Are online spaces safe for women?

[हिन्दी] In today’s world many human interactions are taking place in the online spaces. As the internet and mobile technologies, as well as social media spaces, become more and more accessible, this is where many of our real life activities take place. Many of us find virtual spaces safe and convenient to share opinions, exchange ideas, increase our knowledge, and find entertainment, without even stepping out of our homes.

Alas! Patriarchy is spreading its tentacles in this are too, and with every passing day these spaces are getting more and more dangerous and unsafe for many- especially for women and girls and other marginalised communities.

From posting abusive and obscene messages and /or pornographic videos and sexually explicit photos of females with the intent of blackmail, to unauthorised use and manipulation of personal information, including fake images and videos, issuing life threats and trolling, stalking women who do not tow the line or dare to question the patriarchal subjugation of women, technology driven online violence against women and girls has taken myriad forms.

Online violence can be defined as “any act of gender-based violence against women that is committed, assisted or aggravated in part or fully by the use of ICT, such as mobile phones and smartphones, the internet, social media platforms or email, against a woman because she is a woman, or affects women disproportionately."

One must not forget that online public sphere is as real and impactful as its offline counterpart and the impact of online gender based violence (OGBV) is increasingly spilling over into offline spaces, sometimes with severe consequences. Correlations between in-person abuse and OGBV have been documented through multiple studies. In a recent global survey by UNESCO on online violence against women journalists 73% of the participants said they had experienced online violence and 20% said they had been attacked offline in connection with online violence targeting them. The top perpetrators included anonymous people (57%), government officials (14%), and colleagues (14%), and political parties (10%).

A research study released by UN Women’s Regional Office for Asia-Pacific on ‘understanding opposition to gender equality and feminism in the virtual space’, reveals that various men’s groups are launching online attacks against feminism and women’s rights activists on social media platforms. The study specifically captured anti-feminist and anti-gender equality content on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube platforms that are used to oppose gender equality and women’s rights in India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.

False narratives of online manosphere

The analysis found that these groups of men, commonly called the online “manosphere”, use a range of narratives and tactics that attack feminism and promote men’s issues and belittle women’s rights activists. The narratives spread by them portray men as victims of gender equality and justify misogyny under the pretext of religion, culture and political ideologies.

Dominant narratives used by manosphere groups in these countries justify patriarchy and violence and hostility against women. They propagate victim blaming, jokes about rape, justification of attacks against feminists, and rally behind political leaders who approve of sexism and violence. They share excerpts of religious texts and sermons from religious leaders to show how gender equality has led women astray and tarnished traditional institutions such as marriage, family and motherhood.

Examples from India

India is one of the world’s biggest internet-enabled nation, that is estimated to have an active internet user base of 900 million by 2025. 519 million Indians currently use social media. The country also boasts of the highest number of FaceBook users globally at 280 million users. There has been an increased interest in topics such as “feminazi”, and “why men are better than women”. Their content often uses slang in local languages, terms such as "fake feminists", viral celebrity names and hashtags to attract followers.

More than half of the posts in India’s manosphere claim that men have fallen victim to gender equality. Some of these groups propagate gender-unequal ideas of what constitutes a “good woman" according to dominant religious beliefs and ideals. A Facebook page by the Save Indian Family Foundation aims to fight gender-friendly laws. For example, one shared meme discredits women who try to access their rights through the law. Catchphrases of the meme ask women the following two questions: Do you earn more money than your husband? Do you hide this fact in court? The meme concludes with this message to men: “We should learn how to do melodrama in court from them.”

This narrative not only wrongly portrays women as false victims who use melodramatic pleas to gain sympathy, but also discredits and belittles the judicial process.

In Bangladesh and Philippines too activists in the manosphere are growing in number. Topics such as “men’s rights activists”, “women belong to the kitchen”, and “‘feminism destroys society” are becoming increasingly common and women celebrities and journalists are denigrated. These posts are mired in misogyny, sexism, and hatred towards women.

The way forward

Despite the rise in OGBV, and its devastating effects it is often trivialised due to authorities taking poor punitive action- more so as there are no visible scars of the intense mental and emotional trauma associated with OGBV, that goes unnoticed, leaving indelible marks on the women’s psyche. In the UNSECO study 26% of the participating women journalists identified severe mental health impacts, while 4% had quit their jobs as a result of online violence. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of this gigantic problem.

There is an urgent need to understand this online opposition to gender equality and to develop strategies to prevent the violence it produces. One recent Indian study points out that ‘the existing patchwork of laws in the country is inadequate to sufficiently address the complexities of the lived realities of violence in the digital sphere’. The study authors say that “in order to make online spaces safe for women, governments must review and update legislation and policies to fully protect people from OGBV”.

This observation is pertinent for other countries too. We have to engage with regressive social norms that still persist in judicial systems of many countries. There is an urgent need to: Bring about legal change internationally and nationally to make online spaces safer for women, including through criminalizing online misogyny and violence; Train and equip police and law enforcement agencies to handle complaints about online harassment effectively; Make response services survivor-centred.

Private sector companies and online platforms need to identify, prevent, and remove online threats, harmful content, and abuse directed at women and other marginalised genders.

This year, the United Nations marks 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign under the theme ‘UNiTE! Invest To Prevent Violence against Women & Girls’. By using #NoExcuse as a slogan and hashtag, the campaign calls for financing different prevention strategies and transforming social norms to end violence against women and girls.

Aligned with this global campaign, UN Women Türkiye’s #NoExcuse campaign underlines the importance of protective legal frameworks and calls for the effective implementation of laws to prevent all forms of violence against women, including online gender based violence.

(Citizen News Service)
8 December 2023
(Shobha Shukla is the award-winning founding Managing Editor and Executive Director of CNS (Citizen News Service) and is a feminist, health and development justice advocate. She is a former senior Physics faculty of prestigious Loreto Convent College and current Coordinator of Asia Pacific Regional Media Alliance for Health and Development (APCAT Media) and Global AMR Media Alliance (GAMA). Follow her on Twitter @shobha1shukla or read her writings here

Daily Good Morning Kashmir, India (full newspaper page, 9 December 2023)

The Sangai Express, India (op-ed page, 11 December 2023)

Central Chronicle, India (op-ed page, 14 December 2023)

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