Digital Surveillance by Intimate Partners: Violation or Virtue?

Illustration by Aniqa Haider

Mother says there are locked rooms inside all women; kitchen of lust,
bedroom of grief, bathroom of apathy.
Sometimes the men – they come with keys,
and sometimes, the men – they come with hammers.
– Warsan Shire

Van mein phone on rakhna mein sun’oon ga kis se kya baat kar rahi ho.’ A voice from a memory that predates mobile internet or smart phones; she was only 14 so it could not have been any later than 2005. A memory that she wouldn’t even think over twice if it had not eventually led to broken bones, bruises, pleading and several mental breakdowns. It is a memory that seems to be a collective in a world where the lines between protection and possession are constantly blurred. Before this, for Hafsa*, a 32 year old architect from Karachi, the only perception of romantic love was anything Shahrukh Khan was starring in and the routine beatings she saw her father dole out to her mother. It did not occur to her then that being watched by her boyfriend while he was not physically present was a red flag, she only assumed he loved her so much he was willing to run his phone bill up, keeping her on call for the 45 minutes she was in her school van. In 2010, she found him logged into her Facebook without her knowledge and he was incensed to find her recent conversations with her male classmates. A black eye, a broken jaw.      

Another in 2015 had installed spyware onto her phone that allowed him to see which apps she was using, when and for how long. He would obsessively watch which pictures she liked on Instagram,  a feature that has now been mercifully removed, and punished her physically and in sexually violent ways if she accidentally liked a picture with a man in it. This pattern of being watched and surveilled followed her in every romantic relationship, and ended with an even higher degree of brutality and abuse each time till she stopped using social media altogether. 

Surveillance has long been accepted as a mandatory measure of security, since uncertainty and possessiveness over our valuables and property is an evolutionary response of a species that displays territorial traits. Though the concept has existed since the dawn of civilisation and well before technology and certainly digital spaces, the advent of technical measures of surveilling such as telescopes, spy glasses and recording devices greatly increased the scope of monitoring in breadth and depth. So when does surveillance become unethical and who defines the parameters of these ethics?

Of Moral System and Control

Under the systems of white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy, surveillance is a major tool of (re)enforcement. All three systems depend on the otherization of a demographic that is painted as a threat and must be kept under overt or covert observation to keep the major benefactors of these global systems safe and superior. Organized religion also relies heavily on the component of omnipresence and watchfulness, as a measure to both protect and punish, by a higher power. There is a growing consensus amongst those studying human culture that the ideals that seek to create the binaries of sin vs goodness and their consequential punishments and awards have similarities to those that facilitate global and regional level systems of monitoring. Our actions and thoughts are of great value to those who wish to punish in the way of protecting us, and being able to estimate what those actions and thoughts are before they even occur is absolutely priceless. Therefore it becomes ever more convoluted to distinguish whether this constant scrutiny is a violation or a virtue. 

Seyla Benhabib, a Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University, said, “Women and their bodies are the symbolic and cultural place where human societies write their moral system.” A moral system spearheaded by patriarchy authorizes men as the ‘protectors’ of women (and family and land). The notion of protection then transfers to everyone who benefits from patriarchal stereotypes and norms, who happen to be mainly the male figures of the family, and through the historical and present understanding of women as property, who must be watched and guarded as such. 

Watchers and The Watched

In the age of social media where everyone with internet access is watching and being watched, it is poignant to note that the digital gender divide is the largest in South Asia.  In Pakistan, a lowly and damning statistic of only 13% of women have access to the internet. The internet, like any other public arena where one can watch and be watched is deemed fit for only men, and any woman who could agree to such an exchange of her own free will is not regarded as a “respectable” one. Like education, participating in online spaces gives women and gender minorities options beyond the stereotypes and roles assigned to them by the patriarchy. But as Abeda Sultana, a professor at University of Dhaka, states in her paper “Patriarchy and Women’s Subordination: A Theoretical Analysis”, “Despite differences in levels of domination the broad principles remain the same, i.e. men are in control.” 

Women and their liberation – collectively, individually, socially, psychologically, physically, financially, emotionally and sexually – are a threat to patriarchy, and the system employs both media and religion as a stronghold for control in that regard. And though divided by the latter, South Asia is immensely united through the former; i.e. Bollywood – that shapes our understanding of love, conflict, friendship and growth. The largest film industry in the world, based on the sheer scale and volume of their productions, has come under fire several times for their overt displays of misogyny that include, but are not limited to, the glorification of not taking no for an answer, for instance in Dil Se (1998), staring for uncomfortably long periods of time as seen in numerous films, stalking like shown in Tere Naam (2003), and even physical abuse like in Kabir Singh (2019), as not just a tangent of romance but a measure of it. Underlying all these issues is a deliberate misunderstanding and dismissal of the concept of consent, as women in romantic roles are often portrayed as objects that must be lusted after, possessed, and eventually ‘saved’. What she needs saving from is an endless array of evils; her own family, society, an evil villain, another romantic interest, her career and so on and so forth. 

