In Focus 5th August, 2016

Women and mobile phones? Oh so dangerous!.

The market is full of a range of mobile phones making it a commodity which is accessible to even the lower socio-economic sections. You have lucrative recharges, internet packs and other offers which are affordable and also offer you exciting options. To build a social life on the online space, or use it for entertainment and other opportunities is not strictly just the privilege for a few anymore. Mobile phones open the door to mobile internet which opens up the door to multiple possibilities and a sense of freedom which is not so easily available to certain groups of people in the real world.  

Khap Panchayats are caste/religion-based groups which find their presence in a lot of places in India. They enjoy a quasi-judicial status. In the last few years, they have been in news for their infamous and ridiculous judgements. One of them banned chowmein for women because well it seems the recipe for chowmein also includes a secret ingredient which produces promiscuous women. Which of course, translates to apocalypse. However, another thing that according to the Khap holds the potential of corrupting ‘their’ women is a mobile phone.

In 2015, a khap panchayat in Barmer, Rajasthan issued a judgement that the girls will not use mobile phones or social media. Another similar ruling banned mobile phones for unmarried girls in 10 villages in the Muzaffarnagar and Saharanpur district in Uttar Pradesh and the reason given was that it leads to crimes and mischief. In 2014, the panchayat of Gujjar community in Jadwad village in Uttar Pradesh banned unmarried girls from keeping mobile phones claiming that they had a bad effect on them and were responsible for eve-teasing incidents.

So what is the connect? Why are mobile phones considered so dangerous for women, especially young girls? Is it because they use it to communicate with their partners who they share an intimate relationship with? Is it because they can access things like porn over the internet? Is it primarily a threat to the control and regulation these men enjoy on a woman’s body, her sexuality? Is it because in this patriarchal society, a woman is made to embody a community’s honor and the righteous duty of a man is to protect that honor?

There is a digital divide that exists. There is a divide between urban and rural areas, between socio-economic classes and between genders. There is a divide in terms of accessibility and also the content that is accessed. For a lot of us, mobile phones and mobile internet is just yet another normal part of life. The normalcy of owning a mobile phone and using the mobile internet without any restrictions is also because we belong to a certain caste, class, gender etc.

In a study on youth sexuality in the slums of Mumbai conducted by Juhi Sidharth it surfaced, that a lot of women, especially from a weaker socio-economic background are using mobile phones to negotiate the surveillance and restrictions imposed on them by their parents. A lot of them sustain intimate relationships over these mobile phones. They find time slots when their parents are not around to talk to their partners. Also, often their parents are not even aware that they own these mobile phones. A lot of these mobiles have been given to these women by their boyfriends.

While on the one hand it is exciting to see these young women resist patriarchy, these negotiations are also risky and can put them in harm’s way. While they are resisting one kind of control, they may also be in an exploitative and emotionally abusive relationship where the boyfriend control’s the girl’s actions. There is always the fear of losing the freedom one has or the guilt of having breached the parent’s trust which makes them hesitant to seek support from their parents. Thus, these young women become more susceptible to online abuse and harassment.

While we talk about online safety, apart from a conversation about the the things that are happening in the online space, what also needs to be questioned is who gets to access the online space and what are the different ways in which that access manifests itself. These connections are crucial to counter online abuse and harassment. The identity of a being a woman intersects with several other identities. Each woman negotiates with patriarchy in complex ways, each passing moment of her life. These negotiations in the online space or through a mobile phone are symbolic of those everyday revolutions that brew behind closed room doors and terraces away from the eyes of the patriarchs. Oh so dangerous, for some. Oh what joy, for us.


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