In villages across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana and Gujarat, village elders in khap panchayats have for long felt threatened by a ubiquitous tool of technology — the mobile phone. Khaps in several villages have banned its use… but only by women.

The ban, which hinges on the ideas of izzat (honour) and sin, is the khap’s way of controlling the disintegration of their community. They blame mobile phones for young couples eloping, thereby bringing shame” to the family.

This mobile phone ban, along with the study of smartphone safety apps and the surveillance of women workers in garment factories in Karnataka, is part of the Gendering Surveillance report released by the Internet Democracy Project on Wednesday. A result of months-long research by the project’s Anja Kovacs and Nayantara Ranganathan, the study aims to bring forward discussions on the nature of such surveillances.

Offline, but not out of sight

Kovacs said that they wanted to look at digital surveillance in a society that puts restrictions on women offline too. Digital surveillance seems too far removed from the everyday lives of many people for them to get worked up about it,” she says. And yet, many of us are so intimately aware of the negative impact surveillance can have on our lives because surveillance is so central to our gender.”

Ranganathan says they needed to study gender roles that are kept firmly in place by watchfulness. All this has many lessons to offer about intentions of the watchers, what kind of people stand to gain by surveillance, the benefits and harms of being surveilled, surveillance exceeding an acceptable limit, etc. So why not understand surveillance from our own synapses? It’s an accessible and relatable way of looking at such wider practices which can be abstract,” she says.

A secret space

The study found that instances of surveillance, especially in the lower socio-economic strata, reinstate power equations exerted by a patriarchal set-up.

The team went to Baliyan khap panchayat of Sisouli village in Uttar Pradesh to speak to the headman Naresh Tikait. An order was passed by the panchayat in 2010 banning the use of mobile phones by those below the age of 18. It was implied to be levied on women alone.

We educate our girls until whatever age they like — inter-level, BA — spending 20, 30, 40 lakh rupees with the wish that they find someone worthy of them to marry. But then they run away and because of this sin, the parents have to bend in society. We don’t want to kill girls, but arranged marriages last longer,” explained Takait.

In most places where the ban was imposed, fines ranged between Rs 1,00010,000. Many young girls confided in the team about the differential attitudes of usage between young boys and them. By creating new possibilities and spaces for privacy for young women, mobiles have disrupted the existing patriarchal regimes of control and surveillance. As a consequence, they have also emerged as a major threat to a girl’s — and by extension, her family’s — reputation and izzat,” states the report.

Muzaffarnagar’s Bina Sharma, who associated closely with the establishment and functioning of UP’s 1090 helpline for women, says she was shocked by the secret’ usage of mobile phone by young girls. Suitors gift girls a phone and a SIM. Girls use it secretly while going into the toilet,” she said. Colleges, meetings, trains, the jungle, shops, the road, wells, the field, the mosque, while eating and outside of college were some areas mentioned where phones should be allowed.

Jagmati Sangwan of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) says that the independence a mobile phone allows women threatens village elders. It leaves room for love and affection on their own terms. It allows them to make transactions themselves,” she says.

Work eye

The team also looked at the effects of CCTV cameras on eight garment factories (with mostly women workers) in Peenya and Mysore Road near Bangalore. In each factory, no worker remembered any advisory or justification given for the cameras before they were installed.

The ruse was safety, yet, as per labour union activist Usha, sexual harassment in these factories never stopped, nor did thefts. She spoke of how a supervisor would say lewd things to a worker on the factory floor, but since CCTV cameras do not record voices, he was protected. Another supervisor would ask a worker to come in half-an-hour early for sexual favours, since he knew when the cameras began recording.

App Stats

The study also looked at the functionability of over 50 apps for women’s safety such as Delhi Police’s Nirbhaya, Reliance’s Spottr, Jharkhand Police’s Shakti. It found that:

Most of these did nothing to increase the autonomy of the user, and features such as tracking, geo-fencing and the lack of privacy policy in several of them compromised the user’s agency. None of the 50 apps were fully accessible with a screen reader, as all elements were not labelled, making them inaccessible by the visual impaired. Most alerts were dubious in nature, being sent to police, family, friends and even Facebook friends in one case. Not one took into account the NCRB’s data that only 6 per cent of rapes in India are committed by strangers.

Originally published in DNA.