Mishra, S., & Basu, S. (2014). Family honor, cultural norms and social networking: Strategic choices in the visual self-presentation of young Indian Muslim women. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 8(2), Article 3. doi:https://doi.org/10.5817/CP2014-2-3
Family honor, cultural norms and social networking: Strategic choices in the visual self-presentation of young Indian Muslim women

Family honor, cultural norms and social networking: Strategic choices in the visual self-presentation of young Indian Muslim women

Smeeta Mishra1, Surhita Basu2
1 Institute of Management Technology, Ghaziabad, India
2 AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India

Abstract

This study explores how young Indian Muslim women negotiate multiple influences while posting their own photographs on social networking sites. In depth interviews showed that these women made a strategic effort not to disrupt the social reputation of their families with the nature of their online visual presentations. While their photographs presented an opportunity for individual expression, they also became a site for simultaneous adherence to family expectations, religious norms and patriarchal constructions of femininity dominant in offline settings. Except three respondents who considered themselves outliers in their community, all emphasized the need to upload “nice” pictures on social networking sites that do not give off any signs of sexual assertiveness. Most respondents seemed to carry the responsibility of upholding the “honor” of their families, a requirement in their offline life, to digital settings as well. However, the respondents also managed to exercise a degree of personal choice and individual agency within the dominant framework aided by the privacy settings offered by social networking sites.

Keywords: Indian Muslim women; online social networking; self-presentation; family honor; cultural norms

Introduction

This paper explores visual self-presentation of young Indian Muslim women on social networking sites. Multiple opinions exist on whether Muslim women should post photographs on social networking sites and participate in related online activity. For instance, after two prominent Muslim helplines in India were flooded with calls seeking advice on whether social networking was compatible with Islamic tenets (“Facebook divides,” 2013), two clerics from the North Indian city of Lucknow issued a fatwa [an Islamic ruling] commanding young Muslim women not to upload their photographs on social networking sites such as Facebook in August 2013 (Ahmad, 2013). They also instructed Muslim women to stay away from online social networking as they considered it un-Islamic. Meanwhile, another Muslim cleric from New Delhi labeled the fatwa itself as un-Islamic and said that as long as online social networking was used in “good” ways, there should be no problem in young Muslim women using them (Ahmad, 2013).

While both Muslim men and women are required to dress modestly, Anna Piela (2010) argues that “due to greater emphasis on female modesty, controversy regarding self-disclosures of Muslim women on the Web is more intense.” What further intensifies the debate is the belief among certain Islamic sects that “believers should not engage in production or publishing of images of human beings,” which is the reason traditional Islamic art showcased intricate geometric patterns and plants, not people (Piela, 2010, p. 87). Thus, in the midst of differing opinions and fatwas, the participation of young Muslim women on social networking sites becomes a layered and more complex issue that what appears on the surface.

Of course, the overall pressures that women face in terms of Internet access and usage is not limited to Islam or to India alone. A recent study about Internet usage among women in the developing world revealed that one in five women in India and Egypt believe that the Internet is not “appropriate” for them (“Women and the Web,” 2013). While women in many parts of the world face similar dilemmas about Internet usage, our paper focuses specifically on the online social networking in the Indian Muslim context. India represents a multi-cultural and multi-religious society with a British colonial background where South Asian cultural values also cast an influence on the everyday practice of various religions in the country. Within the Indian Muslim context, this study will strive to identify criteria used by Indian Muslim women for selecting photographs to post on social networking sites. What factors influence their choices? Do these women exercise individual agency in such an exercise? What kind of impression do they want to convey through their images?

As analysis of visual self-presentation is a critical aspect of identity construction and gender performance, it is important to “consider what kind of aspects the young themselves choose for their visual impression management as well as what kind of aspects are worthy of portraying in the hopes of gaining popularity among the peer-group” (Siibak, 2009). Before we analyze some of the relevant studies on online visual presentation, we offer a brief summary of the context in which the study was conducted.

The Indian Context

Muslims are the second largest religious group in India. Currently, only provisional data for the 2011 census data is out and that does not include information on the number of Muslims in India. However, a recent report published in the Economist cites private studies that estimate the country has about 177 million Muslims, comprising 14.6% of the total population (“India’s Muslims,” 2013). According to the 2001 census, there were 138 million Muslims in India forming 13.4% of the population (Registrar General & Census Commissioner, 2007). Tellingly, the literacy rate among Indian Muslim women was as low as 50.9% according to the 2001 census, which was lower than the overall female literacy rate of 53.67% in India (“Concern over,” 2011).

