India is one of the 3 countries in the Global South with the largest digital gender divide,1 with studies establishing that economic and normative factors, particularly highly restrictive gender norms, influence mobile phone access and use.2 More recently, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, such controls were found to have had a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities, including women in mid to low-income groups, queer and non-binary individuals and sex workers.3 This video series produced by Khabar Lahariya 4 and the Internet Democracy Project 5 captures the experiences of women in rural India, who found themselves vulnerable because of the lack of access to a mobile phone, which is often seen either as the property of a man in the house, or the “shared” property of the house, and which they may be only permitted to use occasionally, mostly for purposes that are framed as “instrumental” in nature, i.e., calling a relative, or providing information of their whereabouts. With differential access to technology now rendered through a gendered construct, women in low-income groups are significantly disempowered by their inability to access timely health information related to the pandemic or otherwise access online schooling, make social connections, or pursue leisure activities. The rules around mobile phone use reproduce the social controls that have routinely dictated the clothes women could wear, the spaces they could inhabit, and the relationships they had permissions to enter into, thus upholding the hierarchical structures of the household. The online mirrors the offline, often normalizing inequalities through the language of economics (inadequate income for multiple devices / connections), infrastructure (bandwidth support) or productivity (defining hierarchies of needs).
Structural inequalities and coercive controls also extend to the space of “gender-based technology violence”, with perpetrators increasingly using digital channels such as stalking on social media, clandestine audio recordings, monitoring email, accessing accounts without permission, and publishing private information without consent (doxing) to enact harm.6 Recognized as an extension of coercion and violence that is already embedded in corporeal relationships, these behaviors are situated within the wider setting of gender-based inequalities, and become “spaceless means” of regulating women’s everyday lives.7 Given this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that the increase in the use of online spying and stalking apps during the period of March and June 2020 as compared to January and February 2020, corresponds to the emergence of the “shadow pandemic”, i.e., the increase in domestic violence cases following the lockdown. Additionally, studies examining online search behaviors in urban India pointed to high search volumes on image-based abuse and gender trolling, and an increase in conversations around doxing, online stalking, and hacking, during COVID-19 compared to before the pandemic, suggesting an increasing interest in these topics.
Artist and storyteller Indu Harikumar, who ran a project8 titled #lovesexandtech on her Instagram page from August to October 2020 featuring illustrations and stories of womxn who had faced digitally mediated intimate partner violence, shares that stalkerware applications 9 and image-based abuse were reported as the most common ways in which women experienced digital abuse in her stories. “Often women don’t realize that their partner is doing this to them,” says Harikumar, recalling the shame and the fear that they are overcome with when they find out that they are being spied on, or are slut-shamed for uploading their pictures on social media. She goes on to add, “One woman was even asked by her partner, ‘why do you need to upload a selfie now that you have me?’ implying that his presence in her life meant that she was now “out of bounds” for others. We can thus see how the age-old patriarchal notions of the woman as a man’s property in a relationship are coming to play in how women access the digital world”. Male domination and possession are normalized through the language of love and protection of the woman. Equally, Harikumar notes the widespread trend of password sharing becoming normalized in most relationships – with women preferring to give away their Google passwords to their partners rather than fight about it later. Even so, she reports that women express surprise on discovering the high levels of interest their partners have in their online lives. Elsewhere, studies have reported that surveillance as the evil twin of technology has made it difficult for women to even access trace and track apps without risk, highlighting how they fear that stalkers can falsify information on the apps in order to locate or isolate their targets.10 In the end, the impositions of technology lead to women either continually self-censoring their online presence, or renouncing the digital world altogether, something that Harikumar also observed in her project.
Digital Inequalities – A Feminist Perspective
It is in this context that the discourse on bridging the digital gender divide needs to move away from the technical framings of “getting more women online” to focus on the structural issues that regulate women’s unfettered access to technology, particularly the ways in which patriarchal norms are mediating their presence in the digital world. In other words, feminist frameworks have argued that “women don’t need a share of the poisonous pie”, rather, what they need is the ability to participate in and shape the processes that constitute the formation of the digital world on their own terms and conditions, in ways that protect their agency and autonomy.11 Taking a feminist view of digital inequalities also allows us to recognize the controls imposed by technology as not just issues of access or abuse of privacy, but as violations of bodily integrity and personhood. In what is perhaps the first of its kind, by likening non-consensual sharing of images online to “virtual rape”, a recent court judgement in India as highlighted in the report published by Internet Democracy appears to have developed a language to acknowledge that such sharing can be experienced as “passing one’s body around”, i.e., as a bodily violation that is akin to rape or sexual assault. Ultimately, we need more pathways that center our thinking on the lived experiences of women who can never be free of the male gaze, and the ways in which the identities of caste, gender, sexuality and socio-economic status intersect to create highly varied forms of injustices, exclusions and violations.
About the Author
Anuradha Ganapathy is a mid-career professional who is transitioning from a career in the corporate sector to the development sector. She is currently pursuing a full time Masters in Social Anthropology (Development & Sustainability Pathway) from SOAS, University of London. She also has a Post Graduate Diploma in Management from India, a Post Graduate Certification in Gender, Sexuality and Society from Birkbeck, University of London, and a Post Graduate Certification in Technology Policy. Her research interests lie at the intersection of technology and society, particularly focusing on topics relating to the digital gender divide, technology and social justice, platform labour, identity and precarity studies, feminist approaches, affect and materiality studies. She tweets @Anuradhaganapat