge the suspects for the distribution of pornography.
Bolo Bhi Director Farieha Aziz points out, “This has to be treated separately from porn. So the crime of rape is the first offence. A video recording obviously without consent a second offence. And transmission and distribution a third. These are the acts which should be criminalised and punished in this particular case.”
However, there are no existing laws under which cybercrime can be tried as an actual cybercrime. As the BBC’s report on Sakina’s case puts it: “Local police and federal agents adopt a piecemeal approach when confronted with a crime like the filming and sharing of a video containing sexual violence and invoke laws pertaining to sexual harassment, defamation or criminal intimidation or basic clauses on violation of privacy gleaned from an old law called the Electronic Transactions Ordinance (ETO).”
Moreover, it is not just the actual perpetrators who should be punished, but anyone else who actively accesses such videos and photos. As Rafia Zakaria states in “Clicking on Rape,” a hard-hitting op-ed in Dawn on February 28, “Pakistan’s vigilant censors, who demonstrate such alacrity in imposing other bans, have none for this crime.”
Why is there no punishment for the men who gleefully leer at private images of women shared on social media by vengeful boyfriends, or the men who blackmail ex-girlfriends by threatening to expose intimate photographs? Not to mention the men who secretly film women without their consent in a blatant violation of privacy. These are the actual crimes that should be focused on, rather than a wild-goose chase to remove or block content online.
Essentially, there is no specific law that outlines what a cybercrime is, and how it should be punished. If it was not bad enough that women are terrified of coming forward when they are in such a situation for fear of social backlash, they also do not have a law to count on. The absence of a law also means that cases which are registered with the authorities are not dealt with in an adequate manner.
Since it is virtually impossible to remove content from the Internet when it can be shared and downloaded by hundreds in a matter of days, the focus needs to shift. Again, in Sakina’s case, the authorities are focusing on content removal, and there is no doubt that as long the video of Sakina’s rape remains online, her suffering is greater. It is the same for any other victim of a cybercrime.
However, if there had been a law in place, a law which was actually implemented and punished the perpetrators of filming rape and publicising personal photos, perhaps it would act as a deterrent for others considering similar crimes. Beyond the distribution of acts of violence against women, online harassment and threats also need to be addressed through cybercrime laws.
Bear in mind though, laws are not enough to deal with issues. This is an incredibly simplistic and liberal approach, to assume that in the presence of good laws, all is well. Even with the implementation of laws, while there would be deterrence of crimes against women, change in mindsets, shifts in ideology would not occur. Therefore, it is also essential to focus on reforms in public discourse. Once again, if the government could spare time from attempts to filter the Internet, or to repair glitches allowing access to Iblis’s online haunt — YouTube, they could focus on public programmes that discuss privacy rights, digital security, and cyber ethics. Both laws and such programmes need to run side by side for any social reform to take place.
In late February 2015, there were rumblings of amendments to anti-rape laws, and for those who think a woman’s body is their property, that they have a right over the female body, these were ‘whispers of a nameless fear’. Progressive minds perceived that their time had now come, and amendments to anti-rape laws sailed through Senate on March 3. While we still have far to go in how we deal with rape as a social issue and a crime, these amendments are very progressive, and a definite step in the right direction.
If we are to continue down this path, incorporating cybercrimes against women in the penal code is essential. As long as there are no cybercrime laws addressing the violation of women, or such laws are not implemented, criminals will continue to rape and blackmail women with impunity.