Intersection of identities: Online gender and caste based violence

Image source: Author. Photograph taken at Hague Talks, March 2017. Why are women vital for peace and accountability?

 

Violence has always been a tool to establish authority and restore power by crushing any resistance against majoritarian beliefs. However, due to the technological development, online platforms like social media provided unrestrained space for everyone, allowing unheard voices to be heard. While helping the discriminated to advocate for their rights and bring awareness to their concerns, online platforms also give enough room to exhibit hidden day-to-day biases and prejudices. Immediate reactions and counters to the wide range of opinion and discussions online, most of the time take the form of abuse and harassment. And that’s how we have ended up with a dramatic increase in online violence lately.

 

 

While helping the discriminated to advocate for their rights and bring awareness to their concerns, online platforms also give enough room to exhibit hidden day-to-day biases and prejudices.

 

 

It’s not who but for what?

 

 

The fact that online platforms empower every individual ensuring their freedom of speech and expression is undoubtedly true. But it is equally true that it endangers fundamental right to privacy and basic human dignity by bestowing enormous liberty while failing to safeguard the reasonable restriction over the same. Consequently, online forums have become a place for unilateral organised crimes against anything and anyone progressive in nature or anyone who espouses alternative ideologies. Particularly after Modi in India and Trump in USA came into power, a strong intolerance towards social equality and diversity has developed. Being rational means you are an anti-national. Even a plain observation of the online violence so far will reveal a pattern of targeting as follows:

 

 


  1. Challenges to fundamentalism

  2. Marginalised groups asserting their rights

  3. Women holding opinions and making independent choices

  4. Perspectives breaking stereotypes

  5. Opposing government or its agencies.


  6.  

 

 

The contents with any of the above are constantly targeted as they question the established authority and claim power for all in a traditionally constructed majoritarian society.

 

 

Gender-based online violence

 

 

Though online violence is instituted against anyone who doesn’t fit within or interrogates majoritarian social norms, most often, it is gendered. India has a high rate of gender gap 1and conservative cultural practices where women are not supposed to take any social or public roles, and so online violence affords additional leverage for men over women. Women become the target that are easily accessible as well as “achieved” in a shorter span.

 

 

According to the ‘Internet in India 2017’ report released by the Internet and Mobile Association of India and Kantar IMRB, only 30% of the internet users are women. This shows that men dominate virtual world and digital gender gap persists. Hence, when women post content asserting equal rights, acting independently, holding different opinions from that of men or claiming self-respect, they are subjected to different forms of online violence like trolling, bullying, doxxing, slut-shaming, distributing private images without consent, harassment with abusive comments and to an extreme, rape threats. This online violence is no different from offline violence and can be dangerous to their safety and security. They have every potentiality to spread and further invite unexpected and misogynistic attacks from strangers, and often as dangerous as physical or “real life” violence.

 

 

Online violence is no different from offline violence and can be dangerous to their safety and security. They have every potentiality to spread and further invite unexpected and misogynistic attacks from strangers, and often as dangerous as physical or “real life” violence.

 

 

Intersection of identities

 

 

Interestingly, online violence isn’t entirely a gender issue. Just as any sign of women’s empowerment on and offline threatens men, any sign of Dalit empowerment threatens caste groups that believes outcastes are not humans and lesser than any of them. So as men make every attempt to silence women to maintain patriarchy, caste groups make every attempt to silence outcastes to maintain the casteist social structure.

 

 

Thus, unlike online violence that privileged women face which are most often only sexual, the violence that underprivileged outcaste, dark-skinned, minority women experience are intersectional, extreme, unique and invariably high as they are hateful and identity-based aiming to defame, humiliate, delegitimise or undermine an individual. For instance, when women are generally threatened with rapes and slut-shaming, outcaste women are insulted as unworthy or too ugly to rape, or labeled as being a slut is hereditary and predominantly because of being born in the untouchable caste. When privileged women are criticised for their personal choices, outcaste women are criticised for their choices like food that comes from their cultural background. Even online moral policing is to a great degree rudely exercised against outcaste women only. That being so, my online experience as a tamil black outcaste woman was also intersectional and manifold in the virtual world – that is no different from the “real world”.

 

 

Unlike online violence that privileged women face which are most often only sexual, the violence that underprivileged outcaste, dark-skinned, minority women experience are intersectional, extreme, unique and invariably high as they are hateful and identity-based aiming to defame, humiliate, delegitimise or undermine an individual.

