As the internet becomes a significant tool of empowerment for women, questions of safety arise. Panellists discuss if freedom online is compatible with protection from abuse. 

With the internet becoming accessible to more and more people every year, its role as an agent of change and empowerment has been clear for a while. This edition of IE Thinc featured two panels on Empowering the Marginalised’, which discussed how marginalised communities have found space on the internet to voice their opinions, express their identities and run businesses and movements. The first panel discussed The role of digitisation in the empowerment of women’. Anja Kovacs, founder and director, Internet Democracy Project; Tejaswini Madabhushi, founder, Hyderabad for Feminism; Priya Gangwani, co-founder, Gaysi Family; and Adhunika Prakash, founder and CEO, Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers, participated in the panel discussion moderated by Pooja Pillai, Special Correspondent, The Indian Express.

Pooja Pillai: How would you describe what you refer to as a Feminist Vision of the Internet’?

Anja Kovacs: The Internet Democracy Project is an India-based project. We look at the intersection of internet, human rights and policy from a feminist perspective. We started working on online abuse in 2012 – 2013, when very few people were working on that in India and in the rest of the world. For us, what has consistently been in the forefront is understanding that the internet is opening up spaces for new voices. As an organisation which works against abuse, we know that there is a lot of pushback as well. What we really wanted to hold on to, with all the work we did, was this — (recognising) the spaces that have opened up and how we respond to the harms that exist (in these spaces). As we worked on this more and more, it grew to become a part of a global movement of organisations that are trying to think together about what it means to talk about the internet, both in terms of how the internet is designed and in terms of the policies you design around the internet from a feminist perspective. Values of the pleasure of experimentation and exploration should always be at the forefront and they are, in our work.

Pooja Pillai: Why and how did you put together a feminist group online?

Tejaswini Madabhushi: Hyderabad for Feminism started when we did a bunch of events in Hyderabad. One event, where I and a few of my friends were involved, was called Midnight March’. That was our version of Take Back the Night’. And this midnight march happened within less than a month of the Nirbhaya incident. The nation was charged then. We organised the event, with an expectation of the participation of 50 people. But around 5,000 people came in the middle of the night and we didn’t know what to do with it. There, no one knew each other as it was not well-organised. So we created a platform six months later, thinking that a Facebook group can be the place where people will meet each other. One of the reasons why we created Hyderabad for Feminism was also because we have realised that if you are not connected somehow to the feminist movement, it’s very difficult to belong to that space. Though the energy is not the same right now, we are learning from the criticisms we received and moving ahead.

Pooja Pillai: What were the criticisms you received?

Tejaswini Madabhushi: One criticism we received is that it is an urban middle class group and is not accessible to everyone. What we learned from that is that we need to collaborate more and more with other groups. So now, we collaborate more with Dalit womens’ groups, queer groups and others.

Pooja Pillai: How did the internet help in making connections and building Gaysi Family?

Priya Gangwani: I am a cisgender, queer woman. By cisgender I mean that I was assigned the female gender at birth and I identify with that. And by queer I mean that I am not restricted to any gender when it comes to choosing a partner. The journey of Gaysi began in 2008 when I was living in Delhi, having completed my education. Unfortunately, I didn’t know any other queer woman in the city. I felt very isolated. I kept asking myself, Is this natural?’, Is this okay?’, Am I expressing myself in one of the ways people are expressing themselves?’. And that was the beginning of Gaysi. It started as a blog. I feel that was also the beginning of what we call the social media culture. Facebook was also happening then, so we got on Facebook, connected with more and more people. Given our sexuality, identity and the law in India (at the time), we all had handles with pseudonyms. We connected with people across the subcontinent and gradually we found resonance. We found peace in those shared experiences — what it means to be queer, what it means to be queer in an Indian family. Then, we used all possible technologies around us. Then, we became people with own voices, not just pseudonyms. Then, we began feeling comfortable enough. And, then, of course, we created lots of offline spaces. Over the last decade, Gaysi has grown to what it is today. Nothing could have been possible without digitization as a part of our journey.

Pooja Pillai: How did you build your community for breastfeeding mothers?

Adhunika Prakash: It was in June 2013, when my son was 11 months old and I was breastfeeding him. At that time, I had this image of picture-perfect serenity, of mothers breastfeeding their children. But the reality was nothing like that. In fact, it was much harsher. Then I thought, why is this version of breast feeding, which was so hard, not coming up? Keeping that in mind, I set up a Facebook group to connect with other women and make them feel less lonely. Now it’s been five years. In the first year, we had 300 members. Initially, I was sending out emails to friends on the importance of breastfeeding, then I started the Facebook group. This began as a Pune-based group but women from around the country started coming in. Then I rechristened the group as Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers. Now, we have 90,000-plus members and we are just beginning to tap into our potential.

