The internet has transformed the way bodily autonomy is addressed now in South Asia by giving women avenues to learn and share experiences of their bodies with others. This freedom has not only enabled conversations around bodily rights, but also highlighted women's health issues like never before. However, despite this newfound voice, the important question is whether the internet has been fair to women when they share their experiences with the world? Has it given women the freedom to share their bodies' experiences online or are we only seeing content limited to only certain groups that highlights the experiences of certain types of bodies? As the conversation transcends, it is important to explore the close-knit relationship between bodily autonomy and censorship, and the politics of identity in South Asia.
Bodily autonomy is the right to one’s own body and how they govern it without the interference and influence of societal norms or pressures. The Human Rights Council 2017 Resolution highlights the elimination of discrimination against women and girls, and all member states are required to do so through local laws and policy actions. This discrimination also extends to women and gendered diverse folks and the choices they make for their own bodies. However, living in South Asia, an environment that is already highly-charged with colonial and patriarchal structures, we see that women and gender diverse communities do not have the absolute right to bodily autonomy, and states and technology companies alike play a pivotal role in censoring their expression from mainstream and digital media.
Bodily autonomy is essentially how one chooses to express themselves online and in a matter that is not harmful to another person, but race, caste, class and economic status do determine the [extent of] liberties and experiences of bodily autonomy one has. - Saritha Irugalbandara
In Pakistan, Shmyla Khan, a women’s and digital rights activist, shares that bodies are constantly datafied especially on the internet. “We are required to make parts of ourselves visible on the internet or through the extractive collection of data. The control over how our bodies are used and represented is now tied to technologies and data models prevalent in the world.” She adds, “Issues of consent, who gets to use our personal data and how it is distributed, have consequences for our bodies in terms of their safety, and how much control we have over these decisions.” Women’s bodies are subjected to objectification, harassment, sexualisation and surveillance since the day they join the internet.
Saritha Irugalbandara, a social media analyst from Hashtag Generation – a movement working on civic and political participation of youth in Sri Lanka, states that the questions we need to ask ourselves first while understanding bodily autonomy is about what expression is allowed on the internet and who gets to enjoy this right. She adds, “Bodily autonomy is essentially how one chooses to express themselves online and in a matter that is not harmful to another person, but race, caste, class and economic status do determine the [extent of] liberties and experiences of bodily autonomy one has."
While using the internet, one cannot rule out the fact that experiences do differ because of indicators of intersectionality in our environment. This is why perhaps social media platforms like TikTok are frowned upon because these are essentially platforms that do not represent the experiences of those who define how conversations must be held on the internet. However, conversations with activists from Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka reveal that Tiktok as a platform is always linked to indecency, immorality and vulgarity by those who are not represented on the app. These references have also been used in Pakistan to legitimise multiple bans on the app, and even though an agreement with the company was reached, Pakistan ranks second in the world for the largest volume of content takedowns on TikTok between April and June 2022.
The platform's popularity and the backlash is just not restricted to Pakistan though. In Nepal, Shripa Pradhan, Program Officer at Body & Data, highlights how TikTok is a very popular platform in the country, and sheds light on the recent experience of women on the platform. Shripa makes reference to a now-deleted TikTok video that became viral in the country when six women wearing traditional attire were seen dancing to a famous Bollywood song, Kala Chashma, on the Hindu festival of Teej, and one woman was seen twerking in the video. Two days later, the video was removed from the platform, and the women had to issue an apology for ‘overstepping the line demarcated by society’. Shripa adds that experiences of the internet are very subjective and, “mostly women and queer people face backlash and violence in online spaces since it is the embodiment of the patriarchy we see offline."
Legitimisation of Hate
Men are usually the ones morally policing gendered bodies in online spaces, and subject them to a form of social surveillance on social media, as Saritha shares, “I have never met a woman, queer or trans person on the internet who has not been called a gendered slur, been sexually harassed or sexualised.” And while this violence is by members of the society, we also see that thed very same applies to state authorities who become the self-appointed flag bearers of decency and morality.
