On Akshara Haasan, Leaked Pictures and Being Online as a Woman in India

Actor Akshara Haasan, Kamal Haasan’s younger daughter, is currently dealing with a harrowing and dehumanising experience that’s unfortunately become a common one for women across the world. On November 5, Haasan’s private pictures were leaked online and quickly picked up by several media outlets.

Nearly four days after this happened, she broke her silence on Twitter to address the situation. In a long note, Haasan not only made clear that she’s consulting with the Mumbai police and cyber cell to figure out who did this and why, but she also called out the people who have been sharing these pictures, calling them party to her harassment. She wrote, “each time someone shares it with eye-catching headlines to draw more traction, it scars me deeper and adds to everyone’s participation in my harassment and helplessness.”

Referring to India’s ongoing MeToo movement, Haasan said it was “particularly disturbing and deeply upsetting” that someone was attempting to harass a young girl in this way at such a moment.

News stories about women’s pictures being leaked, especially those of celebrities, hit our feeds on the daily but their frequency doesn’t make the experience any less traumatising for the person involved.

The rhetoric surrounding women’s online safety doesn’t veer too far from the one about physical safety. The general tone seems to imply that staying secluded is your best option for protecting yourself. While it’s true that certain things like passwords, financial and other identification details must be kept private, pictures shared between consenting adults or just taken for yourself on a personal whim should not, in an ideal world, become a source of trauma or shame.

And yet, that’s exactly the story we hear over and over again. Trust is violated when relationships end, power is established through blackmail or the threat of it, proof of past intimacy is weaponised to humiliate women. And I say women here, because let’s be honest – while a man’s nude or semi-nude pictures may be embarrassing for him for a hot second or two, we never attach the same shame that we do to women’s bodies.

Let’s not even get into all the other ways creepy men try to push themselves into our private digital lives. How many times have we gotten phone calls from “wrong numbers” who, after realising they’re talking to a woman, have called back repeatedly. Or how many of us have swiped left on a man on Tinder, only to find him lurking in our Facebook or Instagram messages, because even passive rejection is too much to take. How many of us have dodged unsolicited messages and video calls from strange men on Whatsapp, wondering how someone got hold of our number in the first place. And that’s to say nothing of the perils of having a public social media account, which seems to translate as “open season” for Indian men – no matter where you are in the world. In fact, creepy “fraandship” texts are now par for course for women everywhere.

Every time we recharge our phones, put our number down in a visitor’s log while entering a building, deal with an Uber driver or some other contractor over the phone, we open ourselves up to new, varied forms of harassment. Just thinking of the many different ways in which our faces, taken from innocuous pictures, can end up in ads or even porn is a terrifying thought spiral. Shutting ourselves off from the internet is hardly an option – it’s as effective a solution as telling women to stay indoors to protect themselves. And we cope with all of this, mostly silently, taking it as part of life. Or, worse, we report our harassment to the likes of Facebook and Twitter – and are ignored for our troubles. But it’s important to remember that these are legal offences and there are some redressal mechanisms in place.

Haasan tagged the Mumbai police handle in her tweet, as well as @CybercellIndia, which contrary to its name, isn’t a government-run organisation, but a private company. However, there are a number of government-run initiatives that aim to ease the process of reporting.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has a website expressly dedicated to cyber crimes, cybercrime.gov.in and is on Twitter as @CyberDost. The website also has a provision to file complaints anonymously. According to the website, the portal “caters to complaints pertaining to online Child Pornography (CP)-Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) or sexually explicit content such as Rape/Gang Rape (CP/RGR) content.”

In cases that don’t fit these criteria, you can contact your local police station or cyber cell. If you don’t want to go to the station in person, there’s a way to file complaints online as well. The home ministry runs a site called digitalpolice.gov.in that allows you to file complaints online. You will likely receive a phone call to confirm that your complaint has been received and can maintain contact with the authorities about your situation as you please.

Admittedly, this still puts the burden on the person being harassed and not the harasser, but it’s comforting to know that it is possible to do something other than hit the “block” button repeatedly.

Featured image credit: Akshara Haasan/Facebook