NEW DELHI — May 28, 2014 is just another day in the life of Neha Rajadhyaksha, a non-governmental organization worker in Mumbai. She spends the best part of her day posting pictures on Instagram and looking at what her friends are posting. She gets her hands on a friend’s phone to post a picture on her Instagram account, and then her phone buzzes. Neha receives a comment from a stranger appreciating the picture she had just posted and persuading her to see her inbox for a similar photo.
Excited at the thought of seeing another nice picture, she opens her inbox only to see numerous messages full of abuse. “Fuck You,” reads one of them. “And maybe you teach at an ngo coz u couldn’t survive the mad corporate world. It’s the wasted who join ngos or ppl with old money.” Then, “Get the fuck off fake bandwagon. Ur as fake as a silicon blonde on instagram.” Confused and terrified, her hands are trembling as she tries to hold on to her phone. To clear up any misunderstanding, Neha apologizes to the stranger, then privatizes her profile to avoid any further stress.
Minutes later her phone buzzes again, only to find a similar account abusing her and her job again. He is all over her notifications and inbox, attacking Neha across multiple platforms. The slew of horrendous, abusive comments continues, even as she opens and closes new accounts, and blocks repeat offenders. On one hand, Neha is unclear what she has done to provoke such hatred. On the other hand, she is shaken to the core, yet determined to do something to set it straight. Neha approachs her friends to ask for help, and their suggestion further surprises and irks her. Most of them tell her to “let it go,” but she is determined to fight and teach her abuser a lesson. “People are just not aware of the existing online laws,” Neha says. “When subjected to online harassment, women feel helpless and just give up.” But she will not.
India is among the leading nations to seize the Internet space and take a leadership role in the global reach of social media. Indian entrepreneurs have made billions off the Internet, and the rise of Indian call centers dragged vast populations on the sub-continent into the 21st century. That this technology has suddenly acquired a dark side, and especially one directed at women, is particularly troublesome to Neha.
FIRST THE COPS
Neha’s first approach is to the IT cell of the Mumbai Police, where an officer directs her to the Cyber Crime Office. After reaching the office, Neha explains her case to a female constable whose first reaction to the entire issue is, “What is Instagram?” Neha briefs the constable on Instagram, how it works and its nuances, and leaves the office after handing out screen grabs of the profile, the abusive messages, and the URLs of the messengers.
Internet penetration in India is growing at a pace that will soon send it past the United States as the country with the second-largest number of Internet users — though both trail China by large margins. Still, since barely 19 percent of the Indian population has Internet access, compared with 85 percent in the United States and 46 percent in China, there is enormous growth potential. As the country brings large numbers of users online, it is imperative to ensure the safety of all users, especially its women. The number of cyber crimes and cases of online harassment in the country is growing at a rate of 107 percent a year. Abusers often conceal their identity and use fake profiles or operate anonymously.
“People take social media platforms for granted as they believe abusing anonymously or hiding behind a fake profile protects them and gives them an opportunity to behave as they please,” says Neha. But the women they target are real and often are living both their personal and professional lives through these social platforms. Women don’t have an option to just discard this aspect of life and continue. It’s easy for the abuser and authorities looking into the matter to believe this isn’t real. But for victims it is a harrowing ordeal. Many fail to understand their pain and fear.
In an interview with the Internet Democracy Project, a representative from the Mumbai Cyber Police Cell says, “Girls should not face these problems. Girls or females should not find themselves in a position where they have to go to the police. They should not give their personal information and should not post their original photographs on the Internet. Anyone can snatch the photograph on the Internet and use it for their own purposes. One should do those things to avoid probable offenses.” This is the problem. When authorities fail to understand the grim reality of the situation and treat Internet and social platforms as a pastime, they have a profound effect on victims and how they choose to express their concerns.
ALL YOU NEED
It seems that being a woman and having an Internet connection are the only two requirements needed to attract abusive online commentary. Here are some of the popular threats being directed at other Indian women in recent years.
To Kavita Krishnan, a prominent Delhi-based women’s activist, during an online chat on violence against women on a leading news site in India, a man asked if “he could come rape me using a condom.”
To Meena Kandasamy, a writer-activist, for tweeting about a beef-eating festival, she was threatened with: “live-telecasted gang-rape and being torched alive and acid attacks.”
Then there’s Sagarika Ghose, a well-known face of Indian television news, who has been threatened regularly with gang rape and stripping on Twitter and whose teenage daughter’s name and school details were tweeted because of her political views. Sagarika now abstains from putting her views on Twitter, but sometimes she does something interesting. She re-tweets some of the abusive tweets to let her followers know about the threats female journalists face.
Gul Panag, an actress and activist who entered politics, was subject to much humiliation when users posted her morphed pictures in lingerie with strategically placed accessories.