A study on the social, economic and educational status of Indian Muslims ordered by the Indian government yielded the much-acclaimed Sachar Committee Report in 2006. The main findings of the report indicated that the Muslim community fared much below the national average in terms of not just literacy but in employment levels as well, especially in the formal sector which includes industries such as banking, law, technology, etc. (Sachar Committee, 2006). Following the publication of this report, the government made several announcements to improve the overall condition of Muslims. However, a recent study that evaluates the post-Sachar scenario claims that “the Muslim community which was suffering from a slow but steady decline in most of the human and developmental parameters including education continues to do so…” (Shariff, 2012).

While there is no separate data available on Internet use among Muslims in India, media reports have cited their increasing use of the Internet to find answers to questions on religious and social issues (Niazi, 2013). A research study on self-presentation of Indian Muslims in online matrimonial profiles indicated that “while Indian Muslims are using the new medium to adhere to traditional cultural and religious values, they are also making critical adjustments to adapt to the medium itself.” (Mishra, Monippally, & Jayakar, 2013).

In the absence of statistics on Internet usage among Indian Muslims, we examine national trends. Although Internet penetration in India is estimated at approximately 10%, which is far lower than many countries, it is a sizeable number due to its large population (McKinsey, 2012). According to the report, India had a 120-million-strong user base in 2011, which is the third largest in the world. A study on social media use in urban India conducted by the Internet and Mobile Association of India, an umbrella organization that represents online and mobile value added services in the country states that the number of social media users in urban India reached 62 million by December 2012 with 97% of them accessing Facebook. However, male social media users far outnumber female users in India. The male-female ratio in terms of social media usage in India is about 80:20 in favor of males (“Social Media,” 2011). A study also showed that Indian women make up only 27% of the total number of Indians on Facebook (Shah, 2012).

Meanwhile, the journey has not been easy for those women who have Internet access and participate in online social networking. There have been several media reports on Indian women being threatened with gang rape, torture and acid attacks on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook (“Indian women,” 2013). Jaishankar, an expert on criminology who has researched cyber-bullying and defamation of women online told BBC’s Divya Arya in an interview that India’s “patriarchal mindset” dominates online spaces. Many Indian men disapprove of women who talk back on the Internet and “public personalities who express strong opinions are trolled in a bid to force them off line” (Arya, 2013).

Identity Construction and Self Presentation Strategies

Self-presentation, online or offline, is a type of performative behavior. According to Erving Goffman (1959), performance may be “defined as all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants” (p. 15). Furthermore, an individual can create an impression in two ways; “the expression that he gives, and the expression that he gives off” (Goffman, 1959). As this study focuses on analysis of how Indian Muslim women visually present themselves on online social networking sites, it is more concerned with expressions they want to “give off.”

On the Internet, people use tools such as nicknames, avatars, photographs and videos to display specific aspects of their identity (Subramanyam & Šmahel, 2011). This study focuses on one important aspect of such online identity construction and presentation – young Indian Muslim women’s choice of photographs for visual self-presentation on their primary social networking account. Strano (2008) emphasizes that photographs are but only “one rendition of reality” and comprise a constructed and performed aspect of our dynamic identities:

Often we talk about photographs as if they are traces of reality that have ‘captured’ or ‘preserved’ our past; less frequently will we acknowledge the shooting and editing practices that have shaped a photograph into an idealized image representing social norms about desirable personal characteristics and socially-accepted notions of family, gender, romantic relationships, parenthood, etc. (Strano, 2008).

In fact, digital photography offers even more possibilities for identity construction due to its malleable nature (Van Dijck, 2008: As cited in Strano, 2008).

Zhao, Grasmuck, and Martin’s (2008) content analysis of 63 Facebook accounts showed that Facebook users often construct their identities online in implicit ways “involving the display of photos and pictures uploaded by the users themselves or pictures along with comments posted to their accounts by others (known as ‘wall posts’)” (Zhao et al., 2008, p. 1824). While analyzing visual presentation on social networking sites such as Facebook, the researchers argue that it is critical to take into account the fact that many online relationships on such platforms are anchored offline unlike the case in most anonymous online communities. As Facebook identities are not anonymous, there are limits to the extent and nature of identity performance a user may engage in. The user may choose to conform to established group norms in anonymous setting such as Facebook (Zhao et al., 2008).

Emphasizing that online identities are often intertwined with offline lives of people, Subramanyam and Šmahel (2011) explain:

Contrary to early speculation that technology makes it easy for users to leave their bodies behind and assume new and alternative identities, on the Internet, adolescent users seem to go out of their way to present their offline selves and not stay disembodied. (p. 67)

Although these findings draw upon social media usage by adolescents, the patterns are clearly applicable to young adults as well. Youth tend to test the impact of their identity narratives on their online community and modify aspects of their online self-presentation based on feedback from them. Subramanyam further elaborates that young people use social media to discuss issues that are important to them in their offline lives (“Teens,” 2010).

While a review of literature did not yield a single study on how Indian Muslim women visually present themselves on online platforms such as Facebook, several studies show that young people are strategic about how they want to visually portray themselves on the Internet (Siibak; 2007, 2009; Strano, 2008; Whitty, 2007; Young, 2008). For instance, Siibak (2009) points out that “impression management in the online worlds varies according to the expectations of the reference group at hand. Young people combine different self-beliefs and expectations of important others, i.e. grownups or peers, in order to form positive impressions about oneself.” She elaborates that while the “ideal self” image of the female respondents in her sample was built upon the “self-beliefs, norms and values that are associated with the traditional female gender role,” the male respondents were more “lax” about their choices.

Strano (2008) studied how people choose their profile images on Facebook and found that women are more likely to say they chose a particular photograph because they look attractive in it. Siibak’s (2007) study of images on an Estonian dating website showed that the images of the most popular women showcased their sexuality while the images of the most popular men reflected “two contradictory types of masculinity” – the macho man and the metrosexual. Referring to “gender-specific ways of posing” in the photographs, Siibak (2007) points out that a number of the women were “ready to expose their perfect bodies while wearing clothes that stress their ideal body shape” in the images.

In terms of relevance of these findings for this study, two caveats need to be made. First, images on a dating website are likely to be different from images posted on a social networking site such as Facebook or Orkut that focus on friendship more than dating. Secondly, unlike the case in Siibak’s (2007) study, Islamic cultural values and norms may play a key role in influencing the type of images posted by Muslim women on social networking sites, as highlighted by studies conducted in a Muslim context.

In order to examine online identity construction, Al-Saggaf (2011) studied the experiences of young Saudi women on Facebook by conducting 15 semi-structured interviews. One of his findings relevant for this study is that while self-disclosure was an important aspect of their participation on Facebook, the Saudi women were also very concerned about their privacy:

Saudi women fear that their personal information, such as photos, could fall into the wrong hands, which could result in serious damage to their family reputations…. Family’s reputation … is a grave matter in Saudi society. This may not be an issue for women in western societies (Al Saggaf, 2011, p. 13-14).

Shen and Khalifa (2010) studied Facebook usage among Arabic college students in the United Arab Emirates and found that as female students were subject to more restrictions in real life than the male students, Facebook was more important to them as a social venue and as a “playground” where they could interact with many people and experiment with different roles. The study also indicated that while the students attempted to “fit the new technologies and changes into their existing culture system,” at the same time, the students, especially women, were very open to authority influences, which struck the researchers as distinct from students in the West who are more influenced by peers than authority figures such as elders in the family (Shen & Khalifa, 2010, p. 61-62). Shen and Khalifa attributed such behavior to the “uniqueness of Arabic culture” (p. 63).

As the studies mentioned above show, one cannot afford to ignore the offline religious and socio-cultural settings of the sample while analyzing visual presentation in online environments. While studies on the usage of social media by women living in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE have been conducted earlier, our study explores the visual presentation strategies of Indian Muslim women who present a religious minority in a country with a long and intense British colonial history. As highlighted previously, the Indian context also presents many unique features including a sizable Internet user base, relatively high literacy rate and a bustling economy. Taking these socio-cultural contexts into account, we seek to answer the following research questions in this study:

RQ1: Which factors influence the visual presentation of young Indian Muslim women on social networking sites?

RQ2: How do the young Indian Muslim women negotiate the multiple pressures on them in their visual self-presentation on social networking sites?

Methods

To explore the above research questions, 18 in-depth interviews were conducted at a university in New Delhi, India. Our purposive sample comprised 15 students enrolled in the master’s program of three media-related courses at the university, a doctoral student and two young faculty associated with these students, all in the age group of 18-30. We selected the respondents from media-related courses because we believed they would be active on social networking sites which would enable us to gather in depth information about their visual presentations on those sites. It was important for the purposes of this study to interview women who were familiar with social networking sites. Here, it is pertinent to remember that although social networking sites are very popular in India, the male-female ratio is highly skewed with far fewer women than men logging in to such platforms.

We selected the 18-30 age group because they are actively involved in constructing their online identities. Other scholars who have done related research have cited similar reasons for focusing on younger people (Al-Saggaf, 2011; Brouwer, 2006; Leurs & Ponzanesi, 2011; Siibak, 2007, 2009). The average age of the respondents was 23. Further, while four of the respondents wore a hijab (head scarf), one wore a rida (a form of veil that comes in colors other than black and is often decorated with lace).

In depth interviews were used as the methodology for this study as the purpose was to get detailed information about the online, visual self-presentation experiences of these respondents. In a related study of profile images on Facebook, Strano (2008) emphasized the need for in depth interviews to generate more detailed data as respondents in her study, which used an open-ended qualitative survey method, often gave vague replies as to why they posted a particular photograph or why they found it good. Further, since our exploratory study required us to ask deeply personal probe questions, in depth interviews seemed more suitable than focus groups. Citing the advantages of in depth interviews as a method, Boyce and Neale (2006) point out that in depth interviews help in providing a “more relaxed atmosphere” to the respondents where they can feel more comfortable opening up about sensitive issues.

The interviews for this study were conducted between 2011 and 2013. After the first set of ten interviews was conducted in 2011, more respondents were recruited with the purpose of conducting a more rigorous analysis of the research topic. All the participants signed the consent form. The form promised them confidentiality and informed them of the purpose of the study. To maintain confidentiality, pseudonyms have been used in this research paper. The interviews were semi-structured with open-ended questions. The respondents were asked questions about their family background, their social networking activities, and the factors that influenced the selection of photographs they uploaded on their primary online social networking account. Attempts were made to bring out the dilemmas and choices the young women faced in selecting the photographs and the role played by family members, cultural and religious values in making those decisions. The authors followed up with the respondents wherever they found it was necessary to probe a particular theme or observation.

Both authors analyzed the transcripts and engaged in a thematic analysis of the data. Braun and Clarke (2006) define thematic analysis as a method for “identifying, analysing and reporting patterns (themes) within data.” This process involves organization, description and interpretation of data with the aim of exploring the implicit meanings and assumptions embedded in the text at specific socio-cultural intersections. Further, the analysis of the interviews involved a “constant moving back and forward” between the data, the codes generated by the data and the themes emerging from such a process (Braun & Clarke, 2006). The following section gives an account of the patterns and themes that emerged from this study.

Results

Factors Influencing Online Visual Presentation

The narratives show that Facebook was the primary social networking platform for all the respondents except one who had an account on Orkut. The young Indian Muslim women in this sample offered complex accounts of the various factors that influenced their self-presentation choices on social media sites and how they negotiated them. The following factors influenced the respondents in their decisions on the type of photographs they posted online:

a) The “niceness” and “decency” level of a photograph
b) The match between a photograph and their family values, cultural and religious norms
c) The nature of comments a photograph would elicit

Below, we describe the meaning and implication of each of these factors by drawing upon the narratives of the respondents.

The “niceness” and “decency” level of a photograph. When asked how they decide which pictures to upload on FB, respondents often used words such as “nice” and “decent” to describe their criteria. Words such as “physically attractive” and “sexy” were not used by most respondents. In fact, most respondents claimed that they avoided posting pictures in which they looked sexually attractive. For instance, Nargis, whose father worked in Saudi Arabia for many years while she lived in India with her mother, said she uploads “decent” pictures only. “I don’t want to put some photos that are very attractive.” Another respondent, 23-year-old Nameera, explained: “It’s fine if people find my photographs cute, beautiful or nice. But I don’t want people to find my photograph hot or sexy. I don’t want to be associated with such words.” Tahira, 21, elaborated: “Nice means something elegant. I want to look good in the photographs. But I don’t want to look sexy in my photographs. Sexy means something that deliberately aims at attracting the opposite sex.”

Meher, 26, a young faculty member who was pursuing her Ph.D. at the time of the interview, elaborated: “I upload pictures where I look nice. Nice means good to the eye. That does not mean sexy. Sexy it can be by face, but not by body. I have never clicked a photo in a sexy position. [Only] sexy by face is okay for me.” Like Meher, other respondents seemed more comfortable posting pictures where the focus was on the face and not the rest of the body.

Overall, most respondents preferred not to give an impression of sexual agency in their visual presentations online. Basically, these women did not want to be perceived as seeking sexual attention in semi-public spaces of online social networking sites. However, not everyone agreed on these intentions and assumptions. Despite the majority of respondents distancing themselves from the word “sexy,” three respondents who identified themselves either as “non-practicing” or “selectively-practicing” Muslims took a different stand. For example, Nayaab, a 23-year-old master’s student who wants to study filmmaking after she completes her degree, said: “I think I am an outlier in the Muslim community because I have a few sexy photos posted on Facebook.” Another respondent, 20-year-old Nadirah, who did not mind posting a few “sexy” photographs of herself on Facebook, said, “People often say to me, ‘Are you Muslim? You don’t look like one. You don’t behave like one.’”

The narratives mentioned above illuminate several analytical issues. The majority of the respondents, instead of making an effort to look “sexy” in their photographs on Facebook as suggested by previous research, wanted to be viewed as modest by their social networking circles, a pattern that may be better understood in the context of the high value placed on modest clothing and behavior by many Muslims. For instance, in an article titled “Modesty is my Liberty,” social activist, model and photographer Hana Malik (2014) discusses how “Islamic faith encourages modesty of the human body, meaning to have the legs, shoulders and stomach covered” and emphasizes that women “prove their worth through something other than their appearance.”

Furthermore, most respondents seemed to have internalized the emphasis given to female chastity and purity in South Asian culture and were eager to ensure that signs of sexual assertiveness were not identifiable in the photographs they posted online. They believed that distancing oneself from being “sexy” reflected a woman’s virtuous self and would win them social approval online. This explains why respondents who claimed to post “sexy” photos on Facebook categorized themselves as “outliers” in their community.