Mostly women and queer people face backlash and violence in online spaces since it is the embodiment of the patriarchy we see offline. - Shripa Pradhan
In Nepal, Shripa talks about the Electronic Transactions Act, 2063 passed in 2008, which is oftentimes used to target women and queer people's sexuality and to censor them online. According to the law, the consensual sharing of pictures by two partners can also be penalised because the law doesn’t recognise consent and sees it as obscene. Similarly, the Vagrants Ordinance of Sri Lanka has remained unchanged since 1841 and has been used by the state to target women, specifically transgender women and sex workers in the country. Under this law, an individual can be arrested just for loitering in the city. Saritha of Hashtag Generation, says that the law has continuously been used to target and intimidate trans people and sex workers, and law enforcement agencies are institutionalised in a manner to hate queer and trans folks.
Shmyla Khan from Pakistan notes, “States all over the world have always turned to police women’s bodies as a way of enacting social control. In Pakistan, women’s and trans-persons’ bodies are often the first sites of such policing through laws and policies around ‘morality’ and ‘decency’.” She adds, “When feminists have raised issues of body politics, we have seen backlash from state institutions including the legal system and [political] leaders, who try to cast these women as not representative of the ‘real women’ of Pakistan."
Role of social media
This institutionalised hate from the state coupled with social media companies’ role in promoting certain types of body images only adds fuel to the fire for women and queer people. Social media companies while providing an avenue of freedom of expression and pleasure also hold too much autonomy over content and expression. While the companies pretend to uphold the standards of inclusion, platforms like Instagram are not inclusive or representative of all, especially in terms of portraying certain types of bodies and colours. Shripa notes, “It is our dream for social media companies to understand our problems, and there is also a power dynamics on these platforms, which is why the violence seen in online spaces are multi-dimensional.”
Saritha adds that social media companies do not have the public interest at large, and because these are private corporations, “they don’t necessarily have everyone’s best interest except their own.” This is especially true considering that despite the known existence of multiple private pages, people, groups, and channels in online spaces that sexualise, objectify, harass, dox, threaten, and sexually exploit gendered bodies, they still exist, and their viewership is in millions because high engagement on these pages generate profit for tech companies.
Often policies aimed at taking down non-consensual material tend to over-police content relating to women’s bodies and reify gender binaries. - Shmyla Khan
In 2015, poet Rupi Kaur’s posts were removed twice by Instagram when she posted a picture of a woman sleeping with period-stained clothing and a bedsheet. While Instagram was quick to censor this bodily expression, they do not extend the same hyperactivity to issues around online gender based violence, or promotion of expression of feminine bodies. Women’s and trans people’s bodies that do not fit the stereotype that these platforms are promoting are almost always censored. Shripa highlights that social media companies' algorithms and mechanisms are very problematic, and “they end up shadowbanning people on platforms according to their own content moderation rules and guidelines.”
Content moderation and practices are discriminatory in nature, according to Shmyla, and “often policies aimed at taking down non-consensual material tend to over-police content relating to women’s bodies and reify gender binaries. This is not to say that these issues are complicated especially when addressing them at scale. There are cases pending with the Meta Oversight Board regarding topless imagery of queer bodies, and it will be interesting to see how international human rights standards are applied to content moderation decisions regarding bodily autonomy and gender norms,” she adds.
While bodily autonomy for South Asian women and queer people on the internet will always be a controversial topic, many feminists in the region do believe that state machinery and social media companies can do better. While representation, access and visibility on the internet are still far from fair for women and LGBTQIA+ people, it is still a space that gives a lot of room for expression, mobilisation, pleasure and opportunities for all. Activists across the board in the region are still hopeful of an all-inclusive internet where consent, expression and all body types are celebrated instead of targeted.