Women in India Aren't Safe on Twitter Either
The sexual humiliation of the streets has moved online

By Sonia Faleiro

Every morning Nilanjana Roy, the Indian novelist, goes
through the same routine in her New Delhi apartment: a few
minutes of yoga and meditation, before turning on some
Hindustani classical music to drown out the sounds of the
traffic, flipping open her laptop, and refreshing Twitter.
Roy has 100,000 followers; today there are 300 replies.  The
first one sets the tone: "You hole who should be raped by a
bamboo lathi."

          Roy, who shares strong, widely read opinions on
          politics and gender, is used to the barrage.  In
          the past, the web was a safe space for women -- or
          at least safer than the unpoliced, unpredictable
          wildness of India's streets.  These days, though,
          nowhere is protected: some Indian men are
          determined to use the web to target women whose
          opinions they hate or fear.  And, just like street
          hoodlums, they employ a mob mentality, work in
          packs, and deploy sexual language to terrorize and
          humiliate women.

It's clear from their online behavior that these men are
largely privileged Hindus, many of whom live outside India
and enjoy well-paying jobs. Prominent political journalist
Sagarika Ghose, who has 361,000 followers on Twitter, calls
them "communal techies." She also coined the now-ubiquitous
term "Internet Hindu" in a reference to their infatuation
with the Hindu right wing nationalist ideology of the
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won an overwhelming
majority in the general elections that were held in April.
The Hindu far right is famously patriarchal, and blind to the
humanity and individuality of women.

In addition to harassing women simply because they are women
with opinions that differ to their own, some of these men
have also imported India's fault lines of caste and
communalism onto social media. They attack women who belong
to marginalized communities, tarnishing the modern world with
their hateful old prejudices.

Prominent women on Twitter whose names or work reveal their
caste inspire the sort of venom that confirms what is widely
known as a result of well-documented cases -- that some upper
caste men consider lower caste women fair game for
everything, including rape.

Take poet and novelist Meena Kandasamy. She writes about
sexuality with a rare frankness, has over 25,000 followers on
Twitter, and is a regular target of abuse. Speaking to me
from Chennai, she said that the particular vulgarity of the
tweets she is subjected to is influenced by the fact that she
belongs to a low caste.

"They want to frighten me off Twitter," she told me. "They
want me in a subjugated role."

          The fact that a low caste woman could be seen as
          successful, not just by the standards of her
          community, but by the intellectual mainstream, is
          galling to caste-obsessed right-wing Hindu men.

Their obsession has also led them to target women who belong
to minority religions. Sabbah Haji runs a public school in
the northern state of Jammu & Kashmir, and has over 18,000
followers on Twitter. Like Kandasamy, she expresses her
politically liberal views without a filter. She is a Muslim,
and can't count the number of times she has been called a
jihadi, she told me on the phone from Doda district. She is
asked whether her Muslim "terrorist" "brothers" are enjoying
their virgins in heaven.

          Like those who hound Roy and Kandasamy, Haji's
          attackers seem to feel empowered because they know
          that women on Twitter -- just like women on the
          streets of India -- are unlikely to fight back.
          Through experience, they've learned that responding
          brings pleasure to the attackers who, above all,
          crave attention and affirmation.  They are also
          unconvinced that their complaints, like a woman's
          calls for help on the street, will draw support.
          They suspect that it's just as likely that they
          will induce judgment, mockery, or even further

Indian Twitter wasn't always such an inhospitable place for
women. Roy recalls that when she joined it was a space that
was conducive to a range of opinions, generally expressed in
a civil manner.

It was still a masculine domain, where opinionated women
would often hear phrases like "who asked you?" "shut up!" and
"tum nahi samjhogi" ("you won’t understand").  Women who had
grown up being shushed and shooed away from participating in
critical decisions at home and work; who had been made to
feel, even by those closest to them, that their opinions did
not matter, immediately recognized -- and flinched from --
the entrenched patriarchy behind such tweets.  But they
didn't fear for their safety, as many do now.

