Scroll: How women are punished for speaking online

As Pakistan and India battled it out at the Adelaide Oval on Sunday afternoon, Buzzfeed India editor Rega Jha tweeted: “It’s so sad that no matter who wins, Pakistanis will continue to be way hotter than us and we’ll continue to be their ugly neighbours.”

It was a provocative tweet, lending itself to intelligent critique. But what came down on Jha was the ugly force of the bruised Indian male ego. Among the milder responses were “She need waxing. Burn out your unwanted hairs” and “She got banged I guess by ugly Paki”. Then came the rape threats.

For the past three days, Jha has been flooded on Twitter with threats of violence. On the internet, she’s not alone. Women face increasing levels of abuse online. Recent examples that have made international headlines include violence against women speaking up against sexism in the gaming community (#Gamergate), an American woman who received violent threats from her husband on Facebook for which she has pressed criminal charges, and the scores of threats faced by Trista Hendren, the founder of Rapebook, which highlights sexist content on Facebook.

Young women experience more severe types of harassment at disproportionately higher levels than the rest of the internet-using population, a Pew Research report released last year found. Of the women interviewed, 26% had been stalked online and 25% were the target of online sexual harassment. Women were in general more likely to experience higher rates of physical threats and sustained harassment than their male counterparts.

A combination of research and anecdotal evidence gathered over the past few years by groups across the world indicate that a woman who is active online is highly likely to experience a variety of attacks. As many women say, it almost comes with the territory.

In 1990, American attorney Mike Godwin came up with the following principle: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of comparison involving [the] Nazis or Hitler approaches. Twenty years after Godwin’s formulation, we need another principle: For a woman online, the probability of a rape threat is always approaching.

So when @ChetanBhagat – how can we talk about the online world without referring to its Baba Ramdev equivalent – asks people to “imagine the reaction if a male editor had said Indian women are ugly and Pakistani women are hot”, the question is flawed. For if we are to imagine the reverse, we would also have to imagine a cyber world in which women, like men, can speak, take selfies and simply exist without becoming vulnerable to threats.

Men and women experience the internet differently not because there is anything extraordinary about virtual space, but precisely because it is, like all public space, gender unequal. From who makes technology, to internet platforms’ indifference towards gender abuse and the fact that there are more men online than women, it is clear from the outset that our cyber experiences aren’t happening on a level playing field.

Online violence can be distinguished by the swiftness with which abuse is republished, replicated and stored, but it is a continuation of what women face offline.

Imagine the experience of a woman walking down the road. Stares. Lewd remarks. Gropes. Assault. These expressions of violence together send her a clear message: the street is not hers, and if she enters it, this is the punishment she must bear.

On the internet, particularly its more public platforms such as Twitter, speaking is the equivalent of walking, and is punished by sexist remarks, stalking or rape threats. If street harassment is punishment for entering a male-dominated space, then online abuse serves a similar purpose: to silence women.

Indeed, the most significant factor preceding verbal gender violence is not so much what women say, but that they are speaking at all, research by the New Delhi-based Internet Democracy Project found. Women journalists and vocal women Twitter users perhaps make up the biggest targets of such violence. But almost all women using their voices online face a range of abuse that’s meant, ultimately, to shut them up.

But shut up they will not.

Hearteningly, over the past few years, online communities have increasingly rallied around survivors of gender abuse. Where three years ago a survivor would have received perhaps a few dozen or so supportive comments, since Sunday Twitter has been flooded with support for Jha.

From tweeting to her to taking on her abusers and condemning the violence she’s been facing, it’s clear that something, somewhere, has shifted. Yes, much of the support came from the rarefied circle of the Twitter Left. Yes, it’s likely she received so much support because she’s fairly well-known. Yes, there are probably more abusers than supporters.

But just as people took to the streets following the 2012 Delhi gang rape, perhaps we’re witnessing another form of mass outrage today, a refusal to be silent about online violence against women. Over the past three days and perhaps for the first time in virtual India, a large number of people have collectively, loudly and determinedly said that they simply will not stand for it.

This piece was originally published under the title ‘Sexist remarks, stalking and rape threats: how women are punished for speaking online’ on Scroll.in on 19 February 2015

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