The Joys of Being a Woman on the Internet: Online Hate and (In)visibilising the Self

About two weeks ago, an article I wrote was published on LiveWire. It was an opinion piece that looked at the patriarchal nature of Hindu festivals and the logic – or lack thereof – behind fasting. Within hours, the piece took off, garnering thousands of likes and shares on social media.

What followed next, along with generous crumbs of appreciation, was a string of hate comments. Rape threats were issued – to me and to the brave women who dared to express their opinion on the said post. Friends and well wishers were abused, trolled, and all negative criticism was applauded.

While I am not particularly proud of it, I have developed a thick skin – which is a rather sad thing to say. But I felt terrible for my friends and the many strangers who were being subjected to hate for simply resonating with my experiences.

My DMs were burgeoning with hate messages and threats. A close friend became increasingly worried and advised me to make my Instagram account private. And so I did.

Later that night, I found myself thinking about the incidents of the day. Did making my account private signify that I had succumbed to the hate? Was it a sign of weakness? Did its contrary mean rebellion? But I could not have done that. I could not have dismissed the fears of my friends. More importantly, I could not have put those whose photos have been shared on my handle at risk.

Hate and accountability

A few weeks ago, in the wake of India’s loss in a T-20 world cup match, rape threats were issued to Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma’s 10-month-old daughter. For every match that is lost, the partners of the team players are forced to deal with being trolled endlessly. But the recent instance makes one think of precarity of the times that we are living in. While it is easy to dismiss these things on the pretext of sports fanaticism, where is the accountability?

Also read: Hindu Festivals, Women and New Patriarchal Trends

The Indian Penal Code neither defines bullying nor punishes it as an offence. While provisions from the IPC and Information Technology Act 2000 (Section 67 and 67A) can be used against cyber bullying, the lack of any real laws and inaccessibility makes it a tricky path to tread on. Although Section 354D (stalking), Section 499 read with Section 500 (defamation and punishment for defamation), Section 507 (criminal intimidation by an anonymous communication) and Section 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman) of IPC may apply to such cases, the short lives of these anonymous accounts and the absence of a robust redressal mechanism render most of them untraceable. Surprisingly, a lot of these accounts actively propagating hate also don’t seem to violate ‘community guidelines’ when reported.

On being a woman on the internet 

When I talk about the internet and its woes, I acknowledge the point of privilege that I operate from. To be a woman on the internet is to constantly regulate one’s visibility. One lives in a constant fear of being judged, abused, stalked, threatened or worse. And sadly, there are always going to be people who would do the said things, simply because they can. We have normalised hatred against women to such an extent that it almost feels utopian to think of a world without it.

Also read: The Rules of Online Engagement: It’s Time to Free the Internet

When I put my work on the internet, I accept the criticism – good and bad – that comes with it. But it is my work that I have put up for scrutiny, not myself. At the end of the day, it is a criminal offence (or one hopes that it is) to issue threats, causing emotional and mental harm. As a woman, I have mastered the (in)visibilising myself. What photos should I upload? Should I upload them at all? Should I disclose my identity or hide behind the garb of anonymity, like my trolls?

Often, I have found myself in the vast web of social media consumerism and an instinctive urge to both hide and show the self. Mostly I find myself behind the screen, passively indulging in the lives of others. Sometimes I give in – an occasional birthday post, a picture of my dog. To post an opinion and indulge in the hatred that comes as a virtue of simply existing as a woman with one can be mentally taxing.

While I write this, I am thinking of the kind strangers who commented on my last piece. I am sorry. I wish the world – online and offline – could have been a kinder place for us all.

Sanchita Dwivedi is a Women’s Studies scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She can be found playing with dogs and drinking copious amounts of coffee, when not on bed wallowing in pandemic woes.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty