“Ridden with guilt, unable to shake off the feeling of being dirty and trapped in a sink of fear, I finally told my mother that something terrible had happened…. As I grew older, what stayed with me, strangely enough, was the rancid smell of hair-oil; even years later, anything that smelt faintly similar made me nauseous.” (Livemint, April 23, 2016) — Barkha Dutt spoke powerfully and honestly at the ‘Women in the World Summit’ last month in New York.
It was not the first time that a woman had spoken about her experience of child sexual abuse in public. The bigger, and more worrying question is, why was Dutt attacked and trolled for speaking about an act and experience of violence in her life? Kavita Krishnan, activist and Secretary All India Progressive Women’s Association has repeatedly spoken of rape and sexual assault threats that she faces through social media.
The Internet and the new, ‘visible’ art of shaming
At the outset, I want to make it clear that I acknowledge freedom of speech and that is precisely why the need for such a write-up arises. The online trolling, degrading and frightening abuse that has now become part of a world where ‘viral’ is a favoured disease, are not stray instances of sexual harassment and abuse faced by women in the virtual world. They are in fact, part, and a continuation, of a much viler power play and power structures that operate in society.
Internet today is part of the public space. Facebook, Twitter and other social media forums are the new by-lanes where men and women negotiate on a daily basis. But while the by-lanes have changed location, the rules remain the same.
The rules of engagement through Internet, a tool as well as a medium to express, are not devoid of the social. Hence Internet forums are the new by-lanes that experience sexual and verbal violence regularly by women and men. The above-cited instances are reflective of a much deeper misogynist culture that men and women occupy.
The proliferation of misogyny via trolls on the Internet speaks volumes about the ways in which the wider, global online environment may in itself be hostile towards women.
The target remains the same, the routes have change
Women’s bodies have traditionally been the playgrounds for conflict and violence. The most common swear words in a majority of Indian languages are aimed at the women; so are the character assassinations that come with it. With dialogue shifting substantially from the public space, virtual spaces are new battleground where women’s presence, independence and articulation are targeted and attacked. In a globalised and highly connected world Internet provides both a space for women to speak out and newer arenas to negotiate and experience sexual violence. In the case of Umar Khalid, following the Times Now discussion on the February 9 event at JNU which forced Umar Khalid and Anirban to go underground, Umar sisters received repeated threats of rape and acid attack both in the real as well the virtual world.
The online harassment is targeted at women’s bodies and sexuality reducing them to being bodies either to be consumed for pleasure or abused. These women by voicing their opinions and making themselves heard are challenging the dominant ways of thinking. What follows then is an attack on their occupation of this virtual space. The attack is not on the matter of their argument but on their bodies.
“Gender-based abuse faced by women online often targets the most visible marker of gender – the female body, which, as we have seen, is a highly contested arena in Indian public discourse.” (An Exploratory Study of Women and Verbal Online Abuse in India by Internet Democracy Project)
Identifying the abuser
Internet provides for a nexus between gender violence and technology. The gender-neutrality of the space allows for both men and women to make veiled attacks. It provides for another medium via which women’s voice and bodies can be controlled and put under surveillance. It then compels us to question—are Internet spaces really gender neutral? Is technology ungendered? While there have been several studies trying to ‘understand’ the Internet troll, the larger question remains why, and how, such behavior continues to find acceptance in the social world.
Virtual, hence, stands at paradox. Their greatest virtue that being characteristic of ‘freedom’ and ‘anonymity’ stands in curtailing that very ‘freedom’ and makes women vulnerable to abuse and violence. So, is surveillance the answer?
Women’s movement has fought against state and familial policing. Any form of policing and surveillance stands in juxtaposition to people’s freedom and liberty. Website monitoring also would mean replacing state and family with an unknown service provider who could well put similar patriarchal checks and balances further curtailing women’s movement and voice. The Internet is not external to the people, and neither are the issues at hand here: for women, the battleground might have changed; the weapons targeting them remain the same.