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Mewat women have found freedom online. Men can stare, taunt, misuse pics, they won’t sign out

Women in Haryana’s Mewat are told men won't marry them if they post their pictures on social media. But a campaign that exhorts them to ‘go online’ has fired up their imagination.

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It’s not the hens leisurely crossing the roads that worries Shehnaz when she manoeuvres her blue Maruti Suzuki Baleno through the narrow lanes of Ferozepur Jhirka in Mewat, Haryana. It’s not even the fact that she is the first and only woman in her village to drive a car. It’s the children running after her car and the unrelenting stares from men and women that force her to stop and brake in the middle of the street in exasperation. And all because she dared to upload a photo of herself online. 

Four years after she made her Facebook account, Shehnaz updated her display picture or DP: she posted a photo where her face is clearly visible under a white hijab. It was a small step in the frenetic world of social media, but a giant leap for 26-year-old Shehnaz

In Mewat, a woman’s activity on Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, etc is inextricably linked to her morality and character. Fathers, brothers and husbands actively discourage women from revealing themselves on social media platforms. The restrictions women face in the physical world are extended and even buttressed in the virtual world—with the support of ‘well-meaning’ neighbours and friends.

Young girls are told that nobody will marry them. They are warned that their reputation will be destroyed. These diktats are couched under the very real fear that the women’s photos will be morphed and misused. 

For this little victory, Shehnaz had to convince her husband to give her permission, but she still cannot accept any friend requests. 

“In our society, we have to live according to other people’s and not our own wishes. My husband raised no objection over the picture but my neighbours raised the alarm and tried convincing him and my in-laws that it was wrong,” said Shehnaz, adjusting the shawl covering her head.  

Shehnaz at her home in Haryana’s Mewat, talking about the struggles women face while using social media | Photo: Disha Verma | ThePrint

She is among the five women from Mewat who participated in the ‘Laado Go Online’ campaign organised by activist and former sarpanch of Bibipur village, Sunil Jaglan. In November 2022, he announced that one woman would be selected to become the female brand ambassador of Mewat. 

The goal is to bridge the digital divide, break misconceptions, and create awareness among women about their rights and representation. In 2015, Jaglan had rolled out the ‘Digital India With Laado’ campaign — which involved households putting up nameplates bearing their daughter’s name — soon after his ‘Beti Bachao Selfie Banao’ campaign was lapped up by the Narendra Modi government to launch a nationwide ‘Selfie With Daughter’ drive. 

Jaglan was ecstatic when five women sent their photos for the Mewat brand ambassador position. This in itself is an act of asserting oneself, he says. “It was an uphill task for these women but they fought to send a picture.”

The women ThePrint spoke to described being constantly bullied by their families and neighbours for using social media. 

“When men can use social media, why can’t women?” asks 24-year-old Arstun, who is training to become a midwife at a government college in Nuh.

But then, Arstun doesn’t have an older brother.


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A woman with a smartphone? 

Five kilometres from Ferozpur Jhirka where Shehnaz lives, Arstun, too, has to put up with hushed whispers and long stares every time she steps out of her two-room house. 

She created a Facebook profile three years ago, but under a fake name ‘Fiza Khan’ with a DP of Bollywood actor Salman Khan. Only her best friend was in on this secret. Last month, Arstun decided to ‘come out’ on social media.

“I am the eldest child in the family. I don’t have an elder brother who would dictate my life. It was easy for me to convince my parents. But for my friends who have older brothers, social media is a far-fetched dream,” she says. 

For her coming out on Facebook, she used her actual name and a group photo in which she is clearly visible. The backlash–from within her family and neighbourhood—was swift. Her father, a taxi driver, is under pressure to exert his authority over his daughter. This is a neighbourhood where most women don’t own smartphones. Arstun got hers only last year after protesting for a week. 

A woman with a smartphone in her hand is already a call for attention, she says. Now with her picture on social media, she has invited more trouble. 

But “for me, it is an act of assertion, an act of revolution,” says Arstun, revelling in her newfound freedom.

Sohail, 23, who works as a part-time at a grocery store in the neighbourhood, says young women should not use social media and he won’t be comfortable if his sister posted her pictures online.

“I will not allow even my future wife to use social media. What is the need to reveal oneself? Our religion doesn’t allow it,” says Sohail, who is pursuing his bachelor’s from Delhi University.

These restrictions are not limited to Muslim women, but are prevalent in some or the other form across communities. 

Anjali, 26, who lives in Gandoori village was not allowed to use social media until she got married. “I was told no one would marry a woman who has a social media account and goes around revealing her pictures to other men,” she said. 

The neighbourhood boy she fell in love with, and is now married to, also didn’t want her to be on social media. He didn’t want her to be seen by other men. 

“But the day I got married, he allowed me to make a social media account. I was super happy. The first picture I uploaded was of our marriage. My husband says that now that we are married, I won’t go anywhere else so I can use social media freely,” said Anjali with a burst of loud laughter.

For Anjali, Arstun and other women, the first steps in social media are haunted by fears that their photos will be misused. It has already happened to Shehnaz.

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Online freedom, offline activism

Last November, when Shehnaz took part in the ‘Laado Go Online’ campaign, she also sent her application for the Mewat brand ambassador position

This was when Shehnaz uploaded her first “real” picture on her Facebook account. A week later, she woke up to a barrage of messages on her WhatsApp. A video was doing the rounds, one where Shehnaz’s passport-size photo had been used in a still video with a vulgar conversation in the background. She quickly woke her husband, Mohsin, and they went to the local police station to file a complaint.

Shehnaz is convinced she was targeted for participating in the ‘Laado Go Online’ campaign.

“I know there are a few nefarious elements who want to make an example out of me. They want to show other women in Mewat that if they exercise their freedom to use the internet, they will face the same consequences,” said Shehnaz, who works as a coordinator at the panchayat office in the city. 

It’s been two months since the police registered an FIR, but those behind the video have not been identified. The police said the case is still under investigation. 

Poonam, another participant, was horrified to find her photo being used on multiple accounts. She was so shaken by it that she removed the image from her Facebook account.

“I saw many fake accounts coming up with my picture. I got scared. I can’t file a complaint, but how can women be on social media when they will be maligned like this?” the 24-year-old says.

It’s a very real fear, but Shehnaz refuses to let others dictate her newfound online freedom. The video has only fuelled her desire to fight back. Whenever she is free, she drives to villages in the area and talks to women and their parents on why the internet is important for them. She has become an activist of sorts, exhorting women to reveal themselves on social media. Often, Mohsin accompanies her. 

“I have covered a dozen villages and I faced resistance initially. But I ensure that parents listen to me and let their daughters be on the internet,” Shehnaz says. 

Astrun, too, has become a social media warrior within her circle of friends. 

“I need to be strong to bring change. One day, I want to become a Sarpanch so that I can change the condition of the women in my society,” she says. 

(Edited by Prashant)

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