Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and the fault in our digital spaces


On redefining harassment for the online realm  


A few days ago, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy took to Twitter to raise the issue of harassment – one involving her sister and an unnamed doctor from Agha Khan University Hospital (AKUH). The tweets brought into question the definition of harassment, doctor-patient relations, the intersection of class and gender, and more. While most agree the doctor’s action were unethical, a larger debate has since loomed over what harassment means to the good people living in the digital realm.

Indeed, one man’s friend request can at times be another woman’s harassment. But one person’s experiences and reactions cannot inform the rules of engagement for all, as many point out.

To add or not to

The reason many Pakistanis do not see a whole chunk of digital interactions as harassment is because Pakistanis disconnect virtual from real, and do not understand the link between the two. “I think it’s because people see digital/online interactions as a parallel to ‘real life’ rather than as an extension of it,” Bolo Bhi Director Usama Khilji notes.

“Since information and communication technologies are relatively new, they are often dismissed in popular narratives. In reality, an online or digital interaction can often translate into real life consequences, and can cause fear, intimidation, and paranoia in the same way a physical interaction would,” he adds.

A majority of women do not feel safe in online spaces. “Thousands of women in Pakistan are using social platforms with fake names and photos because cyber harassment is very normalised, and the threshold has been brought down tragically. Friendship requests, unsolicited sexually explicit photos, doxing, and blackmail are very common. Given this context, sending friend requests to people – especially when there is a gender and power imbalance – unsolicited advances online are just like the street harassment women face around Pakistan,” Khilji highlights.

As is often the case, the current debate has many players that are actively trying to throw the onus of protection onto the women. Barrister Huma Price is one notable example. She questioned why Chinoy’s sister needed to hide behind her and not come forward herself. Then went onto ask why she had such lax privacy settings to begin with. The argument seemed like a reproduction of the oft-repeated “she was asking for it” adage from the book of misogyny.

“It isn’t a person’s privacy settings that need controlling, rather the unsolicited advances that need to be stopped,” Khilji points out.

Zoya Rehman, a legal researcher and feminist activist, says that harassment – irrespective of how big or small it looks – needs to be understood. “Ultimately, like many other oppressive behaviours, this is about exercising control over a woman. It is about how a woman fears said control. Reporting something like harassment really isn’t easy,” she says.

Rehman also feels that the culture of doubt over any claim made by a woman needs changing. “The fear around ‘phony cases’ is so disproportionate! The number of women that go through these experiences outweighs any fake stories by such a disastrously huge margin,” she adds. This is proved in Chinoy’s case by the fact that an unverified image of the doctor’s four children and his plight went viral, but subsequent reports that he was a repeat offender failed to quell the previous storm.

Dr Muhammad Moiz, Fulbright Scholar and public health professional, has been researching violence on women and gender minorities from a public health and health economics perspective. He believes that there is not enough attention on the actual problem, and too much on the details.

“We care more about the incident and its details. What could have happened or not, who is doing the reporting, etc. When in fact we should be focusing on the larger problem. The issue at hand is about more than just a friend request, it points to a pervasive culture of exploitation within clinical setting. Everyone in that setting knows it happens, yet no one talks about it,” he says.

Lost allies, confused narratives

Chinoy’s tone, privilege or problematic politics should not keep allies from sticking to their principles and calling out harassment – but that doesn’t seem to be happening. Concerns that friend requests were being conflated with heinous forms of harassment including rape and molestation soon surfaced. The debate isn’t just between people who recognise harassment and people who simply pretend it does not exist – it has entered into a discussion on nuance.

Fatima A., an activist who regularly focuses on digital rights in her work, says that as a society, Pakistanis have a poor understanding of boundaries. And this includes even people that identify as feminists and allies.

“What I want, what I am okay with is not equal to what someone else wants, what someone else is okay with. As a collectivist (and authoritarian) society, legitimacy is drawn from group support and the concept of spaces is default-shared spaces. So the immediate reaction tends to be of confusion. We completely fail to realise that our thoughts and experiences might not necessarily be true for everyone even if many of those around us agree to it,” she explains.

“Another thing is the right to public space and perhaps by extension the right to control narrative. This is where patriarchy very overtly comes in. That control belongs to men. When women try to wrest it, it makes waves. When women exist in public spaces on their own terms, when they speak out in their own words against things that make them uncomfortable (as opposed to the small, careful, demure vocabulary of permitted narrative), this becomes a challenge,” she adds.

Fatima points out that putting harassment into black and white does not work, and one form of harassment does not supersede another nor does it undo its magnitude. “Just because it happened just once doesn’t make it any better. Just because someone could say no and walk away doesn’t make it nicer. Just because it was in public doesn’t make it easier. Why are we waiting for things to become more ‘severe’ before we react?” she questions.

“By that logic, even randomly screaming a proposal at a woman is a sign of respect because marriage itself is ‘respectful’ in our culture,” she adds.

The gap between what men and women see as harassment has never been more obvious than now. “Patriarchy enables unchecked male privilege, and it can be frustrating to enable understanding of the difference between lived experiences of men and women. The largely uninterrupted male life around the world is seen as normal, and women’s constant harassment in the street and the workplace is undermined,” Khilji says.

Looking ahead

An evolution of understanding is needed in the country when it comes to digital spaces. “I think more stories of experiences have to be told, and we need to stop undermining how ‘real’ the online world is,” Khilji says.

Moiz believes that the gap between men and women is irrelevant in the face of blurred lines. “What we need is a mass scale intervention to continue for the next 10-15 years to educate our boys and men. But for starters, if most universities start small group exercises using tools like reflexivity and introspection, to create respectable environments and remove toxic masculinity, a lot can happen,” he says.

Rehman points out that the burden of proof for women who report harassment continues to grow from the moment they first speak up. “We keep trying to find tangible proof of harassment but when we find something it is disregarded altogether,” she says.

Serious work needs to be done when it comes to legal structures. The problem of how men and women view harassment is once again at play. “Our laws don’t take into account the subjective experiences of women. So you have veterans like Fauzia Saeed who drafted the women’s protection bill telling Chinoy ‘this is not harassment because it’s missing from the law’ – this is no way to move forward!” she adds.

“The doctor in question cannot be criminalised for his conduct because essentially no law covers what he did. It isn’t addressed by the sexual harassment at the workplace law – you could perhaps use Section 509 on this, but that’s a stretch because it applies to public harassment,” she notes.

At the end of the day, even as Chinoy continues to get battered and issue clarifications, the world is yet to hear an apology or explanation from the harassing doctor – who has till date been offered at least two jobs, and has become defacto victim in the scenario.