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Victim in virtual world

‘Will you be my fuck buddy?’

The bold message on my laptop screen had me at a loss for words. No, I wasn’t unsure whether to accept or reject the proposal? I was busy wondering what exactly in the past ten minutes’ conversation could have made this stranger, whom I had just met on a social networking site, assume that he could take such a liberty with me? Of course, the RSS and godmen like Asaram Babu will reprimand me - my being on a social networking site will be, by them, deemed enough invitation for a guy to take any liberties with me. But not having been taught such self flagellation by my parents, this was not something I was willing to believe. And so I sat fuming even after I had blocked him access to my account to ensure that he is not able to send me further messages. This was, however, definitely not going to be the last such message that I was to receive.

While India and the world is debating stricter punishments for rapists, triggered by the brutal gang rape, leading to death, of a 23-year-old in a bus in Delhi, and mulling ways to make the physical world a safer place for women, the threat of harassment, often unperceived, is shifting to the virtual space. Lewd or suggestive remarks, unwelcome attempts at friendship, harassing photographs, stalking on social media, obscene emails, it is as if the seamless world of virtual space has opened new possibilities for the neighbourhood lech, the roadside Romeo, the groper on public transport, the pesky colleague/classmate and the scary abuser. Easy anonymity (you  don’t necessarily have to give your name or picture on social media) makes the harasser bolder than in the real space. And often indecent proposals in the virtual world spill on to abuse in the real world (as in the recent alleged rape of a 19-year-old in Delhi by a man she had met on a social networking site) and vice versa.

A friend I had shared my experiences with once, told me that I was a ‘victim’ - I have ‘easy target’ written all over me. She meant of course that I need to be brusque, to handle them better and not take the escape route, by blocking all those who disturbed me. But her comment rankled. A quick poll among my friends showed that more than 90 per cent of them had been harassed in the virtual world at some point of time. The figure is similar to the number of women who have faced some form of harassment (eve teasing or groping) in the physical world. The experiences were varied. While one had been ‘stalked’ by a man whose friend request she had turned down on a social networking site - he continued to message her commenting on posts on other people’s profile, another had  had her mobile number put up on a fake account. ‘A few years back I started getting calls from unknown men on my cellphone. One of the callers said my number was given in some profile on a social networking site. Someone had created a fake profile with my mobile number. It had to be someone I knew. I filed a general diary at the local police station but it didn’t help. Finally I had to change my number,’ she said. Another girl was shocked when one of her close friends made a very sexually explicit comment - referring to her certain body parts -  on a picture  she had put up on a social networking site. He was someone she met everyday and he had never said such things to her in real life. A fourth told me of some very disturbing poems that would be mailed to her. ‘They weren’t signed but I am sure it was someone I knew. There was nothing overtly sexual but they described my hair, skin, complexion, eyes, nose-ring… It was graphic, like someone was touching me.,’ she said.

Most of them had never considered taking a legal step. Just as I hadn’t. What made us ignore these messages and these online harassers? Was it just the ingrained training given to all girls from a young age to ignore such comments till they assume monstrous proportions? Partly, yes. But we were also unsure about legal provisions - which as of now, are almost non-existent in the case of online sexual harassment.

Almost all police departments in the country today have a cyber crime cell. ‘But I have never received a case for online sexual harassment,’ says Delhi lawyer M S Khan, adding, ‘I am aware that it is a growing problem, but as of now there is no legal definition of online sexual harassment or
chhed chhad
. As a lawyer however, I do feel the need for it.’

The Information Technology Act 2000 As Amended By 2008 came into effect in 2009. Before that there was no specific law for cyber crime.

Section 66E of the act says: ‘Whoever, intentionally or knowingly captures, publishes or transmits the image of a private area of any person without his or her consent, under circumstances violating the privacy of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years or with fine not exceeding two lakh rupees, or with both.’

Parts of Section 67 of the IT act deal with ‘punishment for publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form’ and ‘punishment for publishing or transmitting of material containing sexually explicit act, etc. in electronic form’. ‘But the language of the law is so ambiguous that one doesn’t know how to implement it,’ says Khan. Also sending sexually explicit messages, which is the most common form of harassment is not clearly mentioned.

Section 354 of the IPC mentions ‘assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty’. There are also sections on sexual harassment at the workplace and misconduct by a person in public. But even the lawyers are unsure of whether public can mean a public social network or stalking online.

Poulomi Banerjee is assistant editor at Millennium Post
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