Social media has provided women a platform to express themselves and make their opinions heard. Lately, however, it has become something of a dangerous street where women are often abused virtually. But often it’s simply impossible to deactivate a social account, log off a laptop, switch off the phones, and wish the threats would eventually go away while pretending they never happened. A rapidly increasing number of women use the Internet for a host of reasons — blogging, supporting communities, and running stores or corporations. In short, it’s how they make a living.
An increasing number of women in India are being subject to anonymous online harassment. Anonymous because most of the social media profiles who engage in abusing are usually fake profiles. Take a look at any active social media profile of a woman and there will be a raft of obscene comments and threats directed toward her. Whether online or offline, India is hardly the safest place for women. Not even close to safe. According to a recent poll by Thomson Reuters Foundation, polling 370 gender specialists, India is the worst place to be a woman among G‑20 nations. And in a country where women are overpowered, suppressed, and denied their value in their home and workplace, it should hardly come as a surprise that humiliation in the streets has extended to the virtual world. Their online lives are causing them severe emotional distress — at the hands of men who think a woman should just shut up, do her household chores, and take her place in his bed.
Still, the immediate Indian response is simply, “get off that social platform.” And it would be an all but unanimous response. In a country where dogma and prejudice still govern every action, the woman will be “advised” to step aside and carry on with her life. Even when she isn’t at fault, it will be the woman who’ll be forced to believe these are just threats and should be dismissed as silly. Even though the woman would have barely expressed herself, in her words or attire (yet another subjective issue in India where it is expected women should dress conservatively), it is the woman who must apologize, swallow her self-respect, and bear the immense psychological burden. This is a country where a majority would seek to justify rape and blame it on the attire and outgoing nature of a woman, rather than teaching its men how to behave appropriately with women. This is a society where virtual harassment will be dismissed immediately — hardly considering it as a potentially dangerous stab to the mind and heart of a woman.
According to the Internet Democracy Project research study, ‘”Don’t Let It Stand! An Exploratory Study of Women and Verbal Online Abuse in India,” Indian women develop a variety of strategies to deal with the verbal threats they face. However, these strategies very rarely include the law, according to the research, resulting in a silence around questions of legal effectiveness and recourse for online verbal abuse. The reaction by the Mumbai Cyber Police Cell is a prime example why women rarely invoke the law or police authorities. Also, with cyber laws being relatively new, victims as well as authorities show a lack of know-how in dealing with the issue.
The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women bars “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” And when it comes to technology-related violence, the definition adds phone, Internet, and social media as platforms that may be used for violence.
Until now, the most widely-invoked Internet-related law in India was Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which allowed abusers to be jailed for sending “offensive” messages online. However, due to the vagueness in its provision, it was frequently misused by abusers rather than safeguarding the interests of innocent people. In a recent landmark judgment, the Supreme Court struck down Section 66A of the IT Act — a ruling widely hailed for ensuring the right to freedom of speech in India, which ironically resulted in jailing people whose comments on social media were neither inciting public hatred nor disrupting law and order. Section 66A resulted in more arrests of people posting controversial and sarcastic remarks on politicians rather than defaming or sending “grossly offensive” messages to someone.
The Indian Penal Code consists of various sections addressing crimes of verbal abuse against and harassment of women. Section 509 is one such section, which prohibits any words, sounds, gestures, or acts intended to insult the modesty or intrudes on the privacy of a woman and provides for imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or fine, or both. There is another new anti-stalking law, which involves monitoring the electronic communication of a woman. Section 507 of the Indian Penal Code is yet another provision addressing online harassment of women, while pertaining to criminal intimidation by anonymous communications. Any number of laws in India are written to protect women from verbal assaults, but making quick threats has become so easy that the number of such cases is enormous and most ultimately go unchallenged.
As the Internet is taking center stage in our lives, the amount of emotional distress the threats cause and the severe backlash it is having on the status of women online are largely grey. And current legislation is designed to protect women from their predicament rather than empower them.
Indian policymakers must assure that the speed they are encouraging everyone to get online and connect with each other is accompanied by equally stringent measures to enable the use of Internet safely and privately. The policymakers can do away with vagueness in the existing laws without compromising the freedom of speech and expression. According to the Web Index Report 2014 – 15, India has a medium score (7 out of 10) when it comes to prosecuting perpetrators, which is exceptional compared to most countries but dismally low (3 out of 10) when it comes to supporting victims subject to online harassment. This is where Indian lawmakers and policymakers need to be more assertive. It cannot be denied that prosecuting perpetrators brings relief to the victim, but having measures in place which support victims and ease their suffering should also be established.
Policymakers should also dedicate more funds and training to the authorities who investigate cyber crimes. As in Neha’s case, the local authorities weren’t even aware of Instagram, which further complicates the entire situation. If the authorities do not know the location and nature of the crime scene, how are they ever going to resolve the issue in a timely manner? If the Cyber Crime Office isn’t well-equipped in the form of devices and routine social media platforms, how can someone expect them to solve the case? Lacking such basic utilities, they will be more likely to dismiss the entire case as simply a silly threat.
Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube should have mechanisms in place to provide quick and effective redress against technology-related violence. Although the technology companies have provided a virtual band-aid in the form of “Report Abuse” buttons, the problems women face online cannot be solved by a single click of the button. Often, no action is taken by these companies until it becomes a PR disaster, when they are forced to address the issue long after the crime is committed and the perpetrator is gone.
A recent report by the Association for Progressive Communications highlighted an alarming lack of transparency around the reporting and redress process. According to the study, Facebook provides the most information online about its reporting process, but there are concerns about how complaints are handled. Little information is provided by Twitter on its reporting process, but the platform does offer significant information about the circumstances under which it will co-operate with law enforcement.
Finally, offline social engagement should be encouraged. There should be a greater involvement by local communities, women’s organizations, and other local and national groups in spreading awareness about the laws women may deploy in countering harassment. Women’s organizations are crucial in bringing such issues to the forefront and helping to build pressure on policymakers, molding laws for their benefit. Also, women can take matters into their own hands. They are armed with smartphones and, using their social clout, they can effectively fight harassment, just like Neha Rajadhyaksha who turned to Twitter after none of her friends came to her help. Neha got to know about the laws and cases related to cyber crimes and the address and contact numbers of the IT cell of the Mumbai police from complete strangers on Twitter.
In yet another incident recently, a young Indian woman used her smartphone to shoot a video of a man sitting behind her on an airline flight who tried to grope her between the seats. She filmed him in front of all the passengers, rebuked him, and posted the video on YouTube, which attracted millions of views and sparked outrage across social media. This trend to name-and-shame sex offenders is extremely effective as most abusers, especially online, operate anonymously, and nothing can scare them more than revealing their identity in public.
Meanwhile, after almost two months, Neha received a call from the IT cell of the Mumbai police informing her that the authorities had apparently identified the person who was harassing her. After a week, she received a string of messages on Instagram from a new account. It was her attacker, who turned out to be a frustrated married man with a family. He was brought to Mumbai, met Neha at the IT cell’s office, and asked for her foregiveness multiple times. She let him go without having him jailed. In the end, she was happy that she stood up for herself. “I am extremely wary about every little comment or interaction I have online these days,” Neha says. “The agony and the mental stress that this verbal abuse brought were just inexplicable.”
The Internet is the single most powerful social and technological advance of our time and has the ability to allow all of us to create, compete, and succeed, while transforming our lives. Technology-related violence is one of the biggest challenges we are facing, and policymakers should take the offensive to overcome the technological divide rather than widen it. The power of the Internet can only multiply if it is full of opinions and healthy argument rather than gender-specific abuses. So policymakers should invest every effort to make sure the opinions on this platform are not curtailed but flourish. While over four billion people enjoy no Internet access, policymakers should see that the ones who are a part of it do not get lost in silence owing to the dark acts of a handful of fools.
But it still looks like a long shot. In societies such as India’s, the degree of patriarchy combined with an old school political system is overwhelming. Indian governance is male-dominated and controlled by people who are still far removed from the digital age. India’s politics are old, matching ideologies a century in the past. This makes it difficult to shape old laws to suit the modern age and as a result have substantial impact on the lives of women and others who may be marginalized in this society. There should be enough women in the nation’s police force as well as informed and enlightened governance and policy-making to bring normalcy and fresh perspective to law making and crime solving.
Considering the rapid growth of the numbers of Internet users, such crimes will only increase. Policymakers should look at filling the gaps in technology used by police forces as well as educating them about the grim realities of threats women face online. More resources must be allocated to fight cases of online harassment, and the respective authorities should cultivate a system where women who face harassment should not feel themselves victimized if they approach authorities for relief or justice. Policymakers can collaborate with citizens as the lawmaking process operates. Being a country where the majority of its population is young, legislative crowdsourcing may be a possibility, with citizens helping policymakers track the latest technology and platforms as well as understanding how existing laws can be molded to reflect the harsh truths of the Internet which changes almost everyday.
Still, no number of laws can ensure that online harassment of women is eradicated completely. The problem lies with the society rather than policymaking or legislating bodies. Lawmakers can only make it difficult for abusers and stalkers to operate, but unless we learn to respect women and value their presence and voices, on- and offline harassment will continue to exist.
It is time to protect our women while they use this powerful tool to liberate their voices. It is time to ensure that our women may react spontaneously and do not have to think unceasingly before letting the world know how they feel about any given issue. It is time to ensure that positive steps are taken to make the Internet a basic human right where voices of everyone are heard with full respect regardless of their gender, caste, or creed. Now is the time to make sure that Internet use is safe, secure, and private for everyone — and to ensure that it belongs to all.