The recent arrest of two men in Tamil Nadu for harassing and threatening south Indian playback singer Chinmayi Sripada on Twitter and social media showed the country how even the virtual world is unsafe for women in India.
For a change, it also showed how women can hit back and smoke the abusive men out of their internet anonymity.
Reportedly, the men had relentlessly attacked the A-list singer, who is also an entrepreneur and voice artist, using racial, sexist and vulgar comments on her, and threatened her with rape and violence. The issue spilled over to Facebook and elsewhere on the web, where (mostly) men passed judgments on her.
From what Chinmayi wrote in her blog “Facing abuse and a backlash of rumours” it appears to be a rather long abusive pursuit by some men starting January last year. Reading her version of the story is quite distressing - that a young professional woman with public standing like her could be a target of such vicious attacks and threats.
In her complaint to the police, she has reportedly said that “a few individuals have threatened to kill, rape and assault” her on Twitter. She also added that "there are aspersions cast on my character as well as a chronic steam of vulgar references and innuendoes even about my mother". She provided the police with six twitter handles that were used to malign and threaten her. The police, for once, was quick to arrest the culprits - a professor of fashion technology and a government employee.
The apparent reasons for the tirade were Tamil pride, her assumed stand on the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka and the attack by Sri Lankan navy on Tamil fishermen, her singing abilities, her eating habits and so on. But the reality was they just picked on her for what she is - a successful young woman professional - for their perverse attacks.
Over the last few months, it swelled into a minor online storm since the singer has a strong online and social media presence and considerable fan following. Her twitter handle is followed by more than 100,000 people.
The messages and discussions, some of which are highlighted by Chinmayi herself in her blog, clearly smack of the ruthlessly sexist, sexual, racial and domineering attitude of a large section of Indian men towards women. Acting on the singer’s complaint, the city police commissioner said the police has received several complaints of online harassment from women and there will be strict action.
Chinamyi’s stature helped to highlight the fact that women are susceptible to assaults and sexual abuse, including rape, since online criminals either carry fake identities or feel that they are anonymous. In a similar case, the Kerala police recently nabbed a man who meticulously impersonated an actress on Facebook that affected her public and private life.
Not surprisingly, the online crime against women is not confined to India alone. Ever since internet became widely available in the late 1990s, the (world-wide) web has been a free field for men who wanted to stalk women and children and indulge in sexual abuses.
The Guardian, in a 2007 article, aptly illustrated how the web has become a sexists’ paradise.
“While no one could deny that men experience abuse online, the sheer vitriol directed at women has become impossible to ignore. Extreme instances of stalking, death threats and hate speech are now prevalent, as well as all the everyday harassment that women have traditionally faced in the outside world - cat-calls, for instance, or being "rated" on our looks. It's all very far from the utopian ideals that greeted the dawn of the web - the idea of it as a new, egalitarian public space, where men and women from all races, and of all sexualities, could mix without prejudice.”
The more striking point the article made was about the lethal combination of anonymity and misogyny - something that was evident in Chinamyi’s case.
“On some online forums anonymity combined with misogyny can make for an almost gang-rape like mentality. One recent blog thread, attacking two women bloggers, contained comments like, "I would f**k them both in the a**,"; "Without us you would be raped, beaten and killed for nothing,"; and "Don't worry, you or your friends are too ugly to be put on the black market."
The observation by a Washington Post article was also strikingly similar on how misogynous men run riot on the internet.
“As women gain visibility in the blogosphere, they are targets of sexual harassment and threats. Men are harassed too, and lack of civility is an abiding problem on the Web. But women, who make up about half the online community, are singled out in more starkly sexually threatening terms -- a trend that was first evident in chat rooms in the early 1990s and is now moving to the blogosphere, experts and bloggers said.”
Lena Chen, an interesting blogger lists five types of haters that female bloggers face: the body snarking, the resentful, the racist, the vengeful and the sociopathic. It’s not simple coincidence that the men who targeted Chinmayi included all of these. It’s a dominant attitude that is hard to miss.
But the silver lining is that unlike in the real world, it’s indeed easier to trace the “anonymous misogynists” who indulge in criminal behaviour.
The action by Chennai police is a warning sign that needs to be amplified. It will a better deterrent than controlling the social media.