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Cyber flashing is not acceptable

This blog has been written by Umaima Ahmed , Member of  DRF’s Network of Women Journalists for Digital Rights.

Has your mobile ever lit-up with a notification from an unknown number or social media account in the middle of the night? You pick your cellphone to see who could be messaging at such an odd hour, however, once you click, there is no turning back or avoiding the trauma you have experienced after finding an unsolicited picture of a male private part on your screen. For the rest of the night, you feel disgusted and disturbed; and if it is the first thing in the morning your day is ruined.

After the upsurge of the #MeToo movement, unsolicited pictures have  started to be taken as sexual harassment which needs to be reported. The #MeToo campaign though mainly was about women and girls facing sexual harassment in any sphere of their life, feel its impact; one thing that came out of the movement was sharing of how women were harassed in online spaces and then it went on to offline harassment of all kinds.

This phenomenon is not limited to Pakistan alone but is a global issue with people being sexually harassed online by explicit pictures. This is not only limited to Social Media, WhatsApp and emails, people have received unsolicited pictures through Airdrop, a service provided in iPhones.

The senders of such messages are usually looking for attention, or praise for their ‘bodies;’ or just find it pleasurable to harass women in particular. It is usually thought that unknown people resorting to such uncouth acts are trying to gain attention, however even the people closest to you can cross the lines of decency. In January this year The Guardian published an article What makes men send dick pics? which is a must read to understand why men are drawn to cyber flashing.

One comes across two perspectives on this issue, in an article in the Huffington Post, cyber flashing and flashing in real said that some people try to ignore cyber flashing and don’t find it problematic as compared to flashing in real-life; however Professor McGlynn, of Durham Law School who is an expert in image-based sexual abuse says, “Some will come forward and say [cyber flashing] is harmless. Everyone struggles with the fact that it isn’t face to face, but you can’t rank sexual offences like that. The harm of sexual offences is so significant, and different forms of offending can have the same impact on different people.”

Looking at the issue from a Pakistani perspective we cannot ignore our patriarchal culture, and while the majority of the women even today are confined to their homes, with the prevalence of the internet and social media being the norm, online harassment affects these women also. A number of females resultantly do not have social media accounts which saves them from online harassment and being chastised if caught, often leading to family feuds.

Even though Twitter is more active in combating this issue with their complaint mechanism than Facebook, it is time Pakistan’s PECA law is taken seriously and its implementation is not such an irritation for women complainants in FIA, the implementing agency. Section 21 of PECA, which criminalises offences against modesty of a person, says “punishment with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with fine which may extend to five million rupees or with both.” But when it comes to implementation, FIA does not have a women-friendly system which restricts women from lodging a complaint and cyber flashers get away with this repugnant behavior. In case a woman has the courage to report or put up evidence on social media, it leads to victim blaming. Last year a college student from Lahore posted a story on Facebook about a man who was publicly masturbating, however it was brushed aside. And when the opinion makers like Orya Maqbool Jaan vehemently decry abuse of their fundamental human rights when asked not to send dick pics that makes a lot of people accept this act as acceptable rather than lamenting on it.

According to Dr Christian Buckland, psychotherapist and a spokesperson of UK Council for Psychotherapy says “They (victims) do not want to relive the story or are worried they will be told they should have made a one-liner joke at the perpetrator about the size of his manhood (if it was a male), which belittles the horrific ordeal.”

Apart from the legal aspect, people need to understand that sending such pictures are not welcomed. An experience like this leaves a lasting impact which may result in anxiety, hyper-vigilance, depression, health issues and even self-censorship. It is also important that peer-support and family backup should be available to those who pick up the courage to report the issue so that they can feel some form of closure to their experience.

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