Walking Down A Virtual Boulevard

In December 2004, news broke of a sex video doing the rounds on the internet and on mobile phones. In the video, shot on a mobile phone, two Delhi Public School (DPS) students, a young man and woman, engaged in a sexual act; or, if we stop mimicking the language of the censor, she gave him a blowjob. Indian modesty was outraged, and when blame was duly apportioned, the chips fell somewhat like this: the victim was a girl being shown having sex; the criminal victimising her was technology.

The DPS scandal sparked deep anxieties about how best to protect women from new media. Having made it easier than ever to create and circulate images of a woman having sex, digital technology had become the perpetrator of a crime—against women, but more significantly, against Indian public morality. Historically, the female body has been seen as a marker of cultural and national worth around the world; the body of the Bharatiya nari, in this case, had to be protected at all costs. The MMS clip had caused the ‘indecent’ representation of women to be served up on a new, large-scale platform; the technology that had enabled it would therefore be policed.

Indecency is a longstanding legal concern in India. Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code was developed under British colonialism to curb the “obscene”, which the law still defines as “lascivious” or “in the prurient interest”. It continues to serve as a way to curb representations of female sexuality in popular culture today. The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, which prevents the publication of sexually explicit images, was developed in 1986 (and is being amended today to extend its reach to virtual spaces) to further these legal provisions. In effect, it suggested that ensuring respect for a woman meant rendering her sexless.

The DPS clip became a sign that the reach of this obscenity had increased. Indeed, while the recording was presumably agreed upon by both parties, the scale of distribution was unforeseen and non-consensual. As similar incidents followed in its wake over the next few years, the law sought to catch up to the danger that technology ostensibly posed to women, but with apparently single-minded focus on one particular aspect of the threat. An amendment to the Information Technology (IT) Act in 2008 increased the penalties and provisions for offences dealing with pictures of women, bodies, and sex. It seemed as though the government was trying to compress the vast and complex issues of gender-based violence and discrimination into a single offense: an image.

An obsession with visual representation continues to define the way in which public institutions understand violence against women in the virtual arena of the internet. We view—and police—women and their online lives no differently from the way we view what happens to them on the big screen, or on television: inches of exposed flesh mark the parameters of where decency ends and exploitation begins. Facebook repeatedly illustrates how this cinema-screen approach to censorship works: it has allowed numerous pro-rape pages on the site to go unchecked, but has removed several pictures of breastfeeding mothers and photographs of women post-mastectomy. This fixation on images is not only an inadequate yardstick for measuring the exploitation of women on the internet—it is an actively harmful one. Image-based violence and exploitation tend to be criminalised and often heavily covered in the media, because our culture places a great deal of moral value on the representation of women’s bodies. But this attitude fails to account for the very nature of the internet, in which users are just that: users, not viewers. The internet is a public space not of passive consumption, but of active participation, comprised of interactions and conversations. Across the world, in women’s lived experiences on the internet, we face increasing levels of verbal abuse, which includes threats of violence and rape, sexual harassment, sexist comments, or simply statements designed to make us feel uncomfortable about our virtual presence.

In April, feminist activist Kavita Krishnan was invited by the news website Rediff to participate in a chat about rape and the protests that followed the gang rape of a young girl in New Delhi in December 2012. The public conversation was soon hijacked by a user with the handle @RAPIST, who began to comment with statements such as, “Kavita tell me where I should come and rape you using condom,” repeated numerous times. The threats were in capital letters, impossible to miss. During the course of the chat, as Krishnan and others later pointed out, Rediff did nothing to intervene or prevent the abuse from taking place. Significantly, the abuse Krishnan faced seemed to have less to do with her anti-rape work or what she said on the subject, and more to do with the fact that she was speaking in a highly public forum—as a woman.

I recently co-authored a research study for the Internet Democracy Project entitled “Don’t Let It Stand!”: An Exploratory Study of Women and Verbal Abuse Online in India, which through interviews with 17 women across the country, sought to examine the various forms of verbal abuse women face online, the contexts of this abuse, and the strategies women develop in response to these forms of violence. The study established that women internet users, including mummy bloggers, journalists, and other social media enthusiasts face various forms of verbal misogyny online. In the last year alone, we have seen rape threats to Dalit poet Meena Kandasamy after she tweeted about a beef eating festival, threats by Congress Party member Amaresh Misra calling for violence against Modi supporter Shilpi Tewari, and the sexist, violent abuse faced by South Indian singer Chinmayi Sripada following comments she made questioning the death of fishermen in the waters near Tamil Nadu.

