If you ever thought that the internet was free of any prejudice and that in its basic sense, it gives people equal rights to act and react, then you are wrong. The internet is anything but gender-neutral and there is a growing need for a feminist internet: one which has an equal space for women to sexual expression, consent and control of data.

Champion of the feminist internet, Anja Kovacs directs The Internet Democracy Project, an initiative at Point of View which works towards providing opportunities to people whereby they use the Internet informed and judiciously.

She points out, Women have been surveilled by communities and families for centuries. We know the impact that it has. Most people who are open to the kind of things we do can see the restrictions that are there to women that are not on men. This harms women’s lives, shapes their lives in particular ways because they constantly have to be careful of what they are doing, where they are going – they constantly have to justify.”

Trends reflect that India is like any other country where patriarchy is strongly steeped within the structure of the society. This often gets translated to the nature of communication communities have within themselves and enforces on individuals, majorly women.

There is evidence according to Anja that the more conservative the family is, the more restricted you are on the Internet”.

Does it affect all women? 

She adds, I think this is actually true for all women, for you and me as well as for the poorest of the poor. I think it plays out differently though depending on your background, location. Also, financial independence as we have seen that money allows you certain things that you will otherwise be restricted from. For example, your family might not be comfortable with you going out in the night but if they know you can take a taxi, you can get a ride from a friend they know, and you have a mobile phone with which they can be in touch with you constantly – then maybe it’s ok. But you have to be able to afford all of that.”

The fact that women are surveilled more than men is consistent. This divide might be sharper in India but I don’t think it’s unique to India. A lot of surveillance in India in more conservative communities has really to do with the fears around women’s sexuality and the importance of women’s virginity for the reputation of a family. It’s not just about keeping an individual woman safe but it’s also about maintaining the reputation of the entire family and community. The weight of all that falls on women’s shoulders.”

On May 3, 2017, a village in UP banned the usage of mobile phones by women, as an order by Khap Panchayat but there’s nothing new in the news. The same diktat was announced in several villages of UP, Haryana and Rajasthan in 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, and even before. According to news reports, every time this ban was pronounced, it was because the Panchayat wanted to restrict women’s communication with men and not vice-versa.

According to Anja: In Muzaffarnagar, the idea (banning of mobile phones) was supported as though they are bad for girls, create spaces of privacy and independence that will only lead to trouble. It should only be allowed ideally after marriage, definitely not before college. However, the same rules do not apply to boys.”

Sadly, this is not just restricted to the elders in Khap Panchayat as the same sentiment is shared by the rural womenfolk too.“We met with a woman in Muzaffarnagar who happens to also work for women empowerment. She introduced us to the phrase chupke, chupke’ (hidden in English). She said that whenever you have to do something chupke chupke’ then it’s always bad. Girls get phones from their boyfriends, stay in bathrooms or separate rooms for long and talk behind closed doors”, narrates Anja.

Social norms influence women’s lives

Social norms affect women’s role in the society, status, empowerment, and access to education and income in society, and consequently their relationship with mobile technology. It is often hidden within other, more commonly cited barriers that influence women’s access to and use of mobile technology.

Village women only know that the green button is for picking up phone calls and the red one for disconnecting the phone”, says a rural male from India. This, because women are only taught to do this on mobile phones, and that too in the company of others.

Why are women not allowed to use the Internet with privacy?

It breaks my heart to tell you that a school teacher in a village told us that the Constitution cannot run at the cost of village way of life. He responded like this when we told him how ironical it was between what was being taught to young girls and what they were practising in real life. These girls who otherwise speak in Hindi, learn words like equality and rights in classrooms but are aware of the contradictions in their life. One girl even questioned us as to why is it that my brother can use the phone whenever he wants?”, Anja responds.

In this sense, desktops are appreciated by all as they are family owned, kept in a room where everybody can see what you are doing or is in a school where there is a supervisor to keep a tab on you”.

Talking about rural families in small towns and conservative communities in India, they are usually dependent on agriculture which is reeling under agrarian distress at the moment. To build a future, these families understand the value of Internet and technology. While striving for upward mobility, most families are not enforcing a complete ban but monitored usage of the Internet among girls. Anja adds, For them, access to the Internet in private spaces doesn’t work as those are essential to blocking relationships that families are uncomfortable with. Facebook thus became a taboo – as they assume that it is not for education but for marriage and to find love.”

An existing notion of the Internet being an evil in conservative communities of India and other low-and-middle-income countries reflect poorly on women’s right to expression and freedom. There are 3.6 billion mobile internet users around the world, in which women on average are 14 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone than a man, which translates into 200 million fewer women than men owning mobile phones. Women in South Asia are 38 per cent less likely to own a phone than a man, highlighting that the gender gap in mobile phone ownership is wider in certain parts of the world. (According to GSMA Input into Report on the Digital Gender Divide, February 2017).