Hence through this demonic coupling of religion and media what we see is that being ‘watched over’ by god, the state and men is an allegedly necessary element to not only keep women, and other infantilised objectionables, protected but also policed. 

Why do you even need a password? What are you hiding?’

Khadija*, 21, an artist from Quetta doing her MBBS in Istanbul, had seen her father invade her mother’s space countless times, to the extent where neither the family nor the mother herself understood or asserted the boundaries that would allow her some extent of privacy or ownership of her personhood. “My mother was never even asked if someone could [use] her phone. It was grabbed out of her hands by whoever wanted to use it,” she said. This breach of privacy is horrifyingly common in romantic relationships where systemic sexist power dynamics ensure that the one whose boundaries are being overlooked or crossed is also the one with less power in the relationship, which usually are women. 

Sumaira*, from Lahore, now in her late 20’s, recounted, “During my last relationship, I was never comfortable sharing my password but it was often projected by my ex-boyfriend as my lack of trust in him or an explicit accusation that I was not comfortable sharing my password because I had something to hide. We often ended up into heated arguments and the emotional turmoil sometimes made me share my password just to avoid further confrontation.” This manner of coercion which makes one partner feel ever watched and in the wrong is a form of emotional violence and abuse that can severely damage an individual’s sense of confidence in themselves and in their significant other. It is a form of gaslighting that, instead of nurturing an environment of trust, creates an atmosphere of misplaced secrecy and shame for the one being watched, even though they are not doing anything ‘out of line.’ 

Asif*, 31, recounts the circumstances with his sister’s marriage where “not long after the marriage [the husband] started controlling her movements and who she talked to and how frequently was she allowed to visit us. He used to show her WhatsApp conversations between his cousins and rivals that he’d supposedly gotten hacked. We believed WhatsApp is hackable and so stopped having emotional and personal conversations with her… she wouldn’t share her grievances on the phone as he used to listen to it or record it.” He adds, “ She was made to believe her phone could hear her conversations even when not being used, so she would always put her phone in her bag and put it in the farthest room of the house while visiting. He would tell her casually that he knew whom she met at work, which colleague and for how many minutes.”      

This form of intense manipulation and monitoring continued for years and the trauma has had immense repercussions on not just Asif’s sister’s relationship with her husband but also her family. The way in which her husband isolated her from her support system and deprived her of any sense of relief from even her work environment is a tactic used by abusers to weaken their victims so that they are too unsure of themselves and their environment to reach out for help. Aside from this, there was also the very real and present threat of her husband taking her child away if she did not comply with his wishes. 

Digital surveillance by intimate partners is often a more intense form of surveillance than others since before cyber stalking and the other digital means of control, it was possible to create some  distance around oneself and the abuser. Now however, with most internet users’ livelihoods and social circles depending on digital spaces, and advancement in tracking software and devices, it has become increasingly difficult to evade their monitoring. 

Farhat* a student in her early 20’s, explains how her first romantic partner would check her social media messages and her call record history so much so that she was compelled to use her younger brother’s phone just to escape her partner’s scrutiny to make calls to the one friend she had. Ramsha*, now 32, and a practicing lawyer in Lahore, was forced to stay with an abusive partner because he threatened her with leaking the compromising pictures he had of her if she dared to break up with him. “I was 21 when we started dating and you know at that age you think this is the love of my life and we will get married. He would talk about what we would name our children and tell me all the plans he had for our future, but soon the abuse and the beatings started. He was angry about everything; where I went, for how long, who I was with. If I spent an extra five minutes with my family at dinner he would accuse me of cheating and being a whore. I started believing that I was the wretched person he said I was and no one else would ever love me if I left him,” Ramsha says, adding, “He would use information about me to coerce sexual acts from me that I was never comfortable with, and years after we had separated did I find the courage to call what he did to me, rape.” 

Daud*, 28, from Multan, has been hesitant to speak about experiencing the violence of being digitally surveilled by his ex-girlfriend because of the exceedingly damaging patriarchal norms that make it a laughing matter when a woman dominates a man to such an extent in a romantic relationship. “I stopped using Facebook Messenger for any communications with friends and family. I was cautious using social media and thought twice about texting or calling anyone being scared of my partner’s reaction. It caused many arguments and fights when I complained about this. I knew I was being treated unfairly but I couldn’t stop that as my partner’s anger and emotional manipulation got the better of me and I would just eventually agree to it,” he shares.

The understanding of violence must be extended to that beyond the physical, and so a feminist conception of violence is an intrusion of an external force to the physical, psychological and emotional boundaries that you are either born with or create, that leave a lasting adverse impression on an individual, physically, psychologically or emotionally. In intimate partner relationships, that violence cuts even more deeply as these are usually the people one is most, ideally willingly, vulnerable with.

