Women In Rural India Are Defying Their Communities By Going Undercover On Facebook

Aleesha Nandhra for BuzzFeed News

Seema Sinha never imagined which a Facebook account might ruin her chances at an arranged marriage.

“Do you have a Facebook account?” her would certainly-be mother-in-law asked her, starkly, at her matchmaking ceremony.

Nervously, Sinha — who asked not to be identified by her real name — replied which she did; she used which to keep up with her extended family, to comment on their pictures, and also also also sometimes to post pictures of her own.

Her prospective in-laws said they had no tolerance for such activities. To be considered as a bride for their 25-year-old son, a civil engineer, she would certainly have to delete her Facebook account. “We can’t have a daughter-in-law who makes a public display of herself out there,” she remembered them saying.

Sinha’s parents didn’t want to lose the match. So under pressure via her parents, she buckled and also also also deleted her account. A month later, she was married. and also also also soon after which, she was back on Facebook, This specific time that has a fake name and also also also an image of a clear cerulean sky as her profile photo.

“Nobody knows I’m there,” she said. “Not even my husband.”

“When a girl uses Facebook, our whole village looks at her differently.”

Sinha lives in Charkhi Dadri, a town of 50,000 people 75 miles west of India’s capital, brand-new Delhi, inside state of Haryana, known for having one of the lowest female-to-male ratios inside country due to selective abortion of female fetuses, a culture of gender segregation, and also also also a patriarchal social structure.

For women living in these parts of the country, using social networks like Facebook comes with real risks of being socially outcast. While Facebook may have an image problem in most parts of the entire world for handling data carelessly, spreading fake news, and also also also inciting violence and also also also genocide, male leaders in these parts of India dislike which for an entirely different reason: which gives young women a platform to post pictures, put themselves out there, and also also also meet young men.

Across rural India, young women are accessing Facebook under false identities, using the names of Bollywood actors or some other made-up monikers, and also also also sometimes even posing as men — violating Facebook’s policy against “pretending to be anything or anyone” — as they seek a place in modern digital life. (Facebook declined to comment on such apparent violations.) Their discretion doesn’t stem via an everyday eye for privacy nevertheless via a fear of the harsh social consequences of being outed as a woman who uses Facebook.

Pranav Dixit / BuzzFeed News

Bhagwan Das Pradhan, head of Bara village council

“When a girl uses Facebook, our whole village looks at her differently,” said Bhagwan Das Pradhan, council head in Bara, a village of about 4,000 in Uttar Pradesh full of sprawling, sun-baked fields and also also also squat, old-fashioned houses with courtyards inside center. “They think she’s too loose, too forward, for her own not bad.”

This specific will be a broadly held view in parts of India, and also also also one the reasons Indian Facebook will be dominated by men. In fact, 1 in every 4 of Facebook’s 240 million Indian users are women, according to a 2016 report via UK-based consultancy firm We Are Social. and also also also overall, only 3 of every 10 internet users inside country are women, according to data in a report released earlier This specific year by the Internet and also also also Mobile Association of India, a telecom industry body which counts both Google and also also also Facebook as its members.

“There are multiple factors responsible for the gender divide which we see today, including access to resources and also also also social norms,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an emailed statement which outlined the company’s various initiatives to bring more women online, including #SheMeansBusiness and also also also #SheLeadsTech, and also also also working with NGOs. “The internet will be the invisible force driving advancement for women around the entire world.”

Vidushi Marda, a legal researcher who works with Article 19, a UK-based human rights nonprofit which works on issues of free expression online, said while which’s increasingly difficult to stop women via using social networking and also also also the internet as mobile phones go mainstream, the social taboo keeps these women via using the platforms to their benefit as the rest of the entire world (and also also also their male peers) does.

“They don’t get the same return on the investment which they put in these platforms which you and also also also I do,” said Marda. “inside short term, at the very least, I think these women are fighting a losing battle.”

