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‘I get shamed for absolutely nothing’ In Tajikistan, social media, patriarchy, and labor migration are fueling a doxxing problem

Source: Meduza

Story by Sher Khashimov. Edited by Eilish Hart.

You don’t often see reporting on Tajikistan. President Emomali Rahmon’s authoritarian regime tightly controls information flows and has kept a firm lid on the independent press (RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index ranked Tajikistan 152nd out of 180 countries, right between Sudan and Belarus). Though only a third of the population has Internet access, the authorities regularly block websites and even resort to full-fledged Internet shutdowns to suppress criticism. But even in this repressive environment, social media has become a space where people (particularly young people) can make their voices heard and challenge social norms. That said, the reverse is also true. While some use social networks to tackle taboos, others use the very same platforms to reinforce conservative norms, particularly when it comes to gender and sexuality. For The Beet, journalist Sher Khashimov reports on one such trend — men policing and humiliating Tajikistani women by leaking their private photos and personal information online — and how social media platforms, patriarchal culture, and labor migration enable it.

This article first appeared in The Beet, a new email dispatch from Meduza featuring original reporting on Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox. If you’re a journalist interested in writing for The Beet, send pitches to [email protected].

“Hey, what should one do if their nudes were leaked?” 

The Beet’s correspondent received this message from a friend, Tomiris (who asked for her name to be changed), over Instagram late on a summer evening in 2021. Someone she had been casually dating had shared her photos in a Telegram channel that published intimate content of women from all over Tajikistan in an effort to shame them. “I got a message from some girl over Instagram about the leak. Apparently, her photos were shared, too,” Tomiris recalled in a recent interview. 

This type of online shaming is hardly unique to Tajikistan. The spread of smartphones and social media over the past decade has given rise to a global phenomenon academics call “digital vigilantism,” wherein “citizens, collectively offended by other citizens’ actions,” enforce legal and cultural norms by “naming and shaming the offenders and weaponizing their visibility using digital media.” 

In Tajikistan, digital vigilantism is mostly used to take on the state’s dysfunctions by recording and reporting traffic violations and incidents of hooliganism. However, digital vigilantism also takes more sinister forms — such as men identifying, doxxing, and shaming women on social media in an attempt to enforce arbitrary and unwritten social and cultural norms. Often, this shaming crosses into “revenge porn,” but in Tajikistan’s conservative culture, women can be shamed for doing as little as smoking a hookah at a bar or dancing with abandon at a wedding. 

“For a young woman even to have a cellphone in rural settings in Tajikistan and even in some districts in Dushanbe can be enough to be considered promiscuous by society and to end up on these shaming pages [on social media],” Rashid Gabdulhakov, an assistant professor at the Center for Media and Journalism Studies at University of Groningen, told The Beet.

“There is a whole host of [social media] pages that publish the intimate content of girls along with their phone numbers and home addresses,” said Shakhina Khurshedzoda, a legal activist from Dushanbe. “These pages are duplicated and netizens actively read, like, and share such publications.” These posts become fodder for cyberbullying and can cause irreversible damage. “My distant relative committed suicide in 2013 because her nudes were leaked online,” said Farzona, a medical worker living in Dushanbe (whose name has been changed).

‘Shame TV’

Back in 2021, journalists identified more than 50 public duplicates of the infamous, and now defunct, Instagram page “Sharmanda TV” (“Shame TV,” in Tajik). A similar page called “Hodisa TV” (“Incident TV”) had more than 40 public duplicates. These accounts actively solicit content from their subscribers and publish it across multiple platforms at once (usually Instagram, Telegram, and YouTube). 

The doxxing and shaming in Tajikistan comes in waves — the last noticeable one occurred in early 2022. Often, these groups have a regional focus: in Dushanbe and Khujand — the capital of Tajikistan and the country’s second-largest city, respectively — there are dedicated social media groups and channels for doxxing and shaming local women.

“My ex leaked my personal photos to Hodisa TV, a couple of years after we broke up,” said Nigina from Khujand (whose name has been changed at her request). “There was nothing incriminating in them, just me wearing shorts outside or singing at karaoke. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t take those photos down. They’re all over the Internet now, and I get shamed for them, for absolutely nothing.”