‘We need protection from our protectors’

Despite every major religion and world system espousing not only a need but a duty to surveil us, the freedom to privacy is enshrined in every individual’s basic human rights. In the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, article 14(1) states; “[t]he dignity of man and, subject to law, the privacy of home, shall be inviolable,” and the country is also party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights under which article 12 posits; “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) enables and protects Pakistani citizens from technological, digital and cyber misuse and abuse. It has been around since 2012 and the organization works on ‘issues of online free speech, privacy, data protection and online violence against women.’ Shmyla Khan, lawyer and Director Research and Policy at DRF, addresses the violence of digital surveillance and states that, “Online surveillance is directly linked to offline control and violence. We’ve seen so many cases unfortunately of online activity of women resulting in honour killings, especially when women transgress patriarchal norms and limits established for them. Online surveillance can also lead to self-censorship which is directly linked to women’s ability to express themselves in these spaces. Lastly, breaches of privacy and blackmail has also resulted in cases of suicide, especially when women see no way out and feel the legal system cannot help them, or actively work against them if they report.”’

Qandeel Baloch, murdered in 2016 by her brother for her online persona, is perhaps Pakistan’s most household example of digital surveillance being a form of violence, yet there are countless others who are unnamed and unheard. Though the state has created laws to deter cyber stalking, harassment and other digital crimes, they have been largely futile in addressing the needs of the average female internet user. Prevention of  Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016, was widely criticised for its ill fitting punishments, vague terminology and lack of inclusivity in terms of the type of crime as well as the majority of people affected by the transgressions; women, gender minorities, religious minorities. According to this law, “Whoever with dishonest intention gains unauthorised access to any information system or data shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three months or with fine which may extend to fifty thousand rupees or with both.” The terms ‘unauthorised’ and ‘non-consensual’ completely write off the myriad of victims and survivors who have had to ‘consensually’ hand over their privacy to their abusers, without there being any proof of it being a coerced exchange.

Dania Mukhtar, Director Legal at the Digital Rights Foundation, says, “Although section 24 of PECA does cover digital surveillance by intimate partners, however, law enforcement agencies often do not pursue cases in which passwords or access to devices was given consensually.” Dania suggests that there is a need to amend this section to include a provision with respect to revocation of consent. She also says, “A provision allowing for an order of protection should also be inserted which can be used to legally restrict the abuser from contacting the victim through Facebook or other social media platforms as no such provision currently exists in PECA.”

In addition to this, PECA mainly focuses on violations from unknown outsiders, without taking into account that just like in real life, the most abuse and violence one faces is usually from people known to the survivor/victim. Therefore there is little legal recourse available to the individuals who are at risk from their partners unless the extent of their abuse is something that can be physically documented (i.e. recorded threats, domestic violence, revenge porn etc). 

Dania believes that recourse can be offered to the victims of intimate partner violence through the upcoming legislations. She says, “The draft Personal Data Protection Bill could benefit the citizens of Pakistan better if it made room for the possibility of countering intimate relationship abuse, revenge or control-based tactics that fall within the category of accessing and non-consensually using or distributing anyone’s personal data.”

Even when there is proof of a wrongdoing, women are generally hesitant to report as they are unsure of how the law enforcement will handle their privacy, therefore there is an imminent need to not only have gender sensitivity training that is culture specific and applicable to every legal body, but also to hire women who can be reached out to by other women and gender minorities without fearing even more patriarchal violence and intrusion. However, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) does have a website (http://www.nr3c.gov.pk/) dedicated to the reporting of cyber crime, although digital surveillance by intimate partners has not been mentioned on their list of criminal activity.

Identifying abuse

Shmyla also added that there are some tell-tale signs of predatory and controlling behavior that everyone should be vigilant about, “If someone tries to dictate our activity online—what you should say, who you should talk to—that is a clear sign of them trying to establish control over your social life and connection with others, this is classic controlling behaviour. Even insisting to have access to your devices and accounts is indicative of a lack of trust within a relationship and is used to surveil your activities. These patterns are often seen in cases of domestic violence; some partners even go as far as to install tracking software on their partner’s devices to keep tabs on them.”

There are many tips out there to protect your online spaces, such as, changing your passwords frequently, buying a new phone, or creating a new account, but these are all as ineffectual as putting a bandaid on a tumour. Cases differ from person to person so there might be a chance of changed behaviour and increased understanding if one is in the position to communicate with their partner that this is a breach of their privacy and trust. For most however, this control is a symptom of a much deeper abuse and violence, and perhaps leaving the relationship with one’s body and mind still intact is the safest and surest remedy.

*Names have been changed to protect identity

Mehar Khursheed is a Karachi based journalist, and focuses on gender, culture and human rights.

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