Today is the second instalment in our series Nepal Then and Now, where we catch up with former guests. We first spoke with Pallavi Payal in mid-2020 about the situation of women in the country during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. At that time she focused on unequal citizenship provisions for women in the country, particularly those living in the southern Madesh region.
In today’s chat we’re focused on online violence against women, particularly the torrent of threats of rape and other violence made against women, including Pallavi, following the Women’s March, a women’s rights rally held in Kathmandu in February 2021. She describes the frustrating process of trying to lodge a report with the cyber bureau of Nepal Police, which includes that office’s inability to accept online violence as a threat that should be investigated.
Pallavi explains why the women activists didn’t try to pursue their complaint further up the Police chain of command but also how today she is more determined than ever to speak up about patriarchy in Nepali society, including in religion.
Let us know what you thought of this episode – and how you’re finding this series, Nepal Then and Now. We’re @nepalnow or @nepalnowpod on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. If you loved it, and don’t want to miss a future episode, make sure you follow the show on your usual podcast app. We’re on Stitcher, iHeartRadio, Google and Apple Podcasts as well as Pocket Casts and many more.
Media coverage of the women’s march, 12 February 2021 – Kathmandu Post
Website of Body & Data, a Nepal-based NGO that works on online access for women and sexual minorities
Nepal Now social links
Thanks as always to Nikunja Nepal for advice and inspiration.
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0:00:05.3 Marty Logan:
Welcome to Nepal Now, the podcast where we discuss new ideas and initiatives to move Nepal forward. My name is Marty Logan. Today is the second installment in our series, Nepal Then and Now, where we catch up with former guests. We first spoke with Pallavi Payal in mid-2020 about the situation of women in the country during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. At that time, she focused on unequal citizenship provisions for women in the country, particularly those living in the Southern Madhesh region. In today's chat, we're focused on online violence against women, particularly the torrent of threats of rape and other violence, made again women, including Pallavi, following the Women's March, a women's rights rally held in Kathmandu in February 2021. She describes their frustrating process of trying to log a report with the cyber Bureau of Nepal Police, which includes that office's inability to accept online violence as a threat that should be investigated, Pallavi explains why the women activists didn't try to pursue their complaint further up the police chain of command, but also how today she is more determined than ever to speak up about patriarchy in Nepali society, including in religion. Please listen now to my chat with Pallavi Payal.
0:01:37.2 Marty: Pallavi Payal, welcome again to Nepal Now.
0:01:39.7 Pallavi Payal: Thank you, Marty.
0:01:41.7 Marty: So you are, as people probably remember from the previous episode we did in 2020, you're a speaker and a researcher on many issues on, broadly, topics of gender and women. Those include rape culture and casteism within the women's movement, and even activism in terms of art and particularly mithila art, but for this conversation you mentioned to me that you want to talk particularly about online violence, and so I'm of course very curious about why you chose that topic.
0:02:19.2 Pallavi: Thank you, Marty for inviting me. It's great to come back again to the podcast. I wanted to talk about online violence against women because it was something very personal, something I went through along with other women who took part in the Women's March in 2021, I think in the month of February. And what happened after that was a good example for how the authority, the government, the security system takes care of the people who go through such kind of violence, especially during the time of pandemic. What happened was immediately after the women's march, when one of my friends, Sapana Sanjeevani - who's also an artist - recited a poem. It was broadcasted in national media, as well as in some of the social media. After that, she started receiving threats of death and rape. Along with that, other women, such as myself and other women from marginalized community particularly started receiving rape threats, death threats and all kinds of, I would say, online violence. Some of our photographs were also used on social media to provoke people to attack us, and we took this case to the cyber bureau police. But they did not take it very seriously. We had to, especially Sapana, had to go to the cyber bureau multiple times, and in the end, the police started justifying that because Sapana recited a poem that was very religious in nature, and it offended some people, this was the right kind of reaction that we received, and they also justified the behavior saying that if this was done in Pakistan or any other countries, by now the government would have arrested us and probably killed us as well. So those kind of things happened, and in the end, they decided not to take this case, saying that most of the threats were received inside the