In Focus 9th August, 2016

Threaten till she conforms: Dangerous acquaintances.

When my friend asked me if I had any personal stories around the theme of online safety or knew anyone who had faced such experiences, I doubt it took either of us a second to realise that we have all at some point in our presence online found that space to be an unsafe one. The public/private dichotomy seems to play out even in the realm of the internet, that is why we are (mostly women) advised against ‘revealing’ too much information about themselves out there.

I got acquainted to the online world when being on orkut was considered cool; and sure enough the older generation wasn’t too thrilled about having their daughter in the virtual big bad world. I was advised to tread with caution but the issues that I may face was probably unknown to even my parents – clearly, this world was new to them as well. I have relatively liberal parents, even then I don’t remember confiding into either of them when I received a ‘dirty message’; because I imagined they would just ask me to deactivate my account – stay at home.

Anyway, my peers and I graduated to Facebook and had made peace with the fact that the occasional ‘Hi dear’ or ‘Looking cute yaar, want to friendship’ was a part of our virtual existence, and would not qualify as harassment or be taken seriously. Nevertheless, I steered myself to the privacy settings so as to hide from the misogyny one is not allowed to protest against (unless you want to be called names, the all time favourite being Feminazi). I chose settings which would allow me to hide stuff from my family, blocked people I was too cowardly to remove from my friend list; and when a devil-may-care attitude set in, the family was allowed to witness my virtual life uninhibited; but I always made sure that my posts, photos, or my virtual footprints remained inaccessible to the ‘public’. So did most of my other girl/women friends; most of the boys/men on my friend list seemed to be less worried about this. I remember partaking in conversations where the comments on a girl’s profile picture, or status became her responsibility – “Dude, you know, all her profile pictures are public” or “She poses so provocatively”.

The city I live in has some wonderful local art painted on its walls; they are interspersed with ‘Swachh Bharat’ Ads, and the occasional warning against cyber theft and online security. One of the Ads/warnings that catches my eye, and makes me shrug with discomfort each time I cross it, is a story of a girl named Anjali. It lauds Anjali for being intelligent enough to not accept the friend request of a stranger on Facebook. While it may not seem like a big deal to most people, I personally can’t help but read into the socialisation of genders (airing discomfort of this kind generally presents an opportunity for ill-informed people to call me a Feminazi).

Because of my socialisation in the online world, I managed to stay away from the public space within the larger space of the internet, by creating and vociferously protecting my private space. This I would do by weeding out acquaintances that tried to get too cocky – for this, one not only has to devote a lot of time but also justify their decision to unfriend – “Stop being so sensitive?” Lesson learnt: If someone who knows you is at your door, you must allow them to enter, no matter how uncomfortable they make you feel; and also take responsibility for their actions. I have even started logging out of my personal computer because social etiquettes suggest that you deserved it if someone else messes with your account.

Despite doing exactly what has been advocated for my gender (apart from the fact that I own and use mobile phones), social media has presented itself to be very unsafe at times. During the recent events taking place at Jawaharlal Nehru University and the discourse around it, I found myself on the opposite side of some of my peers. In a hopeful attempt to initiate conversations, and share the voices suppressed by the mainstream media, the backlash experienced was immense. Discussing, debating and sharing my opinion with my bunch of people (carefully selected to include only people I could trust) took a really ugly turn – vilification of my embodied self was the easiest to resort to. I was reminded of my privileges of being an Indian woman (as opposed to belonging to the stereotyped oppressor). I was reminded that I belonged to the ‘men’ and was not a complete person who was capable of having an individual opinion. I was told that my freedom was borrowed and could be taken away if I chose to transcend the boundaries defined for me by my Facebook friends. My sister was threatened by some faceless college acquaintance – reminding her that our home was very close to the ABVP office. Next, I received a mail about several failed attempts at logging into my personal account and it freaked me out. My next move was to delete all the controversial shares and statuses. I changed my profile picture and cover photo. I took down information about my closest people and tried to make my profile unrecognisable. I was shit scared and there were several possibilities doing the rounds in my head. I had been scared away for having an opinion other than the accepted one; and dared to voice it (to my trusted people).

I acknowledge that the online world is not difficult for women only, as is the offline world. I acknowledge my biggest learning as a feminist – intersectionality. But I can’t help but notice that the rules, norms, and values of the offline permeate into the online, making the online world a gender insensitive one. And just like we have realised that by advocating women’s presence in the public sphere to a bare minimum does not reduce gendered violence, making sure you do not stand out in the online space does not ensure that you will never be targeted.

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