The match between a photograph and family values, cultural and religious norms. According to the respondents, family, cultural and religious values influenced the kind of photos they posted on FB and the kind of clothes they wore in those photographs and in their everyday lives. For instance, Zareena, whose father is an academician, said her parents insist she wear loose clothing in accordance with Islamic norms. Her mother tells her that “boys should not get the negative vibe from you [or believe] that you are easily attainable….A boy should never feel like… ok…you are inviting [his attention].” Zareena narrated an incident when her father got very angry with a top she was wearing and later tore it to pieces. She said these values and offline experiences influenced the kind of photos she uploaded on FB although none of her family members are on the social networking site except her younger brother who she described as “really cool.”

Zareena has posted some 200 photos on FB. She explained that her father does not approve of her interacting with the opposite sex outside the classroom to the extent that he would not allow her to sit on the same sofa as a male friend. However, that did not stop her from posting photographs of her along with her male friends on Facebook. Thus, while Zareena was accepting some of the restrictions placed on her online identity by her offline life, she was also rejecting some of these pressures.

In keeping with her religious and cultural values, Zareena claimed she never wore “vulgar stuff that catch the eye and create a bad impression, because I have been brought up with those traditions…I think hundreds of times before wearing a sleeveless dress, so you can imagine what kind of photos I have posted.” In fact, she has already come up with a solution in case her father insists on checking her FB account: “I have made a fake account, with no photo in it, just the account name and some 10 decent girl friends and that’s it. Even my display picture does not have a photo there.”

Tabassum, who is the youngest among five sisters, narrated an incident where she ran into trouble with her family after a friend tagged her in a picture which showed her in apparent physical proximity with a male friend in a group photo with classmates. When her sister objected to the photograph, she specifically instructed her friends not to post such pictures. Tabassum’s example needs to be seen in the context of the constructions of femininity in India, which rely heavily on qualities such as chastity, morality and submissiveness (Abraham, 1999). Since family honor, especially male honor, is measured in terms of a woman’s chastity, it becomes imperative to control her interactions with the opposite sex, especially in spaces offered by social networking sites, which also provide a ready audience for transgressions on her part, if any. Any online photographs that remotely question the preservation of premarital chastity pose a threat to her family’s honor and respectability in offline spaces.

Another respondent, Sameya, 22, whose father works in the finance and accounting sector, does not post any of her photographs with her boyfriend on Facebook. She explained:

He is Muslim but he is from a different caste so my parents don’t approve of him. He is a businessman – my parents don’t like that either. They wanted my boyfriend to be an engineer or a doctor or something like that. So I don’t have a single photograph of him and me on Facebook. We usually talk on the phone.

Sameya elaborated on how she does not want to upset her parents’ “sentiments” by posting such pictures so she keeps her 7-year-old relationship “hidden” from social media sites. “My father has grown with me to a great extent,” she said. “But there are some things my parents just won’t accept. This is one of them.” Sameya came to Delhi from a North Indian city to pursue her master’s and explained that some of her relatives were against the idea as they feared she would become “modern” after enrolling for a journalism program.

Like Sameya, 21-year-old Suhana, who came to Delhi from a North Indian town to pursue her master’s, said her cousins are on FB and have an orthodox attitude towards women posting pictures. Despite the opposition, she has posted around 350 photos on FB. However, she pointed out that she has not posted any pictures where she is wearing figure-hugging or revealing clothes. Similarly, Nargis, who described her family as supportive, educated and religious, said she always makes it a point not to wear something which her family will disapprove:

So I make sure not to wear sleeveless or not to wear backless. I never felt the urge to wear them as well. Cause since the beginning, I have been trained that a girl’s body is supposed to be hidden, so I don’t really approve of the fact of wearing things that reveal your body, especially not on me.

Similarly, Zeenat, a Bohra Muslim, only uploads pictures where she is wearing her rida, which she started wearing in the third year of college. She once posted a picture of hers without a rida which made her feel very guilty:

I removed it soon, like in 2 minutes. I uploaded it, then I went to eat, then it came to my mind and I came back in hurry and removed it….Few people commented on it and I realized I am not right. This does not go with what I am now. I want to be covered. I’ve taken the decision to wear the rida so I should stick to it full time.

Nargis added that she rarely posts “full body” photos in her display picture. She explained her decision in the following words:

What I understand is that in Islam you are not allowed to attract … like put on lot of perfume or wear something that makes noise as you move [referring to ankle bracelets], make jingling sounds so that the guys can hear and get attracted. So if I take care of something like display picture, then it’s pretty fine. Other photos are for my own closed group, people I really know and all.

