The personal is political, but now it’s also social: How the internet changed the game for feminist discourse

By Rohini Chatterji and Vishnupriya Bhandaram

A fair warning: What you are about to read is an article on how the conversations around gender, equality, feminism have changed over the last fifteen years. For some of you, a few of the ideas and terms mentioned in this article might make your blood boil; you might even find yourself typing furiously on your keyboard, words like ‘feminazi’, ‘misanthrope’, ‘b****’, ‘c***’ and/or a slew of other colourful words. We do not take responsibility for broken keyboards.

The personal is political was a phrase used by the second wave of feminists in the West to signify how the personal experiences of a woman are significant in the fight to change political structures that pull us down. And this phrase couldn't have made more sense than in our present context, when millions of women are telling their stories — of victory and defeat alike — with the help of social media. The micro-politics of everyday life (men, women — of varying sexual orientations and sexualities) are out there; their histories are being recorded in 140 characters or as status updates.

According to Statista, India is the third-largest online market with over 198 million internet users, India ranks right behind China and the US. According to a study by We Are Social, the number of active users is increasing at a rate of “roughly one every second”, however it will still take 16 more years before half of the Indian population is on social media. We are willing to wait, however, the study predicts a shift in mobile usage which might increase the number of people willing to take a ride on the social media train.

Men dominate the internet usage with 61 percent and women users are only 39 percent. However, according to Tech In Asia, this divide does not reflect in device usage — most women who do access Facebook, do so through smartphones, on par with the 67 percent men who use Facebook on a smartphone.

Scholar, Kaberi Chakrabarti argues that social media is “unfolding as a space of liberation, a platform of cogitation or a site of celebration of provoking assertions and identity formation”. In her paper, Gender Justice and Social Media Networking in India: New frontiers in connectedness, she also supports the idea that though digital networking is still in nascent stages, it is a rapidly growing tool of “interrogating and/or reconfiguring traditional social-political, economic-cultural practices, identities, behaviors, norms and structures in India.”

The personal is political, but now it’s also social: How the internet changed the game for feminist discourse

Social media provided a space where memes can be used to make very powerful points that reach a lot of people.

Rashmi Sharma*, a 35-year-old did not grow up with access to billions of articles and literature on feminism, nor did she have mothers, aunts or fathers who vehemently believed in the feminist cause. However, she claims that it is only because of the solidarity she received from her friends on social media that led her to know what an equal marriage was and consequently want it.

“Earlier, I never used to say anything to my husband or my in-laws. When I gave birth to our child, I realised that it was for all purposes my responsibility and not my husbands. However, I started reading Facebook posts of my other married friends who were going through similar struggles and got the courage to speak my mind. I realised that it was not my ‘unique’ problem,” she says.

Through social media, women and men across the world are able to identify problematic practices through each other's personal experiences. Earlier, the discourse on feminism was restricted discussions in elite academic and media circles.  Even if there were discussions among women on a personal level, it remained isolated.

Dr Vrinda Nabar, former head of the English Department at the Bombay University had told Outlook in an article in 1995 , that the committment of an increasing number of women has created greater awareness, however there was not enough of an effort being to made to address the “middle class consciousness” — an important factor in making a social change and consequently, “the suspicion that feminists are subversive women is all too common.”

The article also noted: “There is also an awareness of the need to find allies outside the movement. Several feminists now speak of the need to reach out to other democratic forums. And there also seems to be a recognition that unity cannot be forged only on the basis of gender.”

Now, the democratic forum has been found and allies have been made outside the movement. Social media has provided the platform for women to write their own stories and experiences in the form of status messages and tweets. And these stories are now out in the public domain. A woman sitting in the New Delhi is now able to read the rant/experience/ story of a woman in the US and identify with her. A sister Malaysia can read about women in Africa and India. The possibilities are endless.

According to Changing Terms of Discourse, a book written in 2011 exploring the relation between gender equality and the Indian state, there is a "heightened awareness on issues of socio-cultural, economic, political and issues of gender equity and justice."

The discussions are no longer behind closed doors. As this piece in the Time magazine points out, "The women’s social media revolution began some time ago — but reached its tipping point this year. In May, #YesAllWomen practically broke the Internet — a response to the misogynist killings at UCSB that turned into a three day global movement. Since then, the stream of hashtag causes has been hard to keep up with"

Zeenab Aneez, a former journalist and an independent researcher with expertise in digital media culture tells Firstpost that social media has connected those involved in feminist movements to become more aware of each other and subsequently communicate and collaborate with each other, which is extremely important for the women’s and overall feminist movement to stay relevant and therefore thrive.

“It has provided a space where these movements can reach more people and drive campaigns - phenomena like virality and memes can be used to make very powerful points that reach a lot of people,” she adds.