inboxes. If these threats were in public and of obscene nature with pictures edited and lots of nudes were used, then only it would consider to be a crime, and because these threats were inside our inboxes, they did not consider it to be a cyber crime. So these cases were not taken back then during the time of pandemic. I think we all used social media a lot to express ourselves, to raise our voices because we were not able to go to the streets. Along with that, religious extremist groups as well, they got the similar kind of freedom and protection. If they were punished for such kind of behavior I don't think this kind of behavior would be promoted, but because they don't get punished, because these things are not taken seriously by the security system of our country, they feel more secure at doing such kind of work. Because this case was not registered and so much mental health was compromised, we decided not to take it forward because this was affecting us very badly. Online violence is also targeted towards men and women, but women receive different kinds of multiple layers of more extreme kind of violence, and especially women from marginalized communities receive targeted violence. For example, Sapana and I we received threats such as rape threats and also such threats that I can't even explain, they were so explicitly described to us that it was difficult to read. We reported these kind of threats on social media platforms as well, Facebook and Twitter, but the message we received after the threat, after their investigation, was that they did not find it, you know, extreme, they did not find any threat in it, and the only problem we could realize was because the language -- the language that they used in the thread was Maithili, and bhojpuri and a big company like Facebook and Twitter, they did not have anybody to translate those threats for them.
0:06:45.0 Marty: Okay, well, that's a lot. First of all, that just seems so incredibly, unquestionably, the wrong response from police. How can threats of death and rape not be considered crimes? And the excuse that because the messages were in your inbox and not on a public platform, therefore invalidates the threatening nature of those, that also just belies logic, let alone legality. So one of the first reactions I had was, I wish that someone had taken it to the next level, if that's possible, I mean, today, do you ever have that thought that 'maybe I should still try to take it forward or should have tried to take it forward' or...
0:07:39.5 Pallavi: We talked about it multiple times, but the thing is that it's so tiring for us to go to the police again and again, and the problem here is that the police... You know what response we got from the police was that 'nothing has happened to you physically, you come here alone, you are so confident to come here and report, nothing has happened to you physically, so why do you want to report it'? So the main problem is that they don't consider online violence as violence against women at all. So we don't know how to convince them that this is violence and cyber bureau's job is to identify cyber crimes and punish them, but they don't take it seriously at all. And it was so tiring and exerting and also affecting our mental health really badly. We had lots of support, we had a circle of friends, hundreds of friends who were supporting us. But the mainstream women's movement who are responsible for doing that, who have that kind of voice, none of them came out to support us. I'm saying this very openly, because I know, because I know who came to support us. There's a group of our friends who came up with the names of the lawyers we could go to.
0:08:52.5 Pallavi: They came with us to the police bureau as well. But then we did not have the mainstream women's movement behind us to support us, and none of the political parties' members as well. You know the women, the women politicians could come and support us, right? But they got scared as well, because the topic we had chosen was something probably they thought was too controversial because we spoke against patriarchy in a very symbolic and religious way. So we thought it's better not to take it forward, considering our health, our family and our security as well. I still sometimes feel like something is missing, I should have gone, but then I move back again thinking about myself. Me and Sapana, we talk about it often, that we will fight against it in our own ways through our different kind of activism, through our own work, doing our own work; research and all those kinds of work; speaking about it in public forums. We have been doing that and the response we get at public forums are also very funny sometimes. I will not name this person, but a very powerful politician, woman politician, told us that you know 'this is alright, because the president of the country, who is a woman also got similar threats', but then she did not realize that the attacker of the President was arrested the next day immediately. But what about the common people like us? It takes a lot of energy, a lot of will power to continue doing that and forget everything in life.
0:10:32.3 Marty: Yeah, I can only imagine, right. How troubling that could be when people are threatening you with, like you said, such graphic, extreme violent acts, but... So this hasn't inhibited you from still speaking out and still expressing these views, right, these views on women in gender, etcetera...
