Misogyny has many faces — but often times, when the internet is involved, it masquerades as a faceless, menacing, venom-tongued troll(s) who in 140 characters or less can threaten, abuse, ridicule and bully.
This week, 16 year-old Zaira Wasim was the subject of online vilification. Her fault? She met J&K CM Mehbooba Mufti at the latter’s request.
‘It wasn’t taught by our Prophet. Where is your spirit of Islam?’
‘One erred lady will spoilt the Islamic aura of the whole Valley’
‘Fires of hell are waiting for you’
Politics in Jammu and Kashmir aside, at the crux of this kind of hate (no matter how much you want to deny it) is unbridled misogyny. Zaira is to Jammu and Kashmir what a woman’s honour is to any family — both are ostensibly and bizarrely linked in the minds of these trolls. By meeting Mufti, Zaira let them all down, has besmirched her family’s honour and has breached the limits laid down for her.
The misogyny is in as much the sentiment being expressed as the language being used to attack her.
Most of the insults levelled were gendered — from being called a slut, to being called amoral, to her parents being lambasted for letting their daughter go ‘astray’. A closer look at the individuals who trolled Zaira is another indication of the prevalent patriarchy on social media — almost all of the individuals who left behind threatening, abusive messages were male.
This is not Zaira’s first brush with sexism. Not only did she have to convince her parents to let her act in a mainstream Bollywood film (because she is ‘from Kashmir’), she was also similarly threatened and abused online when news of her Dangal casting spread. She was called wicked, accused of having sold out and her short hair was mocked. She got life threats back then as well.
Now, trolling is not new either. Just earlier this week, actor Trisha was forced to deactivate her Twitter account following days of harassment over her association with PETA and the organisation’s opposition to Jallikattu
ALSO READ: Trisha’s Mother Seeks Police Protection for Daughter
Last year, Sona Mohapatra was at the receiving end of a continuous stream of Twitter rage after she slammed Salman Khan’s rape analogy. It was this particular incident that forced the Centre to acknowledge the menace of online harassment of women.
Back then, Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi had pointed out that online attacks against women should be treated on par with physical violence. The initiative though has gotten off to a less than favourable start. Reports indicate that in six months the cyber cell has received only 57 complaints but that’s certainly not because of a sudden dearth of cyber attacks. Research validates this figure — only 35% of Indian women report online violence.
But what this circles back to is the hate — the kind of sustained abuse women are forced to endure on social media. A Pew research dating back to 2014 found that at least 23% of young women are threatened online, 25% have faced sexual harassment and 18% have been harassed over a sustained period of time.
Further, a 2015 UN report found that 73% women have been abused online, that women are 27 times more likely to be abused on the internet than men and that online harassers are 61% more likely to be men.
Here’s more validation of the gendered abuse on social media. In 2006, a University of Maryland research found that accounts with feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7
It’s these statistics that have been behind the battle cry for a feminist internet — a platform that among other things ensures “violence against women is taken seriously and addressed”.
Zaira didn’t share her picture with Mehbooba Mufti on any of her social media accounts but that’s the portal that was picked by numerous individuals to target her. Why? Because hate comes easy where anonymity is involved, because a digital platform and opacity of implementable laws gives such voices impunity to say what they want in the guise of freedom of speech.
Zaira’s ordeal brings back memories of the last time girls from the Valley were harassed. The Srinagar-based all-girl rock band Pragaash was forced to disband after a fatwa was issued in their name, following weeks of merciless abuse on Twitter. The narrative was similar — they were accused of pursuing ‘un-Islamic’ music, of “indecent behaviour” among other things.
Gautam Gambhir hit the nail on the head with this tweet.
Men will be men. Insecure 2 see a girl like @zairawasim get wings. Sadly we think “Maahri Choriyan AAJ B Choron se kum hain.” @aamir_khan
— Gautam Gambhir (@GautamGambhir) January 17, 2017
And that’s the battle we are fighting — patriarchal entitlement and sexism is still just as insidious — irrespective of the medium being used. Calling it out and recognising it is only the first step towards ensuring women have equal and safe access to the internet.