NAGAPATTINAM: Journalist Apurwa Shrivastava came under immense trolling for declaring on Facebook that she was a woman who loved smoking, drinking, and sex as much as the next guy. Though her post had mentioned that people who were uncomfortable with her lifestyle could unfriend her on the platform, her pictures and posts were shared on random pages with abusive texts shaming her.
“I live my life the way I deem fit. I am fine with criticism, but abuses are unacceptable,” says the 25-year-old. “I have received over a hundred messages from strangers, calling me names... some even issuing rape threats. The disturbing part is that there are even a few women who do this... commenting that I deserved to get raped. They are as wrong as those men,” says Apurwa.
Cyber-bullying, a trend as old as the internet itself, has become a problem that every woman online has to deal with these days. Throw in some elements of religion and the concoction becomes highly dangerous, as in the case of SA Nuzrat Jahan. The 28-year-old PG medical student was shamed for posting pictures in jeans and tops, with her tattoo visible.
“Though my privacy settings made my pictures only visible to friends, posts where I am tagged become visible to public. And that’s when the bullying began,” says the medico. “Most of the trolls who school me and abuse me are from a particular religion. Most of them are strangers I have never interacted with. The abuses are disgusting.”
While male chauvinism and associated moral policing have existed in this society for centuries, the transition of same tendencies and behaviour onto the online space is deeply worrying, say gender rights activists. “Even while social media platforms are becoming a powerful tool for women to express and empower themselves, the patriarchal mindset is coping with it by cyber-shaming women back into stereotypes to disempower them,” says gender studies specialist NA Arivukarasi.
Ruining lives, careers
In a video that went viral recently, a middle-aged woman is seen ranting about how college students and working women dress ‘inappropriately’. Showing a few clothing items, she says ‘even my son would not wear them.’ She then goes on to appeal to parents and brothers and police to stop such women. Her video was an instant hit among men, with thousands of them echoing her views. “Such women are not aware that their attempts to disempower women, reduce their identity and character to their choice of clothing, is only further empowering patriarchal value systems. It eventually becomes the victory of patriarchy,” says Arivukarasi.
“Many women tend to seek validation from social media followers,” opines psychotherapist Abi Shankari. “They can choose to avoid those spewing hatred, but they have to also be aware of what can put them in danger, and appropriate reaction to such events. Men, on the other hand, need to stop being judgemental, and understand that a woman’s expressions are her rights and freedom.”
Such acts of moral policing also tend chip away confidence and destroy future of young girls. A couple of weeks ago, a private college in Mayiladuthurai dismissed four young girls after a video of them drinking alcohol at a house party went viral on social media platforms. One of the videos of the incident had over 2 lakh views and was shared over 3,000 times.
Most users, who shared the video without blurring the faces of the girls involved, did so with the intent of shaming them. They were accused of destroying the culture of the land. They were dismissed from the college for bringing ‘disrepute’ to the institution. There was no uproar over the violation of the girls’ privacy by sharing the footage.
Would a video of a group of college boys drinking be shared and viewed like this, ask activists. “Would they face social media trials or official action beyond, say, suspension for a few days?” Police say their hands are tied in many such cases as it comes to their notice through third parties.
“Though we are aware, we cannot take any action unless the affected parties come forward with a complaint,” says Nagapattinam police superintendent S Selvanagarathinam. Legal experts, however, say there is no such strict rule. “It’s illegal to film a young woman and share the clip without her consent,” says lawyer T Jayanthi Rani.
“The offenders, including those who shared the video on their social media accounts, can be booked under the IT Act. A complaint may be needed to file the charges, but the police department is already acting suo motu to curb child porn. Keeping society’s interest in mind, they could show the same interest in such cases, where the consequences are drastic.”
Need for a new law
Lawyer U Nirmala Rani says that the current IT Act is toothless in dealing with cyber shaming cases. “When a case on cyber shaming goes for a trial, the court should recommend the lawmakers to frame powerful legislation or augment the current Act,” says Nirmala. Cybercrime lawyer V Rajendran says something similar to Section 66A of the Information Technology Act needs to come back.
“The Act was scrapped for being misused to constrict freedom of expression. But the repercussions of its complete abrogation are now evident,” says Rajendran. “A streamlined version of the legislation would do good.” Section 66(A) of the Act criminalises the sending of offensive messages through a computer or other communication devices.
Under this provision, any person who by means of a computer or communication device sends any information that is: (a) grossly offensive; (b) false and meant for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will; (c) meant to deceive or mislead the recipient about the origin of such messages, etc, shall be punishable with imprisonment up to three years and with fine.