BANGALORE: Harassment on the Internet has become a very real issue for young teens and especially for women who have a strong online presence. Hate mails and obscene comments from 'trolls' do not even spare high profile journalists, activists or actresses. A recent article about the misogynistic comments on the Facebook page of Ranjini Haridas, a TV anchor in Kerala, went viral. Her page resembles a crime scene and a complaint she registered last year has not helped. Lack of strong laws against cyber crime has resulted in there being little or no protection for women against cyber harassment.
Vulgar messages also target random women on Facebook but sometimes the abuse is intensely personal. Like in the case of Alexandra Madhavan, a Canadian woman married to an Indian. In the fall of 2012, she started blogging about her unusual experiences as an Indian daughter-in-law. In a year's time, her blog gained a huge readership and popularity as her posts struck a chord with similar couples in the blogosphere.
This is when she began getting mails from an unknown person asking her to stop writing. The mails contained abusive language and threatened to physically hurt Alexandra and her then 16-month-old daughter Maya. Alexandra got four to five mails everyday for four months straight. The harasser even took the pictures she had posted online and published them on different platforms with the word 'slut' branded across them. Even though she reported the cases to the respective websites, she was getting exhausted by the sheer number of pages she had to report every day.
"I was genuinely frightened all the time. I was scared that the person would find me. I was getting panic attacks when I took my daughter for a stroll, when I left work late or when someone stared at me too hard. I would bolt my front door at night and move something heavy in front of it so no intruders could break in. I couldn't sleep. I felt alone and terrorised," she says.
When she reported the case to a local police station, she was told off for uploading her personal pictures online. In the middle of this, Alexandra came down with bacterial meningitis and was hospitalised. She stopped blogging for 10 days and was relieved to see that the mails had stopped.
"That is when I reached out to fellow bloggers for advice, and I discovered that two other bloggers were being targeted the exact same way, and just as badly. I kept pushing forward and writing about more controversial topics too. I knew the harasser was not going to harm me and that it was all talk," she says.
Sreejita Biswas, who runs Striptease - a magazine that deals with comic books, was harassed by a man who said comic books were not for girls. She got mails that threatened her and asked her to stop publishing her magazine. She shared the mails with her friends who began sending him angry responses, while she continued ignoring him. In a week's time, the mails stopped. "The Internet has always been full of bullies," she says. "But these days, the most tech-savvy people take harassment on the Internet to a whole new level. While I'd like a solution, I'm not ready to compromise on the freedom I get from the Internet."
Meena Kandasamy is a writer, poet and translator who currently lives abroad. Her political views and opinions on a Facebook page called Masculinist India evoked a slew of abusive messages. Recently, she posted a screenshot of a couple of offensive tweets that she had received, on Facebook. An unknown person had said that she was 'so black and ugly that not even a blind man would want to molest her'.
"What does one do?" she asks. "I don't have the time to play the victim card. I'm a writer and a poet. I want to spend my time reading or writing or cooking—not fighting with trolls. It is a vicious circle because you get abused and then abused again for getting abused."
Actor Nandita Das recently shared how her political views often invite comments like, "Take your son and go to Pakistan." It is almost as if women cannot express dissent in a public space without inviting ire.
On certain sites, unmoderated comments target women actors in their 40s and explicit remarks are made about their 'fading beauty' and morals.
Roopa D, Deputy Inspector General, CID said, "Cyber-bullying, if proven, can get you three years of imprisonment along with a hefty fine. However, nobody has been convicted in such cases so far in the entire state. It is very difficult to prove such crimes and most prosecutors and judges lack knowledge on the subject. Circumstantial evidence is the maximum we have been able to get in most cases, and that hasn't been enough so far."
"However, I encourage women to make noise and file official complaints when they face such harassment. While the harasser might not get thrown behind bars, the thought that the abuse is not being tolerated quietly and that the police is behind them will create fear," she advises.