The Danger Spots on the Cyber Terrain
Before spelling out the emancipatory possibilities of online space, it is important to place on record the obstacles and dangers encountered by Indian women while treading on this terrain. Among the obstacles impeding women from getting into cyberspace, according to Prabha Nagaraja, program director of the Delhi-based TARSHI (Talking about Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues), is the lack of privacy to engage in sensitive issues, because most families share computers.8
Furthermore, since the internet is a socially embedded space, it reflects the values and power structures characteristic of gender relations in India. This is most evident in the question of sexual violence. The alarming proliferation of pornographic materials in the Net is not something particular to the Indian context, even so, Indian women experience a greater vulnerability. Except for cities where dating is increasingly becoming common, in the semi-rural areas and villages of India there are very limited opportunities for public encounter with the opposite sex. Consequently, there is a sharp increase in online sex dating and women are very vulnerable to sexual abuse in these online encounters.
A recent statement commenting on the increasing online sexual abuse of women in India reported that the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, was abused and threatened with rape at a web chat, organized by a portal in Delhi in April 2013 to discuss anti-rape protests. The abusive chat said: “Tell women to not wear revealing clothes, then we will not rape them” and then, “K..., tell me where I should come and rape you using condom.”9
A study by Internet Democracy Project (IDP) on women’s experience of online abuse in India observes that to be a woman online is no different from a woman walking the streets of an Indian city, town or village. It means to transgress an unwritten law of patriarchy; to cross over into a space that is not meant to be yours.10 According to the 2013 report of the Internet and Mobile Association of India, 52 percent of working women and 55 percent of non-working women in India are using social media. Anja Kovacs, director of IDP in India, speaks of threats being used to silence and restrict women online. In her opinion, “online abuse of women is increasing in India because more people are coming online. Though men also face online abuse, its quality and content are different. The abuse directed at women is mainly about their body and sexuality. The abuse that men receive is also mainly directed at the women in their lives like mother, sister, and wife.”11
Malobika, founder-member of the Kolkata-based lesbian support group “Sapho for Equality,” while acknowledging the fact that the advent of the internet has been a salve for the loneliness created by intolerant social attitudes toward sexual identity, points also to some disadvantages. She finds that while operating in cyberspace, heterosexual men “curious about lesbians, transgender and bisexuals” use false IDs to gain access to the online community. Mumbai-based sociologist and feminist activist Manjima Bhattacharjya echoes this warning, stressing that women face harassment, stalking and abuse online, much as they do in the real world. Women are also acutely aware that every action online could be monitored, and so go out of their way to avoid behaviors that could affect their offline realities.12
Generally speaking, the danger of unwanted publicity and fear of victimization are reasons why the largely conventional Indian families fear reporting online sexual abuse. This makes it difficult to assess how prevalent the problem is and how to combat it. However, in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape where the voices of protest were loud and clear, there is a growing consciousness of the need to fight this crime, report abusers, and create online solidarity networks.