By Saira Kurup
Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, was abused and threatened with rape at a web chat, organised by a portal in Delhi in late April to discuss anti-rape protests.
A person wrote on the chat: “Tell women to not wear revealing clothes, then we will not rape them” and then, “Kavita tell me where I should come and rape you using condom.”
Shocking as it is, such threats are reportedly the most typical incitement to violence against women online. And they are increasing. This is corroborated by a study done by Internet Democracy Project (IDP), “An exploratory study of women and verbal online abuse in India”. Its final report is awaited, but the initial draft says that “to be a woman online” just like to be a woman walking the streets of an Indian city, town or village, is to “transgress an unwritten law of patriarchy; to cross over into a space that isn’t meant to be yours.”
Anja Kovacs, director of IDP in India, says, “Threats are being used to silence women. Online abuse of women is increasing in India because more people are coming online.” According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India’s 2013 report, 52% of working women and 55% of non-working women are using social media in India.
The IDP study of such women found that some of the hateful trolling that they faced included being called everything from “whore” to “bitch” to “terrorist”, getting their defaced pictures posted online, receiving threats. The trigger could be anything — a blog on Modi or a peace process, a tweet on rape or on even innocuous issues and photos.
One Facebook user was messaged: “Oh, but you’re a woman, you don’t understand this” and “Go back to playing with your dolls”. When Twitter user and author, Sumona started an online campaign against child sex abuse, a user tweeted back child pornography links to her.
The idea is to silence women, says Anja. Men too face online abuse, but the quality and content are different. “The abuse directed at women is about their body, sexualisation, swear words. The sexual abuse that men receive is also directed at the women in their lives â€” mother, sister, wife,” she adds.
Debarati Halder, advocate and MD of Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling in Tirunelveli, agrees: “Women get abused more than men. This is because they can be easily targeted for their gender.” By extension, their right to have an opinion in a male-dominated space is also attacked.
However, understanding the scale of the problem and combating it is difficult as not many Indian women report it. Says Debarati, “Many prefer to remove these abusive posts (or) remain silent. They feel (i) it will be harassment once the police start interrogating them and (ii) their names would be published in the media.” Blogger Bhavia V agrees: “Some sent me emails saying they would rape me hard so that my feminist ego is gone. I have not complained because of the fear that it would end in a blame game where the authorities would tell me to shut up.”
There is a fear that internet regulation to curb such harassment can be misused to curb free speech. But Anja believes that something will shift eventually. “The positive thing is more people are recognising there is a problem and are discussing women’s rights, especially after the Nirbhaya case. Women too need to fight back, block and report abusers, create a supportive community online,” she says.
Laws might not end sexism and misogyny online; but more awareness and outing the abusers might.