Among the top 20 countries in internet usage worldwide, India has the highest yearly growth rate of internet users. Easy access to the internet has enabled many people, especially women and other marginalised groups, to overcome traditional barriers and participate in the public sphere.
However, the violence women face in these virtual spaces has in many ways left them feeling vulnerable, not empowered. More so, if one identifies themselves as a woman from a minority religious, racial or ethnic background, a woman with disabilities, or a lesbian, bisexual or transgender individual. Online violence against women – that is, violence directed at women by virtue of their gender – violates their human rights and is thus an impediment to the attainment of gender equality.
Amnesty International India recently launched a campaign to address the issue of online violence faced by women in the country. It has been interviewing women who express their opinions online, documenting their experiences of being active on social media platforms and the violence they regularly face online.
At an event organised in New Delhi on April 24 as part of this campaign, Rana Ayyub, an award-winning writer and journalist, shared how she had received rape and death threats on platforms like Twitter and how, more often than not, her complaints to the platform fell on deaf ears.
“I have reported so many profiles on Twitter, but the platform seems oblivious to all these. In addition to the hate and abuse, there are fourteen fake profiles in my name and with my picture. I have reported those profiles, but they continue to exist, because, apparently, they are not against Twitter’s policies, or so I have been told.”
Kiruba Munusamy, an advocate in the Supreme Court of India, has also been very vocal about the intersectionality of abuse and violence online. “While the abuse and violence faced online is gendered, it gets even worse when the abuser finds out that the person posting her picture or opinion belongs to a ‘lower caste’. Comments on a short dress turn into comments on a woman belonging to a lower caste wearing them”, she told the audience at the event. Despite being a practising lawyer at the Supreme Court, Munusamy was advised by some officials not to take forward a case of online abuse that she faced on Facebook, and most of the comments received on her profile were deleted without her consent. Student activists like Shehla Rashid and celebrities like Swara Bhaskar have also faced an increased wave of abusive tweets and online abuse because they are vocal about issues they feel strongly about.
In 2017, Amnesty International polled 4,000 women in eight countries, including the UK and the US, and found that nearly 76 percent of women who had experienced abuse or harassment on a social media platform changed how they used the platform. Around two-thirds of women who experienced abuse or harassment on social media platforms said that they felt a sense of powerlessness after experiencing online abuse. Forty-one percent of women said that on at least one occasion, these online experiences made them feel their physical safety was threatened.
The situation is not very different in India. Kavita Krishnan, Politburo member of the CPI(ML) and Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, who has been on the receiving end of rape threats and misogyny, says that online violence needs to be taken seriously and it often has the potential to spill into physical abuse and violence. “Online abuse and it not being taken seriously emboldens people to verbally assault you. People have come up to me and told me I am of a bad character after fake news spread online of me questioning the potency of the PM and asking him to prove he is not impotent by sleeping with me.”
Abuse against women on Twitter and other platforms can also include “doxxing” which involves revealing personal information or identifying documents or details about someone, on an online platform, without their consent. In April this year, Rana Ayyub’s address and phone number, and an obscene video with her face morphed on it were shared online in response to a tweet that came from a fake account using her name. She feared for her safety and that of her family and filed a criminal complaint.
Women from academic circles are not spared of online vitriol, especially if their writings are not in conformity with the ideology of the abusers. Audrey Truschke, historian and author of the book, Aurangzeb, The Man and the Myth, told Amnesty International India “I mostly post about Mughal history, especially Aurangzeb. I also post about modern Indian culture and politics. I am regularly attacked, using sexist language, on the basis of my perceived race (white/Caucasian), and on the basis of my perceived religion (Christianity – sometimes specifically Catholicism or Evangelicalism – Judaism, and atheism). I stopped reporting sexist tweets to Twitter because they never did anything about it. Following Twitter’s change in policy about hate speech late last year, I again began reporting the worst of the sexist tweets, and, occasionally, Twitter does something about it.”
India already has laws that – while flawed – can be used to deal with online abuse. What needs attention is a better implementation of the same. This implementation needs to be coupled with non-legal measures to address the structural inequalities which stem in part from patriarchal notions of morality, lying at the heart of the online abuse faced by women. A starting point to address this gender-based abuse on online platforms can be asking these platforms to start following their own guidelines on “abuse and hateful conduct”, which, as research has shown, are flouted by the platforms themselves!