Pranav Dixit / BuzzFeed News

The village of Bara, Uttar Pradesh, India

In Bara, a recently married 21-year-old woman who did not want to be named told BuzzFeed News her in-laws made her shut down her four-year-old Facebook account. She was eventually allowed to create a brand-new one, nevertheless she cannot post to which without the approval of her husband and also also also her in-laws.

inside village of Salarpur in Uttar Pradesh, home to about 10,000 people where open gutters flow on both sides of narrow, unpaved streets, locals told BuzzFeed News about a 20-year-old couple who met through Facebook and also also also eloped in 2016. The village council ordered villagers to shun them when they returned a year later, and also also also they had to apologize dozens of times before they were forgiven.

and also also also yet more than a dozen girls via villages in Haryana and also also also Uttar Pradesh told BuzzFeed News which they still use Facebook — just not openly.

“Sometimes I think I want to just use which to assert my identity on the internet,” said Manasi Saxena, an undergrad student via the village of Salarpur, Uttar Pradesh. Still, she uses Facebook under a false name, and also also also includes a picture of a bright yellow rose as her profile picture. “Mostly, I just want to be there because I’m furious with the double standards: All my male relatives are allowed to use which, and also also also nobody says anything to them.”

“I want to just use which to assert my identity on the internet.”

Saxena uses Facebook the way so many others do: to socialize with friends and also also also relatives, and also also also to keep up with news. She will be also part of a couple of dozen study groups to prepare for entrance examinations for higher studies. Her wall will be full of generic quizzes (“Which cute animal are you?”) and also also also links to Bollywood stories via the Navbharat Times, a common Hindi news website.

She follows a currently well-established set of unspoken ground rules for using Facebook as an Indian woman: no full names; no checking in or location sharing; and also also also absolutely no pictures of themselves, anywhere. which’s not for paranoia either.

Juhi Tiwari, a Salarpur resident who recently graduated, told BuzzFeed News when she first opened her Facebook account three years ago and also also also put up a profile picture of herself, a boy via a neighboring village stalked her. “Once he showed up at my college,” he said. “He followed me everywhere for months.” Finally, she deleted her account. A year later, she opened a brand-new one — sans profile picture. “Communities are tight-knit in these parts,” she said. “The last thing you want will be everyone inside village knowing which a strange guy will be obsessed with you and also also also stalks you on Facebook.”

some other women accessed Facebook via a trusted male cousin or a brother’s phone and also also also limited their activity to lurking on some other people’s profiles, and also also also occasionally liking something. Sometimes they created profiles using male names.

Gitesh Jindal, a 20-year-old undergrad student studying business at Charkhi Dadri’s Kedarnath Aggarwal Institute of Management, told BuzzFeed News about a man who once struck up a friendship with him on Facebook. After a month of correspondence, the man revealed his true identity: He was actually a woman via Jindal’s neighborhood. “She wasn’t sure she could trust me to not take screenshots if she put up her real photo and also also also misuse them somehow,” he explained.

Facebook will be aware of which for some Indian women, safeguarding their image will be a must. Last year, the company rolled out a feature called “profile picture guard” exclusively in India which prevents people via, among some other things, screenshotting profile pictures via Android phones, which are the most common smartphones in India.

“In our research with people and also also also safety organizations in India, we’ve heard which some women choose not to share profile pictures which include their faces anywhere on the internet because they’re concerned about what may happen to their photos,” Facebook wrote in a blog post.

nevertheless the profile picture guard works only in Facebook’s mobile app. which doesn’t work in a browser, which doesn’t prevent screenshotting profile pictures via desktop, and also also also which doesn’t protect images posted to a Facebook album or wall. More than a year after Facebook rolled out the feature inside country, none of the women BuzzFeed News interviewed across three villages in two states had heard of which. Facebook did not respond to questions about This specific feature.

In its statement to BuzzFeed News, Facebook said, “Integral to people’s interest in connecting and also also also sharing, and also also also our mission of giving people the power to build community, will be which people, and also also also especially women, feel safe to connect in meaningful and also also also profound ways.”

Pranav Dixit / BuzzFeed News

The town of Charkhi Dadri, Haryana, India

Experts say which the social taboo on women using the internet and also also also Facebook specifically comes down to 1 factor: controlling their sexuality.

“What mobile phones and also also also Facebook in particular gives these girls will be some space and also also also agency, something which they rarely get in their real lives offline,” said Bishakha Datta, cofounder and also also also CEO of Point of View, a Mumbai-based nonprofit which helps women in rural parts of the country exercise their “right to a voice,” including online. “There will be a real fear which social networking will help girls choose who they want to get into a relationship with. which’s a fear of girls turning into independent, sexual women.”