 

 



Detail of Collage by Flavia Fascendini

 

 

I have nearly 20,000 followers on Facebook and the online violence against me was chiefly based on my gender, caste and colour. To be specific, when I wrote about the sexual harassment of a celebrated environmentalist, his supporters kept throwing racist, casteist slurs and made vulgar comments and posts against me. Particularly, a Brahmin man kept commenting on my food choice of beef-eating, an intrinsic part of my ethnicity, and posted a status with slanderous remarks along with my profile picture. This provoked many and was followed by even more vulgar and racist comments. They called my face burnt and ugly. They discussed my worthiness to have sex with. One said none will have the mood to fuck having seen my yucky face. When I posted a picture in western outfit, I faced moral policing on my choice of dress and the troll said that instead of wearing such modern dresses, I should be nude. When others intervened, he said that he does not have to use decent language with a woman wearing western clothes. This moral policing of dress code happens much more to dark, fat women rather than those who are fair and thin. This is only a simple demonstration and there is a flood of casteist, racist, sexist, extremist, hateful and chilling contents on social media.2

 

 

Unlike online violence that privileged women face which are most often only sexual, the violence that an underprivileged outcaste, dark-skinned, minority women experience are intersectional, extreme, unique and invariably high as they are hateful and identity-based aiming to defame, humiliate, delegitimise or undermine an individual.

 

 

There are millions of atrocious materials still available online and not removed – some that call a ninth standard outcaste girl student a prostitute, that label affirmative action and reservation as beggary, that cast slurs on well known anti-caste personalities. Through these sort of overwhelming caste-based abusive contents, the online community wields genocidal hate against outcastes by demeaning them even when they are victims of horrific assault, institutional exclusion and discrimination. To be noted, privileged fair-skinned Brahmin or dominant caste women are no exceptions to this. They have equally taken part in posting these degrading slurs or maintained silence colluding with their men supporting caste oppression.

 

 

Difficulties in removing abusive content

 

 

The social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have options to report and flag but most often, the response is that it does not violate community standards. While the anti-caste, secular or other posts that report discrimination and demand equal treatment or justice are immediately removed stating that these violate their policies or hurt sentiments of others, hateful, abusive and demeaning content against Dalits and that defame outcaste leaders and women are not barred and remain online, generating and inspiring even more hateful content.

 

 

It is strange that a computerized program decides the legitimacy of a content that is flagged or reported, and the basis on which the decision is made is unknown. It is also terrible that there is no appeal provision except to block the concerned account. Yet, the person is allowed to post scandalous contents and continue to e-stalk. Exceptionally, if a reported account is deactivated or blocked for a period of time, the perpetrator is still allowed to open new accounts with the same email address that was used to open the reported account. It seems that the social media terms and conditions that stubbornly refuse to remove casteist trolls are rules of modern manusmriti that propagate brahminical hegemony. 3

 

 

Exceptionally, if a reported account is deactivated or blocked for a period of time, the perpetrator is still allowed to open new accounts with the same email address that was used to open the reported account. It seems that the social media terms and conditions that stubbornly refuse to remove casteist trolls are rules of modern manusmriti that propagate brahminical hegemony.

 

 

Approach of Law Enforcement Agencies

 

 

The approach of law enforcement agencies to online violence is worse than the violence itself. To sum up:

 

 


  1. There is lack of knowledge and awareness regarding cyber space and online violence among the police community

  2. It is ironic that there is no online complaint mechanism to report cyber violence

  3. Conservative mindset of the bureaucrats refuses to consider online violence against women as serious and dangerous as physical violence

  4. All women police stations that exclusively deal with offences against women don’t understand what online violence against women means!


  5.  

 

 

The major difficulty in bringing legal action against online violence is the interpretation and application of laws. Police officials, who don’t understand the difference between freedom of expression and hate speech, suggest not to initiate legal proceedings by saying that this poses a threat to reputation and future. Instead of taking action against verbal harassment, police interrogate the complainant if she had provoked the perpetrator. On the occasion, the content is obviously offensive, authorities are reluctant in invoking provisions from relevant prohibitory laws along with Information Technology Act.

 

 

After effects of 66A

 

 

Though striking down of section 66A of Information Technology Act by the Supreme Court of India makes no change in taking action against any cyber offence, police authorities make it an excuse to evade from performing their duties. If police are willing to take action, any other criminal provision is more than enough but their wilful negligence only shows how much regard they have for online safety of women and their rights.

 

 

Social location matters

 

 

Registration of cases and legal action like every other case depends on the social location of both the victim and the offender. After all, the bureaucrats dealing with cyber crimes also belong in the same hierarchical society.