          Things changed in the run-up to this year's general
          elections.  The online cell of the BJP galvanized
          thousands of volunteers in India and abroad to
          flood Twitter and Facebook with right-wing
          rhetoric.  These volunteers sought out tweets,
          hashtags, and even the handles of prominent liberal
          intellectuals and responded to expressions of
          mistrust in the BJP, or disagreement with the views
          of its leader Narendra Modi -- and not in ones or
          twos, but in the hundreds.  Their responses --
          "Bitch," "Bimbo," "Hate monger" -- were uniformly crude.

If the handle belonged to a person who was clearly a
religious minority, the tweets were also bigoted. If the
handle was a woman's, the tweets were loaded with threats
that conjured images of women being sexually assaulted during
India's infamous and not infrequent riots.

Every time writer Natasha Badhwar, who has 20,000 followers
and publishes a fortnightly newspaper column on the seemingly
"safe" subject of family and relationships, mentioned her
Muslim husband, she was deluged with abuse.  "The tweets,"
she told me over email, were terrifyingly graphic.  "They
threatened to rape, kill and dump the bodies of my
daughters," she said.  All three of them are under the age of ten.

The threat of rape as part of the spoils of political victory
is familiar to Sagarika Ghose, despite the fact that she has
a TV show and a newspaper column where she can publicly call
out abusers if she chooses to. "I regularly receive rape
threats," she told me. "I'm regularly called a whore and a
slut who sleeps with 'Congi' (Congress) politicians and every
day my timeline is filled with abuses like 'ass licker,'
'slave,' and 'Congress sepoy' [foot soldier]."

Ghose shrugs off the abuse. "They're playing out some
perverse patriarchal fantasies of dominating strong women."

          Though right-wing Hindu men seem to be the majority
          of abusers on Twitter, just as they are the
          majority of people on the ground in India, their
          tweets suggest a profound sense of victimization.
          They portray themselves as a sort of endangered
          species whose survival depends on extinguishing, if
          only verbally, the people who are different from them.

Their vicious othering of women, and minorities, threatens to
reduce Indian Twitter to mud-wrestling, where the winner is
simply the person with the most time and the least self-respect.

          Not all women have suffered the onslaught.
          Right-wing women are protected from the abuse,
          earning relative freedom by prodding liberal women
          -- even those who don't follow them or even know
          who they are -- in growling packs, attacking them
          like some children strike animals with sticks and
          stones.  Supporters of other political parties or
          ideologies are hardly without fault -- but they
          have neither the numbers nor, it seems, the
          pathological compulsion to mob those who disagree
          with them.

"Do they ever experience joy," Roy asked me. "Can you
experience joy when your entire life is ideology?"

And since Mr Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister in May,
things have not got any better.

The new array of startlingly similar tweets are a mirror to
the simmering culture wars that have reignited since it
became clear that the BJP, which has a tradition of stifling
critical thought, was likely to come to power.  Words like
secular, tolerant, liberal, and intellectual -- which most
modern, forward-thinking societies consider badges of praise
-- have been reduced to mere slurs in the already slur-filled
lexicon of India's online Hindu right.

And again, women are bearing the brunt.

"A hatred and envy of achievement has manifested itself in a
move to strip successful liberals of their presumed
privileges," Roy explained to me over Skype. "It's
all-virtual," she said, "But you can't help feeling that the
violence will tip over into real life."

It's not an exaggerated fear. Recent events in India have
shown that women who are perceived as modern, or successful
-- at both ends of the social spectrum -- inspire anger in
men who have failed to keep up.

Take the example of a young woman who was gang raped by
thirteen men on the orders of a village headman in West
Bengal earlier this year. After the attack, it was revealed
that she had been the subject of much bitterness for having
migrated in search of a job, and then for returning with
envy-inducing items such as a small TV and a tinny music system.

"For the (all-male) elders," said one villager, "These were a
source of anguish."

The gang rape, said another, was a "punishment" for her “way
of life.”

SOURCE: https://medium.com/matter/no-safe-places-d59af0c3ba58
Sonia Faleiro is the author of *Beautiful Thing: Inside the
Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars* and a co-founder of the
journalists co-operative, http://www.decastories.com/

Reply via email to