Conceptualising a Feminist Internet-I

A woman in a wheelchair watches pornography over the Internet in the privacy of her bedroom. A Dalit woman receives a torrent of sexualised abuse on her blog merely because she publicly voiced her opinion. A gay man creates chat rooms for every place in India he can think of. A 40-year-old woman is murdered by a man she met on Facebook because he found out she had lied about her age. A sex worker uses her website instead of the street to solicit and screen clients. Sexually explicit photographs of women are used to blackmail them. Text messages and emails used as evidence to prove domestic violence and abuse.

“Does the Internet, like other public spaces, simply reflect the bullying, policing and silencing of women? How do feminist speech and struggle change in this medium, which seems to have clear potential to both enable and disable women?”

The “Connect Your Rights” meeting held by Point of View and Prajnya in Chennai explored a range of problems and possibilities for building a conceptual framework around gender, sexuality and the Internet.

The fine balance between security and anonymity

Bishakha Datta of Point of View provided an overview of the enabling as well as disabling aspects of the Internet. The Internet has primarily been used a space for exploration, networking, community building, sourcing information, and activism. For example, LGBTQ individuals form communities and interact anonymously, migrants continue familial and other relationships, and women explore their sexuality. The Internet even enables physical stimulation of another person’s body (cyberdildonics) pushing the limits of what constitutes “sex”. However, intimacy in the online world bears a complicated relationship with that in the offline world. While online relationships could be considered “real”, there is sometimes a need to bring them into the physical realm. This exposes the relationship to dangers that come with experimentation and transgression.

Digital safety, access to technology and the language barrier continue to remain challenges. Even if the infrastructure exists, protectionist attitudes towards women can bar access. A study conducted last year In UP, Bihar and Jharkhand revealed that families strictly monitored the mobile phone use of adolescent girls out of the fear of them eloping or becoming intimate with boys.

Digital security is a complex issue because a clear stand on privacy and anonymity is difficult to formulate. The right to online privacy allows for experimentation, self-discovery and creative expression without the fear of repercussions from a society hostile to women’s self-expression, especially in the realm of sexuality. However, strict privacy laws may end up protecting perpetrators of violence, both online and offline. Given the difficulty of proving sexual assault and verbal and emotional abuse, Internet records can be — and have proven to be– important evidence. Do we want the Internet to be a space where we feel secure by subsuming our ‘real’ identities, or do we want it to be a space where we can express ourselves in terms of our offline ‘real’ identities?

Agency, risk and morality online

Independent researcher Manjima Bhattarcharjya spoke about “Does Your Mother Know?” a five-country study that has emerged from a need to analyse the online behaviour of women living in the Global South. While a lot of statistical information on the subject was already available, qualitative details were not. The study also sought to challenge some myths supporting a ban on online pornography and sex-related words, such as the perceived effect of corrupting young minds.

Until 2008, women had largely been seen as either producers for the IT and electronics industry, or as targets for development programs using ICTs, or as labour for call centres and business outsourcing companies. The study showed that women used the Internet for a variety of ‘risky’ activities – including watching pornography, asking questions on subjects such as marriage, menopause and sexuality, uploading ‘sexy’ pictures of themselves in order to get responses that boosted their self-esteem, fantasising about men, exploring same-sex desire and non-normative sexualities, developing mental and emotional dependence on people they had never met in person, and lurking. Women considered these activities risky, but they were more apprehensive about being outed, i.e., their gender identities or sexual orientations being disclosed without their consent. Their overall belief was that the Internet has its dangers, but is not a dangerous place.

Dependence on male members of the family for infrastructure and access to the Internet, especially in rural places proves to be a big hurdle. Similarly, government programmes for inclusivity decide the kind of Internet use that is appropriate for women. There is a risk that like the elders of a community, NGOs become gatekeepers of Internet access for women.

Queering the Internet in India

L. Ramakrishnan of the collective SAATHII gave an overview of how the Internet has been used since the mid-90s in India to nurture the LGBT movement. From searching for partners online to information on safe sex, crisis support and community resources; to organising protests and pushing for policy change at the national and local levels; the Internet has become a space, platform and archive for sexual minorities in the country. He recounted how LGBT spaces mushroomed from cities to sub-locals with chat rooms and groups, how letters, affidavits, discussions, and online communication have ended up as an archive of an entire movement, and how the Internet has been a space where voices from a suppressed community were able to speak in a very public way.

An important aspect of decentralising online communities of sexual minorities has been the availability of information in many languages and peer support. With cellular communities and the current level of organisation, there is substantial scope to expand the network of resources and knowledge on and for sexual minorities in the country. However, the Internet continues to be a space where tensions from offline social disparities are carried over.