 

 

Chinmayi, a brahmin woman and singer, tweeted that “fishermen are killing fishes and Srilankan Navy is killing fishermen. Both are the same and there is nothing condemnable about the Srilankan Navy.” In spite of several complaints against Chinmayi’s hate speech against Tamils, fishermen and non-vegetarian eating habits, the police took no action against her. But on Chinmayi’s complaint about the abusive reactions, tweeters were arrested by the Chennai City Police. Of course, harassment against the singer is not excusable, at the same time how Chinmayi was not accountable for her hate speech and why the same sort of action was not taken in several other complaints against online harassment (especially when section 66A was still the law)?

 

 

Registration of cases and legal action like every other case depends on the social location of both the victim and the offender.

 

 

Even after section 66A was struck down, case was registered and trolls were investigated by the Chennai City Police on a complaint made by Dhanya Rajendran, a dominant caste woman journalist. After police acted, Dhanya even posted videos where the troll apologized for abusing her. In this case too, Dhanya posted harassing and hateful content about the age, personal life and disability of senior politician and ex-chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Kalaignar Karunanithi but no legal action was initiated against her.

 

 

When Dhanya was abused online, Chinmayi posted a solidarity video where she called every individual to raise voice against online violence against women. However, neither Chinmayi nor Dhanya realized that they have also, in the name of freedom of expression, committed online violence.

 

 

While this is the support privileged and Brahmin women receive regardless of their racist behaviour, brahmin men receive protection even when their obvious intention is to harass or abuse or even to provoke riots disturbing communal harmony and spreading rumours. The right wing Brahmin men who have no fear of the law and enforcement agencies continue to post malicious content, like when H. Raja (BJP national secretary) threatened to raze the statue of popular anti-caste leader Periyar. This was followed by actual attacks on statues in Tamil Nadu. Similarly he abused Kanimozhi, a woman politician by calling her an illegitimate child, and he definitely chose her as a target because she is an underprivileged woman.

 

 

While this is the support privileged and Brahmin women receive regardless of their racist behaviour, brahmin men receive protection even when their obvious intention is to harass or abuse or even to provoke riots disturbing communal harmony and spreading rumours.

 

 

In another incident, S.Ve. Shekher, actor and the Tamil Nadu State Propaganda Secretary of BJP shared a post that degrades women journalists, accusing them of sleeping their way to the top. Consequent to huge protests and complaints by the journalist community, FIR was registered against him but he has not been arrested despite several High Court directives and in fact his public visits are still being covered by newspapers.

 

 

Nevertheless, my experience in lodging complaint with the police is the exact opposite and entirely different. Although I practice as a lawyer in the Supreme Court of India, the police response was the same as that happens to any member of the marginalized communities. When I was targeted online, I was living in New Delhi but my post and abusive responses were in Tamil. I wrote e-complaints to both the Police Commissioners of Delhi and Chennai but there was no response. When I went to a nearby police station, they asked me to approach the Chennai authorities since all the contents were in Tamil. I flew from Delhi to Chennai and I was advised by the Cyber Crime Inspector not to proceed with the complaint as it would damage my reputation as a lawyer. Upon my insistence to file a complaint, he asked me to come again in a week and by then, the officials had deleted almost all the reported contents without my consent. When I objected and showed them the comment where the perpetrator posted his address and had challenged me to bring police, the police inspector said he has no power to take necessary action and in turn, since I am a lawyer practicing in the Supreme Court, asked me to file a petition to bring back section 66A.

 

 

I wrote e-complaints to both the Police Commissioners of Delhi and Chennai but there was no response. When I went to a nearby police station, they asked me to approach the Chennai authorities since all the contents were in Tamil. I flew from Delhi to Chennai and I was advised by the Cyber Crime Inspector not to proceed with the complaint as it would damage my reputation as a lawyer.

 

 

Not only me, so far this is the experience of several other underprivileged women including journalists and writers who have attempted to file complaints against targeted online violence that they have faced.

 

 

From the unconditional support rendered by the law enforcement agencies to privileged Brahmin women and the unconditional immunity extended to privileged Brahmin men, it is clear that the marginalised women are facing immense structural biases irrespective of the degree of violence they are targeted with.

 

 


From the unconditional support rendered by the law enforcement agencies to privileged Brahmin women and the unconditional immunity extended to privileged Brahmin men, it is clear that the marginalised women are facing immense structural biases irrespective of the degree of violence they are targeted with.

 

 

Conclusion: Are police really that inefficient?

 

 

Often police bring up questions and conflict of jurisdiction regarding online content and difficulty of locating the accused. However in several instances, the police has tracked down offenders on the basis of incriminating videos . In one instance when one politician put out an award for anyone who rapes the daughter of a prominent politician, the authorities sought help of the Hong Kong police to arrest the person who posted the offensive statement on social media.

