Women in public life are vulnerable not just to criticism about their views but also to personal abuse.

The face and voice of Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, became familiar to viewers across India and around the world when she spoke clearly and fearlessly after the December 16, 2012, gang rape incident in Delhi. She minced no words about what this meant for Indian women and what it revealed about the state of governance.

In this time of social media and the Internet, voices such as Kavita’s are amplified. Even if the mainstream media had ignored her, she would have been heard. Today, thanks to this kind of exposure, Kavita has been recognised by many mainstream television channels as an articulate and passionate advocate for women’s rights.

Yet, such exposure through media has its down side. When you become a public persona, you lay yourself open to criticism that is often trenchant. But women are vulnerable not just to criticism about their views but to personal abuse of the kind that Kavita faced recently when she agreed to a live online chat on issues around women and violence on a well-known website. The comments should have been moderated. Instead, Kavita had to face remarks like: “Kavita, tell me where I should come and rape you using a condom” by someone called RAPIST. The comments were also in capital letters. Kavita is not the only woman who has had to face equally vile, offensive, explicit and violent comments in cyberspace.

So on the one hand, the Internet has opened the way for many more people to be heard, people who might not have found much space in mainstream media. Even women who are not political see the Internet and social media as a space where they can express themselves, where they can connect with other like-minded people, where supportive communities can be formed. Although there is little reliable data on the extent to which women use the Internet in India, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that a growing number of women are using social media. Yet, many realise that what they considered a safe place to “hangout” is actually not that secure because of the men who lurk behind anonymous identities to jointly or individually harass, taunt, threaten and basically bully women into silence.

While one can argue that this kind of violence affects only a small percentage of women — after all Internet access is still very low in this country with hardly 11 per cent penetration — it is symbolic of the larger issues that have been discussed intensely in many fora since December last year. Essentially, the basic issue is women’s right to access “public spaces”, either physical — as in parks, beaches, the street, etc or virtual — as in the Internet and social media.

When women in the public space sense that they will be targeted and attacked, for no other reason than that they are women, many choose to withdraw rather than fight it out. Even if there are laws to protect women’s rights to access these spaces, the majority of women prefer to err on the side of safety than take a chance, especially against the reality of our poorly functioning criminal justice system.

Increasing evidence is now available to show that this is being mirrored in cyberspace where women who have entered with the full faith that they would have the freedom to access this space, are now choosing to pull back rather than fight for their right. As in sexual harassment or sexual assaults, most incidents go unreported when it comes to sexist abuse or stalking in cyberspace. Women will not complain even to their friends or parents. Recent studies have revealed that the majority withdraw, close accounts on social networking sites, change email addresses and try and be invisible.

Is there a way out? Clearly, the solution is not to withdraw. As with so many other battles women have had to fight, this too will be one with which women need to engage. Some younger women are doing just that. But just as individual women cannot fight battles that have to do with societal mindsets, in this arena too the fight must be one that is collective. The Internet Democracy Project mentions one such collective with the Twitter handle #MisogynyAlert. Anyone facing harassment on the Internet can send a message to this address. Also, following Kavita Krishnan’s example, we need to “out” the abusers, compel the sites that allow such abuse to happen to do something to curb it, and figure out if there is anything that can be done with existing laws so that a legal precedent is set for others to use in the future.

The harassment and abuse in cyberspace ultimately reminds us that even as we advance technologically, even as more women and men are educated, even as more information is available through a variety of media, some things do not change. There will always be men who want to confine women to specific roles and will want to punish those women who transgress. Speaking out as a free individual, expressing strong views and even being young and carefree do not conform to the frame that patriarchy has designed for women in India.

E-mail: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com