Seema Sinha never imagined that a Facebook account might ruin her chances at an arranged marriage.
“Do you have a Facebook account?” her would-be mother-in-law asked her, starkly, at her matchmaking ceremony.
Nervously, Sinha — who asked not to be identified by her real name — replied that she did; she used it to keep up with her extended family, to comment on their pictures, and 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 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 from her parents, she buckled and deleted her account. A month later, she was married. And soon after that, she was back on Facebook, this time with a fake name and an image of a clear cerulean sky as her profile photo.
“Nobody knows I’m there,” she said. “Not even my husband.”
Sinha lives in Charkhi Dadri, a town of 50,000 people 75 miles west of India’s capital, New Delhi, in the state of Haryana, known for having one of the lowest female-to-male ratios in the country due to selective abortion of female fetuses, a culture of gender segregation, and 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 world for handling data carelessly, spreading fake news, and inciting violence and genocide, male leaders in these parts of India dislike it for an entirely different reason: It gives young women a platform to post pictures, put themselves out there, and meet young men.
Across rural India, young women are accessing Facebook under false identities, using the names of Bollywood actors or other made-up monikers, and 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 from an everyday eye for privacy but from a fear of the harsh social consequences of being outed as a woman who uses Facebook.
“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 squat, old-fashioned houses with courtyards in the center. “They think she’s too loose, too forward, for her own good.”
This is a broadly held view in parts of India, and one the reasons Indian Facebook is dominated by men. In fact, 1 in every 4 of Facebook’s 240 million Indian users are women, according to a 2016 report from UK-based consultancy firm We Are Social. And overall, only 3 of every 10 internet users in the country are women, according to data in a report released last year by the Internet and Mobile Association of India, a telecom industry body that counts both Google and Facebook as its members.
“There are multiple factors responsible for the gender divide that we see today, including access to resources and social norms,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an emailed statement that outlined the company’s various initiatives to bring more women online, including #SheMeansBusiness and #SheLeadsTech, and working with NGOs. “The internet is the invisible force driving advancement for women around the world.”
Vidushi Marda, a legal researcher who works with Article 19, a UK-based human rights nonprofit that works on issues of free expression online, said while it’s increasingly difficult to stop women from using social networking and the internet as mobile phones go mainstream, the social taboo keeps these women from using the platforms to their benefit as the rest of the world (and their male peers) does.
“They don’t get the same return on the investment that they put in these platforms that you and I do,” said Marda. “In the short term, at the very least, I think these women are fighting a losing battle.”
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 new one, but she cannot post to it without the approval of her husband and her in-laws.
In the 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 eloped in 2016. The village council ordered villagers to shun them when they returned a year later, and they had to apologize dozens of times before they were forgiven.
And yet more than a dozen girls from villages in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh told BuzzFeed News that they still use Facebook — just not openly.
“Sometimes I think I want to just use it to assert my identity on the internet,” said Manasi Saxena, an undergrad student from the village of Salarpur, Uttar Pradesh. Still, she uses Facebook under a false name, and has 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 it, and nobody says anything to them.”
Saxena uses Facebook the way so many others do: to socialize with friends and relatives, and to keep up with news. She is also part of a couple of dozen study groups to prepare for entrance examinations for higher studies. Her wall is full of generic quizzes (“Which cute animal are you?”) and links to Bollywood stories from the Navbharat Times, a popular Hindi news website.
She follows a now well-established set of unspoken ground rules for using Facebook as an Indian woman from these parts of the country: no full names; no checking in or location sharing; and absolutely no pictures of themselves, anywhere. It’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 put up a profile picture of herself, a boy from 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 new one — sans profile picture. “Communities are tight-knit in these parts,” she said. “The last thing you want is everyone in the village knowing that a strange guy is obsessed with you and stalks you on Facebook.”
Other women accessed Facebook from a trusted male cousin or a brother’s phone and limited their activity to lurking on other people’s profiles, and 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 from Jindal's neighborhood. “She wasn’t sure she could trust me to not take screenshots if she put up her real photo and misuse them somehow,” he explained.
Facebook is aware of that for some Indian women, safeguarding their image is a must. Last year, the company rolled out a feature called “profile picture guard” exclusively in India that prevents people from, among other things, screenshotting profile pictures from Android phones, which are the most popular smartphones in India.
“In our research with people and safety organizations in India, we’ve heard that some women choose not to share profile pictures that include their faces anywhere on the internet because they’re concerned about what may happen to their photos,” Facebook wrote in a blog post.