 

 

If the police are capable enough to arrest someone for abusing privileged, celebrities and those who threatened the police even, why can’t they take similar action in the cases where individuals are targeted online because of their gender, caste, race, sexual orientation, and disbeliefs. Police should be held accountable for their inaction in every case of online violence.

 

 

Police should be held accountable for their inaction in every case of online violence.

 

 

In these circumstances, the only possible recourse is making every individual accountable for the discriminatory and hateful content they publish online. Holding everyone responsible, irrespective of their privileges, power position and influence with the government, is the only way to eliminate systemic biases against marginalized minority women. It is the lack of action that empowers an individual to expose bias with no fear of consequent legal action. Unless and until, equal treatment of law is available where all are equally liable and responsible for what they have expressed, online violence cannot be combated. The only way to develop tolerance towards differences is respecting every individual with dignity. And this can be achieved only through self-correction, not by laws.

 

 

The only way to develop tolerance towards differences is respecting every individual with dignity. And this can be achieved only through self-correction, not by laws.

 

1. World Economic Forum. (2017). Insight Report: The Global Gender Gap Report 2017 http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2017.pdf

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2. Despite the Supreme Court of India holding that the 'Criminal Tribes Act' is one of the most inhuman laws of the world and condemning it, the Governor of Puducherry and ex-police officer Kiran Bedi herself has uttered slurs against de-notified and nomadic tribes and said they are inherently criminals.

 

https://twitter.com/thekiranbedi/status/760330553325260800

 

 

When Tina Dabi, an outcaste girl topped in the Union Public Service Commission exam, she was on the national news headlines, and immediately on knowing the caste of the girl, hatred started pouring out in social media. Tina was the first outcaste to top in 70 years of independence. Nevertheless, the intolerant Renuka Jain, a dominant caste woman, shared Tina’s private picture with her boyfriend taken at Netherlands (who topped second in the UPSC exam) with a comment that was casteist, anti-reservation, sexist and hateful too.

 

 

https://twitter.com/RenukaJain6/status/798893295225085954

https://www.scoopwhoop.com/Tweets-Against-UPSC-Topper-Tina-Dabi-Show-Tha...

 

 

It was again a privileged brahmin woman Rupa Subramanya who tweeted a casteist and hateful remark about the attack on Soni Sori, a tribal rights activist. When Soni Sori was returning to her home, three unidentified men hurled chemicals on her face as a consequence of which she suffered from a burning sensation and could have lost her eye sight. Rupa Subramanya could have said nothing, or she could have condemned the attack, but instead tweeted that the burnt face of Soni Sori wins the Oscar for best makeup.

 

 

http://www.catchnews.com/social-media-news/don-t-know-about-soni-sori-bu...

 

 

Such hatred-filled content does not stop with derogatory remarks but on several occasions have even justified killings in ways, which are more horrifying than the killings and attacks themselves.

Jagrati Shukla, who claims to be an Assistant Producer in Zee News, kept tweeting casteist, bigoted and hateful tweets. She austerely justified killings by saying Sikhs deserved to be killed and India needs to commit genocide in Kashmir. She went on to say that Dalits live with excreta all around, can only see excreta everywhere and that Dalits do consume pigs as food.

 

 

https://www.quora.com/Why-does-Zee-News-hate-Dalits-and-Muslims

 

 

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS – a Hindu nationalist party) women's wing Durga Vahini member, Sanjiwani Mishra posted that killing members of SC/ST/OBC is a virtuous duty. She further said that killing five lower castes is equivalent to the virtue obtained by performing one Ashwamedh Yagya (a ritual sacrifice of a horse).

 

 

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1879530088765181&set=a.621264297...

 

 

Anitha, an outcaste girl scored 1176 out of 1200 marks but because of the National Eligibility Cum Entrance (NEET) examination that advantaged CBSE students over State Board, she became ineligible to get admitted into government medical college. She was also involved in the legal fight against NEET by filing an impleading petition in the Supreme Court to hear her in the case to ban NEET. However, when she realized that her dream of becoming a doctor was never going to come true, she committed suicide. When the entire marginalized community was heart broken over this, even different political parties and the Tamil cinema industry was mourning her demise, AIADMK the ruling party’s joint secretary of the IT wing -- Hari Prabhakaran instead of keeping quiet for the sake of basic manners asked to know who was her sponsor to file a petition in the Supreme Court of India.

 

 

https://www.thequint.com/news/india/kamal-hassan-rajinikanth-react-to-an...

 

 

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3 Team Velivada. (2017). Rules of Modern Manusmriti That Apply Only to Dalits on Social Media. Velivada …WHERE ASURAS FIGHT FOR EQUAL RIGHTS! http://velivada.com/2017/10/29/rules-modern-manusmriti-apply-dalits-soci...

 

 

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