Stalking and Online Harassment
By Aiza Nadeem
The trope of the hopelessly ‘in-love man who continually invades the female love interest’s privacy is much loved in South Asian popular culture. The audience to which this trope is targeted is supposed to find such actions endearing — as they do. Dressed up as displays of ‘love’ or ‘infatuation,’ behavior which is harassment, passes as a romanticized profession of interest. Portrayals of this nature reflect how we understand privacy for women and digital privacy.
Data collected by the Digital Rights Foundation for the UN Policy Report in 2019 indicated most forms of online harassment were faced by women at the hands of men, cementing this issue as a form of gender-based violence. Sexualized violence in the form of non-consensual circulation of explicit pictures, doctored and otherwise, has been rising in Pakistan since the advent of the pandemic.
Portrayals in film, television and other media that popularise women’s privacy invasion contribute to the fetishization of such harassment. In the movie, which the still is obtained from, the male lead is attracted to the woman and thus, decides to stalk her as she goes about her daily routine. (The beginning of any great love story, of course). This behavior is accentuated with a romantic ballad that urges the audience to see the beauty in such an act. The lyrics, “tenu takiye bina nahi dil rajda”, symbolize men’s supposed lack of control over their actions.
Continued production and reproduction of content that approves negating women’s fundamental right to privacy lead to such a high degree of online harassment. If we are socially conditioned to accept men’s invasive behavior as romantic, we perpetuate a culture that dismisses women’s privacy altogether. It is assumed to be the norm for their consent to not be sought in such situations — in fact, the concept of consent is altogether lost here. However, it serves as an essential reminder here advances are only acceptable if both parties consent wholeheartedly.
Part of the attitude relating, privacy is its conception as a foreign concept that is against traditional values which do not need privacy for women. Privacy here is contrasted with security, where it is presumed the invasion of privacy is for the grander purpose of securing the individual’s safety. A study conducted on South Asian women’s usage of online spaces showed how they were more likely than their male counterparts to have their devices shared with family members and monitored. Be this a mother sharing her device with her children or a woman having her device monitored by her spouse, this practice is seen as common and in the best interest of the user.
Such attitudes reinforce a culture that normalizes unwanted advances against women online. If privacy is seen as the antithesis of security and an inorganic ‘addition’ to culture, harassment is naturalized in online spaces. Experiencing such severe levels of harassment is damaging to women’s mental health, with victims reporting symptoms of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic disorder as well as suicidal ideation. Moreover, harassment online paves the way for physical violence. These forms of violence and harassment act as a significant barrier to women’s engagement in online spaces. If we wish to create greater safer spaces online for women, privacy must be recognized as a fundamental right.