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Women's Online Battles: Being Political Opens up Disproportionate Violence

Safoora Zargar is a household name today, the anti-CAA and NRC activist and MPhil scholar from Jamia Millia Islamia, was pregnant at the time she was arrested and was finally granted bail after health concerns. As well-known perhaps is the case of Disha Ravi, who was arrested by the Delhi Police on February 13th for editing an online toolkit associated with Greta Thunberg on the ongoing Indian farmers’ protests. These were not just political stands, these women were taking up humanitarian issues too. However, they were always met with criticism, the sort that their men counterparts never would have to deal with. It is the sad truth that a woman expressing her opinions online will be met with far worse things than just ridicule. Not as popular but equally important, is the case of Nodeep Kaur. She is an Indian Dalit labour rights activist and a member of the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan. She was arrested on 12th January 2021 while protesting outside a factory on the outskirts of Delhi. Barely any light was shown on the fact that she was tortured while in police custody. It took another tweet from Meena Harris to further spread this grim news. We have some examples of women who have used the resources at their disposal, for e.g Pushpam Priya Chaudhary formed her own political party - Plurals Party who got fewer votes than None of the Above (NOTA). In spite of coming from a privileged place, being educated, having the funds and credibility which would make an ideal candidate, she lost both seats. Some other instances of women suffering from unfair treatment that men in similar positions never have to deal with involve clothing. Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra changed her display picture on Twitter -- from a sari-clad look to one in a pair of jeans. This innocent act sparked debate on social media. Actresses turned Members of Parliament (MPs) Mimi Chakraborty, Nusrat Jahan wore modest attire on their first day in Parliament. Social media gatekeepers targeted them for wearing western clothing instead of Indian clothing. Clothing and physical appearances and threats of damaging a woman’s physical appearance are massively used tools used to target and shame women unnecessarily.

Women online using social media
Representational Image

Source: Outlook India

Let us look at some celebrity men in India who have also expressed opinions; Kabir Khan spoke out strongly against the Citizenship Amendment Act and even mentioned his thoughts in an interview. Of course his opinions were not met with ridicule. Vir Das is quite vocal with his videos on topics of Freedom of Speech and often criticises the government’s policies. Even though these intellectual capabilities of these men were challenged, their bodies and appearances were left out of the conversation. This dichotomy with criticism is evident.

The nature of criticism differentiates with men and women. Several women who have dared to voice their political and humanitarian opinions, controversial or not, were met with death threats, rape threats, and assault and murder threats. Why is it that whenever a woman has propounded any anti-regimental stand, that the focus has been shifted to her body, sexuality and sex life? Why is it that instead of fairly judging a woman’s intellect or giving a critical analysis of her political opinions, men will find it so easy to casually make their physical appearances public fodder up for discussion and unjust ridicule? The fact that trolls can potentially go scot free and are often not held accountable for their words, further encourages them. This level of direct or indirect forms of oppression, such as commenting, trolling on social media, intimidation in the form of empty threats is immensely dangerous to people of all ages and their mental and physical well-being. The patriarchal nature of the humanitarian issues and political culture of India specifically shapes the mind-set of the society which freely and casually assumes that it is okay to make such comments on a woman without fearing any consequences.

What gives us some consolation is the fact that women stood up for women. As was very well illustrated by Member of Parliament Priyanka Chaturvedi in one of our recent interviews, trolling is different for women; an ORF study in India found that women’s participation on political topics ranged between 4% to 12 %, as opposed to men’s 33 percent to 55 percent. Disha Ravi saw support from international figures and several women chimed in to call out the unjust actions against her. Perhaps since a majority of women, all over the world, who have had the limelight on them at some point, would find the online harassment casual and relatable. The extent of unfairness does not stop at not following the due process of law. While women will voice their support, it is saddening to see that not enough authoritative men in positions of power joined in vehemently enough. Those who did, probably came from a place of political play, rather than an actual humanitarian ground or in support of women. A token tweet from those in positions of power is certainly not enough.

A great example of men leading on the discussion is portrayed in the interview article with Rajeev Gowda who encourages others to get rid of biases and actively supporting the Women’s Reservation Bill. A great explanation by Congress leader Shashi Tharoor for barriers and limitations for women in politics rings with truth.

Here is an image from Pew Research Centre’s report documenting the online harassment faced by a demographic of men and women.

It is certainly commendable when we see how women from different parts of the world have become knowledgeable and reached out to show solidarity through the medium of social media. Platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Instagram have provided us with enough tools to battle the ongoing crisis. It is great to see activists and celebrities from the US give encouragement to young girls in Asia. Rude comments and anonymous rape threats have been used to shut those women up who are brave enough to speak up about the on-going socio-economic, humanitarian and political issues plaguing our country.

It is abundantly clear that this is not a conducive society for women to partake in political, social or humanitarian issues and discourse. It is today’s hope that small steps will lead to big changes. While plenty of women have stood up to fight, others question -Why must women put their lives and images at risk, in order to speak up about the evils in the world? Some questions that we need to tackle are:

  1. How can our men in the society support women by being allies?

  2. What can we do to eliminate the physical appearance of women as subjects open to comments and debates?

  3. How can we sensitize the masses towards the casual nature of rape threats and bodily harm that women regularly receive?

  4. Are there steps that can be taken from the grassroots level to make online public platforms a safer space for women?

Ishita Shah

Ishita is a lawyer based in Mumbai and an incoming LLM student at University of California, Berkeley.

She is an avid reader, and her interests include advocating for equal opportunity, animal and human rights and equitable policy making. She can be reached on LinkedIn here.

This article gives the views of the author, and does not necessarily represent the position of Women for Politics.

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