There is no dearth of misogynist comments in cyberspace. But digital feminists worldwide are winning the gender battle with tact and wit BY SOMI DAS
- As soon as the Supreme Court declares the draconian Section 66A of the IT Act null and void, some right-wing trolls on Twitter start celebrating by calling journalist Sagarika Ghose a bi**h. Her fault? She supported a certain degree of censorship to reign in rogue elements as she had been a victim of online abuse several times.
- Actor and self-professed online celebrity Kamal R Khan,( KRK) made a series of tweets asking everyone to stone actress Anushka Sharma’s house and boycott her films in the aftermath of the Indian cricket team’s defeat in Sydney. Her fault? She went to Sydney to cheer the team and her boyfriend, Virat Kohli. Soon, other hostile tweets followed.
- Hollywood Actress Emma Watson received threats from hackers saying they would leak her naked pictures online. Her fault? She is the UN ambassador for women and is vocal about gender equality.
- Actress Deepika Padukone joined hands with Vogue for a women’s empowerment campaign. She faced flak for being a “hypocrite”. Suspiciously, a day after its release, reports swirled of a secret meeting between her and underworld don Dawood Ibrahim regarding funds for a Hollywood project.
The common thread in all these instances is the hatred that successful, opinionated women are subjected to on internet. Anita Sarkeesian, founder of Feminist Frequency, an organization involved in gender sensitivity, says: “Death and rape threats are used as weapons to take down the big bad villain (a woman who speaks her mind and is aware of her rights)… we are living in a society where online harassment is tolerated and excused, where web services and law enforcements are not taking responsibility for the abuse that women face online every day.” Sarkeesian, herself, has been a victim of cyber bullying for speaking up against sexism in the video gaming industry. Does the internet hate women? It seems so. Blogger and University of Pennsylvania student, Shahana Nair Joshi, got a taste of this hatred in 2011 when her satirical blog post, An open letter to a Delhi boy, went viral. From admiration to sexually derogatory comments and even death threats, she faced it all. She says: “Everywhere and anywhere is a hostile place for opinionated women. The internet just gives an opportunity for anonymity, so it’s easier to be brash, disrespectful or downright vulgar.”
Twenty-three-year old Feminist blogger, Arushi Kapoor, too has faced many insults. She says: “I have been called many names just for expressing my views. The best ones are feminazi, man-hater, lesbian, and some explicit ones as well. And my personal favorite—anti-national.” But abuse is the last thing that scares the digital feminist. She does not get bogged down by abuse and censorship and almost shamelessly keeps posting her views. And, this is helping her win quite a few battles. When Canada-based poetess Rupi Kaur kept uploading a picture of her menstruating self even though Instagram removed it not once but twice, the photo sharing site had to concede defeat, in the end. In an angry and retaliatory post directed at Instagram, she wrote: “I will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be ok with a small leak when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified, pornified, and treated less than human.”
Kaur got some nasty comments for her move. But most people saw the purpose of her exercise. The matter caught international attention. Sustained pressure from Kaur’s online posts and media attention forced Instagram to apologize. Kaur won a personal battle. But most importantly, she helped start a much-needed dialogue on period taboos. What was interesting was that even men were drawn into the discussion.
However, Instagram hadn’t really learnt its lesson. In a repeat offence, it took down photo-journalist Mandhar Deodhar’s picture titled, This Mumbai and That Mumbai, which showed a girl bathing naked on the roadside with other kids, drawing attention to the large economic divide that exists in a metro. A disappointed Deodhar was quoted by the media as saying: “There is a difference between a child being bathed in the open and real nudity that is found all over Instagram.”
This trend of subtle censorship tells us two things— first, more and more women are crossing the threshold of established gender norms online, and second, even social networking sites are not free of patriarchal elements. Recently, women in Iceland stormed Twitter with photographs of their bare breasts to fight against online censorship and sexism. With hashtags like #FreeTheNipple and #NoBraDay, they asked why women’s nipples were blurred in the media and why websites took down pictures of women’s bare breasts even when they were not presented in a sexually explicit way. Even images of breast-feeding mothers are censored.
