A lot of scholars and researchers have attempted to unfold and redefine the relationship between women and online space over the last few years.
Despite numerous cases of online harassment and bullying, many contest that online space has provided women with a non-judgemental and democratic environment. However, I believe the dynamics and politics of this relationship are changing adversely and they are under a new threat now.
For instance, a month ago, Gurmehar Kaur's 20-year 'long' life came under microscopic scrutiny overnight for her ostensibly controversial statement on war and Pakistan that was given on the disputable 'free and liberal' platform of Facebook. An online 'lynch mob', known as 'trolls' appeared on various online platforms, threatening to rape and kill Gurmehar in order to teach her a lesson for speaking against the nation.
Why Can’t We Have a Healthy Platform for Women on Social Media?
It not only reminded me of every comment and threat I had received on my profile after I said ‘Happy to Bleed’ in 2015, but of the stories I had heard from my family about partition; about how muscular nationalism was written on the bodies of women, how rape was employed as a tool to silence women, and how women became the embodiments of victories and losses on both sides, India and Pakistan.
It did not take much time to realise how little has changed since then, but it definitely begged the question as to what role social media has played in society's hegemonic understanding about women.
An easy and apparent response to this question is that online space does not operate within the binaries of conventional media. It allows room for a democratic discussion. But, lately, this has also been challenged by incidents where Facebook has taken down people's accounts, pictures, and posts on the basis that they do not match its notorious 'community standards'. Recently, a friend's Facebook post was taken down because he posted a picture of Hitler with a tilak on his forehead, a sarcastic comment against present government.
On the other hand, I have myself seen hundreds of 'unblocked' pages and communities on Facebook that promote extreme bigotry, casteism, racism, sexism, and transphobia. The question then remains that if people's posts that question the government or society in general could be taken down by social media platforms, why could equal importance not be given to instituting procedures that could help ensure a healthy experience of social media for women?
Experiment: Man Subjected to Racism, Woman Subjected to Sexism
Now, I am not saying that social media is essentially biased, because in many cases, it has given women and other marginalised communities platforms to express their opinions and share their experiences.
However, I do believe that the democracy of these platforms is becoming vulnerable with each passing day.
However, one can also trace the anger and violence displayed on social media to people's lived realities – that is, what they do and think in their very real lives.
For instance, a recent experiment done by a wife and husband on Twitter is quite interesting in this context. Both of them had published two articles on similar issues while working for The Washington Post, but the responses they received were shockingly different. The man’s inbox was crowded with racist comments, whereas the woman’s inbox was filled with sexist and degrading names. Both these attitudes stem from our perceptions and biases about people, our beliefs about who should be hated and how much in our material lives.
The online world starts becoming an advanced platform for destroying individual lives and privacies.
This is what happened with renowned journalist Rana Ayyub, whose doctored 'naked' images were shared in response to her book on the 2002 Gujarat riots. Then, social media starts to become another tool of maintaining and reproducing all the inequalities against which the very model of democracy is built. It begins to become a threat to democracy itself, if left unquestioned.
(Nikita Azad, 21, is studying to be a Bachelor of English Honours at Government College Girls, Patiala. She is also the founder of the campaign, Happy to Bleed.)