Gender, violence and technology

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Donna J. Haraway left the world clueless in 1984 when she published A Cyborg Manifesto. Haraway’s essay is as popular and controversial today as it was in the time of its publication. The reason behind its popularity is the revolutionary idea that she proposes in the essay. She suggests the possibility of a genderless world hinting that machine and technology will eventually erase division based on gender. Considering the immense advancement of technology after two decades of its publication, the question one should be reflecting upon today in light of Haraway’s essay is whether a genderless world is possible given the gendered breeding of technology.

Haraway defines cyborg as a “hybrid of machines and organism” ” calling it “the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism”. She suggests that the manipulation of human bodies will eventually lead to a genderless world. However, would an illegitimate offspring with feminine characteristics be given the same status as an offspring with masculine traits?

It is 2019, and the world is still an unsafe place for women in both the physical world and on the virtual realm. Sexual harassment, which has haunted women for centuries in real life, has followed them to the digital world. One of the many factors fueling and enabling harassment on the online platform is the negligible number of women users, which renders women a minority and more prone to harassment online. However, more than the latter fact, it is a lack of digital literacy, and knowledge about individual rights protection, which normalizes sexual harassment, and dissemination photographs and videos of sexual assault on social media.

According to a study conducted in Australia in 2016, 76% of women under the age of 30 have faced some kind of online harassment. It also shows that high school, college, and university students are more likely to face online sexual harassment. Similar is the situation in most countries all around the world. While one cannot deny the fact that men also get harassed online, the nature of harassment for women is more severe and can have serious effects on their mental health.

The form of sexual harassment women face online range from threatening, sexual remarks, dissemination of personal photographs and videos online, and inciting physical violence. All these have had women commit suicide all around the world. Qandeel Baloch, an iconic social media celebrity of Pakistan, received all sorts of threats and abuse for her rebellious persona online. The way she presented herself on social media did not only challenge the social norms but it also eventually resulted in her brother murdering her.

The consequences of videos and photographs of sexual violence are more serious. Recently a man released a video of two women threatening them to be punished for roaming around Turbat city of Balochistan. The video shows one woman pleading the video maker to stop, and the other hiding her face for the video maker says, “She has sworn not to do such acts again”. The video maker reveals the name of the beseeching woman and her address and sharing some personal details about her life. After the video went viral, people started raising all sorts of questions including the freedom of women, and the reputation of the family which most believed has been tarnished by the acts of these two women.

Both these cases include gender, violence, and technology. People use personal photographs and videos as great weapons to shut the victims. At the end of the spectrum of such abuse are honor killing and suicide. Factors leading to such fatal ends are lack of family support, victim blaming, and fear of losing respect.

Circulation of videos and pictures of assault can have a traumatic effect on people who are in those pictures. With each like, share, and comment the event is reiterated for the victim and continues to haunt them. The proliferation of videos and pictures of sexual assault extends the suffering of the victim of sexual harassment.

It is also important to notice the low participation of women in social media because of security concerns. Majority of women do not use their real name or post their own picture on social media for fear of getting harassed. Pakistan is one of many countries that has a cyber-harassment law. Article 15 of the constitution grants all the citizens the right to privacy irrespective of gender. The Prevention of Electronic Crime Act covers various aspects of online harassment including misuse of pictures and videos. However, a study conducted by the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) in 2016 revealed that 72% of women in Pakistan are not aware of the existence of a cyber-harassment law.

Cyber harassment has always been considered an insignificant issue. Most of the people have been in denial of the fact that the consequences it entails transcend the digital realm. The mere solution most women seek is to deactivate their social media accounts; however, deactivating social media accounts is only a temporary solution because women may face harassment regardless of their absence from social media. Of the respondents who participated in DRF research, 48% said they know of people who stopped using social media after being harassed.

Women find themselves conflicted with regards to something that dominates different domains of the modern world. Social media has become the ultimate platform to express opinions; engage in the economy by conducting business, and participate in educational activities. Cyber harassment does not only impede women from using social media but takes from them an opportunity to be economically independent.

Haraway’s genderless future would not be possible if such normalization of sexual violence continues to prevail. Instead, the digital realm could turn into a patriarchal hegemon. The power of photographs and videos is immense, and this power has been mostly used negatively. The negative use of the platform and the content produced in it in a way normalizes acts of sexual violence. Technology has made people’s life very easy; however, some aspects of it need to be reconsidered to make it a safe space for everyone.

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Hatoon Gul is a Turbat based YES alumna studying Social Development and Policy at Habib University, Karachi.

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