Women are the target of increasingly vicious attacks on the Internet. Once this sort of behaviour was associated with the far right fringe, but it is much more endemic and wide-ranging than previously thought. The patriarchal impulse to silence women seems to have invaded the virtual domain, write Richa Kaul Padte and Shehla Rashid Shora

Last year, the poet and activist Meena Kandasamy sent out a tweet that read: Was at the Osmania university beef eating festival. Awesome experience in spite of violence by ABVP.’ The hundreds of responses she received were outraged, insulting, violent, calling her everything from bitch’ to whore’ to terrorist’. One Twitter user wrote, Bloody bitch, u shud be gang raped and telecasted live. That will be awesome experience.’ Is the punishment for eating beef in India rape? Is it for talking about eating beef? Or in fact, is rape the punishment for simply using your voice in a public space, as a woman?

Given Kandasamy’s public profile, there was much media coverage of the abuse she faced. But hundreds of thousands of incidents of verbal abuse online remain largely unreported. In a research project entitled Don’t Let It Stand: An Exploratory Study of Women and Verbal Abuse Online in India’, the Internet Democracy Project spoke with women across the country to understand the nature of what is now considered a growing problem across the world: verbal abuse against women online.

From social networks to blogging platforms, women face a range of abuse, including threats to violence and rape — as seen in the example of Kandasamy — which are perhaps the most severe. One prominent journalist talks about experiences of (male) Twitter users who say things including, I know where you work, and I will come and rape you.’ Other abusers may choose a woman’s children as targets for violence, trying to find out their names and schools in order to intimidate mothers. Sexual harassment, or abuse focusing on a woman’s body or sexuality, is not uncommon. A journalist, Vishakha, recounts an experience where she posted a picture of a milk carton on Twitter, because she liked its packaging. Almost immediately, men began to tweet to her asking if that was a carton containing her breast milk. Other women talk about experiences of entering traditionally male-dominated spaces, such as technology forums, and being made to feel unwelcome or inadequate by groups of men.

What are the circumstances that lead to women facing this abuse? Is it a certain type’ of woman? Some women seem to face a lot more abuse than others. Actresses, celebrities, journalists in the public eye — take a virtual tour of their Twitter profiles, and more often than not, there will be a fair few sexist comments. But does this mean that only popular women receive abuse? That if you’re quiet and don’t have many followers, you won’t be asking for it’? Women’s Studies student Namrata recounts setting up a blog when she was a teenager. She had less than ten followers when she began to receive violent threats where her abusers described the ways in which they would rape and kill her. She wasn’t a public figure. In fact, her blog was barely read. However, she was still targeted — for her gender. Research suggests that while popular women may get a lot of abuse, having few readers or followers leaves others more vulnerable to attacks since there is less support they can get from the online community. In Namrata’s case, she closed down her blog and went offline, and resumed an online presence only several years later.

> Research suggests that while popular women may get a lot of abuse, having few readers or followers leaves others more vulnerable to attacks since there is less support they can get from the online community.

Like in the offline world, women who are from lower castes or classes, non-heteronormative sexual orientations, religious minorities, disabled, or marginalised in other ways, face specific types of abuse. One Muslim woman from Kashmir who is active on Twitter frequently faces comments like, Stupid Jihadi woman. Go back to Pakistan!’ Experiences of women also show that speaking about overtly feminist topics’, gender issues or sexuality may be perceived as a threat to existing power equations, and act as triggers for abuse.

In the Indian online space, one major hot topic’ is speaking against Hindutva, and more specifically, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Treated as a cult figure – online and offline – mentioning Modi’s name acts as a sort of summons to organised right-wingers on the Internet (commonly known as Internet Hindus) who then aggressively attack the original statement. If the tweet — this is a particularly well-known Twitter phenomenon — is made by a woman, the attacks are nearly always gender-based. Mridula, an Internet rights activist who has spoken out against the BJP and Modi’s politics, routinely gets emails and messages with comments such as, Like the women in Gujarat, you should have been raped because you converted!’

So is hatred on the Internet an offshoot of right-wing politics? Many incidents counter this common assumption. Recently, Congress Party member Amaresh Misra came under media fire for abusive tweets, which most notably included rape threats, death threats and abuse towards a vocal, pro-Modi woman. Despite the prevalence of Internet Hindus, sexist violence and abuse are not, in fact, properties of the right.

So is what women talk about the reason they face abuse online? The Internet Democracy Project’s findings suggest that irrespective of women’s opinions, most face at least some form of abuse, which can be linked to the way in which society perceives women in public spaces. Think about a street, a crowded bus, a train platform. Women occupying these spaces don’t need to do anything to face sexual harassment – their being in public is simply enough. Similarly, if the Internet is seen as a virtual street, the main reason for gender based abuse is just that: gender. Some men consider that a woman in public is required to give them her attention, and many women talk about facing increasing harassment from men who they refuse to engage with online.

Irrespective of the various forms it may take, the primary reason for this abuse is to silence women. Abuse on the Internet — like abuse on the street — tells women that the space that they are occupying is not theirs; that they should leave. And sometimes, women do. They may delete their profiles, begin to censor what they say online, or simply ignore comments from abusers. But like street sexual harassment, ignoring the problem does not make it go away. Says one woman, You walk on the street, someone whistles at you, you put your head down, you walk a little bit faster, you cross that patch, you move on. Second day. Third day. Eventually…you are just off the street. It’s your street. On the road, fighting off the bad guy is full of risks. On the Internet, it is not that risky. There is absolutely no excuse for not doing it.’ And while it may not always be as easy as that, women are indeed fighting back.

In early March, a group of Twitterati took their inspiration from the research findings and decided to collectively fight back. This was the birth of #MisognyAlert, a hashtag allowing Twitter users to report sexism and misogyny wherever they saw it, alerting others to the situation who could then choose to enter the conversation and respond to the abuse. While the initiative received criticism from outside as well as its initial proponents, it remains an example of the ways in which online abuse can be countered.

As more women, both individually and collectively, use various strategies to take on abusers, there is an overwhelming sense that the space for expression and opinion provided by the Internet is a critical and fundamental right that is worth fighting for. However, to stop the abuse and create more gender-equal online spaces, the fights must be bigger and bolder, so that no woman can ever be pushed off the street’.

(All names in the story have been changed to protect the identity of those who have spoken to the authors)

Richa Kaul Padte is a freelance writer working on issues including gender, sexuality, queer movements and popular culture. She co-authored the study Don’t Let It Stand!’; read her work on www​.richakaulpadte​.word​press​.com and follow her @hirishitalkies.

Shehla Rashid Shora worked with the Internet Democracy Project on issues such as censorship, hate speech and criminal law. For Don’t Let It Stand!’, she provided research assistance. 

Originally published in Sunday Guardian.