I have been blogging, first for a separate, now defunct, site and then here, for over a decade and although I am an infrequent blogger, I learned the first rule of placing myself online early on. Initially, and for the first couple of years, my blog was read mostly by friends and family, and a few strangers who stumbled upon something I wrote by accident and who left interesting and thoughtful comments. However, even back then, my brother, who also built my first website and helped me initially design this blog was adamant that all comments be moderated. I wondered about his protectiveness and laughed it off. After all, wasn't the net the brave new world where all humans were equal?
Then one bright morning, I checked my email and found the notification for a comment awaiting moderation. Strangely enough, it was left on a post about Shilpa Shetty and Celebrity Big Brother. It read simply, "You dumb bitch. Shut up."
The unexpected venom of the comment, left anonymously of course, stunned me. With a great deal of naivete, I spent quite a bit of the morning wondering if I should publish the comment, and respond to it. I walked around my flat, another cup of tea in hand, veering between anger, shock and an unreasonable flush of shame, trying to un-bundle all my emotions and thoughts, trying to make sense of a stranger's abuse. Then I remembered the very first time I had been physically harassed. I had been a teenager walking down Third Avenue in New York, when a man had suddenly reached out and grabbed my breasts. It had only been an instant, but I remember the shock I had felt, and the instant sense of violation. And I can still call up the ineffectual fury I felt at the grin on the man's face as he stepped back, leered and then kept walking. The teenage me had cried secretly for days, even wondered if some how my sweat pants and bulky coat were 'wrong,' or 'provocative.' Finally, a friend had talked me through it, pointing with acute insight that I had simply been on the street: "I bet you have never walked on a street alone in India. You were alone. As a female, you are prey." Those words have lingered in my mind since, with even harsher significance as that friend's country soon disintegrated into civil war and massive sexual crimes against innumerable women.
Eventually, I went back to my blog and deleted that first abusive comment, realising that online, just as in real life, I had done the same thing: by simply existing as a woman, I was prey.
As social media has grown, and more women have begun claiming a space online, this sort of abuse has also grown. The classics scholar Mary Beard's trolling has opened the debate on misogynist online abuse in the UK, yet many more women are harassed daily and receive far less attention. On social media, especially twitter, the worst abuse appears to be directed at women who express opinions on politics, economics, security or other seemingly 'male' matters. When male commentaters express similar opinions, they do often get abused, but rarely does the abuse descend with skidding, rapid, efficiency into graphic, sexualised violence.
For example, few men active online will have received these responses to expressing their opinions: "fucking bitch, all you need is rape" (for commenting on EU economic policy); "ugly whore, I'll fuck you till you are dead (for my remark on global financial crisis); "Arab whore, how many Muslims fuck you every day" (for reading Gilad Atzmon's book); "you're so ugly, I will have to cover your face with a pillow while I fuck you" (for tweeting about Delhi gang rape); the last comment was cheered on by various others who suggested anal rape because that way they would not have to see my face. And more recently, "I will cut your cunt and ass, and fuck your mouth till you die, whore. Just like the bitch in the bus" (for tweeting on how religions, including Hinduism, aid misogyny).
Why have I listed the above? Because I have come to believe that this kind of online abuse is exactly like facing sexual harassment on the street. Women are told to keep their head down, walk fast, walk away, not make eye contact, and a thousand other little 'safety tips.' All of these apparent remedies subtly but clearly shift the blame from the abusers to the abused. They make the abuse a 'women's problem' rather than focusing on the men who make safety, even basic dignity, impossible for women. Same happens with online abuse: too many men have told me that I am giving abusers air by naming and shaming them, that I should ignore the men who spout sick violence about women, that if I ignored them the abuse will disappear. And in that wonderful social-media condoning, I have been told by many men that "I am unfollowing you because you keep talking about abuse and not more interesting things."
Such arguments, attitudes and reactions ignore the evidence: women have stayed silent in real life for generations and there has been no palpable reduction in misogyny. Most women in print, online, on social media, who speak their minds are harassed on a daily basis, in terms of sexualised violence and the only way the abuse stops is when they stop speaking their minds, by stopping to publish, or by leaving social media. On twitter, some of the most extraordinarily brilliant women have locked accounts to avoid abuse, and to retain the ability to express themselves in a protected space. Sadly, such online veiling also ensures they speak only to those who are allowed past their protective boundaries, limiting their audiences and reach.
For everyone who thinks women should ignore online harassment, I would ask, would you do so? How would you react if you woke up every morning to a dozen emails detailing explicit sexual violence for you and your family? Would you 'ignore' it if people you loved were abused and threatened?
Over time, I have come to believe that the only way for women to stop sexual harassment online and in real life is for more of us to speak up, as loudly, and as often as we can. But the only way to not treat sexual harassment as a 'women's problem' but a social one is for more men to actively get involved. If more men spoke up against sexual harassment of women, the abuse would be seen as less acceptable. If more men insisted on claiming a masculinity that does not rely on non-consensual, power-based sex, we could start thinking of sexual harassment as a social, political and economic problem and not one that only impacts women (and is thus treated less seriously). If more men acted when they saw a woman being abused (and this is more so online, as I do realise there are real safety concerns for many on the streets), fewer men would think it 'funny' or indeed 'safe' to abuse women.
After that first experience of street harassment, I promised myself that I would learn to react, physically and mentally. In subsequent instances, I have shouted and shouted loudly; I have reacted physically, hit out, and in one case, confronted abusive men (this time in London's Brick Lane) till they backed down. For years, my sister walked in Delhi with a hockey stick and full backing from my father for using it as a weapon. Even now, we automatically keep the heavy handle lock my dad acquired for the family car in close reach while driving in India.
But more importantly, each time I take a stance, each time I behave as an angry, loud, woman (yes, a bitch, a cunt, a harpy as some of the abusers would surely consider it), I feel less shame and less fear. In taking a stand against harassment, I run the risk of escalating the abuse, but I feel more empowered and more pride for not letting myself be cowed, frightened, and pushed back to the margins.
I am fortunate. I have many men who stand up alongside me in support. And they speak for me not only because I am their daughter, sister, aunt, lover, friend, or colleague, but because they recognise me as an individual and a human being who deserves safety and dignity. More importantly, they stand as allies to women elsewhere and everywhere. I have always wished that there would be more such men because then more women, including me, would be able to participate more fully in social, economic, political struggles of our times. But then, I guess that is exactly what the abusers want to stop!
PS: Discussions with women activists across the world has thrown up an interesting little nugget: online abusers seem more able and secure in directing their vilest, most violent, abuse at women they see as their 'own' or ethnically, nationally, religiously, of their own grouping. So the worst abuse I have received is not from the random Islamists or Middle East regime supporters, or Christian evangelists. It has come from self-professed 'Indian patriots, proud Hindus.' This neatly mirrors the abuse my Arab women friends get, generally from men of their own countries, religions, and ethnicity, as well as the abuse focused at white, middle-class women commentaters in US and UK whose abusers are similar to them in class, race, etc. It seems, as has been noted by many feminists, there is an unspoken pact for men of each grouping to keep 'their' women in line!
PPS: This post has been long time brewing but today's post by Soraya Chemaly with its extraordinary list of abuse against women online as well as evidence that confronting abuse works gave me the impetus to actually write down my thoughts. Thanks to Soraya and to Darshana, the tweeter with @lilforeigngirl handle who sent me the piece so it was my first reading of the morning.