Spitting, Swallowing and Gargling’: How does online abuse work?

by Shehla Shora

#misogynyalert What’s the difference between a woman’s love, true love, and showing off? Ans Spitting, swallowing, and gargling. #

This is one of the many responses that we got when we started the hash tag #MisogynyAlert on Twitter with an aim to take on users who harass women in sexist and/​or abusive terms. It is true that I’m in favor of a law that would punish extreme forms of hate speech against women. But what do you do about the comment cited above? Do people need to be jailed for such comments? Would it be possible to prove that the language used above is highly sexist in a court of law? Would it be easy to prove that such speech is offensive, even outside of a court of law? To all these questions, I’d say no. If a woman were to complain about sexism cocooned in pun, she will be labeled as a whining old woman struggling with her hot flushes.

Consider, for example, these tweets that we received on the hash tag:

Common labour room #MisogynyAlert #

#misogynyalert A ploy by post-menopausal women to deal with their flushes #

It would be an overstatement to call such comments hate speech” but they are definitely problematic.

The Delhi Public School MMS Scandal, the relentless abuse that Tamil singer Chinmayi Sripada had to deal with, the rape and murder threats given to Meena Kandasamy and, most recently, the vile abuse that Kashmiri female rock band Pragaash received online pose inconvenient questions to free speech activists. Female journalists are called whores, bitches and sluts for simply reporting on certain issues; female bloggers are stalked, abused and threatened for their opinions.

These concerns have been raised time and again. In the earlier years of the Internet, messages containing pornographic images and vulgar words seem to have been more common but these would be simply dismissed as isolated events. Even though there could have been trends, the number of instances was probably too low or the occurrences too scattered for these trends to be detected. With an increasingly connected cyber space and a vibrant community of Indians on Twitter and Facebook, these trends have started to become more and more visible, enough to draw patterns and conclusions. A study by the Internet Democracy Project showed that responses to women’s opinions on the Internet go beyond criticism’; a lot of these are a mix of sexist and sexually explicit content aimed at making them uncomfortable and, perhaps, ashamed [of having expressed an opinion and, thus, having invited’ abuse]. It is not unusual for any conversation to turn into a discussion on the woman’s body and/​or sexuality.

The Internet Democracy Project interviewed several women who have an active Internet presence in order to better understand how online abuse works and to address the inconvenient questions that it poses- an attempt that is unprecedented in India.

Another tweet that we received on the hash tag reads:

#MisogynyAlert .saggy, barkha, ranade will join soon.Behenjis listen here.If u cant handle troll get off twitter #

Is it true that women cannot handle trolling”? I would say that is a highly unfair comment. Women have been dealing” with trolling” — online or offline- forever. During the course of the research, we found a striking similarity between the Internet and the Street (or any public space)- sexual harassment is to the street what sexist abuse is to the Internet. The term sexual harassment” in India is often sugarcoated to read eve-teasing”. The way feminists reject the use of the word eve-teasing”, we reject the usage of the word trolling” [for online abuse] as it downplays a very serious phenomenon- sexist abuse on the Internet. Let’s just call it what it is. We believe that women should stand up to harassment and reclaim the public spaces- be it the Internet or the Street.

It is true that the law is, at times, the last resort. But other mechanisms are needed to fight everyday” harassment, abuse and misogyny. At the same time, the Internet is a space that is evolving. We are yet to fully understand the implications of online abuse. The strategies that we devise to deal with online abuse will be only as good as our understanding of the underlying phenomenon.

We held a National Consultation in Delhi on the 18th of Feb, inputs from which fed into a research paper that will emerge as an outcome of the research. The Delhi meeting was the first time Indian feminists, lawyers, bloggers and free speech activists discussed this issue and it was, therefore, an invite-only event. We are now ready to throw the debate open with our Mumbai Consultation on Women and Online Abuse” to be held in Bombay this Wednesday i.e. on the 6th of March. Many well-respected feminists of India and several bloggers from Mumbai are expected to attend the consultation. We invite you to join us to discuss the research findings and their implications in greater depth. We also hope to hear about your own experiences and strategies to deal with abusive speech and to get your input on the ways forward.

The consultation will take place on 6 March, from 2 to 6 pm, at the Meera Watumull Auditorium, RD National College, Linking Road, Bandra West, and is hosted by the Internet Democracy Project and Point of View.