A Cyberspace Unsafe for Women
Your phone suddenly buzzes to announce a notification. You pick it up, expecting something important. However, the notification comes from the requests folder of one of your text messaging apps. You are almost certain what it looks like; a completely random stranger, most probably a man, sent you an inappropriate text.
If you're feeling indifferent, you just ignore it. If it bothers you too much, you block the person. If you're feeling lighthearted enough to make fun of it, you take a screenshot and send it to your friends. If you believe in its meme potential, your screenshot might even make its way to some subreddit dedicated to hilariously poor attempts at flirting.
Women on social media are familiar with the scenario above. In most cases, we tend to brush off such attempts to breach our online privacy, because these things seem relatively harmless compared to the more pressing issues when it comes to women, such as the recent spike in gender-based violence. However, are such acts really that harmless?
Women are harassed online in many ways, and unsolicited texts are just the tip of the iceberg, along with friend requests from unknown people. You must have come across revolting comments under pictures of female celebrities or of any woman that goes viral, most of which can be classified under hate speech. You most probably have heard stories of leaked private pictures, videos or information without consent – also known as doxxing – and the devastating toll it takes on the victims.
"I have been harassed online by men on many counts. Often, they were in the form of continuous pestering texts that start off nice, but get more degrading with time. Sometimes, their texts are accompanied by inappropriate pictures or videos," shares Fabiha Fairooz*, a freelance writer.
"Once, when I was in high school, a group of boys decided to bully my friends and I in a group chat," says Zareen Tasnim*, who is now completing her undergraduate degree abroad. "They made very weak yet unacceptable attempts at insulting me, which had to do with my financial status, my dual nationality, my looks etc. They were even petty enough to make comments about me sending memes in that group chat."
This is a serious problem which has only increased during the pandemic since we are forced to spend more time online than ever before. According to a recent report by The Daily Star, 80 percent of the victims of cyberbullying in Bangladesh are adolescent girls and women in their early twenties. In another report by Dhaka Tribune, most victims of cyberbullying do not report to the police, hence the statistic does not take into account the cybercrimes that go unreported.
The question arises, why don't people report cybercrimes? Anika Anjum Iftee, Head of Content Development and Marketing at WeMen View, a non-profit social welfare organisation which works to raise awareness against cyber harassment of women, thinks that such cases are generally taken less seriously than physical ones. "It's because there are too many factors to consider. With the ongoing calling out culture, the conversation around things like unsolicited texts could be easily manipulated, which can make the main discourse rather confusing. Also, since how we behave on social media is an evolving process, there is still so much to define and to make laws on concretely. While all of that happens, a lot of us will be unfortunate enough to fall victim to online harassment."
The fact that technology is evolving too fast for us to catch up on the expanding confines of online harassment rings very true. Almost every day, new strides are being made in technology with more opportunities for harassers to abuse them. In this dizzying mess, no wonder tech-savvy women are struggling to deal with a constant barrage of harassment, both big and small. "I don't think there's much to do. In my experience of receiving unwanted texts, I find that confronting these men is very draining because most see no wrong in their actions and will continue to verbally abuse you or others," Fabiha adds.
It is as clear as daylight that the toxic standards most men in this region have been brought up to contribute to their interactions online. The firm belief that they will get away with harassing women in both physical and virtual spaces unfortunately enables them to do so. In addition, the common yet unjust shaming of female victims further encourages these abusers to carry on, as Zareen and her friends had faced, "This cyberbullying incident was reported to the school management, but they didn't fulfil their promises. Instead, they resorted to victim blaming by accusing us of isolating one of our classmates who egged those boys on, even though we weren't friends with her in the first place."
For all kinds of abuse, for too long, women have been putting in all the work to rage against the injustice. In the case of cyber harassment, from tightening privacy settings to filing cases, women still carry the burden to take preventive measures. However, prevention is not the only cure, at least in this case.
In order to see an end to harassment not limited to the digital realm, education comes first, as Anjum explains, "Measures should be integrated into the way we socialise from an early stage. At WeMen View, we want to teach children how to respect other genders and expand to do workshops with parents too. Humility and kindness are very important in the process of learning how to behave. Children need to know about the obvious red flags because if we are not aware of the danger, we won't be ready to tackle it."
In the end, it all comes down to getting acquainted with some very simple, basic concepts: consent and respecting one's personal space, and that these apply to everyone regardless of any parameter that you can think of. If we keep all these in mind, perhaps one day all the spheres we occupy, the virtual one included, can be safe for everyone.
*Names have been changed to protect identity
1. The Daily Star (December 10, 2020). 80% of cyberbullying victims are women: Cyber Crime Division of DMP.
2. Dhaka Tribune (September 24, 2019). 70% of women facing cyber harassment are 15-25 years in age.