In addition to Tomiris and Nigina, there were multiple women who didn’t want The Beet to share their stories — they prefer not to reopen old wounds for nothing. The victims of online doxxing and shaming usually have very little recourse, both globally and in Tajikistan. 

For one, most social media platforms have lax content policies. The messaging platform Telegram remains a hotbed for revenge porn, fraud, and misinformation, and even serves as a tool for authoritarian governments to spread their messages. Instagram’s lack of a reporting mechanism specifically for revenge porn (users can report it only as “nudity,” which means that it is ranked as a lower priority for removal) has long made the platform one of the prime spreaders of non-consensual intimate images. Meta, Instagram’s parent company, partnered with the UK’s Revenge Porn Helpline in December 2021 to create and operate a more effective tool for monitoring, flagging, and removing such content, but its efficiency and responsiveness is yet to be seen.

Language can also be a barrier for the removal of harmful content. Social media platforms notoriously allow dis- and mis-information, hate speech, and revenge porn to slip through their efforts to police such content because they often lack moderators who speak local languages and understand cultural contexts.

‘A culture of misogyny’ 

In patriarchal societies like Tajikistan’s, where most law enforcement personnel are men, government agencies also aren’t the most invested stakeholders when it comes to battling the issues of doxxing and revenge porn. 

In past years, Tajikistan’s police have used a punitive registry containing the personal information of LGBTQ+ individuals to blackmail vulnerable people into sex trafficking, forced informant roles, and to extort money. In October 2021, two police officers broke into the Dushanbe apartment of a Finnish citizen and threatened to disseminate a video of him being intimate with a woman if he didn't pay them off. 

The International Partnership for Human Rights recently reported that there have been targeted revenge porn attacks on women journalists, who were threatened with the publication of “compromising material” if they did not refrain from critical reporting.

Then there's the issue of jurisdiction. “I was part of a group of human rights activists and journalists who wrote an open letter to [Tajikistan’s] Internal Affairs Ministry and Prosecutor General in October 2020 asking for an investigation into the social media pages [that engage in doxxing and shaming],” Nisso Rasulova, a Dushanbe-based journalist and women’s rights activist, told The Beet. This effort and another investigation in late 2021 yielded the same results: “The law enforcement agencies concluded that the administrators [of most social media groups] that disseminate revenge porn are located in Russia.”

Almost half of Tajikistan’s population of 10 million is younger than 25 years old. In 2020, around eight percent of the entire labor force, including nearly a fifth of the country’s youth aged 15-24, was unemployed. With more than a quarter of Tajikistan’s population living in poverty, many are forced to travel abroad in search of employment. 

According to Russian government statistics, 2.4 million Tajikistani citizens were working in Russia in 2021. These labor migrants face daily abuse, discrimination, and even death threats from law enforcement officers, in addition to dealing with wage theft and ruthless bureaucracy. 

In the face of these challenges, desperately missing their culture and leaving part of their identity behind, many labor migrants turn to religion in search of an identity, cultural solidarity, and a sense of belonging. Some become radicalized and, in turn, seek to enforce unspoken conservative cultural norms — both upon fellow migrants in Russia (like when Kyrgyz laborers kidnap ethnic Kyrgyz women for dating non-Kyrgyz men in Russia) and upon their compatriots back home via online shaming and doxxing.

“These labor migrants bring their conservative norms and the culture of misogyny from home to Russia, where they are marginalized and face police abuse and harassment from local nationalists,” Gabdulhakov explained. “Harassing and shaming women in their own diasporas becomes a way to deal with the frustration [of living in Russia].” 

Their location abroad makes prosecution less likely both in Tajikistan and in Russia, where there are no laws targeting doxxing specifically and a patriarchal culture persists due to state conservatism. 

* * *

Tomiris managed to get her intimate photos taken down. “It helped that I knew who leaked my stuff — my ex-boyfriend. But I don’t know [that] those photos won’t resurface again,” she told The Beet.  

Others in Tomiris’ shoes haven’t been so lucky and the problem persists. “Hodisa TV lives on, like a hydra,” lamented Rasulova. “A hydra sure of its own impunity.”

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Story by Sher Khashimov. Edited by Eilish Hart.

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