Technology in fundamentally flawed societies



29, Oct 2016

BBC investigated the abuse of technology and social media in conservative societies across North Africa, Middle East and South Asia and how women, children and men are victimized by the abusers. The stories shared by BBC also highlight women’s suppression in a male-dominated culture and the disastrous consequences. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and India strive to address the situation but fall short of bringing about fundamental change.

What made Ghadeer Ahmed stand up for her rights?

  • Ghadeer is from a conservative Muslim family in Egypt. In 2009, she was at a friend’s house and dancing in a short dress with other girls. Girls do not have a public place to dance in her country. She had a video of the dance captured and sent it to her boyfriend.
  • In the place she came from, such an act was extremely risky as it meant she was paving the way for her humiliation and sabotaging her life to the point of suicide. She made a riskier move and shared private photos with the boyfriend – a man who was neither her husband nor her fiancé.
  • Her ex-boyfriend took advantage of the precarious situation as soon as they had broken up in 2012. He began with threats – he would post the video and images online – if she did not reconcile their relationship. She, fearing for life and family name, begged him to refrain. In the same year, Ghadeer founded a group, Girls’ Revolution. It spurred a movement of young women campaigning for their rights in a country where rigid patriarchy prevailed. Ghadeer removed her hijab and began to participate in TV debates and social media activism to get the voice of Egyptian women across. This made her even more vulnerable to her ex-boyfriend’s abuse as some men were hostile to her progressive move.
  • In 2013, she got to know that her ex-boyfriend posted the video and photos online, and she got to know of it when, while with a few friends, she said she loved dancing. One of the men’s eerie response was “I know, I’ve seen you dancing on YouTube”. Through a lawyer friend’s help, she filed a police complaint.
  • She wanted to shield her family from knowing about her situation but the ex-boyfriend met her father and resorted to emotional blackmail. His deal – let your daughter drop the complaint and I will ‘save her honor’ by marrying her. After initial hostility and some blaming, her family braved immense social pressure to stand by her.
  • In 2014, the ex-boyfriend turned abuser was convicted for defamation and absent at the trial. He was sentenced to serve one year in prison. Though the jail term never materialized due to legal muddles, she thought she had made a strong statement by taking him to court and could move on. She thought wrong.
  • Her past bolted back to haunt her, thanks to the social environment. Her political activism faced a roadblock when a troll posted her video in October 2014 and added a comment, “This is Ghadeer Ahmed, who wants to corrupt our Egyptian girls, and here is the video that shows that she herself is a slut.”
  • She decided enough was enough and took a brave decision. She posted the video on her own Facebook page and defended her right to love her body and not be ashamed of it. She also brought out the hypocrisy that dominated a patriarchal culture like hers. The video struck a chord and earned massive support.

Why is it important for victims to come forward?

  • The victim is not alone. Perpetrators use technology and social media to their advantage on a large scale. They fully understand the individual’s vulnerability – all the more so in countries steeped in patriarchy – and exploit it to their advantage. Their aim is to coerce the victim into silence and if successful, it encourages the abuser to step up the abuse, confident in the knowledge that he (the abuser happens to be male in the cases reported so far) has the victim under his control.
  • Brave women like Ghadeer have struck down societal barriers and shown how much is possible. To take concrete steps against the shaming of women and children, those facing abuse need to say “enough is enough” like Ghadeer did. Unfortunately, a patriarchal society imposes upon a woman to endure her “shame” and sorrow in silence.
  • It is understandable for women to feel even more entrapped in North African, Middle East and South Asian societies. While some progress has set in, “women empowerment” remains a grand, even unattainable goal in some of these places. Everyone may not be able to fight as Ghadeer did but in her own words, “I am urging you to ask for help from someone you trust. Once we ask for help, we feel less alone, less endangered. Together, we can change the culture that makes us frightened and ashamed. Together, we can survive. Together, as sisters, we can turn the world into a safer place for women.” ‘At least my son will be safe’
  • Paedophiles and perverts victimize young boys and girls by filming sexual abuse on mobile phones. The revelations of child abuse on a large scale in Pakistan in 2015 shocked the country. It was only when Ali, a young man and sufferer decided to take a stand with the support of his neighbor Mobeen Ghaznavi, did safety return to his village, Hussain Khan Wala.
  • A gang of influential members abused Ali at gunpoint in 2009, when he was twelve and on his way to school. They recorded the abuse and blackmail, torture and repeated abuse followed. Ali left school in 2011 and moved to the city. He is among the more than hundred boys this gang of twenty abused over 8 years.
  • Threats by the gang made their way into the city as well, and after enduring, giving in and attempting suicide, Ali found out in 2013, from his brother, that the video had spread across all mobile phones in his village. He found out there were several like him and decided to make the perpetrators pay for their heinous crimes.
  • It took immense perseverance on Ali and Mobeen’s part to withstand threats and bullets from the gang, convince families to come forward, struggle against resistance by local politicians and police. The crimes received local and international media attention and set the stage for public pressure. Protests and pressure like never before forced action and some of the accused were arrested.
  • Now two of the accused have been sentenced to life imprisonment and a fine. Others await trial and normalcy along with its difficulties has returned to Wala. Mobeen says of his four-year-old, I am sure he won’t be abused.

