Masrat Zahra has been shooting pictures at the site of raging encounters between militants and security personnel. She has also been covering violent clashes between protesters and the police and para-military forces on the streets of Srinagar. But despite having braved all the challenges to perform her professional duties in the conflict zone, the visual storyteller is finding it hard to cope up with the online abuse that has come her way recently.
On Wednesday, she reacted to the cyberbullying and described it as “shameful and depressing”. Masrat—who works for Rising Kashmir and The Quint as a freelancer—took to Facebook and posted: “Last night I uploaded my picture from a gun battle site and within no time people circulated it on their pages and walls with the caption ‘MUKHBIR’ (spy). This is really shocking, that fateful day I was seriously injured my leg and shoulder got serious injuries despite that I did my job and clicked pictures with a broken arm, even my trousers were torn off, and now it has been one and a half month still I am not recovering.”
“And to be honest my parents are not supporting me to be in this field.”
The picture in question showed her getting ready to take pictures of the army men apparently near an encounter site. However, several social media users have been sharing it along with epithets like spy, traitor and collaborator for being spotted with the “enemy” forces.
Nevertheless, many of her senior colleagues have expressed solidarity with her and lambasted those lampooning Masrat. Senior journalist and editor of the Rising Kashmir Shujaat Bukhari wrote on Facebook: “Some of the friends on Facebook (they proved to be FB friends only) who are showing concern over the ordeal our young photo journalist Masrat Zahra is going through must realise that they are also responsible for promoting this kind of ‘futwa baazi’ by these unscrupulous elements. Some of them hide behind fake accounts but will be exposed one day and face Allah's wrath. Please don't shed tears now. One can see how you have been promoting such morons. But I stand with Masrat Zehra and strongly condemn the malicious campaign on social media,” he said, describing her as a “genuine journalist.”
Reacting to the post, a Facebook user Dar Ishtiyaq wrote: “In conflict zone these things will happen because of patriotism or vice-versa.”
“The online vilification of a budding photojournalist Masrat Zahra by calling her 'mukhbir' is not new. It's the old sign of sickness of our society which has fed and consumed the narratives of occupation and resorted to name-calling and mukhbir-calling because it's very very easy to do that. The mukhbir-calling of Masrat is the product of the same mentality which threatens photojournalists to stop taking pictures of women mourners and protestors. The fact that Masrat is a woman and a gutsy one at that makes her targeting easy and somehow sanctioned by our society,” Irfan Mehraj, editor of Wande Magazine.
“This is shocking, utterly disgusting, and dangerous and can be discouraging for such young and promising photojournalists like Masarat (there aren't many of them out there) who are trying to do their job in difficult circumstances here. Please report, block such pages, accounts. I have also seen in recent times how at times our young photojournalists, who are some of our most hardworking, bravest and finest professionals are hit, pushed around, suspected even by people while they're trying to do their job truthfully and with all sincerity. This needs to stop,” wrote another journalist Majid Maqbool.
Notwithstanding the overwhelming support that is pouring in for her, there are users who still have been sympathising with her and advising her to change the profession, maintaining that it was meant only for tough men.
“Better to be in a feminine field why you have to put yourself at risk... Isn't it a western definition of gender equality which u are following, follow your religion, you will never lose your dignity...” wrote Syed Basit Masoodi.
Others have been attacking her gender, stating that she must adhere to the path of Islam strictly. “Stay at home its not your job try to become like hazrat Fatima Islam doesn't allow you to do this job,” commented Hamzah Hizbi.
But this is not the first time that a woman professional is being insulted and intimidated online. Of late, in an interview with the National Herald, twin sisters Uzma Ahmed and Bushra Ahmed, singers from Kashmir Valley, had also complained about receiving gender related threats for pursuing their passion.
Comments on their Facebook Page, Ishtiyaq Sisters, and YouTube videos corroborate their complaints about cyber harassment. Besides threats, while majority of commenters infantilize or patronise them, others mock or abuse them. Sadly, one comes across very few comments made by residents of Kashmir that praise their work or encourage them to keep doing what they love to do—that is singing.