The internet’s early proponents, like some enthusiasts today, believed it would be a truly democratic space, in which all its users could participate equally. However, what happens online is still firmly rooted in the realities and hierarchies that exist offline. Women’s experiences of public space are characterised by sexual harassment, unwelcome advances, intrusions into personal space, and comments that may be discriminatory or hateful. Interviewed for Don’t Let It Stand!, social media user Anishka told us, “Look at any place where women are. Do you think women and men are treated the same way? … It’s the price that you pay. … You have chosen to be there. I’m not saying we deserve it, but it’s part of what you need to accept.”

So is gender-based harassment part and parcel of being in a public space? And if so, where does this impulse to attack women come from? Women often bring up the metaphor of the internet as a street when talking about online abuse. British journalist Laurie Penny once wrote, “A woman’s opinion is the mini-skirt of the internet.” If a woman walking on the street, riding the bus or dancing in a night club is ‘asking for’ the sexual violence she faces based on the length of the dress she wears, on the internet, a woman using her voice, or having an opinion, seems to serve the same function. But does it actually matter what you wear? Statistics across the world indicate that clothing has no bearing on levels of street sexual violence. Similarly, online, it’s not so much what women say, as the very fact that they are speaking at all; that they are out on the streets.

Conjure up an image of a woman on the street in any Indian city, town or even village. The first question that comes to mind for many is, why is she there? Whether shopping, going to work, or picking up her children from school, she is always doing something. The male dominated nature of public spaces means that women’s presence within them should be justified with a purpose. Now picture the same street, and think about where the men are. Sitting. Standing. Talking. Smoking. Sleeping. The street belongs to men, temporarily on loan to women who need it for a specific reason. A woman who is on the streets is trespassing, wrote Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi in her book Beyond The Veil. “If she enters them, she is upsetting the male’s order and peace of mind. She is actually committing an act of aggression against him merely by being present where she should not be.”

So if the internet can be likened to a street, then to what extent does the space on that street belong to women? In their 2011 book Why Loiter?, Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade explored how a woman’s loitering on the streets is seen both as a transgression to be punished, as well as an act of resistance against the fundamentally male-coded nature of public space. Is being on Twitter or on Facebook—pursuits without purpose, some may suggest—seen as ‘loitering’, where a woman using her voice is a trespass, a crime to be punished?

The abuse women receive when they use their voices comes in a variety of forms, but with one goal: to silence them. While many women do resist and fight the abuse they face, for some, repeated rape threats, calls to violence, or threats to their children mean that they may simply stop speaking and go offline. It’s hard to get a sense of the numbers of women who aren’t online any longer, but research suggests that women may leave the internet or a particular forum for lengths of time, as a result of the abuse they face. When women are silenced, we are, in effect, denied the fundamental right to speech.

Initiatives to fight back against verbal misogyny both online and offline can be individual as well as collective, and it is a battle that we all have a stake in. If gender-based abuse is an attempt to tell us, as internet users, that the spaces we are trying to access, occupy and speak within are not ours, then we must reclaim spaces—not just online spaces, but public space as a whole.

Collective efforts to counter verbal misogyny have included things like the hashtag #MisogynyAlert on Twitter, through which people of all genders who witness the verbal abuse of women online can respond to aggressors, or the Action Heroes scheme by anti-gender violence organisation Blank Noise, wherein people respond to—rather than ignore—street sexual violence, and later share their experiences as an ‘Action Hero’ who took a stand. Individuals often take it upon themselves to fight back, too. In Don’t Let It Stand!, Sharada, an active Twitter user, spoke proudly about intervening in a sexist conversation she saw happening online. She said, “There was absolutely no need for me to go and meddle there. But I didn’t like what I was seeing …[so] I did what I wanted to. This is not just about not being a victim. It’s about taking all the space you want.”

Other women interviewed for the study talked about “giving it back to the trolls”, receiving support from followers and friends online, and above all, refusing to be silenced and staying on the streets. Perhaps, then, that is where we, as women internet users, begin. We enter male-dominated forums, we talk about things that matter to us, and we help each other when we see someone facing gender-based abuse. We engage with men to try and reshape the way in which they think about public spaces. We find some who will support us, who will help make all streets—online and offline—gender equal. Moving beyond a social and legal discourse that seeks to limit us to our bodies and images, we loiter, we chat, we speak: we start to take up all the space we want.

This piece was originally published under the title ‘Street Talking: how gender hierarchies online mirror those offline’ in The Caravan Magazine on 1 July 2013

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One thought on “Walking Down A Virtual Boulevard

  1. hi. this is a powerfully written piece. if i could just make a suggestion though… it would perhaps be more enlightening if the relationship between censorship of women’s images and the backlashes against women speaking was a little more fleshed out. I think its an interesting connection you make and I would like to get a better understanding of it.

    Rohan

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