But the profile picture guard works only in Facebook’s mobile app. It doesn’t work in a browser, it doesn’t prevent screenshotting profile pictures from desktop, and it doesn’t protect images posted to a Facebook album or wall. More than a year after Facebook rolled out the feature in the country, none of the women BuzzFeed News interviewed across three villages in two states had heard of it. Facebook did not respond to questions about this feature.
In its statement to BuzzFeed News, Facebook said, “Integral to people’s interest in connecting and sharing, and our mission of giving people the power to build community, is that people, and especially women, feel safe to connect in meaningful and profound ways.”
Experts say that the social taboo on women using the internet and Facebook specifically comes down to a single factor: controlling their sexuality.
“What mobile phones and Facebook in particular gives these girls is some space and agency, something that they rarely get in their real lives offline,” said Bishakha Datta, cofounder and CEO of Point of View, a Mumbai-based nonprofit that helps women in rural parts of the country exercise their “right to a voice,” including online. “There is a real fear that social networking will help girls choose who they want to get into a relationship with. It’s a fear of girls turning into independent, sexual women.”
India’s patriarchs cite the “bad influence” of social media and the internet on women’s lives as a reason to keep them away from it.
Raju “Don” Sain, a daily wage laborer from Bara, said that he’s terrified of not finding suitable grooms for his three daughters, ages 16, 18, and 19, if anybody finds out that they talk to men through Facebook. “They can use it after they get married if their husband allows it,” he said. Sain declined to let BuzzFeed News interview his daughters.
“The internet is bad because it has blue films,” a member of the Salarpur village council who is a father to two daughters, 16 and 17, and a son, 14, told BuzzFeed News, using a common Indian phrase to refer to porn. “I see no reason why women should use it.”
Aakash Tawar, an MBA student from Charkhi Dadri, has more than 500 friends on Facebook, but fewer than 50 of them are women. His Facebook wall is full of selfies and pictures of men. Young girls shouldn’t use Facebook because it invites unwanted male attention, Tawar said, a consequence he described as “just natural.” His classmate Pravin Jangda said it’s riskier for girls to use Facebook because “it’s a question of their family’s honor if somebody takes their pictures and misuses them in any way.”
Even indirect participation by women is frowned upon. Reena Yadav, a high schooler from Bara, told BuzzFeed News that after her brother posted a picture of the two of them together, members of her extended family called to ask him to take it down because she was in the photo.
India’s patriarchs find the idea of young women using the internet unsettling, say experts. “So for them, it’s very much about controlling and supervising young and unmarried women’s internet access,” said Anja Kovacs, director at the New Delhi–based Internet Democracy Project, an organization that works on issues of free speech, democracy, and social justice on the internet. “One of the big things that they’re scared of is seeing how the internet is a tool for empowerment” she said. “And with Facebook, in particular, they are also scared about things like people misusing the pictures of their daughters and sharing them elsewhere.”
A young woman putting herself out there on Facebook, therefore, doesn't sit right in some parts of states like Haryana, for instance, where women traditionally cover their faces with their saris in front of family elders and male strangers.
This gender divide on the Indian internet is no surprise for big tech companies like Facebook and 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 200,000 Indian villages where it trains women to use the internet and smartphones (and, by extension, Google’s products). The women Google trains then go on to train other women in their villages.
“Sociocultural barriers like women not being allowed to use the internet were a key barrier when we started,” Neha Barjatya, who heads the program for Google in India, told BuzzFeed News. “The conventional thinking in these areas was that 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 from attending. So Google started putting smartphones on handcarts to gently introduce them to the women there.
Things have slowly changed: The share of internet users is now 3 in 10, up from 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 other fundamental issues before they can narrow the gender gap. “Internet culture sucks sometimes,” she said. “There’s trolling, abuse, and harassment, and those aren’t things that people — and especially women — from India who are coming online for the first time in their lives have any experience dealing with. Connecting the next billion doesn’t mean that you just dump them into what can often be this toxic space online.”
Meanwhile, the ever-quickening pace of innovation and globalization means new ways to discreetly socialize are always emerging. “Have you used TikTok?” a smiling Saxena asked BuzzFeed News, referring to the Chinese app that’s sort of a mashup of Vine and Instagram and is becoming a huge hit with young people across India’s smaller towns and villages. “Nobody in my family knows about it yet. I love it!” ●
Haryana has one of the lowest female-to-male ratios in India. An earlier version of this piece reversed the ratio.
Anja Kovacs was misquoted in an earlier version of this post due to a transcription error.