Misogyny mirrored on the web

A DU student has been threatened with gang rape online. But there’s hardly any outrage or demand to punish the guilty

Published: 06th March 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th March 2017 06:54 AM   |  A+A-

The percentage of Indian women on social media, and the way they are perceived online, is perhaps a reflection of how misogynistic our society really is. From Nirbhaya to Murthal to Bengaluru to the recent incidents on social media involving Delhi University student Gurmehar Kaur, the stench of misogyny in India refuses to go away. The trail cuts across geography, language and political ideology. Misogyny is now freely available on social media, in any language or format, and can hit any woman who dares to stand up and speak.

No, wait! Celebrity women like Shobhaa De, Sania Mirza, the Phogat sisters, Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone do get trolled online. However, they might be in a better position to cope with it.

But the likes of 20-year-old Gurmehar Kaur who risk their privacy and anonymity to go beyond sharing trivia on Facebook and Twitter and decide to stand up and speak on an issue of national interest get shut down by open intimidation. The result? Proactive participation of urban educated women on social media in any resistance process remains subdued, when compared to what we see on the ground— street protests, sloganeering or candle light vigils.

The malaise is neither political nor about ideology. It is about the fundamental legitimacy granted to misogyny by the overwhelmingly male-dominated political parties. It is also about the irony of parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Trinamool Congress or even the Congress, which despite being led by women, bow down to political expediency. So while Gurmehar and her ilk won’t be denied justice on record, the ghost of Section 66A of the IT Act continues to haunt them in a more diabolical way, than what the enacted law could have done.

Talking of social media penetration in India, there is a generational backlog stemming from the lack of economic and social freedom to women. But when the focus is kept limited to the urban Indian educated woman—high school or college student, housewife or working professional—which is what by and large constitutes the entire female component of India’s active social media userbase, should that still be considered normal? Maybe not. The numbers should be a serious reason to introspect, for two reasons.

One, India’s social media voice which is now regarded as a key influencer in business, politics and society per se, continues to exhibit a considerable gender gap with women constituting just about a little over 30 per cent of the active social media users. Women constitute just 24 per cent Facebook users in India, whereas globally, 52 per cent of Facebook users are women. On the face of it, India bucking the trend is not surprising. That is the social reality here after all.

Two, the major effort to bring more Indian women online seems to be directed at semiurban and rural women for whom accessing the internet and consuming content itself is the first milestone to cross.

The urban, educated, internet- savvy Indian woman is not targeted, because most them have Facebook or Twitter accounts and are regular users of the internet. Impressive and well-funded programmes like Google’s HWGO (Helping Women Go Online) are the best case in point.

While the socially and financially subdued woman in a remote village will get benefitted, the likes of Gurmehar will not. Google may argue that internet awareness and law enforcement are totally different issues and rightly so. But then policing social media hasn’t helped either.The ghost of Section 66A howls again!

Is language the main retardant? Perhaps not, since we are talking about the educated and liberated urban woman who hangs out at a Starbucks, drives to work and back and spends an average of more than two hours a day online.

But it certainly is a key reason, feels Subho Ray, President of Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). According to Ray, if there is no local language content or if special groups like women are not attracted to internet, the growth of internet users beyond 500 million will be painfully slow, especially since the infrastructure is very poor and not going to improve in a hurry. Point taken.

But taking the cue from noted lyricist Javed Akhtar’s “barely literate” jibe at the Phogat sisters for their rebuttal of Gurmehar, the solution may possibly lie in a vernacular social universe, if that can be created alongside an English- speaking one. This will certainly encourage more women from various states to stand up and participate in the social media discourse. Can that still be without fear or favour? It remains to be seen.

India has had a track record of showcasing problems and celebrating solutions only in fantasies. Female-protagonistled movies like Dangal which earned Rs 350 crore and Chak De! India, which grossed Rs 127 crore give reasons to cheer the might and right of the Indian woman.

So it is perplexing that while a million tweets on Gurmehar and the rape threats against her keep her trending, there is hardly any furore over bringing the perpetrators to justice. This is not the social media we want.

The government needs to curb trolling of women on social media the same way eve-teasing and ragging are tackled— with an iron hand. Only then will the next 100 Gurmehars in waiting feel emboldened and confident to stand up and express without fear and intimidation.

Yatra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra Devata, yatraitaastu na pujyante sarvaastatrafalaah kriyaahs (Where women are honoured, divinity blossoms there, and where women are dishonoured, all actions no matter how noble remain unfruitful).

Saurav Sen

Founder & CEO, Sidnet Digitalia

Email: saurav@sidnetdigitalia.com


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