Indian Express 22 Mar 2019

‘Internet opening space for new voices, but women face harassment online’ 

by Express News Service

One of the major issues discussed by the panel was, in fact, the online harassment that women face. Anja Kovas, founder and director of Internet Democracy Project, said the internet was “opening up spaces for new voices”, even though it was also used to abuse women online.

With more and more of our lives and aspirations being played out on the internet, hope for the future and caution about too much reliance on online platforms were the twin themes that ran through the IE Thinc discussions on “Technology: Empowering the Marginalised”.

The day-long session on Monday opened with a panel discussing the “Role of digitisation in the empowerment of women”, with the panelists agreeing that despite the negative experiences that most women inevitably have online, social media platforms have only helped further conversations that would otherwise remain limited.

Priya Gangwani, co-founder of Gaysi Family — an online forum for the Indian queer movement — said that despite not being on social media herself, she felt it was necessary to drive the discourse. “I am hopeful, when it comes to queer people and especially queer women. There’s so much more that needs to be done. The digital world is telling me what romance is, how I should have sex, what I should desire, so I should have a say in that,” she said.

Adhunika Prakash, founder and CEO of Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers, said she was wary of the internet after seeing all the negative comments on breastfeeding photos on her group but realised that she was part of the change. “I am part of the change, I cannot talk about everything. There are these voices everywhere, and if we all come together as women and empower each other and get the conversation started, that’s the start,” she said.

One of the major issues discussed by the panel was, in fact, the online harassment that women face. Anja Kovas, founder and director of Internet Democracy Project, said the internet was “opening up spaces for new voices”, even though it was also used to abuse women online. She said that during her study of tweets of 10 publicly visible women on Twitter in India, she found that while “everybody was at risk” of abuse, the risk “wasn’t spread evenly”. “Some women are much more vulnerable to abuse than others. So the single Muslim woman in the sample had more than 50 percent of the abuse that we got. It’s an extremely important nuance that we have to start talking about. Talking about it as though it’s same for everyone is just not helping,” said Kovas.

However, Kovas advocated against a censorship law, arguing that while there was a need for safe spaces for women on the internet, asking for internet to be safe for women as a whole, could lead to more censorship.

In response to this, Tejaswini Madabhushi, founder of Hyderabad for Feminism, stated that the question of censorship was grey. “It depends on the kind of speech. Some speeches which are very clearly abusive should be censored,” she said.

The panelists for the second session on “Digitisation, a boom for marginalised sections” spoke of the capacity of digital technology to create and spread alternate narratives to impoverished representation, erased histories and invisibilised presences, for instance through participatory projects like Dalit History Month and online networks like The Queer Muslim Project.

However, Asha Kowtal, general secretary of the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, also spoke of the burden of an active online presence. “To be active online on social media is also taking a huge toll on us. After a long day of fighting on the ground, going out fact-finding and to police stations, we would be coming home and trying to make a small update on Twitter and Facebook. We used to question ourselves on what the purpose is. Is it for people to see and feel sad, maybe like something and share it?

We came to understanding that it’s not our responsibility to educate the world and show how atrocious the caste system is but we felt the need for visibility to strengthen the campaign both online and offline , and also to try and find allies who we can link up with to strengthen our voice. We also wanted to use it more strongly to articulate our independent and autonomous politics so that debates could go past us without us having our say.”

One of the key points made was that online mobilisation supplements important on-ground work. Rafiul Alom Rahman, founder of The Queer Muslim Project, said, “We began online but we have actually built an offline movement through our online space. Our online movement helps us to move outward, to reach out to allies but offline spaces help us to create our closed spaces which are also important to come together and talk about our religious guilt.”

Panelists also discussed how the circulation of media on digital spaces can leave marginalised communities more vulnerable. “Caste survives through power, through violence, public display of violence. Circulation of videos (of caste-based violence) on smartphones did not empower us as much as it could have, but it empowered the caste Hindus to threaten us,” said Ravichandran Batharan — founder of Dalit Camera — which was echoed by Asha Kowtal who invoked “click-bait” use of images of violence. “There’s no way to explain how we have to deal with that kind of pain on a daily basis but we see a mass consumption of our bodies and our pain by everyone else,” she said.

Originally published in Indian Express.