0:10:57.3 Pallavi: No, not at all. Because it's something so personal, whatever Sapana recited in that poem is so personal and it has affected us all our lives, and I still tell that -- Sapana's poem's title was I don't want to be Sita anymore, and I still believe in it. I will not tolerate dominance on me, I will not tolerate patriarchy on me, and I think we will continue talking about it. The main crux of her poem was that the deep-rooted patriarchy that affects women even today. Each and every step of our life we are given an example of how submissive Sita was, a mythical character Sita was. How submissive she was and how pure she was, and one should be like her. And my reaction to it is that Sita had to suicide in the end, and I don't want to end up like that. I want women to idealize other people instead of such characters and Sapana and I have continued speaking about it.
0:12:00.6 Marty: Right. And not to get too deep into interpretation, but do you think the extreme actions that were provoked by that, or the people, the men, who had these extreme reactions, do you think they were reacting because they could say that you were insulting religion or they were reacting because you were speaking out as women.
0:12:24.1 Pallavi: I think both factors played a role. They took it as an insult to the religion, but what they did not understand was that we want to filter out the patriarchy within our religious books and stories as well, so that people remember good things about it, people practice the good parts about it, right? So we want to talk about these deeply rooted patriarchy stuff, and on top of that, Sapana and me coming from a marginalized community, although very privileged, but still, talking about it was another factor. And recently, I noticed, I wouldn't name the person, but another literature festival took place in Janakpur and a man spoke up about something very similar, but not as extremely as we did it as Sapana did it. He spoke about the same thing, how Sita was insulted, how Ram, nobody questions Ram, and everything, and I saw people clapping at the same thing. So both the factors have played a role here.
0:13:28.7 Marty: Yeah, I saw you posted that on Twitter recently, I saw that in your thread. So... Yeah, for men it's okay to be extreme, so called extreme feminist, but somehow when it's women, which again shows that it's not so much the message for some people as the messenger.
0:13:45.3 Pallavi: Even the issues of feminism and all that, when I speak up about it, people try to attack me or question me 100 times. But if a man is talking about feminism, he is praised for it.
0:13:58.1 Marty: Right, right, right. Okay, so now it's more than a year later. What do you say to other women who are maybe worried about speaking out, either in a forum such as you did, a physical forum, or online. You had a terrible experience, and so I could see some women taking from that, I'm not gonna do it, I'm not gonna put myself out there. Who wants to be subjected to that kind of thing'? What would you say to that?
0:14:30.2 Pallavi: After one year and during that time, the amount of support I received was great, you know, and that has somehow encouraged me... Of course, I did not take the case forward, we did not do that, but it has encouraged me to speak up more because I feel protected in the circle of activist women and friends that I have, and not speaking up does not help. So I would encourage everybody to speak up and the more we speak, the more people get used to it, and more people understand what we are speaking of. Maybe our messages will slowly pass on to them. So I don't think we should be discouraged to speak up, we should... And there's a growing support for women like us. Of course, we would expect more support, but there is a growing support for us. I cannot imagine myself speaking up like this five years back, although I had similar feelings. But because of the support and the kind of protection I received from even my family and friends and other activists is great. And speaking up has helped me personally as well to grow; to learn, to grow. And even in my work, because I work on gender equality and all that, it has helped me give perspective. This experience has also been a learning experience for me to realize intersectionality of discrimination against women, how it plays out, because I became the first-hand, you know, witness of it. So, I would encourage everybody to speak up and not keep quiet.
0:16:08.9 Marty: Okay, well, that's a very positive note to end this frustrating and a sad story on. So, I'm glad that you've come to this point in your life. Thank you very much for coming on and speaking about that and just coming on the show in general, again and talking to me. It's always great to talk to you. Best of luck in your future activism and other work.
0:16:34.5 Pallavi: Thank you so much, Marty, I had a great time and thank you for providing me this opportunity again.
0:16:42.8 Marty: Thanks again to Pallavi Payal for chatting with me today. Let us know what you thought of this episode and how you're finding this series, Nepal Then and Now. We're [at] nepalnow or [at] nepalnowpod on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. If you loved it and don't wanna miss a future episode, make sure you follow the show on your usual podcast app. We're on Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google and Apple podcasts, as well as PocketCasts and many more. That's all for this time. My name is Marty Logan, I created this episode, and I'll talk to you again.