For Nepali women, rampant objectification and sexualisation on the internetOne community on Reddit with more than 4,500 members has been sexualising, objectifying and humiliating women with photos taken from their social media accounts.
It was in mid-January that Aishwarya Shahi first found out how her photographs were being used. A family friend had pointed her to a subcommunity on Reddit, where photographs taken from her private Instagram had been put up with humiliating and sexist comments. As she explored the subreddit, she found pictures of her friends and Nepali women she knew, and more comments degrading them and objectifying them.
“The comment sections were filled with men talking about our bodies and asking each other for more photos and links to our private social media accounts,” 24-year-old Shahi told the Post.
Ever since then, Shahi has noticed an influx of followers, mostly Nepali males, on her Instagram, which is not publicly accessible. She also began to get repeated warnings about login attempts from different locations all over the world.
“They were trying to hack into my account hoping to get access to more photos and videos that they could spread on the internet,” said Shahi.
A few weeks ago, someone even sent her messages on iMessage from an email address that looked almost similar to her boyfriend’s, asking her for explicit photos of herself.
“When I called the person, they refused to pick up but they insisted on texting and disappeared when I confronted them,” she said.
Shahi is among the many Nepali women who have recently found their photos circulating online on a number of websites, Facebook groups, Twitter handles and private chats—among the most egregious of these being the subreddit /r/nepalibabes, a Reddit sub-community with over 4,500 users.
In a majority of cases, the photos were taken without consent from women’s private or public social media accounts and spread among groups of men for objectification and sexualisation. In some instances, the Post discovered that men had even hacked into social media accounts to steal private photographs, going so far as to extort women in exchange for not publicly posting the photos.
Reddit is a discussion website that touts itself as “the front page of the internet” but has long been controversial for the many subcommunities, called subreddits, it harbours. There are millions of anonymous users who have created over 10,000 subreddits. Among them, a number have been banned for paedophilia, sexualised content of minors and nonconsensual sexualised photography of women.
For women on the internet, these Reddit communities have come to symbolise the extent to which men can go when provided with anonymity and free reign to indulge in their basest of behaviours.
For Nepali women, these subreddits, and the numerous Facebook groups and Twitter handles, have been a nightmare. The Post spoke to at least eight women whose photos have been used on the subreddit and elsewhere on the internet without consent. They professed to being shocked, disgusted, afraid and extremely worried about being socially stigmatised.
A., whom the Post is identifying only by her initials, also had her photos and videos taken from her social media and placed on the subreddit. She found other women she personally knew and she is certain that none of the women have consented to have their photos put up.
“I spent three hours on the subreddit and there were videos that were clearly rape, where women can be heard refusing and protesting but they were still continuing, and filming,” she said. “The subreddit has no end, it goes on and on.”
The subreddit in question has about 4,500 members, and is moderated by an individual who goes by the username MrBista. Every day, users post photos of women with demeaning captions and the comments that sexualise them. All too often, their private social media handles are exposed.
Behind this subreddit were a number of users, including the moderator MrBista, who often got together on a Reddit public group chat and on a Discord server to collectively participate in fantasising about women, making jokes about raping them and leaking sex tapes, according to screenshots seen by the Post. Information received by the Post suggests that these same men are a part of a wide network of groups on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit that collects photographs from both private and public social media accounts and employs them primarily in sexual objectification.
On May 5, in the wake of the revelation of India’s ‘boy’s locker room’, Nirvana Bhandary, whose photos had also appeared on the subreddit, began calling them out through her Instagram. Her posts were widely shared, leading to the subreddit going private and the chat groups to start filtering out members. An Instagram page that had previously posted the same objectionable content as the subreddit began to delete all material.
Sanjog Rai, a photographer and filmmaker, was a member of the Discord chat, which had 4,021 members, before they threw him out. He initially joined the group to ensure that a friend’s photos, which had her personal information and comments calling her an escort, were taken down from these platforms.
Rai, who lost a close friend after she committed suicide when her Facebook was hacked and her private photos were leaked 8 years ago, was personally affected by the group and its activities.
“Initially when I joined, I found them openly sharing videos of pornography of children as young as 10 years old,” Rai told the Post. “Other men would simply ask for more videos like that, and share it on other public platforms.”
According to Rai, who infiltrated the group for more than three months, the members of the Discord chat would discuss how to hack social media accounts and blackmail women to get their photos.
“When some women complied with the threats, the men would discuss in graphic detail how they would take their turns with them,” said Rai. “The acquired pictures would then make their way to different places on the internet, including pornsites.”
Rai provided screenshots to the Post where users are openly asking for nude photographs of specific women, labelling women as sex workers, objectifying their bodies, fantasising about their sexual pasts, discussing gangrapes—all while justifying this by claiming to admire Nepali girls over other ethnicities.
Since April, Rai, along with a number of women whose photos have appeared on these websites, have attempted to file a case at the Nepal Police’s Cyber Crime Bureau. But they haven’t had much luck.
Although Rai said that the cases hadn’t been registered, Senior Superintendent Nabinda Aryal of the bureau said that the complaints against the /r/nepalibabes subreddit have been received and are being investigated. He, however, refused to provide any more details.
Nepali law does not have any specific provisions when it comes to nonconsensual dissemination of private photographs. Most cases are tried on a case-by-case basis using the Electronic Transaction Act.
Clause 86 of the Electronic Transaction Act, deems the production, collection, distribution, publication, exhibition, and transmission of pornographic content using digital means to be illegal. The 2018 Criminal Code also prohibits the production and publishing of obscene material that “promotes immorality or eroticism”.
But according to lawyers, this law itself could be used to further victimise the women.
“Since the element of consent is missing from this section, the women who have found their photos on the internet will be criminalised by the institution that exists to protect their rights because they could be framed for producing obscene content,” said lawyer Rita Baramu.
According to Shubha Kayastha of the digital advocacy organisation Body and Data, the police do not appear to be taking these cases seriously as they do not involve physical violence.
“Due to the absence of physical violence, which is considered more real, online violence is neglected by the state,” said Kayastha. “However, digital violence has more footprints because once something is on the internet, it is permanently etched and can be detrimental to the mental health of the survivor. The police’s case-solving mechanism consists of amicably resolving the issue between two parties, and in worst case scenarios, sending someone to jail for a day or two, whereas the same law is used to arrest and punish people who speak against the authorities.”
When it comes to the misuse of private photographs, women are often doubly victimised. While the perpetrators use their images to sexualise and objectify them, society at large tends to turn to victim-blaming, where women are made to feel like they are at fault for taking those photographs in the first place.
“Women are questioned about their online behaviour and a huge burden is placed on them to first accept that they were at fault for putting themselves in a vulnerable position,” said Kayastha.
This moral policing can lead to protectionist measures that result in internet censorship, which compromises the agency and authority of women, according to Kayastha. In October 2018, in response to widespread outrage over the rape and murder of 13-year-old Nirmala Pant, the Nepal government banned all pornography in the country. But the blanket ban also covered educational website and forums for the queer community.
For women, the battle to take down these websites and hold the perpetrators to account has been a hard slog and it doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon. After the most notorious subreddit went private, another one has already attracted more users, where individuals can be seen professing no regret for their actions and instead, blaming the women.
“I know I have not done anything wrong and my photos were uploaded without my permission but this makes me question my safety because these groups have anonymous users that could be anyone that knows me from my personal life,” one popular ‘influencer’ whose photos have also appeared on subreddit told the Post on condition of anonymity. “As women, we need to be alert all the time because the men in our society do not respect us enough.”