Updated: January 19, 2021 8:28:31 am
The pandemic’s amplifying effect on gender inequalities has been felt in matters of income, employment, sexual violence and education — and now on intimate digital lives as well. As a report in this newspaper reveals, dating apps have seen an unexpected growth of users in Tier-II cities in the past year, perhaps partly explained by a reverse exodus of students and working professionals from metropolises to hometowns as work and education shifted online. But, like the rest of Indian internet, this surge in online dating has a problem: Too many men. Sixty-seven per cent of the 31 million Indian dating app users in 2020 were men. For women on dating apps, this does not always equal to a luxury of choice. In a patriarchal society that struggles to understand the idea of a woman’s sexual consent, it makes them the objects of unwanted attention and ardour that can shade into stalking and harassment.
The internet is not firewalled from the real world. Just as public spaces in India, whether they are village squares or bus terminals or assemblies and Parliament, tend to be overwhelmingly male, women are vastly outnumbered on the web as well. A Harvard University study in 2018 found a 33 per cent gender gap in mobile ownership in India. When it came to social media use and smartphone ownership, the gap was above 60 per cent. Access improves with education and the gap narrows in urban areas. But the familial need to control unmarried women’s friendships and sexuality stands in the way. In an increasingly digitised world, this degree of inequitable access has implications for economic opportunity and income — all of which stand to be exacerbated by the economic shock of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lack of women skews the cyberspace in ways that tend to make them even more vulnerable to abuse and harassment. It is a problem that online dating apps have sought to address in the past as they expand in the country. In 2018, Tinder rolled out a feature for its Indian market that, once enabled, gave women users the exclusive right to initiate conversations. The Bumble dating app in India offers another shield of privacy by allowing a woman to be represented by the initial letter of her first name. The quest for love via the swipe of an app is an ongoing experiment of Indian modern identity, with the possibility of freeing young people from constraints of family diktat, gender, sexual orientation — and the puritanism about sex. As it finds new converts in new geographies, however, it will come up against the oldest opposition known to the love story — the unfreedom of women.
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