On 14th May, several newspapers reported the gang-rape of a young college girl. Such stories are not uncommon in Pakistan, but what slowly unfolded over the days was more than just a gang-rape. These men were part of a gang that had sexually assaulted other college girls, and then videotaped the incident to blackmail them. Even more horrifying is the fact that the rape survivor was lured into the car where the rape took place by her best friend, who has also been arrested. Reportedly, the friend was part of the gang as well. But what about her motives for abetting in the rape of a friend? Is it possible that she had also been a victim of the same gang, and was forced to help them because they filmed her sexual assault as well? There is no doubt of her guilt, and she should be punished. But if it is a likely possibility that she too was a victim, then this reflects an alarming global trend of using social media to shame victims of rape and sexual assault.
In December 2012, members of the hacktivist group Anonymous released information about a rape victim in Steubenville, Ohio, who had been raped at a party after she had passed out. By 2013, the case had made headlines, especially because of how the rape survivor had been shamed through photos and videos shared by her rapists on social media. In 2012, a Canadian teenager named Amanda Todd committed suicide after she was blackmailed into exposing herself online, and was shamed and ridiculed at school when her photos were made public. In another case in 2012, rape survivor Savannah Dietrich revealed the names of her attackers on social media, after a lenient plea bargain denied her the justice she deserved. As a result of this public naming and shaming, she faces possible jail time.
Social media might have opened up new avenues for people through which they can communicate and share information, but with great power comes the potential of even greater abuses. The concept of blackmailing young girls and women with incriminating photos and videos is not a new one, but it is a problem that has remained unaddressed so far. In Pakistan, where women are burdened with ‘family honor,’ they become an easy target for such forms of harassment. The harassment can come from anywhere; from former police officers, the victim’s classmates, complete strangers on social media, or university students.
In cases where women are spared the horrific trauma of sexual assault, they are subjected to sexual harassment online. There should be no mistake that this form of cyber bullying is sexual harassment. Women are propositioned online, threatened with rape, and in most cases, their personal photos are put up on social media pages such as Facebook. In many cases, women’s faces are photoshopped on pornographic pictures in an attempt to humiliate and blackmail them. Such photos can wind up on Facebook pages which are filled with pictures of young girls and teenagers. The comments sections of such pages are filled with repulsive objectification as well.
The discussion should not revolve around the imposition of honour on women, or how that is exploited by blackmailers and cyber harassers. The debate instead needs to focus on the right to privacy, and digital safety. Young women online who talk about social change are often “punished” for their transgressions through cyber harassment such as online stalking, constant abuse and rape threats, or even morphing photos of activists. As the founder of Digital Rights Foundation Nighat Dad points out in a blog, communications technology has given an avenue to feminists and activists to have their voices heard. But at the same time, “anyone deviating from social norms are subjected to ridicule, abuse and serious threats and in most cases are unprotected by law – particularly blasphemy and rape laws.”
The awful rape case in Mansehra is just one terrible crime in a sea of nameless, faceless victims. Most remain silent because they are afraid of the consequences of speaking out when there are videos and photographs that they feel can destroy their lives. There is an absence of legislation that can ensure that such acts are made a criminal offense. It is also important to remember that like film, music, and art, social media often mirrors a country’s culture, and the level of harassment women face online is the same rape culture that trivializes rape, shames rape survivors, and normalizes sexual harassment to the point that sexually threatening attitudes are never questioned.
In a social structure where there is zero tolerance for women who speak up about abuse, social media has become a tool for punishment of such transgressions, so that rape culture remains intact. We cannot expect that social media will not be used to harass and intimidate women into silence if we are not willing to admit and identify how we are all part of the rape culture that wants to coerce and silence women.
What happens in the Mansehra case remains to be seen. After all, even Mukhtaran Mai was denied justice; Pakistan is not one of the countries where rape survivors get justice, but rather, where they get punished for the crime committed against them. But because of extensive media coverage, this case can be a stimulus for policymakers to lobby for women’s legislation regarding cyber-harassment. Women are subjected to far too many crimes as it is, for once we have the opportunity to curb cyber harassment before it develops into a major issue.