December 12, 2016

Article at Feminism In India

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Online Abuse And The Misappropriated Tool of “Free Speech”

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Free Speech
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That a “woman’s opinion is the miniskirt of the internet”, is an adage made almost legendary by Laurie Penny. However, miniskirts, or sartorial choices of any kind, are hardly the only things that provoke patriarchal mindsets to lash out in all their toxicity. So, a woman’s opinions are hardly the only reasons that make her the receptor of trolling and abuse online. The aim and design of the online troll is to shame, discipline and silence women whose opinions are contrarian to theirs. However, it is not just a woman’s words, but also her visual self-representation online that is misused, abused and misappropriated into articulations of male desires, fantasies and forms of violence.

And all this, under the convenient garb of “free speech— a lofty tenet of democracy, now reduced to a misappropriated tool used to suffocate that very same democratic spirit of the internet. While it is the need of the hour to engage in nuanced debates on what makes the internet democratic, we must beware of simplistic panegyrics of “free speech” which would excuse oppressive language and behaviours online. More so, because online violence against women has moved on from “speech” into the realm of criminal activity— often just a thin line we must not lose sight of.

The abuse of women in digital spaces, or by using digital means, has taken on various forms. It ranges from verbal abuse such as trolling, body shaming and rape threats to more insidious forms of violence such as doxing, malicious impersonation, non-consensual porn (like revenge porn),creepshots’ and even rape videos. These are all dangerous extensions of what many are quick to paint as “freedom of expression”.

An important component of such abuse is that one would probably not say or do the same things if the person was face to face, as that would unquestioningly be an act of crime. However, online spaces provide abusers the smokescreen of anonymity and impunity, as well as immunity through physical distance which causes moral lines to blur, fuelling the audacity of the abuser.

When a Jessica Valenti or a Shehla Rashid are flooded with rape threats, there is no way of ensuring that these threats remain just that, and not turn into destructive action. There is always the fear of online abuse leading to offline crimes such as stalking, extortion, blackmail. Valenti says of rape threats to her 5-year old daughter, “I am sick of saying over and over how scary this is—because the victim cannot just “calm down” thinking that the online abuse will not be followed up by real violence. Therefore, these problems progress way beyond the ambit of merely speech or expression. The key is to think in terms of consequences as well as contexts. In such cases, it may not be enough to appeal to the “Community Standards” of the social media platform and blocking’ the offender, because several more fake profiles’ of the same individual can mushroom within seconds.

The case of the Icelandic woman, Thorlaug Agustsdottir, proves the dangers inefficacy of social media “community standards”, in this case, Facebook. She thoroughly protested against a violent image of naked, bruised woman chained against something concrete, spotted on a Facebook group named “Men are better than women”. But that resulted in her photo being on that page, photoshopped into being bruised and bloodied, along with several comments containing rape threats and other severe bodily harm. But on reporting it to Facebook along with several other friends, the ghastly image was not found violating Facebook community standards. The social media giants swung into action and eventually apologised only after Thorlaug reached out to the local press.

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As Jillian York argues, there are certainly several problems with privatising censorship, of equipping private companies like Twitter and Facebook with the power to define hate speech’. But that is exactly the point— the process of reporting violence on Facebook through the existing channels, involves a slow process of reporting and a barely transparent method of redressal. Instead of privatising the process, it should now be incumbent upon such companies to democratise their “Community Standards” and implement a nuanced approach towards gender-based violence online. There are thousands of pages on Facebook displaying horrifying examples of sexism, but they evade censure under the garb of controversial humour”.

A piece of misogynistic content might be a site of “controversial humour” for someone, but might appear normalised or even aspirational for others. Amplification of misogynistic, predatory visuals and/or words on aids in normalising subtle forms of violence which are already pervasive. As was seen in a recent commercial advertisement by the garment brand Jack n Jones featuring actor Ranveer Singh. The point is not to say that the actor Ranveer Singh or the garment brand for that matter are harassers, but that as influencers, they are setting unreal standards for those who aren’t conditioned to question it and are endorsing toxic behaviour in more ways than one.

The dictates of free speech do not preclude the rights of another group of people to express with equal freedom. When sexism and misogyny are called out, it is not an attack on free speech, but a critique of the deft misappropriation of a fundamental right by the privileged sections of the internet and society. Calling out misogyny, demanding safe online spaces and clamouring for an egalitarian linguistic framework on the internet is not indicative of feminists’ own brand of extremism, but shows a more informed, self-aware approach towards censuring and censoring language that further victimises those who have traditionally faced institutionalised oppression.

The problem occurs because spaces of expression and speech are rapidly appropriated by those holding social power. This is how the internet has gone from being imagined as a sexless cyborg at the time of its birth to being critiqued as a space that has failed to be feminist, or equal in any which way despite its fascinating potential. This misappropriation of the free speech totem is as menacing as men’s rights activism—a reactionary and stubborn claim to freedom, nay, the power of expression over others.