The campaign was initiated by a 17-year-old student Adda Þóreyjardóttir Smáradóttir in March 2015. Adda, as the chair of the Feminist Society at The Commercial College of Iceland, announced a Free the nipple campaign in her school. When a classmate disagreed with the purpose of the campaign, she posted her topless picture on Twitter with the hashtag #FreeTheNipple. She was immediately targeted with sexist comments and had to delete her post. But soon, other women in Iceland joined her hashtag and hundreds of pictures started pouring in on social networking sites.
The impact of the campaign can be gauged by the fact that even a member of parliament showed her solidarity by posting a picture of her breasts. In an article in The Independent, Björt Ólafsdóttir wrote: “I might be an MP, but that doesn’t stop me fighting sexism with my breasts. I took part in the recent #FreeTheNipple campaign in Iceland because I’m sick of women’s bodies being censored and attacked.” In India too, Jamia Millia Islamia students started a similar campaign on the campus called, Pad Against Sexism. They stuck sanitary napkins across the campus with anti-sexism messages, such as “The streets of Delhi belong to women too, ladki gharki kyuki tu tharki (girl is confined to the house because you can’t control your sexual desires)”.
The messages dealt with a range of issues from marital rape, eve-teasing to period taboos. The campaign was quelled by the university authorities and within four days, all the “pad notes” were removed. But thanks to some active feminist voices and web journalists on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the pictures were widely circulated and the hashtag #PadAgainstSexism started trending and continues to be visible till date. The campaign was originally the brainchild of a German activist, Elonë Kastratia. That Indian students instantly connected to a trend that began in Germany, shows the power of the internet to drive, sustain and connect feminist protest movements from across the world. What all these campaigns are trying to do is demystify all the negativity, taboos and stereotypes surrounding women’s bodies and her role in society. 25-year old Japleen Pasricha, founder and editor-in-chief of Feminism in India is doing her bit to sustain and document feminist campaigns and movements in India.
(A grab from feminisminindia.com)
She says, “feminisminindia.com seeks to serve as India’s first feminist portal for resource & documentation purposes for everything related to feminism in India and a new media community platform for people to break their silence and raise their voices.” In its eight months of existence the web portal has a commendable pool of articles, poems and other content as part of its strategic digital campaign on gender issues.
As more and more women go online to voice their anger against everyday sexism, the bigger battles of gender equality like freedom from sexual harassment at the workplace are also being leveraged on the internet to increase awareness. Pallavi Pareek, co-founder of iPleaders, an organization that provides online legal education and awareness, is currently involved in creating awareness on the Sexual Harassment Act, 2013, through an online certificate course called Workplace Diversity and Sexual Harassment Prevention.
Talking about the wide reach of the digital media that has been capitalized by her organization, she says: “The digital media has played a huge role in creating awareness. It is not possible to reach out to the masses on a wide scale, either to educate or to train them, except through internet. It is not possible to connect with industry practitioners and experts, who can share their insights and help in framing study material, without online support.”
Similar efforts are being made by Ashwini Asokan, co-founder of Mad Street Den, an artificial intelligence start-up. A former employee of Intel and a mother of two, Asokan is using her experience to bridge the gender divide in start-ups and the IT sector. At a Genderlog (a web portal that deals with gender issues) tweet discussion, she says: “Think about what you can offer to women at different stages to make job attractive. Women’s toilets, nursing Mom’s rooms, child care. Give up that 3rd Foosball table or 100 bean bags for a small room with a plug point to pump or nurse.”
The variety of feminist strands being explored is endless. And the internet is helping the modern day feminists amplify the impact of their fight.Virginia Woolf once famously said: “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” But today’s digital feminists are making sure they aren’t anonymous anymore and that the world hears them loud and clear.