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Gendered cyberbullying

An anonymous non-confrontational form of violence against women and girls must be viewed as an impeding factor to gender justice in the 21st century, writes Aaliya Waziri
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 19:15 IST

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Imagine you are on a beach. The weather is perfect. The sun is shining through patches of cloud. You are insecure about your body but you decide there is nothing wrong with how you look. You battle your demons and put on a cute swimsuit that suits you. You post a happy, smiling picture to remind yourself of the sea breeze and salty air. But that picture is morphed into something hideous by a man sitting in his basement on the dark web. It is every woman’s worst nightmare to have her pictures morphed into pornography. Your memory of a beautiful day is shattered by some random man’s perversity. It is then that you sit down to wonder why you posted the picture on social media in the first place. You were conscious of
your body to begin with. You ask yourself: I knew social media is an unsafe place and yet I put myself out there for hackers to bite my self-esteem into pieces. Why?

Sensitise digital spaces

Often the discussion around the safety of women pivots on how women should be protected. But there is a thin line of demarcation between protection and security. Instead, what we need to focus on is remodelling an existing unequal space that is conducive to women participating freely in society. Although we are yet to live our lives free of the pandemic, we have reached a point where it is possible to assess the cumulative impact wreaked by the virus.

In the absence of physical proximity as a coping mechanism, the question that arises is: Where did women congregate in a Covid-infested world?

The prolonged lockdown and social isolation had precipitated a push into digital spaces that were neither equal nor safe to begin with. It is at this juncture we must view women and space-age technology in tandem with one other as it is the advent of technology that causes the victimisation of women in the virtual world. But that is not all. We have to look at online victimisation in its entirety and the changing landscape of Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG).

It is now a proven fact that cyber violence against women and girls bears a causality with the digital exclusion of women worldwide. This has created an exigency to overhaul and sensitise digital spaces.

Essentially, if women are at the receiving end of systemic gender-based violence in real life then the same will translate into an inequitable cyberspace.

Terming cyber harassment as passive detracts from the trouble it perpetuates. For far too long, issues of gender-based cyber crime have been labelled elite or ‘first world’ problems. But on a closer look, it seems apparent that cybercrime follows the seamless stream of affordable internet connection, cheap cellular network, and access to smartphones.

If we look closely at cases of cybercrime faced by women, the language of power cuts across the variables of age, religion, caste and class. The only constant parameter is gender.

A serious threat

Cyber harassment may be loosely defined as an intentional act using any form of electronic communication to intimidate or threaten the victim. It includes all devices including but not limited to cell phones, computers and tablets, and communication platforms such as social media sites, text messages, chats and websites. Additionally, India ranks third in the list of online bullying cases according to a survey conducted by Microsoft which also states that girls are more preferred victims of cyberbullying as compared to boys.

The Final Report of the Broadband Commission Working Group on Gender titled ‘Combatting Online Violence Against Women & Girls: A Worldwide Wake-up Call’ notes: ‘Women aged 18 to 24 are at a heightened risk of being exposed to every kind of cyber violence against women and girls.’

The report goes on to suggest female victims of cyber violence are ‘uniquely likely to experience stalking and sexual harassment, while also not escaping the high rates of other types of harassment common to young people in general, like physical threats.’

The report further notes that: ‘30% of all internet traffic constitutes porn with 88.2% of top rated porn scenes containing aggressive acts and 94% of the time the act is directed towards women.’

The continued fetishisation of women and their bodies is an indicator of what causes the proliferation of gender-based cyber harassment.

A skewed power dynamic between men and women is another example of what sustains digital attacks on women and girls.

(Aaliya Waziri recently published In the Body of a Woman with Simon & Schuster India.)

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Published 03 June 2023, 19:07 IST

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