Something unusual happened when Anshika, a Mumbai based media professional retweeted a tweet noting that a respected left-leaning historian had argued that the politics behind book-banning should be exposed.
One of the respondents to her tweet, whose profile picture was the sacred Hindu symbol Om, asked her how she would react if someone wrote about the sex life of her parents without proof. Anshika said she wouldn't read the book. What followed was an avalanche of tweets containing graphic details of her parents’ supposed sex life.
Sowmya, a blogger with a wide range of interests, was in for a shock when she wrote about national politics. Many of her readers, who were otherwise fond of her views, wondered why she wanted to dabble in political writing. Similarly, when Sharda, a Mumbai based online activist extended her support to 'slutwalk', she was asked if that was her chosen career. Among other names, she was given the title ‘chief slut’.
Social media is widely considered to be a democratic alternate medium against conventional forums, and in some cases has even empowered maginalised communities, but sadly, it mirrors the real world in respect to the treatment of women.
Gender based verbal abuse, harassment, and stereotyping of women is as much a part of the online world as it is in the real world. Even the ways in which women tackle abuse online is not very different to how they deal with abuse offline. And laws have failed victims in both the real and virtual spheres.
How women are targeted online
“Misogynists will do whatever they can to humiliate women and abuse them. Basically, everything that they can get away with. And I think one can get away with more in the virtual world,” said Meena Kandasamy, Chennai based writer and active blogger.
Not all the abuse targeted at women is direct, underlined a qualitative study of women and verbal online abuse in India, done by the Internet Democracy Project (IDP), a Delhi based NGO which works on online freedom of speech and expression.
The study, based on interviews with seventeen women including the three case studies mentioned above, noted that women reported to have been abused on the sly. (Firstpost has received early access to the report.)
How this works, is that a small online community will gang up against the woman without mentioning her name or addressing any comment directly to her. The targets of sly communication, noted the study, are considerably troubled when the abuser in question is someone more powerful or popular than the woman as the sly communication will frequently also result in an increase in direct abuse.
Opinion is divided, though, on whether merely being a woman is enough to become a target of online harassment or whether it is related to the topics they choose to write/ comment on.
Based on the experiences of transgender people- who have been a part of online spaces as both men and women however, the IDP report noted that the resulting abuse was disproportionately higher when the online avatar was female as opposed to male.
Refusal to chat with a man on public platforms has caused women to receive cuss words and rape threats. “On chat forums it has happened multiple times that if you refuse to talk to them, they will call you a bitch or a whore or other names,” Kalpana, an Internet enthusiast told the surveyors.
And like in the real world, the moral police is very active over the Internet. When women share their personal lives on the Internet, they often encounter a community telling them the do’s and dont’s of life. When Tripti, an active blogger, mentioned in one her blogs that she was keener to relocate to India than her husband, she got several hate mails saying that she was a selfish bitch; that she had no right to dominate her husband and that she was making him relocate when he didn’t want to.
But to say that only gender decides the tone, type and content of abuse would be to implifying a complex issue. “Those who tweet about politics, women’s liberation, persecution of religious and sexual minorities are targeted,” said Kandansamy.
The types of abuse against women
Almost every woman respondent interviewed for the IDR report, said that commenting on Modi or his policies in Gujarat inevitably leads to a barrage of abuse. Mridula, a human rights activist and active blogger, said that among the many hate emails or ‘love letters’ as she calls them, which she received on email groups, for condemning Narendra Modi and the BJP’s politics, included statements such as “Like the women in Gujarat, you should have been raped because you converted".
One of the preferred ways to target or silence a woman on an online forum is to attack to attack her sexuality. “The real problem is when they do not talk about my thought process, but about my appearance,” the study quoted Nidhi, a rightwing political commentator and active twitter user, as saying.
Trolls also often use images and videos against women online. Many women, who don’t get offended by rape threats and explicit verbal abuse, feel uncomfortable when their pictures are circulated online.