Tahira, 21, pointed out that Islam is about simplicity and she tries to live up to the ideal as much as possible. Zohra, who started wearing the hijab after she got engaged, talked about the constant struggle involved in deciding what to wear, both online and offline: “There’s pressure to look attractive, on one side. And, there is your duty towards your religion, towards Allah. One is always deciding what is right.”

The nature of comments a photograph would elicit. All respondents said they were wary of people posting embarrassing comments about their pictures online and that influenced the type of photos they uploaded on social networking sites. Tabassum, for instance, said:

Some people give some stupid comments that you want to delete but you cannot delete because they are friends….It is embarrassing also – comments like you are looking sexy….At times if people see a picture of you with a guy, then will start saying – oh, ok, so you are going around with this guy.

In fact, she was so affected by the nature of comments she received for a few of her photographs that she started posting fewer photographs on the social networking site.

When Aafreen, who lives with her extended family after her parents divorced, uploaded pictures in western wear on her FB account, she received comments criticizing her for preferring western attire over traditional Indian clothes. A male friend from her hometown insisted she wear the salwar kameez [loose pants with long shirt] as it is in keeping with Muslim ethics:

I keep on telling him, ‘look dressing does not matter, it’s your mental status [attitude]. He tells me ‘no you are a Muslim girl, what will happen to you when judgment day comes, what Allah will do to you.’ I am like ‘we will see what will happen that day….If Allah does not want us to wear jeans, then why did he give someone the idea to make them.’

However, she also believes in what her grandmother has taught her. “When I was a child, my nani [grandmother] told me….there is a line of demarcation you have to draw beyond which you cannot go. Because you are a girl, at the end of the day you are a girl, so keep that in mind.” Thus, Aafreen ensures she never posts photos that are offensive or “will ignite something else in somebody else’s mind.” At the same time, Aafreen wonders if she would ever be able to upload photographs in a mini skirt like her friends do but is worried that it would contradict the image she has portrayed to them so far.

Aafreen’s narratives reflect the constant tug-of-war in her mind about which image to project. While she resists pressures on her to wear traditional clothing only, she simultaneously accepts the overall social paradigm that imposes different moralities on men and women, respectively. Middle class Indian women often internalize prescriptive notions of “sexual respectability” regarding what was “socially and sexually appropriate” behavior for them – so much so, that these notions became “an instrument of social control over their gendered bodies and sexualities” (Puri, 1999, p.77).

Suhana, who has about 400 friends on FB, also maintains that she never posts photos that are “offensive or ones which will make someone comment something.” She remembers receiving an “uncomfortable comment” once from a male friend when she wore a saree and uploaded the picture on FB. Her friend commented on her figure. “It [The attire] was not at all revealing though,” she says in a defensive tone. “It [the comment] seemed offensive to me and I deleted it,” she adds. Suhana is the first girl in her family to come to Delhi to pursue higher studies. Her relatives often taunt her and her parents for sending their daughter to live in a big city where she is exposed to many influences.

Yafiah, a 20-year-old Shia Muslim who wears a hijab, said that she gets a lot of comments on Facebook about “how this is not the real hijab” as she wears jeans and uploads those photographs on the social networking site. Some of her Facebook friends comment that a woman who wears the hijab must wear traditional clothing but she has not given in yet. “It’s difficult deciding what is the right thing to do,” she said. Yafiah started wearing a hijab two years ago during the Muslim religious holiday of Muharram. “Earlier, I used to wear the hijab only during Muharram. But in 2011, I decided not to live this life of duality anymore and wear it at all times.”

Resisting Pressure: Segregating Audiences and Rejecting Friendship Requests

While negotiating the multiple influences mentioned above, the respondents said they used the privacy settings offered by social networking sites to segregate the audiences of their online profiles. They exercised individual agency by rejecting friendship requests from relatives and acquaintances who were likely to create problems for them. Aafreen, for instance, rejected requests from her uncle who wanted to be on her friend list as she finds him conservative and narrow minded and does not want him to see her photographs or know her friends. Zareena’s cousins keep sending her friend requests on Facebook but she continues rejecting them. She knows her cousins will never approve of her pictures or the comments she receives. Of course, her younger brother is on her list of friends. As mentioned earlier, she has also created a fake account with only female friends in case her father insists on taking a look.

Nadia only lets her “good friends” see her party pictures. “I don’t want everyone to know everything about me” she reasoned. Similarly, Nargis shares her pictures with close friends and family members she trusts. Nargis reviews her Facebook privacy settings frequently to ensure they are working perfectly. Zeenat does not accept friend requests from people she does not know. She said although she wants to portray a friendly image on Facebook, she does not want to “come across as someone you can mess around with.”

Nameera also rejects friend requests sent by her brothers and their wives because they would not approve of some of the photos she has posted, especially her group photos with male friends and classmates. She has also posted pictures of herself on Facebook with a “bindi” which refers to a dot of color, usually red, applied to the center of the forehead by Indian women. Traditionally, only Hindu women wear bindis in South Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Nameera said her parents and some of her relatives would disapprove of those photographs if they ever saw them: “But I am just wearing it for fashion,” she reasoned.