The internet has also provided a platform for websites, blogs (Feminism In India, The Ladies Finger, Why Loiter, Khabar Lahariya) and networks (Blank Noise, Hyderabad for Feminism, Pinjra Tod, Girls at Dhabas, FAT - Feminist Approach to Technology) that talk about gender issues in various fields to grow and create credible and interesting conversations amidst the prevailing noise.

Today, we see videos and stories and photos on gender equality aka feminism go viral. It has helped spread the message that you are not alone.

It is in the last decade that social media has become the melting pot of feminist discourse. Hashtag campaigns like #WhyWeNeedFeminism and #HeForShe have generated intense debate, especially over the last couple of years. Whether it was about films, television shows or just projects, social media has gotten people talking like never before.

This is something that was absolutely absent at the start of the 21st century. A newspaper article or an opinion piece would reach only a number of people. Now in the times of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google, it is available for our consumption with the click of a button.

Rupi Kaur posted a simple picture on Instagram of a woman in her period, but Instagram removed her photo citing that it was inappropriate. #HappyToBleed was a reasonably successful movement, the hugely popular ‘Pink Chaddi campaign’ was one of its kind.

However, Aneez also feels that we should keep in mind that the web has also changed a lot in the last 15 years. “Just because feminists are talking to each other, doesn’t mean that everyone else is listening. We all surf the web in our own 'filter bubbles’; due to personalisation and  recommendation algorithms, we often only see things we want to see, or have been known to show an interest in. One longer stumbles upon something outside their interest area unless they are consciously looking for it, or unless it achieves virality. A 2009 study on the American blogosphere showed that people often gravitate towards material that accords with their existing political views. So I don’t think we can take for granted that just because there are tools for putting information out there, that it’s reaching people. In a lot of cases, you’re just preaching to the choir,” she adds.

Lawyer and activist Flavia Agnes, points out while the discourse on Feminism may have become more nuanced, the same issues remain with us. “Because the responses are nuanced, there are also lots of differences between activists/groups around many issues which were taken for granted earlier,” she says.

“For instance, 15 years ago there was still an agreement regarding the Uniform Civil Code that it is needed to bring empowerment of women from different communities. Over the years the subsequent events have shown that this may not be a solution specially in the context of the anti-minority feelings generated by right wing politics. Today many view reforms within community as the more feasible option to empower women from different communities,” she adds.

Fifteen years ago, Samita Sen in a paper titled, 'Toward a Feminist Politics? The Indian Women’s Movement in Historical Perspective' claimed that there isn’t one women’s movement in India but “an overarching collective” in which the politics of gender are articulated.  These words ring true even today, however the articulation of gender — as (un)nuanced it might be, has become more ubiquitous. Menstruation, women’s health, violence against women, domestic violence are topics that are not entirely absent in middle-class families.

Take a look at the numbers at hand (provided by the National Crime Records Bureau), overall the there has been consistent increase in the reportage of crimes against women since 2000, with  567 districts across India that showed an increase in the number of reported rapes over time. The wave of outrage that swept the country after the Delhi gangrape case in 2012 seems to have had deep impact. Reportage of rape incidents spiked by 35.2 percent in 2013 over the three percent increase since 2011.

But Agnes says the media does not highlight these issues as much as it should. “While stray cases get highlighted in the media, particularly those that fit a particular script - rape of middle class women from lower class boys / men the fact that 91 percent of rapes are by known persons and family rapes, and particularly fathers raping daughters are now coming out of the closet they are not highlighted in the media,” she says.

“Today some groups have started referring to victims as survivors. But many of us believe that merely changing the nomenclature while keeping intact an oppressive criminal justice system that treats victims with suspicion and hostility will not help to turn them into survivors, that is a long drawn process and needs support and interventions to provide socio-legal support which is sadly lacking,” she adds.

Agnes points out, “While today more women are willing to approach the courts for seeking remedies and redressal, because media has highlighted some of these issues, the courts continue to be biased against women and the court proceedings are extremely hostile towards women. Also the litigation procedure is long drawn and it becomes very difficult for women to sustain themselves during this period.”

No movement is perfect, the feminist movement in India, is constantly shifting shape. Author Maitreyee Chaudhuri in her paper, ‘Feminism in Print Media’ observes that feminist concepts have entered public discourse and those “ideas and concepts change meaning and emphasis as they travel.”

So at the moment, perhaps it would not be all that wrong to celebrate social media — it has brought out the voices of many men, women and their stories and narratives.

More power to the internet! (We should know, being an exclusively online ‘newspaper’).

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Updated Date: Jan 18, 2016 08:00:37 IST

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