The abuse that women face on the Internet superhighway is targeted at their gender, regardless of the subject of what they post, finds a new study. By Asha Mahadevan

Giving opinions on the Internet is a lot like walking on the street of the real world. Both make women targets of sexual harassment.” That is what 17 women active on the Internet said to researchers of the Internet Democracy Project (IDP) who conducted a study on the kind of abuse women face online.

The researchers revealed their findings at a seminar in RD National College in Bandra recently. The researchers found that a woman need not make a political statement — such as in the Palghar case — to get sexually abusive comments. Even if a woman makes innocuous statements or simply uploads a well-dressed photograph of hers on her public profile on Facebook, Twitter, or a blog, she is very likely to get hundreds of comments that call her a sl*t, b***h and w***e.


It is an attempt to silence the expression of women in the Internet space,” said Dr Anja Kovacks, project director, IDP. New Delhi-based Anja (pronounced Anya) and her team of four spoke to women active online — via blogs and social networking sites — and the kind of harassment they face from trolls. Anja said they started this project because they realised there has been no proper study conducted on the sexual harassment women face online in India even though there have been such studies conducted abroad. Explaining the reasons behind the sample size of 17 and the scope of the project, Anja said, In qualitative research, it is common to have small samples. Qualitative research has limitations. The study was very much of an exploration. We have no sense of how many shut up or just disappear (after receiving abuse) but we only know it happens.” Shehla Rashid Shora, project officer, IDP, called the study, an attempt to start a conversation and it’s never been done in India before.”


The 17 women who were a part of this qualitative research narrated harrowing tales of the kind of harassment they have faced. Explained Shobha SV, a member of the team, They can range from insults to physical attributes of the woman writer, threats of sexual violence (‘you should be gangraped in public and it should be telecast live’ was one of the threats received) to creating parallel blogs that mock everything in the writer’s actual blog and making and circulating hate pages.” One participant even narrated how one of her photographs was taken off her blog and reposted on a public forum after the abuser painted a moustache on it and defaced it.


The sad fact is that this sex abuse was in response to some of the most innocuous posts these women made — about meeting an ex-boyfriend in the park or relocation from one country to another, or the frustration that their children caused sometimes. It’s worse if they go off topic — if a mommy blogger writes about caste issues or politics, she is the recipient of the choicest abuse. Any woman who talks about domestic violence or marital rape will find herself being called all sorts of uncomplimentary names. Gender based harassers target the most visible part of gender — the body. There is a perception among harassers that talking about sex will get to women,” said Richa Kaul Padhpe, one of the researchers. So harassers use sexuality threats to silence women and restrict their speech.”


Added Anja, Studies have found that women can’t just hang around the street the way guys do. A woman on a road has to have a purpose to occupy that space. Similarly, women in our study referred to the Internet as a street, where you can’t just hang around.” The fears of the women are the same whether they are online or offline, she explained. Many women don’t tell their families because they get or fear to get the same response as to harassment on the streets — why do you go there? What’s the point in doing this? Why don’t you stop going there?” This then results in self-censorship, said Anja. You end up positioning yourself in a certain way, you don’t talk about certain topics, or don’t phrase things in a certain way.” Women’s speech is thus restricted.


Priyanka Chaturvedi, General Secretary North West District Youth Congress, has invited abuse with her tweets. The young mother of two has faced gender specific abuse. Says Priyanka, I have faced so much flak for tweeting, even more so because I come from a political background. If I tweet or write something against Narendra Modi, I come in for a huge backlash from his supporters. Recently, a lie had been spread against me in cyber space saying that I was one of four persons who had gone to meet Sonia Gandhi with reference to the Delhi gang rape case. I got comments like: you should be gang raped’ and your behaviour is worse than that of a sl.t’.”

Priyanka says she has also received comments about flirting with men on Twitter. A change of profile picture leads to responses like: you have a pretty picture but a low IQ’. The abuse is very personal and can get very nasty.” Priyanka responds by going offline for a couple of days, blocking the abuse, using filters or ignoring it. People have asked me to file a cyber complaint at times. However, there is no way that I am deleting my account, it would mean victory for the abusers.”


Said Anja, Women use a lot of interesting and wide-ranging strategies to deal with online abuse. Our study revealed that going to the police or taking legal recourse is only the very last measure.” There is an overwhelming reluctance to use the law as many of these women have found that the police are not supportive. When the researchers met police officials on the issue, they were told that women can prevent the abuse by not putting up their pictures online. The whole discourse was about what women should not do rather than saying don’t abuse,’” recalled Shobha. Added Richa, The law tends to individualise the crime instead of looking at it as a systemic problem.”


Many women have tried to tackle the problem by hiding their identity. Anonymity gives women the chance to voice their opinion and make friends from different castes, class, religion and political affiliations. The researchers found this to be true especially of sex workers in Delhi. But with the right tools, it is not difficult for any abuser to find a blogger, tweeter or FB writer’s true identity, especially since women tend to use the same anonymous handle across platforms. The abusers on the other hand, are more capable of hiding their identity.


The significance of anonymity is just one of the many questions that this study has raised for Anja and her team. Said Shehla, The importance of this study is underscored by the fact that it throws up more questions and paradoxes than answers. Anonymity (of the abuser) for example was flagged as a concern by many women. But the same women also said that anonymity gives them agency as well. The question around the law is an inconvenient one — should there be a hate speech law that is inclusive of gender (the current one isn’t)? But the women who themselves have an active internet presence are strongly against censorship.”


The group had come up with a plan to create a hashtag #MisogynyAlert to organise the recipients of such abuse and drive away misogynistic trolls. But after a few days, two bloggers criticised the way we used the hashtag. And some of the criticism was important — one feminist said that our responses were not compliant with feminist principles. This throws up more questions — while gentle reprimand may work with some people, there are trolls with whom it won’t work. In such a case, do women essentially need to gang up’ to respond to such abuse?”


Anja says, I hope to take the findings to the government and hope that it will have a positive effect on their decisions regarding Acts such as the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act and those that define obscenity and hate speech.”


Tweet: A 140-character text-based message that a user puts up on the microblogging site, Twitter. Twitter handle: The online name of a user on the site — it can be their real name or a fake one. Blogs: Online journals wherein users write articles called blogposts on any subject. The writer is called a blogger. Mommy blogger: A writer who mainly writes about parenting issues for a niche audience. Daddy blogger trend is also picking up. Troll: A user who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community to deliberately provoke the writer or to divert the track of the discussion. Hashtag: A word or phrase prefixed with the symbol # . It is included in the message and is connected to the general topic of the message, so it is easier to search for all messages on one topic.

Originally published in Mid Day.