Background profile of the woman and her family is very important to judge the level of discrimination and subjective treatment. All those times Delhi Metro leaked footages of couples cosying up in the train or platforms raised an alarm in public, we are forced to think how worse it would affect the people involved. Anja says, For a woman, there is an impact in a way there isn’t for a man. It’s true even for the most privileged woman because even though I might not adhere to a certain mindset but my neighbours will look at me in a particular way, people around me will look at me in a particular way; it’s still a pressure you feel.”

As part of a research to find who tames whom on the Internet” and why are women policed in India on their Internet usage and access rights”, these are some of the most popular answers recorded on a popular social media site:

A 28-year-old newly married girl from Aligarh wrote: He questions my character if I talk on Whatsapp after 7 pm, he thinks I do sexting.”

A 20-year-old female student from Mumbai lamented: My face featured in one of the most popular searches on a porn website even though I have never had sex in my life. It was taken down after a formal complaint but I became a butt of jokes.”

A 36-year-old male businessman from Ghaziabad audaciously comment, Why do you (girls) need the Internet? Who do you want to expose your body to? What else do you do on Facebook and Instagram”

Reinforcing supremacy of one gender over another strengthens in its claim by citing these social norms. Research conducted by GSMA indicates that over centuries, using the same reasons of morality and culture, women have been denied access to technology, especially the kind that enables them to voice their opinion and look beyond.

According to 2015 research on Connected Women titled Bridging the Gender Gap: Mobile Access and Usage in low- and middle-income countries by GSMA: Over 3 billion people in low- and middle-income countries do not own mobile phones, and most of them — 1.7 billion — are estimated to be female. Nearly two-third of unconnected females live in the South Asia and East Asia & Pacific regions which is not surprising given that these two regions are the largest in terms of population.

Dilemmas of being online for women

Women are far behind in numbers in the usage of social media in comparison to men. As cited in the report by GSMA, there are roughly 3 men for every woman on Facebook in India. In 2015, Facebook had 111 million users in India, of which 84 million are men and only 27 million are women.

Three notable exceptions, however, are Egypt, where women use Facebook and Twitter more than men; China, where women and men use WeChat equally; and Jordan, where women and men use Twitter equally.

Apart from social norms and surveillance issues, women also face dangers in the form of cyber security issues while using social media. The term essentially includes everything under online abuse like trolling, sextortion, revenge porn and others.

Working extensively on these issues, Anja discusses, Trolls target both men and women but how men are targeted is very different from how women are targeted. With men it’s more like you don’t know what you are talking about’ but for a woman it’s always about her sexuality’.

This is what happened with Priyanka Chopra recently when she wore a dress to meet PM Modi. They used words like slut, whore’ and anything that she has achieved was easily forgotten. In a way, the troll is an extension of surveillance, if surveillance is about policing norms then trolling is policing norms on the internet. They tried to police Priyanka. It was their way of asking her to behave the way they idealise it, like a traditional Indian woman. They were perturbed by the fact that Priyanka, being a woman, is living a happy life as a successful and independent woman.

Trolling is about reinforcing fear on the internet.”

Anja talks about a friend who has a knack of dealing with all trollers. She says, I know a woman who says that your weapon and his weapon are same on the Internet. I have a keyboard, he has a keyboard so then what the f#@! is holding you back? Speak up!’”

Anja believes that trolling is never progressive in nature. They won’t ever say man you are so conservative, you should stand up for your rights. Trolling is always reinforcing power. It’s a structural thing, linked with surveillance”, she adds.

Police records indicate that women these days are most disturbed by the rise in crimes involving images, taken with the aim of morphing, revenge porn and sextortion. Anja says, Women’s naked images have a power that naked images of men don’t. You can’t blackmail a man with naked images because the power is not the same. So who pays the price – disproportionately the woman. Few men who are convicted are usually those blackmailed by a guy in homosexual relationships.”

The aim should be to expand space for women and not reduce the already narrow space. We need a much more concerted response. We advocate for non-legal responses as you can’t go to the police and complain because your timeline is full of words like slut, bitch…That’s really troubling.”

Colleagues in Brazil came up with something called Safer nudes’: Safer, not safe because you can never be sure. There are apps nowadays that allow you to delete messages from your phone as well as from the one you have sent. Also, there are apps that alert you when someone takes a screenshot of your photo. We need to have knowledge of these things. So if you are sending these images, then avoid Whatsapp because at least other apps will help you send in a safer way. Their dialogue is basically around empowering and giving the control back to women while creating their own space on the Internet.”

A feminist by principle and action, Anja feels it important to start a dialogue for a feminist Internet: one which has a space for women gives them right to sexual expression, consent and control of data. The Internet is a big bad world for women and after all, people around you shape you, especially as a woman”, she adds.

Originally published in WION.