The internet is not a gender-neutral space. Women from patriarchal backgrounds especially need to be empowered to negotiate the sexism and misogyny they encounter online
The internet is a virtually-lived reality which is here to stay. We owe a lot of our interactions, connectedness and networking with the world to the internet, especially in the 21st century. The internet has become indispensable to several sections of our society—not just the rich and elite but also the lower- and middle-income groups. The democratisation of the internet is largely due to mobile phones which provide internet for as little as Re 1.
The diversity of access to the world wide web prompts the assumption that the internet is a class-less and, more importantly, a gender-less medium. But we exist in a society where patriarchy and class domination rules over equality and justice. Therefore, class and gender underlie the development of the new internet world as well.
This is especially true for women and girls in patriarchal households. Men have control not only over women’s bodies, sexuality and decisions but even the artefacts (like technology) they engage with. In this male-dominated society men have an intrinsic relationship with technology. Technology is considered masculine. Women are perceived to be irrational and driven by emotion whereas men are perceived as practical and driven by logic. They work with machines through intelligence and knowledge that women are thought to be devoid of (Johnson 2010). This gender divide has limited women in accessing, using and creating technology and one of its biggest achievements – the internet.
Thus, technology and the internet are neither gender- nor value-neutral. It has emerged from a social context which is patriarchal and owes its allegiance to one specific gender.
Feminists have been trying to change the power relations in society to make it equitable and just for all. Similarly, feminists have started to see technology as a harbinger of change. Feminists have started to view the internet as a space where women have voices to combat sexism, misogyny, harassment, (cyber)bullying and other forms of exploitation and oppression experienced in their everyday lives. In this context some feminists have argued that, “the internet itself has enabled a shift from ‘third-wave’[i] to ‘fourth-wave’ feminism. What is certain is that the internet has created a ‘call-out’ culture, in which sexism or misogyny can be ‘called out’ and challenged. This culture is indicative of the continuing influence of the third wave, with its focus on micropolitics and challenging sexism and misogyny insofar as they appear in everyday rhetoric, advertising, film, television and literature, the media, and so on (Munro 2013).” While it has been a liberating space for women, there has been a constant backlash against women on the internet who are speaking up. Therefore, the internet as a space is liberating but lacks in the principle of freedom for all. It provides visibility but at the same time inflicts cyber sexism.
Women therefore have an ambivalent relationship with the internet: it is viewed with a sense of freedom and fear. Which emotion dominates one’s presence on the internet is specific to one’s social and economic background and socialisation. This ambivalence surfaced very overtly when I observed myself and my agency on the internet as compared to the young women I spoke to who have recently started to explore the space of the world wide web.
I belonged to a middle class family and my encounter with a computer happened at age 8, whereas the four girls I spoke to belonged to the underprivileged class and their first interaction with computers was at age 18, when they joined the organisation, Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT)[ii], to learn computers and the internet. The 10-year gap in accessing the same technology surfaces a confidence gap, which is not easy to bridge. FAT has been attempting to bridge this confidence gap by not only providing the girls with skill sets in computers and the internet but also training them at workshops on women’s-rights, feminism, sexuality and self-love. While these attempts have yielded some great and unimaginable success stories the ambivalence of the girls towards the internet continues to grow.
Diksha’s[iii] introduction to computers was at FAT’s tech centre [iv] at the age of 18. She initially wanted to learn computers to improve her prospects of employment. But at the centre, her ambitions took a new turn. She was drawn to photography and filmmaking. She started using the internet in pursuit of photographers she could connect with. She initiated her online journey by using Google for information on various filmmakers, photographers and organisations that could help her in pursuing her passion. She found Google safe but was scared of exploring any other space. When she was asked to open her email or social networking account, she refused. This was because she was scared that she might “do something wrong” and attract unwanted attention. She resisted, but peer pressure made her open two accounts -- one on Facebook and the other on Gmail. She restricted her interactions and didn’t upload her picture on Facebook. She feared her picture would be morphed and seen on pornographic sites. With some directions and constant reminders about privacy settings on Facebook and Gmail, she started to upload pictures. She created her own photography page. Initially, she was scared of being criticised, but now she feels confident and wants people in the virtual world to see her work (and as the Facebook lingo goes -- like it, share it and boost it). She has received positive responses for her photography page but on her personal page her fears continue.