Nayaab, a 23-year-old master’s student who has 1,007 photographs posted on her Facebook account does not let her relatives become her friends on the social networking site after some bad experiences with them:

Earlier, I used to unfriend relatives who had a problem with the type of photographs I posted. One of the incidents was about a photograph of me celebrating the Holi festival [It is a Hindu religious holiday during which people throw colored powders and water at each other.] This particular person left an abusive comment about how a Muslim woman was not supposed to celebrate a Hindu festival. In another instance, one of my uncles called up my mom and complained about me after seeing a photograph in which I was wearing a top which had a thin shoulder strap. I un-friended him too. These days, I just don’t accept friend requests from my relatives.

Nayaab had 350 friends on Facebook in October 2013 comprising primarily of friends and classmates. She has also made it a point to restrict the privacy settings on photographs that might attract unnecessary attention.

Discussion: Negotiating Multiple Influences

The narratives of the respondents show how multiple and often contradictory factors influence the way young Indian Muslim women visually present themselves on social networking sites and how they negotiate the complex terrain of identity performance in online settings. Their constant negotiations highlight how they adhere to specific religious, cultural and gendered norms while exercising individual agency within such an overall framework. For instance, most of the respondents said they uploaded “nice” photographs to their online profiles. Here, it is important to unpack the meaning of “nice” – a word frequently used by the respondents to describe their photographs. By “nice,” the respondents referred to “good” photos that would not embarrass them or hurt the reputation of their families and relatives. Respondents also ensured they did not post photographs that showed them interacting in “objectionable” ways with the opposite sex. For instance, after Tabassum got into trouble for being tagged in a picture where she was sitting in physical proximity with a male friend, she specifically instructed her friends not to post such pictures. Of course, Tabassum did not stop interacting with the opposite sex to meet socio-religious norms. Instead, she simply tried to ensure that such photographs were not posted on social networking sites. The choices of these respondents highlight how women carry the responsibility of upholding the “honor” or “izzat” of their families in the digital world.

The results also highlight how women make strategic choices that will maximize returns in deeply restrictive environments typical of patriarchal societies (Kandiyoti, 1988). For instance, if a young woman is permitted to go to college only if she promises never to interact with male students, she will happily give her word on that in order to exercise her right to go to college. Thus, Kandiyoti (1988) argues that “different forms of patriarchy present women with distinct ‘rules of the game,”’ which they tend to adapt in order to strike bargains with patriarchal power and processes (p.274). In fact, women in such societies internalize the need to strike bargains with patriarchy from an early age, so much so, that such bargaining not only informs their “rational choices” but also shapes their subconscious desires and hopes (Kandiyoti, 1988, p. 285).

Furthermore, the importance given to family expectations and societal norms by the respondents in this study is similar to what Al Saggaf (2011) found in his study of experiences of Saudi women on Facebook. The Saudi women were seriously concerned that they do not damage their family reputation by their online activity. Family honor and shame are widely prevalent concepts in Middle Eastern and South Asian societies and are usually defined as the “need to guard female sexuality” (Werbner, 2007, p. 165). The concepts of honor and shame are not limited to any specific religion in India. Steve Derné’s (1995) study of gendered cultures among Hindu men in Benaras, India, showed that while men assumed that only extreme public crimes committed by them could harm their family’s honor, any minute lapse in a woman’s conduct could jeopardize the reputation of the family, community or even an entire village:

Most commonly, men say that they would harm their family’s honor if they committed murder or theft, became addicted to alcohol, or visited prostitutes. By contrast, when men discuss how women could harm the family’s honor, they emphasize innocent public behavior such as talking with other men or going outside of the home too often, as well as a range of private behavior such as causing enmity within the family by disobeying one’s husband or one’s mother-in-law (p. 32).

Elaborating on the concept of kinship and honor among Punjabi families in North India, eminent Indian sociologist, Veena Das (1976), points out that as daughters are seen as a “repository of family honour,” any dishonorable behavior on their part is believed to lead to a loss of face for all members of their family forever (p. 15).

The narratives of the young Indian Muslim women interviewed for this study highlight how many of them appear to have internalized the linkages made between female sexuality, religion and cultural values. Jyoti Puri made similar observations in an offline context in her book titled “Woman, Body, Desire in Post-Colonial India: Narratives of Gender and Sexuality.” Based on interviews of middle class Indian women, Puri (1999) emphasized that her respondents often framed sexual respectability as a matter of national cultural tradition:

Normative prescriptions of premarital chastity appear to be central to what counts as sexual respectability for these middle-class women. Not only do these normative prescriptions shape women’s narratives on sexuality but they are overtly linked to the premise of national cultural identity (p. 115).

