Internet use in India has the widest gender gap in the Asia-Pacific region. Data shows that women are far less likely to use the internet than men (with less than 35 per cent of Indian women having ever used it), and that they are also less likely to own a mobile phone than men. This digital gender gap means that women and girls are actively deprived of educational and employment opportunities – and this in a country that has seen declining female labour force participation rates, made worse during and after the pandemic.
The growing gender divide in digital participation comes not only from a lack of access but also as a result of women and girls being actively pushed out of participation in digital spaces by worsening cyber violence, an issue further inflamed by Covid-19.
In this blog, we share just some of these attacks made against women and girls online in India, and suggest ways that India can change this to #EmbraceEquity.
Islamophobic hate getting worse in the country
Women from minority groups are disproportionately affected by worsening cyber violence, owing to, among other reasons, little-to-no sociolegal remedies. Islamophobic hate on online spaces erupted during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic (which led to the closure of the sites of protest against the CAA-NRC in India) in 2020, with Muslim women often being seen as easy targets online by perpetrators. Research in early 2022 reported on the Islamophobic and gender-based backlash faced by Muslim women in the wake of the CAA-NRC protests, and how this spread rapidly through social media platforms such as Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. This was done in the form of cyberstalking, bullying, harassing, spreading offensive hashtags, memes and trolling, doxing, morphing of photographs, and death and rape threats, among others.
A report by Umar Butler in 2022 analysed over 3.7 million Islamophobic posts made globally on Twitter between 2019 and 2021 and found that much of this gender-based Islamophobia was directed at prominent Muslim women in the public sphere. Indian journalists Rana Ayyub and Arfa Khanum Sherwani were the second and fourth most mentioned Twitter users, respectively. The report concluded that ‘Twitter is critically failing to protect Muslim public figures from religiously motivated harassment’.
Islamophobia and Misogyny in custom-built digital space
One of the most noteworthy cases of online gender-based violence against Muslim women in India –as well as Pakistan – took place in 2021 and 2022 in a series of three events. In May 2021, a YouTube channel live-streamed a video where the YouTuber named ‘Liberal Doge’ ‘rated’ Pakistani women. Analysts found that the same group of people, all Indians, were behind the July 2021 Sulli Deals app. The term ‘Sulli’ is an offensive term referring to Muslim women. This was a GitHub-hosted app that allowed men to ‘bid’ on the profiles of Muslim women, all of whom were active members of public life and well-known women in their respective fields.
While the platform could not actually ‘auction’ off people, it is widely agreed that the main function was to harass and humiliate the women who were featured and whose photographs and public information was leaked. GitHub suspended the app in January 2022, but another app emerged called ‘Bulli Bai’ (Bulli is another offensive term used for Muslim women), which contained photographs of prominent women in their 60s and 70s.
Closing digital spaces is silencing women
While both apps were eventually taken down and arrests made, the impacts of this targeted harassment have had potentially longstanding effects on Muslim women and girls. Hasina Khan, founder of Bebaak Collective – an association for the rights of religious minority women and part of Countering Backlash – spoke about what online backlash means for Muslim women and girls across India. Based on Bebaak Collective’s internal findings, social media had become an important platform for Indian Muslim women to perform their identities and have their opinions heard, something many of them cannot do in offline spaces. Khan believes that these apps were created specifically as a misogynistic attempt to silence prominent Muslim women.
Unfortunately, she adds, they somewhat succeeded. Many of the women featured feared for their lives and either censored themselves on social media or removed themselves entirely. Many were coerced by their families to do so. For those women who were not yet targeted, the fear of being targeted in the future led to more self-surveillance. Certain extremist groups identifying as Muslim also used this opportunity to further censure Muslim women in public spaces.
What social media access means for women
The closing of digital spaces can have dire effects on the ability of minority communities to participate in civil society. Social media, often known as ‘an equaliser’ due to its ability to reach a large number of users, may have quite the opposite effect for the same reason by giving predators greater access to different communities.
Yet, social media has the potential for countering gender backlash in ways that complement offline strategies. During the CAA-NRC protests, social media became a key tool for supporting offline movement-building, perhaps why internet shutdowns were one of the first forms of retaliation against protesting groups at the time. Even after the first Covid-19 lockdown forced people to stop organising in the streets, the internet continued to provide a platform for protest activities. For instance, protest art moved from murals and posters to digital art. An example is Akshat Nauriyal, a new media artist who experiments with augmented reality, who created an Instagram filter which reads ‘I reject CAA, NRC, NPR’. Between December 2019 to February 2020, the filter had over 150,000 impressions.
Credit: Filter created by Akshat Nauriyal. Shared with permission from Nauriyal’s Instagram handle.
India must look at closing the digital gender divide, while considering carefully how minority communities can be represented and included in digital spaces in a way that is safe and free from online abuse.
Borrowing from the strategies devised by the Associations for Progressive Communications’ (APC) ‘that contribute towards ending violence against women through building women’s leadership and ensuring women’s rights and safety online’, we suggest five ways that India can embrace equity:
- We must gather evidence of tech-related violence against women. This can be via screenshots and reporting on social media, tagging cybercrime units’ handles, or filing a police report.
- The lack of women’s representation in Indian policy-making is leading to gender-related issues being overlooked, especially about cyber violence. We need to build women’s leadership to engage with national policymakers judiciary, and other key actors. With them, we can identify remedies that may be available in current laws and develop new policies that seek to protect women’s rights, safety and security.
- Current policies remain under-representative of women’s needs, and existing spaces need to be occupied by women from different backgrounds. It is necessary to build women’s ability to influence digital businesses such as social networking platforms, web hosting companies and mobile phone operators, to develop corporate user policies and practices that respect women’s rights.
- Awareness regarding the potential violence that women and girls may face online remains low and should be a focus but in a way that does not discourage them from accessing these spaces. There must be constant campaigning to create an online environment and culture that affirms everyone’s right to safety and security.
- Empowering civil society can ensure that no harmful behaviour is tolerated in any space, including the online space. It is also crucial to strengthen the institutional capacity and to change the practice of women’s rights organisations to become leaders in addressing technology-related violence against women.
In a rapidly digitising world, safe accessibility must be ensured to all sections of the population to be able to participate in digital public life. As UN Women put it, ‘the need for inclusive and transformative technology and digital education is therefore crucial for a sustainable future.’