She was harassed by a man who stalked her on Facebook and edited her photo in ways he deemed appropriate. He sent Diksha the edited picture back and asked if she liked it. When Diksha tried ignoring it the pressure from the stalker increased and he started threatening her. She approached Asha, the tech centre in-charge, who advised her to block the stalker. She was perplexed on knowing that the option of blocking people also existed. This is only one of the many incidents that Diksha shared but there are numerous messages in her inbox which entrench her fear of embracing the so-called ‘free space’, because her freedom comes at the cost of possible harassment, even though her newfound confidence has helped her deal with it to a great extent.
Arpita has also been grappling with sexual harassment online for a while now. Her most bitter memory is of a man sending her an obscene picture and demanding sex with her. Scared and harassed, Arpita decided to speak to the man rather than simply blocking him. She wrote back to him, challenging his notions of women, sex and masculinity. She informed him how his notion of masculinity was a gift of patriarchy. Her logical questioning and the attempt to engage in dialogue infuriated the man. He never contacted Arpita again. This was her experience immediately after joining Facebook. She joined Facebook because she was teased by friends about not being able to use the internet and Facebook. But today when she accesses the internet she feel empowered because the information that she acquired from YouTube and Google has enabled her to help others, especially the young girls who come to her with many questions.
In both these narratives, the fear of exploring the internet pre-existed, but the changing 'modern' times forced both women to join networks of communication that also entailed misogyny and sexism. But both have confidently moved on and now speak on the use of technology and how the internet provides them with opportunities and knowledge which they earlier wouldn’t have been able to access. As many believe and say, “Google has been a great teacher for them” but the costs of knowledge and communication need to be examined and challenged (and ironically the best platform to challenge this sexism might be the internet itself).
The constant negotiation required in engaging with the internet appears to be applicable to many women. Shalini, a young girl of 14, experiences this dilemma every day. Google helps her figure out how she can be an engineer or a scientist but it also tells her of rape cases, acid attacks and cases of harassment and murder because of online dating. “What if someone on Facebook reads my intentions incorrectly," she asks. "I don’t know at what point actions taken in a virtual world lead to consequences in the real world.” Even though she has her own account, she isn’t interested in accessing it. Unlike many feminists who are somewhat over-enthusiastic about the internet, she doesn’t want her presence to be marked on the Net.
These anecdotes speak of harassment that is online, but there is a different kind of harassment and violence that the girls face at home. Reema informed that her brother doesn’t approve of her being on Facebook and talking to men. He constantly monitors her to see if she has opened an account. To avoid constant arguments, threats and violence she opened an account under a different name. For many days, she didn’t upload a picture of herself but now that she has started to, she is very cautious about the privacy settings. She states: “I constantly check my privacy settings. I wonder how much attention boys pay to locking their pictures.”
Every experience shared here speaks of how the internet is not only a virtual and faraway space but embedded in societal and cultural constructions of gender and gender norms to such an extent that patriarchy is as ubiquitous online as it is offline. Its freedoms need to be celebrated, but the fears also need to recognised and their causes challenged. Feminists on the internet and cyber feminists need to think about sections of society that they are pushing to participate in modern technologies without informing them of the risks and dangers that exist. Unless they address this concern, many women from patriarchal backgrounds will once again be pushed into the margins of this new technological space where hierarchies will continue to exist.
Today all the four girls have become extremely cautious about their privacy. They are ready to negotiate and speak their minds, but they wonder at the hypocrisy that exists in this virtual space for women and men. Nevertheless, they have embraced the freedom and have used the internet in a way that has helped them grow and become young feminists (as they call themselves today). Our ambivalences will never cease, but yes, our freedoms can be made stronger if we all move together to make the space of the internet a women-friendly space.
Shivani Gupta is programme associate, Feminist Approach to Technology
[i] The history of feminism has concurred that there have been three waves of feminism. The first wave was to provide women with suffrage rights. The second wave spoke of women’s sexuality and oppression through the tagline, 'personal is political'. The third wave has been contesting binary notions of gender and sex and speaks of queer theory.
[ii] FAT envisions a world where the use and creation of technology is gender-neutral. This is a world where all women have equal opportunities to learn, use and create technology, irrespective of their academic background, economic status or geographical location; an environment where women are not intimidated by new technologies but rather have an open mind to experimenting with and benefiting from them.
[iii] Names have been changed to protect the identity of the people.
[iv] FAT’s tech centre is a safe and friendly space for young girls where they learn computers, internet, photography and filmmaking.
Johnson, Deborah G. 'Sorting Out the Question of Feminist Technology'. In Feminist Technology, by Linda Layne, Sharra Vostral and Kate Boyer. University of Illinois, 2010.
Munro, Ealasaid. Feminism: A Fourth Wave. Glasgow, 2013.
www.netpehchaan.in, June 2014