Muskaan, a Kashmiri woman who is vocal about the situation in the valley, discovered that an online forum had obtained her picture and had started writing captions on it like, “Look at her, she's a Kashmiri. But shameless, partying!” Muskaan is however was not new to online harassment. But when her image started doing the rounds on social media, her reaction, as noted in the IDR report, was “Get my picture off the page, you can write whatever you want to.”
Akin to online communities across the world, the rape threat is also used in the Indian blogosphere as a device to hammer out the message of male superiority. “Background research and testimonies of women bloggers from different parts of the world suggests that irrespective of your popularity or readership size, there will always be harassers who seek a woman out, simply on the basis of her gender,” notes the report.
Remedies to counter gender abuse online
Non- legal strategies used by women to tackle online abuse include ignoring the abuse, moderating comments, blocking abusers, reporting abusers, naming and shaming, self censorship and taking the trolls head-on.
Also social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have mechanisms to report abuse.
On receiving a complaint, Twitter probes and suspends the account if it finds merit in the complaint. But the person can always come back to the micro-blogging site with a new email id. That said however, they will lose the number of 'followers' they previously had, and it will also cause them to think twice before targeting the same women.
IDR noted that while Facebook advises complainants to block the abuser and claims to have removed the abusive content, the policy has loopholes.
One of the report's respondents Namrata runs a page on feminism on Facebook. The content on her page is regularly taken down because of terms such as slut and whore.
To the IDR interviewers, she said, “Facebook has an evident bias towards these [hateful, abusive] pages. When we were blocked recently, I got in touch with a Facebook official in USA. He told us that since we use the world slut, bitch on our pages and there is a programme which automatically searches for words like these, and that’s why they were deleted. But this is a lie because there are so many pages that use the word slut, bitch in a derogatory way and those pages are still there and they are just flagged off as ‘controversial humour.’
However, when harassed or abused online, women prefer not to report the matter to family members or friends. Prashant Mali, a Mumbai based lawyer who specialises in cyber security cases, gave one such scenario. “This woman had a boyfriend in college but she refused to marry him. The man did not let it go. Years later, when she was married, he put their old pictures on Facebook. Out of embarrassment or societal pressure, the woman did not want to discuss the matter with her husband or anyone else.”
Despite this, online support networks have played crucial role when women at the receiving end look out for help. “Support was considered crucial, but was usually drawn from an online community and took the form of public tweets private messages and sometimes even phone calls, when friendships move to offline lives as well,” highlighted IDR report.
While retweeting abuses on twitter emerged as a popular strategy to gather online support and to name and shame the abuser, fewer women recommended taking the troll head on.
Legal remedies are the least sought after in such cases due to various reasons- delayed justice, victimization and anonymity of abuser.
Police advising the victim on how to conduct herself has permeated in the online realm, too. Mumbai police has uploaded four YouTube videos on cyber security.
While two of these videos suggest that women protect themselves, there is no direct message about the IT Act or IPC provisions under which legal action can be taken for online abuse, noted IDR. According to Prasahant Mali, lack of awareness about laws is one the reasons why online abuse continues unabated. “Every time a social media company is questioned, it says that it is governed by international law and treaties. I believe they should allocate funds to spread awareness about facts, such as, what constitutes defamation and harassment online and what is the punishment in Indian law for these offences", he said.
Yet, advocates of online freedom of speech and expression argue that more stringent laws are not the answer to tackle online abuse of women. Apar Gupta, Delhi based lawyer and cyber law enthusiast said there is a need to bring parity in provisions which apply across media as it will build consistency and predictability which is beneficial to understand crimes. But he doubts if a law meant to govern online speech will be used impartially. “The provisions for criminalising speech which is made specifically online, will be used against dissenters and minorities who enagage in conversation contrary to dominant social values,” he said.
Pranesh Prakash, policy director at Bangalore based Centre for Internet & Society concluded, “Politeness and civil discourse cannot be legislated. We need societal change and more avenues of free speech rather than laws to tackle online harassment of women.”