When a woman argues, male opponents invariably question her morals, not her logic. Udhav Naig finds out why

Recent high-profile victims of online abuse and threats include British MP Stella Creasy, feminist writer-campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman, and Time magazine’s Catherine Mayer. When Caroline Criado-Perez, who campaigned for Jane Austen’s face on the £10 note in the UK, was subjected to abuse, rape and death threats on Twitter, several commentators blamed the phenomenon on the shortcomings of social media.

While it is undeniable that making a vile threat through a keyboard is much easier, the core problem is more serious. Underlying the trolling is the essential denial of space for a woman to exist as a political being. Poet-activist Meena Kandasamy, who has weathered many a rape threat for criticising Hinduism and voicing unpopular opinions on the Kashmir issue, says that women who speak up disrupt the political space, which has traditionally been a male preserve. “A woman is always seen as a sexual being and never as a political being. When she starts questioning norms and cultures, the snap reaction from men is usually: ‘Who are you to talk politics? Go back to the kitchen’”.

Online abuse is being seen as something different and contained within the virtual world, but think of what happened to Pakistan’s Malala Yousufzai, Russia’s all-female punk band Pussy Riot, or Bangladesh’s Taslima Nasreen in the real world. What is common, point out women activists, is that their voices are being discredited not after a sharp analysis of their political positions, but through systematically orchestrated slander campaigns, character assassinations, and rape threats. Tamil journalist Kavin Malar speaks of her experience when she wrote about the Vanniyar-Dalit violence in Marakkanam, just outside Chennai. “It escalated to an obscene level. A number of rumours about my personal life were floated just to silence me,” she says.

When it comes to silencing women, men close ranks across ideologies. Women on the Right side of the political spectrum don’t escape sexist remarks any more than those from the Left. When former Conservative British PM Margaret Thatcher died, her critics held up placards that read ‘Ding Dong, the Witch is dead’. “I have heard so-called secular and progressive men comment, after watching a video in which I read poetry at the Jaipur Lit fest, that ‘I look like a prostitute who reads poetry’. How do you explain that?” asks Kandasamy. One common response is that women should expect violent, no-holds-barred rivals in the world of politics. The point to note is that the opposition descends to questioning the woman’s character, not her credentials; descends to threats of rape and murder. Many people also say that all comments, however obnoxious, have to be tolerated in the spirit of free speech.

More to the point, though, is how the social sphere, whether online or offline, can be reorganised in such a way that women can express political or religious opinions without being subject to the kind of vicious attack that men seldom suffer. Increasingly, the online medium is talking of ‘progressive censorship’ — drawing the lines of pubic debate. Several ‘inclusive’ religious groups (across the spectrum) operating on social media are increasingly adopting a robust set of rules that seeks to outlaw sexism, homophobia, racism, casteism and other bigoted ideologies from their forums. This might sit uneasily with the free-speech proponents, but it will prevent hate camouflaged as ideas from shaping public opinion. This approach, claim those participating in such online forums, has increased the participation of women and, indeed, other marginalised groups.

Why should this be a cornerstone for community building? Says Geetha TG, Chennai-based co-ordinator of Nirmukta, an online group dedicated to rational thinking and secular values, “We have found that being uncompromising on humanistic values and striving for inclusivity has made our Facebook groups and personal meet-ups a ‘safe space’. How else do you expect someone from a marginalised group, say, a Dalit, to speak up in a forum where members unabashedly flaunt caste privileges?”

None of this means that women’s political views should be exempt from criticism or bestowed with some sort of immunity. Rather, it is to ask that detractors try to focus on the content of the argument rather than the gender of the speaker.