The results of this study also show that respondents who pushed the boundaries and uploaded what was perceived as risqué photographs faced the ire of many offline and online. Thus, for most of the respondents, offline concerns of maintaining family honor and respect for socio-cultural and religious norms are also visible in the nature of visual presentation strategies adopted in online platforms, especially in the case of social networking sites such as Facebook where offline identities are anchored to online ones. However, advantages offered by social networking sites such as the ease with which men and women can construct their online identities or chat with each other on the Internet also introduces a contestation between culturally-acquired codes, on the one hand, and individual desires and peer pressure, on the other.

Despite multiple pressures, the narratives also highlight how respondents worked at creating their own personal spaces where they could experiment with the exercise of individual choices and desires. For instance, Aafreen defended her decision to post pictures in which she was wearing jeans although a friend commented she would face Allah’s wrath on judgment day. She also expressed her desire to someday upload pictures in miniskirts while simultaneously reiterating her belief that a Muslim woman should “never cross the line.”

Respondents also exercised agency by segregating audiences on their SNS account. Using Goffman’s (1959) terminology, Zhao, Grasmuck, and Martin (2008) argue that the primary settings on Facebook allow users to “partition their Facebook pages into many ‘back’ and ‘front’ regions” ensuring that different audiences witness different identity performances (p. 1832). Goffman (1959) argues that when an individual has to give off different impressions to different audiences, it is important for him to “segregate his audiences so that the individuals who witness him in one of his roles will not be individuals who witness him in another of his roles” (p. 137). Thus, the respondents ensured that only their closest circle of friends had access to their photographs and rejected online friendship requests from relatives, who they believed would object to the nature of their visual presentations. It is likely that such moves were based on the need to keep away potential “nightmare readers” and limit their audience to “ideal readers,” two terms used by Marwick and boyd (2010) in a study that explores how users navigate the challenges posed by social media technologies collapsing “multiple audiences into single contexts.” In their study, while some Twitter users wrote tweets for an imagined audience comprising “the ideal reader” or someone who shares their perspectives and values, others kept the “nightmare reader” in mind comprising parents, partners, bosses and any other person for whom only a limited range of topics can be considered safe and appropriate to post on one’s social media profile (Marwick & boyd, 2010).

Before we conclude it must be mentioned that the small sample used in this study may be considered as a major limitation by some. While the findings of this study are not generalizable due to the sample size and method used, they provide valuable information. Regarding the appropriate sample size in studies using in depth interviews as a method for collecting data, Boyce and Neale (2006) state that “the general rule….is that when the same stories, themes, issues, and topics are emerging from the interviewees, then a sufficient sample size has been reached” (p. 4). The logic of using small samples in interview-based qualitative research is that a small number of cases will facilitate “close association” between the researcher and the respondents, and “enhance the validity of fine-grained, in-depth inquiry in naturalistic settings” (Crouch & McKenzie, 2006, p. 483). Apart from the small sample, another limitation of the study is the fact that the interviews were conducted over a two year period. However, the longer span of time used to conduct the study also helped in facilitating more meetings and follow ups. Furthermore, while this study used the method of in depth interviews to analyze visual presentation strategies adopted by Indian Muslim women, future studies need to examine the nature of photographs posted by them on social networking platforms. It would also be illuminating to explore how Indian Muslim men negotiate socio-cultural norms and religious expectations on social media.

The findings of the study have practical implications. In a country where only 50% of Muslim women are literate, the study sheds light on the social pressures experienced even by those who have managed to enroll for higher education and how they negotiate them. The results of the study are also significant for those engaged in advancing gender equality by providing access to information and communication technologies in developing countries. The narratives show that simply having access to the Internet may not be enough to empower these women whose offline restrictions impact their online activities to a great extent.

To conclude, this study highlighted factors that influence the nature of visual self-presentation of young Indian Muslim women on social networking sites. The narratives showed that many respondents made strategic choices to display their adherence to gendered expectations, cultural and religious norms in their online profiles while simultaneously carving out spaces for individual expression and satisfaction by segregating audiences and rejecting friendship requests from specific family members and relatives. The interviews also illuminated the respondents’ constant struggle to accommodate contradictory goals. The fact that their online identities were anchored to their offline lives continually reinforced the need to uphold family honor and social reputation on a social networking site such as Facebook. Thus, the respondents took measures to ensure that their “friends” did not leave any embarrassing comments on their walls that would disrupt their carefully-crafted online personas. Furthermore, a majority of respondents wanted to ensure that their photographs did not show any visible signs of female desire, a value embedded in the cultural fabric of many South Asian societies.

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Correspondence to:
Smeeta Mishra, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Business Communication Area
Institute of Management Technology-Ghaziabad
Ghaziabad – 201001
Uttar Pradesh
India

Email: smeetamishra(at)imt.edu




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