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As censorship, sexual assault, and violence against women in the South Asian subcontinent continue to rise, a refreshing gender diverse panel discussed sexual rights of women and laws that discriminate against public expression of sexuality in South Asia.

Valentina hvale Pellizzer of the Association of Progressive Communications (APC) directs a new project called EROTICS South Asia focused on researching online sexuality and the ways in which LGBTIA people use the internet.

Pellizzer notes that people often think of the internet as a space where voices get heard. But LGBTIA people are aware of the fact that the internet is not a safe or private space. Big corporations do not care about people's diversity or privacy and are not willing to protect rights online. People talk a lot about privacy in the ‘global north’ but in the ‘global south,’ there's more discourse about modesty and dignity, and these concepts are often used as a way of controlling online speech.

India's Section 67 Obscenity Law

Smita Vanniyar has been studying how India's Section 67 Obscenity Law is being used to control speech online. The law is quite broad, criminalizing any transmission of lascivious or crude content, “meant to corrupt those who see it” and anything perceived as obscene can come under the provision.

Smita's team analyzed media reports of cases brought under Section 67 and interviewed many of those involved. Often, Section 67 cases involve rape videos and recordings of sexual assaults used to blackmail survivors of the attacks. But Section 67 is also used to silence political or artistic expression.

Smita showed images considered obscene to point out the arbitrary nature of these accusations. For example, All India Bakchod, a comedy group, used a Snapchat filter to add dog ears and a nose to Prime Minister Modi. Another image shows an Indian minister on a yacht and included text questioning whether it was appropriate for the minister to be celebrating on a yacht while his state suffered from drought. Smita closes with a morphed image, noting that morphed images are often sexual in nature. But the one Smita shows is a Hindu extremist leader wearing a uniform of white shirts and khaki shorts. The shorts have been morphed into a woman's legs in tan capris. She asks: how does obscenity get misapplied in cases like this?

How are LGBTQ Sri Lankans connecting online?

Sanchia Brown studies how lesbian women use online spaces in Sri Lanka. Brown notes that LGBTQ Sri Lankans live somewhat invisible lives. While they have tried reforming laws that criminalize homosexuality, they have not yet been successful. The illegality tends to keep LGBTQ people in the closet and makes them avoid government contact.

Still, LGBTQ Sri Lankans are using the internet both for information and to build relationships. Brown notes that before the internet, people often thought their homosexuality was unique unless they went to a library. This has raised questions among the LGBTQ community in Sri Lanka about whether or not to talk about issues online in one's own name or to use a pseudonym. Brown cites instances when photos from private profiles have moved onto public fora, attempting to shame people. This has sent people off Facebook out of fear of being outed and affecting their friends and family online.

Pellizzer points out that in these cases: “one's ‘fake profile’ is the true profile, while the ‘true profile’ is the face you have to put up for the rest of the world.”

Self-censorship online in Nepal

Jyotsna Maskey, a women's rights activist with LOOM Nepal, notes that issues of sexuality and rights came to the fore during the “People's War,” the decade-long Maoist insurgency. Many men were killed in the war and women discovered that they were not legally able to confer their names to their children. Campaigning for the right to name their children helped women turn sexuality into a form of political expression. Maskey also mentioned that issues like rape and sexual violence during the conflict was and still is a taboo subject.

Laws around obscenity are often used to control online speech, but norms are powerful as well. When Jyotsna interviewed women's rights activists, she found that the older activists were not comfortable with terms like “sexuality” or “sexual expression.” One woman insisted, “I don't write about sex online” even though she works on abortion rights. The realm of women's rights tends to work on reproductive rights of married women.”

Young women in Kathmandu often use the internet not only for activism but for dating, but outside the capital, the internet is cost-prohibitive. Jyotsna notes that obscenity online almost always refers to women's bodies. For example, in the Bollywood film “Queen,” a woman takes off her bra and throws it in a basin. The bra has been blurred in the name of obscenity. Why would a piece of clothing be seen as obscene?

Using social media to wake up “sleepy” governments

Jake, the panel moderator, asked Brown about film and theater censorship in Sri Lanka. He notes that full frontal nudity is now allowed in theatres, and in 1992 a film with a central gay character was shown widely. What's the shift in Sri Lanka versus other countries? Brown explained that India and Sri Lanka have similar laws criminalizing homosexuality and transsexuality, but believes that history may lead towards a different set of perceptions. During the war, everyone was under surveillance, which especially affected LGBTQ people. Since the war, there's an increasing sense of openness, perhaps in reaction.

Nighat Dad from Pakistan asked about the role of social media companies in censorship. In Pakistan, the government censors in the name of morality, but also send complaints to platform owners, asking them to follow local laws. How do we constrain that sort of power over speech?

Jad, a journalist from the Maldives, tells the story of a young woman living on an island, abused by her father along with her sisters. The government ignored her complaints, but when she made noise on social media, he was finally brought to justice.

Can we use social media to pressure “sleepy” governments to wake up and take issues of sexual violence online more seriously?


Image by Filip Stojanovski, CC BY. “What is obscene about woman's legs?” An Indian court declared a caricature of a powerful Indian right-wing politician ‘obscene’ and used it as an excuse to persecute the author.