The recent trolling of Sushma Swaraj has brought to the fore the disturbing reality of online violence and abuse women face in India. Earlier this year, journalist and author Rana Ayyub received rape and death threats online, making her a victim of ‘doxing’, where personal details about her, including her address, were shared online. Five UN special rapporteurs called upon India to protect her from the ‘online hate campaign’ which started soon after a false tweet with a communal angle was attributed to her.
“Labelling me Islamist, they [online abusers] refer to me as ‘Jehadi Jane’, they call me ‘didi’, they call me Apa. Targeting me on the basis of my gender was not enough it seems when they found out they also targeted me based on my Muslim identity,” said Ayyub.
Online violence against women is essentially an extension of the offline violence directed at women owing to their gender – it targets their sexuality, reduces them to sexual objects and reinforces gender stereotypes. Online violence often leads to women being silenced or self-censoring of their opinions because of fear of backlash. Therefore, such violence and abuse act as barriers to women being able to exercise their rights to equality and freedom of expression. In 2017, Amnesty International conducted a study on online violence against women which showed that over 70% of women surveyed who had faced some sort of abuse online changed the way they used social media, and a third of them said they no longer post their opinions on some issues.
While it is true that women from all backgrounds face abuse in online spaces, it is important to acknowledge the fact that women belonging to marginalised sections of society are targeted even more, and the support they receive when they are abused or harassed is insufficient. Kiruba Munusamy is a Supreme Court lawyer. At a panel discussion on online violence against women organised by Amnesty International India in April, she detailed the intersectionality of this abuse: “My colour is commented upon. I am called burnt. Connections are made between my sense of dressing and my caste. In addition, when you are a Dalit, a woman and dark in colour, many do not even come forward to raise their voices for you like they would have if you didn’t belong to a marginalised community. The response of officials is no different.”
Amnesty International India, as part of its campaign on online violence against women, spoke to a number of women regarding their experiences with online abuse and how it affected them. In most interactions, what became evident was that social media platforms on which the abuse occurred had little or no interest in addressing reports of abuse. Social media platforms often flouted their own community standards, which explicitly state that targeted abuse on the basis of a person’s gender or other forms of identity will not be tolerated.
When women report abuse on social media platforms, the most common response they receive from them is that the action reported does not ‘violate their community standards’. When journalist Nidhi Razdan reported death threats received by her on Instagram in June 2018, she received the same initial response. This is despite the fact that the guidelines of Instagram clearly state that ‘serious threats of harm to public and personal safety aren’t allowed. This includes specific threats of physical harm…’.
I got a death threat on @instagram via a pvt msg: “I will hang you,I will execute you”. I reported the account to @instagram. They replied that it does not violate their guidelines. Shame on you @instagram. Am deleting my account. And yes, I’m filing an FIR
— Nidhi Razdan (@Nidhi) June 10, 2018
The Ministry of Women and Child Development has a dedicated email address (email@example.com) ‘intended to curtail online abuse against women by addressing every complaint that is received on the e-mail of the ministry which is forwarded either to the concerned social media platform or to the Cyber Crime Cell for necessary action’. This information was communicated to the author by the ministry in January this year. However, the fact is that, from July 2016 to January 2018, the number of complaints received by the ministry regarding abuse on Twitter and Facebook combined was less than 100, indicating the lack of awareness about this additional reporting mechanism among social media users, especially women, who are excessively targeted.
Recently, an upcoming stand-up comedian from Bengaluru who did not wish to be named reached out to Amnesty International India with her story of online harassment. She said that most of the people she reached out to for advice on how to respond to the online harassment, including others in the industry, asked her to ignore the harassment. However, she said that the harassment did not stop when she stayed silent. Further, she said, “I have reported multiple profiles, multiple times but the platforms have not taken my complaints seriously. I have been apprehensive and scared and even cancelled my shows for two weeks.”
Neither Swaraj nor Kavita Krishnan has been spared from online abuse. Despite the fact that they represent opposite ends of the political spectrum and express differing opinions online, both these prominent women have been harassed in an attempt to silence their voices.
The time has come for us to take online violence and abuse against women seriously. We must collectively hold social media platforms accountable for enforcing their own community standards. Information about existing mechanisms of reporting and recourse to justice have to be made more accessible and they have to be duly implemented.
As online spaces are increasingly becoming hostile towards women, it is not an overstatement to say that the need of the hour is to tackle the gendered aspect of this abuse and uphold the rights of women in India.
Mariya Salim is a women’s rights activist and researcher. She is also member of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. She is currently working on women’s rights issues at Amnesty India.