Pooja Pillai: Do you think women having specific types of conversation are being trolled online?

Anja Kovacs: If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said, any woman can be trolled just for being vocal on the internet. It does look like certain topics attract more trolls than others — politics being one of them. Any kind of topic of equality, abuse, feminism etc, can attract trolls. Last year, we did a study where we pulled the tweets of 10 publicly visible women of India. What we found in that study was that women were much more vulnerable to abuses. We need to understand that not every woman or every topic is equally at risk of abuse. Talking about it as if it is the same for everyone is just not helping things. Everybody might be at risk, but it is not equal for everybody. More Explained Explained: The limits of anti-defection

Pooja Pillai: Is it possible to create safe spaces on the internet?

Anja Kovacs: There need to be safe places for some sections on the internet. But, I feel, it is a public place and I should be able to go out in public without much thoughts or fear. And when we talk about matters of safety, it seems as if women are always put in a position where there needs to be somebody to protect them. I think we really need to start turning the narrative around. I want to be able to be on the internet and explore. I want to have the conversations which I think are important to have. And those are hard, sometimes. In regard to online abuse, one thing we have started to look into is how social media platforms are designed to hold civil conversations, without actually censoring.

Tejaswini Madabhushi: Safe’ is a bad word, but, ideally, I want public places to be free from harassment. And the same thing with the internet, too. I know it’s not easy, but I think, even in the censorship, it should be about the kind of speech. Some speech, which is clearly abusive, we may not be able to censor. We have seen, especially in Hyderabad, women getting death threats, rape threats, but we approach cyber police in Hyderabad. Mostly they don’t do anything and they say that it’s not a cyber crime to give you a death threat. Blocking someone’s account is not a solution because that person will end up creating another account. I think we need to think more seriously about it.

Anja Kovacs: Just to clarify, we have enough laws to deal with these kind of threats. So, when I say I don’t want censorship, I mean I don’t want more censorship in laws. There’s, of course, lack of privacy and data protection that’s needed. With regards to the safety issue, I think much censorship is done in the name of womens’ and children’s safety, but that’s not right in several cases. I mean, I don’t want to be attacked, but I don’t want to be restricted as well.

Tejaswini Madabhushi: I agree with that. Cyber police only looks at vulgar language as cyber crime, not at violent language. Why should vulgarity be a bigger problem than violence? I think the law should adapt itself. The problem is really the threat. I think they should change the ways they are looking at abuse.

Priya Gangwani: I would like to add a bit here. Digitisation has allowed us to access so many people across geographies. It has helped us create more connections, community etc. across geographies. When the internet was created, someone said, you know what, let this be open and free to all. If it was not accessible to even one person, then that would have created an inequity. It’s good that we are talking about laws. But would that alone have helped? I think some restriction to the access will help in having more meaningful conversation. It’s true that free access has allowed us to come forward and talk about various topics. In the present situation, I am really not sure our causes are reaching people as they did five years ago, and that is why we are here today.

Adhunika Prakash: I have been in this area of work for five years. And it would not have been possible if it was a paid platform. I am not for censorship, though it is very tough to read those comments about yourself. But there are some sections of people who appreciate what you do. I really liked the whole idea of prioritising good comments over the trolls.

Pooja Pillai: Can systemic changes be initiated through social movements online? Would something like the #MeToo movement help in educating the wider public about these issues?

Anja Kovacs: I don’t think there’s so much about the change on the internet. I think it’s a broader social change (that is needed). For me, #MeToo started with that first list by Raya Sarkar. It’s not just the last set that happened in the autumn of last year. If you look at the entire stretch of time, I do think something really important has happened. That first list was largely anonymous. But it was also very clear that a lot of people got space to put forth their complains. The person who took out the list was a Dalit woman. It became a conversation about sexual violence and also about feminism and the politics that feminists stand for and how we need to do better. For me, intersectionality is not just a cool word, it is at the heart of the politics. If we say we need equality at all levels, these critics are really important. I consider myself to be someone who is sensitive to these things. But, today, it makes me really ask myself: are you really pushing yourself far enough?

Pooja Pillai: Have you seen positive change happen?

Adhunika Prakash: As people have started talking, there is going to be a change. I think it is high time we started having keyboard activists as they can bring a change by sharing a petition and signing it.

Originally published in Indian Express.