Bengaluru: In May 2016, Sheena Dabholkar, 31, a writer and photographer in Pune, called out a customer of a popular local nightclub for a sexist comment on Facebook. She got trolled, nasty memes were created about her and the nightclub’s owner redirected people to Sheena’s page to watch her humiliation.
In October 2017, while thinking of safe spaces for women and how the nightlife industry tends to exclude them, she started tweeting about this experience from a year ago, detailing the toxic, misogynistic culture at the nightclub that was humiliating for women.
For example, it gave awards for “best breasts”. Customers were shamed if they visited other establishments and artistes were threatened with a ban if they performed anywhere else.
The tweets went viral, possibly because what Sheena said resonated widely. “I don’t think this would have happened on Facebook,” she says, with people “protecting their friends”.
The abuse was varied. “I got called a liar, an attention-seeker,” she reveals. But Sheena says she wouldn’t do anything differently. “This conversation needed to be badly had,” she adds.
The nightclub continues to operate.
Women who dare to speak
Shrabonti Bagchi, 39, a journalist in Bengaluru, has suffered Twitter trolls too. “Facebook is easier to control,” she says, by not accepting “friend requests” of people she doesn’t know, for instance.
But in 2017, she commented against ‘jauhar’, the old practice of Rajput women burning themselves to protect their honour, in relation to an incident on the sets of a controversial Bollywood film.
Shrabonti got called a “rape apologist” and a “slut” because, according to the trolls, she was okay with being raped and continuing to live.
The most absurd and disturbing comment, however, was that because Shrabonti is married to a Muslim man in real life, she condones being raped by a Muslim.
There were nearly 300 – 400 mentions a day and at least 100 tweets whose tone and content was so similar that Shrabonti thought there was some organised syndicate at work, preparing and distributing such comments systematically.
“Someone alerted me to a photo of me posted on Facebook with a caption in Hindi that twisted my tweet to imply that I was open to sex from anyone. It was taken down after I reported it to Facebook and asked friends to report it too,” Shrabonti says.
The abuse lasted at least a fortnight, until it slowed to two or three mentions. She deleted the Twitter app from her phone because it was causing her real stress. “It’s very traumatic,” she adds. “It can really disturb your mental peace.”
Shrabonti says she doesn’t understand how something goes viral and what is interpreted as offensive. An episode like this affects the whole family. “You wonder, what will these guys stop at? My husband was worried.”
She says that the feeling — ‘did I really say something wrong?’ — can undermine one’s confidence. But Shrabonti has never regretted anything she wrote.
‘It’s a global problem’
“Victim-blaming” is real and vocal women have many critics. But what about when a woman isn’t expressing an opinion and is still harassed online?
Take the case of Rumana Nazarali, 28, a blogger in Bengaluru, who was nearly forced out of her own business. She was out at dinner one night when she got a call from a friend. “Change your passwords,” he said. “They’re stalking you.”
Rumana’s friend, a tech blogger, received a phone to review. When he switched it on, it connected to Wi-Fi and a full conversation between two other fellow bloggers popped up, about Rumana’s email and social media accounts with login details, including private chat transcripts. They had presumably forgotten to clear the exchange before parting with the phone. Rumana says these bloggers were jealous of how well she had been doing recently and were trying to sabotage her. Her friend took screenshots of the exchange and Rumana filed an FIR but the case was closed stating lack of proof. “Emotionally, I was affected most,” says Rumana. “I was scared. Till date, I haven’t made new friends in the blogging industry.”
Like domestic abuse, which research has shown can affect anyone, regardless of educational and economic background, age, gender, ethnicity and other factors, online abuse can also affect anyone.
Vocal women, especially from marginalised backgrounds like the LGBT or Muslim community, for example, get far more abuse, says Anja Kovacs, Director, Internet Democracy Project. “It’s a global problem.”
Sabbah Haji, 36, a Muslim woman who wears the headscarf and runs the not-for-profit Haji Public School in a mountain village outside Jammu, often gets negative comments about Islam online, which she says stem from ignorance. She refuses to keep quiet about it or about anything unkind said of her students.
She also hits back when unknown men make personal remarks about her or women in her family, which often happens on Instagram. Her solution is to publicly “name and shame”. “Snark is what I do. If it’s badly written, it’s amusement,” she says.
Sabbah explains: “In Kashmir, people have got online fairly recently. So many boys and young men behave in a juvenile way.” They act with a sense of entitlement and believe they can behave however they like on the internet.
Harassment isn’t limited to the world wide web – what begins online can quickly escalate offline.
Sabbah recalls an incident in 2011 when a man started sending her direct emails in response to every tweet she posted. She marked the mails as spam, but while visiting her sister in Ohio, she found the emails in her inbox. The man’s social profile said he was a PhD student at an American university. Sabbah called the local police, who gave the man a warning and closed the case. The man claimed his email and social media account had been hacked.
Sabbah also points to politics-related trolls, calling them way more harmful.
Divya Spandana, a former actress also known by her screen name Ramya, and now chairperson of the social media department for the Indian National Congress, is familiar with this kind of abuse.
Social media gives everyone the chance to voice themselves, regardless of factors like caste or religion, she explains, observing that when women get trolled, their first response may be to go offline.
But “that’s not the answer,” she says, because the agenda of the trolls is to keep women out of the conversation.
So what can you do? How do you fight back?
First off, having an online community of supporters is important in coping with such kind of abuse, says Anja.
For Sheena, it is better to play cool and ignore the comments. “You don’t have to RSVP to every argument,” she adds.