In the cropped picture, a young woman in a black bathing suit is standing next to a pool. Her hand is resting on her hips, and her eyes are looking away from the camera. The caption underneath reads, “Have me for dinner … follow for nudes.”
The post was tagged “hardcore sex” on the Reddit subcommunity Nepalibabes, which featured pictures of Nepali women, taken and reposted without their consent, from social media accounts. (The exact numbers of images are unknown but are estimated to be in the thousands.) At its height, r/Nepalibabes had more than 4,500 members. In the comments section, users referred to the women as “whores” and “proper fuck material.” They demanded their Instagram handles and nude photos, and sometimes even threatened violence.
Nepal’s population is just shy of 30 million, and when r/Nepalibabes was exposed, the news ricocheted around the country. On May 5, 2020, Nirvana Bhandary, a feminist writer and activist from Kathmandu, called out the community on Instagram after she discovered that people were sharing pictures from her social media accounts without her knowledge. She wrote that a similar Instagram group in India called “Bois Locker Room” was “spreading like wildfire.” It had initiated a massive debate over misogyny and sexual harassment in the country. She cautioned her Nepali followers not to be complacent. “Something EXACTLY THE SAME has been happening in Nepal. Now we [must] speak out. There is a Reddit group with thousands of members who stalk Nepali women on Instagram, steal their photos and videos from their feeds and stories and share it to this group to degrade, objectify and verbally assault these women.” That post was liked almost 7,000 times. Then she made her Instagram account private.
While the Reddit group is thought to have launched in 2018, it was only this year that many Nepali women learned of its existence. Aishwarya Shahi, a 24-year-old Nepali student in Canada says she was infuriated when she saw images of herself and women she knew on r/Nepalibabes alongside other similar subreddits. Speaking to The Kathmandu Post in May, she said that she had received repeated warnings from Instagram about unsuccessful attempts to log into her account from locations all over the world. “Reporting it to Reddit was the most useless thing ever,” Shahi told Rest of World. “I don’t remember exactly how many times I reported it, but I know it’s more than three or four.”
Eventually, after enough reports and complaints, the subreddit was banned in early May. But many similar forums continue to thrive on the site.
Reddit has rarely addressed unchecked abuse on its platform, despite being regularly called out for not drawing a line on bullying and violence. So when CEO Steve Huffman issued a companywide statement on June 1 saying that Reddit’s users and employees “do not tolerate hate, racism, and violence,” it was met with an immediate backlash. An open letter, signed by over 800 Reddit communities that claim to represent “hundreds of millions” of subscribers, urged Huffman and the company to take action against the hateful forums that have existed on the platform for years.
Like many countries around the world, Nepal has been under a lockdown for over two months to combat the spread of COVID-19. And police records show that the stay-at-home orders have resulted in a huge spike in the number of online sexual harassment complaints. In the past two months, the Cyber Bureau of the Nepal Police registered 373 cases, a massive increase from the 357 complaints it received in total in the previous year. This is especially notable given how much cultural resistance there is to reporting gender-based crimes in Nepal. Instead of investigating perpetrators, Nepali police are notorious for discrediting victims and sometimes even pressuring women to marry their rapists.
In 2016, Nepali singer Samriddhi Rai was targeted on Facebook with threats of rape and acid attacks. She went to the police and was discouraged by their inaction. “I reported three men, whose identity was known, and I even provided screenshots of everything, but the police filed my complaint halfheartedly and never followed through,” she said. Police have arrested some perpetrators of online harassment and say it is an increasing focus, but the fact that the law that governs cybercrime has also been used to go after journalists has given some advocates pause.
After r/Nepalibabes came to light, influencers began calling out misogynistic behavior and sharing personal stories of being harassed under the hashtag #notanymore. “People are finally recognizing the mental and emotional harm they are subjected to online as violence,” said Shubha Kayastha of the Kathmandu-based digital advocacy organization Body & Data. “And the conversation slowly taking off in Nepal … has allowed people to talk more openly about their experience.” Still, the digital space continues to be hostile terrain for Nepali women. Bhandary made her Instagram account private again after her pictures were posted on another offensive Instagram page. “I’m exhausted,” she said. “It does also make me feel that I should be more careful with the content I post, to not share anything that they can use against me somehow. So their strategy of shaming me has in fact censored me a bit.”