Pakistan passed new laws in 2016 which criminalized sexual assault on minors and production of child abuse images. Mobeen has the last word when he highlights the dual facets of technology – as a shield for the perpetrators and a weapon for those who want to fight against harassment.

When do victims hesitate to ask for help?

When society stifles them with pressure and prevents their access to means that would enable them to come forward. Even the law plays their enemy in some shocking examples.

  • Victim blaming. One thing that is so ingrained in patriarchal cultures that even family and friends seek to stigmatize the victim with the accusation that she must have somehow brought the crime on herself.
  • When they are not aware of how to reach out and confront discouragement and ridicule from the system that is supposed to protect them. In India it takes the form of male chauvinistic village heads or policemen. In Jordan, it takes the form of a law (Article 308) which seems to be written to protect the security of the male rapist and enable him to continue his crimes.

“Even if I told someone my story, they would just send me back home, or to the police”. These are the words of a young Tunisian woman who lived a contented life in the countryside till a relative began to physically and sexually harass her. He used his phone to photograph her naked and blackmailed her with it. She gave him money and was forced to remain silent despite the abuse that followed. Among his threats the man said he would shame her father whom she loved the most. His power grew and so did his viciousness, and yes, this was possible. When he told her he would next target her sister, she and her cousin who knew the truth invited him home and even attempted to reason with him. He only threatened her further and in a fit of helplessness and rage she struck him dead. She was sentenced to 25 years in prison and heard her father say she had shamed him and he would not accept her even after her release. She yearns for his ‘forgiveness’.

Where do men scam male victims?

  • Unemployment rate in Oued Zem is nearly 60 percent relative to the national figure of 8.7 percent, explained Salaheddin El-Kennan, a local labour activist. He holds the companies which plunder the surrounding countryside’s resources but employ very few locals responsible.
  • The 2008 economic crash reduced remittances from people employed in Europe – a chief source of income for the town. At the same time social media equipped with technology made global communication possible. Male scammers began to scam to survive.
  • Some scammers want to quit and have the technical skills and intelligence to legally earn the same amount received for scamming.

Who else has witnessed this horror so far?

Thanks to the health workers taking up her case, the perpetrators were arrested.

There are several cases of rape videos being spread online in India. Pavan Duggal, a Supreme Court advocate told BBC that two reports of gang rape circulated on WhatsApp in southern India had shocked the court beyond belief. Apart from assigning the cases to CBI, the court also asked IT Ministry to see how to cut-off circulation of such videos. Duggal added, “Women are constantly being targeted and just because not enough cases are being talked about, that should not give us the complacent picture that everything is fine and hunky dory; in fact, below the surface lies a huge disquiet.

How can this be tackled?

It criminalizes women who use the technology! At the village level in some places, the elders consider mobile phones to have a corrupting effect and ban women from using them. They are more worried about women using mobile phones than men abusing them.

Well-intended protectionism is good and even necessary but it is not the solution

  • The religious police in Saudi Arabia have been spurred into action by the avalanche of blackmails women face. They set up a special unit to pursue harassers and extend support to women who are blackmailed. Laws penalize those who blackmail women by sentencing the blackmailer for up to ten years in prison.
  • Maryam al-Subai, an entrepreneur from Riyadh saw how uncomfortable women were with having their mobiles repaired by males. They did not want to trust men with their private photos and information, especially at a time when blackmail is rife. She started her own all-women mobile shop where customers can watch as their phones are repaired. She draws many customers.

Such measures serve to protect women but do not recognize the need for a change in status quo of the society. More women-only initiatives like Maryam’s will provide employment avenues for women. But a paradigm shift in how women are perceived by society needs to accompany them; else women will remain the vulnerable section. Stricter laws and greater awareness at the individual and family levels could help more victims come forward.

Exceptions must become the norm – be it victims who fight back or families and individuals who brave societal scorn to be a strong support system.

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Tags | Abuse of Social Media Abuse of Technology BBC Ghadeer Ahmed Victimised