The question is not about what constitutes abuse or what violates community standards, it is about who occupies the position of power to enjoy freedom of speech and expression online. It is simply about the privileged majority—typically the urban, upper caste, cis-hetero male— unwilling to check their privileges, speech and expression in accordance with the sensitivity and vulnerability of the other’group. It is more about self regulation rather than censorship by State laws or private companies. The only way we can make Internet Democracy’ truly democratic and egalitarian is through a self conscious erasure of majoritarian articulations. Sexism, racism, homophobia and misogyny masquerading as “free speech” has only done irreparable harm by reinforcing toxic, discriminatory majoritarianism, leaving behind several unfortunate marginalisations in its wake. If the free speech that incites minority-ism is left unchecked even on the internet, there will truly be no avenues left for the more vulnerable groups to exist and articulate freely.

Human Rights Activists
Human Rights Activists
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We are all aware of the large reach and popularity of Wikipedia. However, what most people don’t know is that, according to a study conducted in 2011, only 9% of the editors at Wikipedia were women. And the percentage for India is even lower, just 3%.

Wikipedia recognises the systemic gender bias that is created because of factors such as these and thus enables its diverse range of users to edit and create Wiki pages, with reliable and authentic sources.

Feminism in India and Breakthrough India have joined hands for a series of monthly Wikipedia edit-a-thons exploring various facets of gender in India, thus increasing content on women and marginalized communities on Wikipedia as well as training women to create and edit Wikipedia pages and hence increasing the number of women editors.

In October, we held our first Wikipedia Editathon on Indian Women Poets and Authors. And then, in November which is the Pride month in Delhi, we decided to focus on the LGBTQIA+ community, more specifically on LBT women in collaboration with Nazariya, an NGO that works with LBT women, to help us with the research. The topic was Indian Queer Feminists.

This month, on the World Human Rights Day which falls on December 10, we got together with Breakthrough India at their Delhi office to co-host a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon on Human Rights Activists in India. The edit-a-thon was aimed at creating/editing Wikipedia pages of human rights activists in India (both individuals and organisations) who lack representation on the platform currently.

Spend #HumanRightsDay with us and @INBreakthrough at a #Wikipedia editathon! #Delhi tweeples, do join us! RT to spread the word!

— Feminism in India (@FeminismInIndia) December 10, 2016

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On #HumanRightsDay, we're at @INBreakthrough office, for a #Wiki #Editathon on #HumanRightsActivists in India. Are you coming?

— Feminism in India (@FeminismInIndia) December 10, 2016

Accordingly, we created a list of some organisations and individuals working on human rights in India and looked at their representation on Wikipedia. A lot of the names of the list did not have any Wiki pages, while the ones which had were underrepresented.

At our #Delhi office editing #wiki pages of #HumanRights Activists. Wondering what these events are all about? Read-

— Breakthrough India (@INBreakthrough) December 10, 2016

We were a group of 5 participants in total, out of which 1 participated remotely. From discussions about which sources Wikipedia deems acceptable to what are the images that can be used without any special license, we tried to represent the respective organisations and individuals as best as possible. Below is the list of participants and the pages they created/edited.

  1. Amanda: JagLAG
  2. Ishita: Anita Ghai – page deleted.

FII is now on Telegram
feminist friendships
Featured Image Credit: Etsy

In a stuffy room, on a humid afternoon, a gentleman said to me, in what he felt was a philosophical tone ‘Ek aurat hi aurat ki dushman hoti hai’. (A woman is another woman’s worst enemy.)

I flinched as I do when I hear things that seem like they are borrowed from a badly directed Bollywood movie. Then I thought about the numerous occasions on which I had heard the same sentiment expressed in a more sophisticated manner, with a better choice of words.

Women compete with one another, tear each other down, and are insecure, in the family and the workplace. This is a pretty well-known cultural trope. Just like any other trope or false narrative, it ignores the lived experiences of women, in favour of a picture that ‘fits’. It is comforting to those peddling this trope to think that the disadvantages that women enjoy are not because of iniquitous institutions, gender bias, patriarchy (in which both men and women could be participants), and violence (which happens within and outside the home). These disadvantages, they would believe, are because of women, who are bitchy and tear each other down. Enough women don’t rise to positions of power, in certain workplaces, because other women who have made it, don’t let them. This narrative also ignores that women being complicit in patriarchy, or being unsupportive of other women, when it does happen, is often a result of conditioning, and can be overcome to a certain extent by celebrating female/ feminist friendships. (Though the two terms are not interchangeable, for the purposes of this article I will talk on friendships between women feminists). As a matter of fact, the trope of women being toxic competitors is also a part of this conditioning.

