Like Being On the Street: Women and Online Abuse

This is the second in a series of posts reporting on the day-long “Connect Your Rights!” meeting held in Mumbai in November 2013. The meeting explored topics such as tools to combat violence against women, pornography, sexuality, and freedoms and risks in the online world.

For women, is the Internet really the free, democratic space it is made out to be? Or does it come with the trappings of the society that we live in? Blogging about their lives and expressing their feelings online may make women feel liberated, but they constantly watch their backs the way they would while walking down the street. Gendered abuse online betrays the same kind of prejudices, insecurities, and misogyny as that in the offline space.

Online abuse of women is akin to hoot calls directed at them on the street. The abuse is often directed at the woman’s physical form in sexually explicit and degrading ways. It ranges from posting obscene, morphed photos of the woman online, to making intimidating or humiliating remarks on her (“You are not that sexy”, threats of sexual assault or physical harm) or her near ones (questioning the sexuality of a male relative), to making degrading comments that reinforce gender stereotypes (“Go back to the kitchen”). In the case of ‘intellectual’ trolling, the abuser does not use foul or uncivil language but intends to humiliate the woman by trying to portray her as intellectually inferior or inadequate.

Studies about women bloggers from different parts of the world suggest that online abusers will seek out a woman regardless of her popularity, merely on the basis of her gender. While data related to cyber harassment in India is hard to come by, studies from all over the world show that most cases involve male attackers and female victims. Cumulative data collected from 2000 to 2012 by Working to Halt Online Abuse, a US-based non-profit working with victims of online harassment, especially those of cyber stalking, shows that more than 70% of the victims were identified as female and about 50% of the harassers were identified as male.

Seventeen women across India were interviewed as a part of “Don’t Let It Stand!”, an exploratory study conducted by the Internet Democracy Project in 2012 documenting the various forms of online abuse women face and the strategies they adopted to respond to it. Most of the interviewees said that being active on the Internet is “like being on the street”. Some said that they felt that the online threats of violence or harassment they faced were meant to intimidate them, censor them, or even silence them. The abuse “impedes women’s full participation in online life, often driving them offline and undermines their autonomy, identity, dignity and well being,” states Danielle Keats Citron, professor of law, University of Maryland School of Law, US in a 2007 paper.

Women tend to censor themselves, consciously or otherwise, after facing undue harassment online. The Internet Democracy Project’s findings reveal that blogging about issues such as corruption attracts less abuse than topics such as sexual expression. For instance, a woman who used to blog extensively about premarital sex started withholding her views after she faced verbal abuse online. Such abuse can also undermine a woman’s ability to achieve her professional goals. A woman could shut down her income-generating website or limit access to her blog to protect herself. As employers routinely conduct a background check on job applicants and employees, the presence of disparaging content could prejudice them against hiring or keeping the victims of online abuse.

This wordcloud represents the names that survey participants shared that they have been called based on responses to the Women and Wikimedia 2011 survey. This is the original content placed into the Wordle wordcloud creator pulled from survey participants examples when asked to share examples of on-wiki abuse or attacks:

This wordcloud represents the names that survey participants shared that they have been called based on responses to the Women and Wikimedia 2011 survey. “Bitch” is the most common.

The strategies to deal with the abuse include blocking and/ or reporting the abuser, changing passwords and taking other security measures, and engaging in a battle of wits with the abuser. The women interviewed by the Internet Democracy Project said they dealt with the abuse themselves or enlisted the help of friends; they do not involve their families. The interviewees said that the family’s typical response is to tell the woman to go off the Internet, the way they are told to get off the street on facing street sexual harassment. The interviewees felt that it was important to build a community of online supporters and friends to deal with instances of abuse.

Unlike on the street, the physical distance between the woman and the online abuser acts as a buffer. “The women have the same tool as the abuser — the keyboard. So, don’t let it stand. Claim the space,” said Anja Kovacs from the Internet Democracy Project.

Anindita Sengupta, the executive editor of the Indian feminist blog Ultraviolent, said that a troll left critical and academic-sounding comments on a blog post on the issue of abortion with the intent of disparaging the woman blogger. The blogger who could not keep up with the debate was left feeling “intellectually inferior” after the experience and had a hard time finding confidence to write again. Online abuse that happens subtly and assumes the form of power play is far more difficult to address that abuse stemming from a typical foul-mouthed and uncivil anonymous/ pseudonymous abuser.

Women are reluctant to go to the police for reasons such as police apathy and dealing with police procedures that make them uncomfortable. Section 66(A) of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008 could be applied to almost every instance of online abuse. It penalises sending “offensive” and “annoyance” causing messages, and is punishable with a maximum imprisonment of three years. This vague law is considered a threat to free expression and has been subject to wanton abuse in a number of cases in the country. An advisory was issued in 2012 and another in 2013 to ensure only senior police officers could register complaints under section 66(A).

“Using the law makes these women uncomfortable as they are against censorship. They felt that they were working against their own agenda,” said Kovacs. Women rights groups and Internet rights groups in India are undecided on how to address the issue of online verbal abuse before lawmakers. What can such abuse be termed? Hate speech, maybe?

However, the term “hate speech” legally refers to abuse directed at a collective, and not an individual. Two sections of the Indian Penal Code, section 295(A) and 153(B), deal with hate speech against any religious community, race, linguistic community, regional community, etc. Possibly, these sections can be amended to include sexual and gendered verbal abuse.

Would such a classification result in the stifling of free speech? Would we end up playing into the hands of people who want restrictions on Internet freedoms?

Some women rights activists say that it’s important to give the problem a name. The fact that online abuse is trivialised and seen as “routine” is a problem. “This is like being stared at on the streets. We have to take a stand and say it is not okay,” said Nandita Shah, co-director of the NGO Akshara, which works for women’s rights.

Read the rest of the reports from “Connect Your Rights!” held in Mumbai.

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