India’s patriarchs cite the “bad influence” of social media and also also also the internet on women’s lives as a reason to keep them away via which.

Raju “Don” Sain, a daily wage laborer via Bara, said which he’s terrified of not finding suitable grooms for his three daughters, ages 16, 18, and also also also 19, if anybody finds out which they talk to men through Facebook. “They can use which after they get married if their husband allows which,” he said. Sain declined to let BuzzFeed News interview his daughters.

“The internet will be bad because which has blue films,” a member of the Salarpur village council who will be a father to two daughters, 16 and also also also 17, and also also also a son, 14, told BuzzFeed News, using a common Indian phrase to refer to porn. “I see no reason why women should use which.”

“which’s a question of their family’s honor if somebody takes their pictures and also also also misuses them in any way.”

Aakash Tawar, an MBA student via Charkhi Dadri, has more than 500 friends on Facebook, nevertheless fewer than 50 of them are women. His Facebook wall will be full of selfies and also also also pictures of men. Young girls shouldn’t use Facebook because which invites unwanted male attention, Tawar said, a consequence he described as “just natural.” His classmate Pravin Jangda said which’s riskier for girls to use Facebook because “which’s a question of their family’s honor if somebody takes their pictures and also also also misuses them in any way.”

Even indirect participation by women will be frowned upon. Reena Yadav, a high schooler via Bara, told BuzzFeed News which after her brother posted a picture of the two of them together, members of her extended family called to ask him to take which down because she was inside photo.

India’s patriarchs find the idea of social networking scary, according to Anja Kovacs, director at the brand-new Delhi–based Internet Democracy Project, an organization which works on issues of free speech, democracy, and also also also social justice on the internet. Kovacs added, “A woman being on a social network will be seen as a blatant expression of her identity in front of the entire world,” something which some of India’s patriarchs have tried to prevent for decades by imposing restrictions on women.

In Haryana, for instance, women traditionally cover their faces with their saris in front of family elders and also also also male strangers. “This specific will be why they find platforms like Facebook particularly threatening,” said Kovacs.

Pranav Dixit / BuzzFeed News

This specific gender divide on the Indian internet will be no surprise for big tech companies like Facebook and also also also Google, which have been trying to get millions of people in emerging markets like India online. Google, for instance, runs a program called Internet Saathi in more than 0,000 Indian villages where which trains women to use the internet and also also also smartphones (and also also also, by extension, Google’s products). The women Google trains then go on to train some other women in their villages.

“Sociocultural barriers like women not being allowed to use the internet were a key barrier when we commenced,” Neha Barjatya, who heads the program for Google in India, told BuzzFeed News. “The conventional thinking in these areas was which the internet wasn’t a place meant for women.”

Yet the response rate to the Internet Saathi program was low — women in patriarchal parts of the country weren’t allowed to travel far beyond their homes; some were discouraged via attending. So Google commenced putting smartphones on handcarts to gently introduce them to the women there.

Things have slowly changed: The share of internet users will be currently 3 in 10, up via 1 in 10 in 2015. Still, “There’s still a long way to go,” Barjatya admits.

Point of View’s Datta said tech companies need to fix some other fundamental issues before they can narrow the gender gap. “Internet culture sucks sometimes,” she said. “There’s trolling, abuse, and also also also harassment, and also also also those aren’t things which people — and also also also especially women — via India who are coming online for the 1st time in their lives have any experience dealing with. Connecting the next billion doesn’t mean which you just dump them into what can often be This specific toxic space online.”

Meanwhile, the ever-quickening pace of innovation and also also also globalization means brand-new ways to discreetly socialize are always emerging. “Have you used TikTok?” a smiling Saxena asked BuzzFeed News, referring to the Chinese app which’s sort of a mashup of Vine and also also also Instagram and also also also will be becoming a huge hit with young people across India’s smaller towns and also also also villages. “Nobody in my family knows about which yet. I love which!” ●


Haryana has one of the lowest female-to-male ratios in India. An earlier variation of This specific piece reversed the ratio.

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