This narrative, in real life and popular culture, ignores the female voices, and women’s lived realities, and in short, does not celebrate female friendships enough. On the other hand, every other month the media goes crazy over a new ‘bro-mance’ between male celebrities, ranging from Ben Affleck-Matt Damon to Obama- David Cameron. (A bro-mance, the internet says, is a close non-sexual relationship between two men.) Even when female friendships are celebrated, they can be celebrated in very exclusive and problematic ways.

Also Read: Why No Chuddy Buddies For Women In Bollywood?

But the trope of women tearing each other down, can be fought by talking about the women who have supported you, mentored you, and been your friends. This article, is a step in that direction. It is a portrait of a room full of women whose ideas have made me a stronger and better person.

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The Mentor

The first thought that crossed my mind, when I met her, was that she was a muggle Minerva McGonagall, and that I would be crazy to cross her. I was 17 just then, and new to the world outside a sleepy house in a sleepy town. While I had barely read about feminism and feminist legal theory at the time, the notion that women are people, seemed like a sound common-sense principle to me.

Over the course of the next five years, she not only became a mentor to me, but taught me how to question the status quo (a very inconvenient, though enriching heritage). There are some people who are institutions, being around whom is akin to dusting off the pages of an old Classic. Watching someone who has been a part of the women’s movement for more than 3 decades, is an eerie feeling. They have been a part of a living history, when they speak about the Shah Bano case, the protests after the infamous judgment in the Mathura case, and the various galvanizing moments in the movement’s history. Not a moment passes when I think of the ideological clarity and the courage it must have taken to blaze a trail so deep and abiding.

Good Samaritans in the American mid-west

The cold in my university town in the American mid-west was terrible! I remember trudging through 7 inches of snow, in a particularly hideous pair of boots found on sale. Though decidedly ugly, they got the job done, and nothing will induce me to pay a higher compliment to a pair of boots. However, given I was not designed for -21 degrees C snow, a certain amount of doom and gloom was inevitable. Combine this with the fact that in my excellent university, the pro-life point of view was the dominant one, sometimes I would feel like a fish out of the proverbial philosophical water.

In this strange snowy and ethereal town, I found unprecedented levels of feminist solidarity. An email I received from an Indian professor in the sister university of my university, led to several meetings where we discussed race, religion, and women’s rights. How was it, being a vocal feminist, in an environment where not just abortions, but subsidized contraception was frowned upon.

In a slight contrast, was an American Catholic friend, who spoke about being a feminist by default. The gender roles that were religiously sanctioned, were anathema to her. Yet, we had arguments about the disastrous consequences that would follow, in designing public policy based on her,bona-fide belief that life began at conception.

My friend from Kenya told me about Chimamada, and lent me a copy of Americanah. Here was a writer, her voice not clouded by any hesitation, with sharp and cutting prose, that willed you to hear her. I remember long strolls with my friend where we spoke of identity, race and shows by Shonda Rhimes. Meeting different people, in my small university town, far from my country of birth, I was convinced, more than ever, that there are as many kinds of feminism, as there are feminists.

Friendships and Gender Studies

Back in law school, I remember someone saying of me, critically, “She is too much of a feminist”. Strangely, this was even before I began identifying as a feminist. Based on the idea that one might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, I did make it my mission to be ‘too much of a feminist.’ I was aided in this effort by friends I made in a ‘Women and the Law’ class, about which our professor told us, “this class would have succeeded when we will no longer need a women-and-the-law class.” Women’s concerns were not to me in a separate silo, but would, it was hoped, come into the mainstream of legal thinking one day. From classrooms, this friendship extended to writing together, working together, and eventually to setting up film screenings of feminist movies. About slightly less than a decade ago, a friend handed me ‘The beauty-myth (a book, as criticized as eulogized, that has not lost its relevance today despite its flaws), and I remember I was never the same person after reading it. These friends helped create a questioning, thoughtful and sincere lens with which I could view the world, and continue to be a comfort when the world I view through this lens, turns out to be disappointing.

The internet becomes your oyster

No discussion of feminist friendships is complete without talking about FII. It has allowed women like me a platform on which to discuss our concerns. The experience of being a part of an intersectional feminist platform has taught me to check my own privilege, which often comes from social and economic factors, and to not drown the voices we are supposed to amplify.

For more reasons than one, being a feminist can sometimes be a hard process. Whether it is dealing with gender stereotyping, casual misogyny, street harassment or even dealing with people who bristle at the very idea of male, caste-based or economic privilege. Some days, you feel particularly sad and broken at the thought that the path of progress is slow, and prone to so much slipping back. It is on these days, I imagine these women, all together in a room. That room is bright, airy and safe, and has enough light to power a thousand struggles, in multiple lifetimes.