Why I decided to study feminist activism on social media

Late one evening, as I was about to log out of my Facebook account, I happened upon this poster on The Ladies Finger Facebook page. I chuckled, while also marveling at the brilliance of the satire contained in the images. From alluding to the victim-blaming tendencies (“has breasts”) that surface ever-so-often in Indian media in the aftermath of incidents of sexual violence, to the hypocrisy of body-shaming (“eats too much”, “eats too little”), the poster had managed to convey, in a few images, a strong feminist statement, tongue firmly planted in cheek. When the poster went viral on different social media platforms, I wondered if, finally, the kind of social media I had always dreamt of had finally arrived. A social media populated by women who loudly and proudly make their voices heard, whether it be on issues of menstruation, body hair, gender discrimination in Bollywood or casteism in Indian universities. A social media where women celebrate their bodies, their sexualities, their friendships. A social media where women no longer have to contend with those who seek to silence them.



My understanding of social media has undergone a considerable change over the years. I made my first Orkut account at the age of 17. In the absence of any explicit prescriptions of how social media was to be used, I took cues from my peer groups. There seemed to be an unsaid consensus that while social media was meant for connecting with networks of people, being “too earnest” or “oversharing” was to be eschewed at all costs. Expressing political opinions was “uncool”, for it meant that one was taking these spaces “too seriously”. After all, social media was meant to be an escape from the issues of the “real” world.



…in the absence of discussions that focused on such forms of violence, I learned to dismiss the violence and my subsequent distress as not being “real”.


However, such an understanding of social media left some questions unanswered. Why was my inbox full of lewd messages from strangers? Why was the content of a lot of Orkut groups full of rape jokes? Within a few months of making my online presence felt, I got called a “slut” by a commentator on the comments thread of an online news article. In response to the news article, I had commented that women had the right to do sex work as a profession. Some of my fellow commentators had not only retaliated with name calling; one of them even told me that I deserved to be raped so that I could understand the implications of what I had said. This incident was distressing, to say the least. However, in the absence of discussions that focused on such forms of violence, I learned to dismiss the violence and my subsequent distress as not being “real”.



This was prior to my discovering and embracing feminist politics. I had heard about feminism as a teenager but my understanding was mostly informed by the same old stereotypes that one continues to find in mainstream media representations of feminism. I had dismissed the feminist movement as being redundant and as being “too angry” even before I had sufficiently engaged with it.



At the age of 20, when I started university, I learned that my roommate was a student of women’s studies and that she identified as a feminist. As part of getting to know my roommate better, I added her as a friend on Facebook. Over the next few months, I discovered that her Facebook wall was a fascinating space. Every time I went online, I looked forward to reading her updates and the many links she shared. Here was a young feminist who was not just funny and incredibly witty, but whose words spoke so closely to my own experiences. On her wall, I discovered a range of topics that had, so far, seemed off limits for discussion, whether it was body hair or experiences of being silenced in all male spaces, being articulated in a clear, assertive voice.



More importantly, other women and men responded to these articulations through expressions of anger, empathy and solidarity. Since most of these men and women identified as feminists, my interest in the feminist movement was naturally piqued. I began reading different feminist texts and sought out feminist pages on different social media sites. I also went on my first queer pride parade and joined the nationwide protest movements that were triggered by the gang rape of a student in New Delhi. I eventually enrolled as a postgraduate scholar of women’s studies.



I can say that social media is where my evolution as a feminist began.


Looking back, I can say that social media is where my evolution as a feminist began. Therefore, in my third year of postgraduate studies, when presented with the opportunity of conducting a Digital Humanities research project, I did not think twice before deciding to research, document and archive the efforts of feminists who were transforming social media into feminist spaces. To do so was to acknowledge my debt to the feminists who populated social media and who had facilitated my growth as a feminist.



But more importantly, the research was an opportunity to learn about the changing modes of communication being adopted by feminists and ensuring that these feminist initiatives on online spaces found their way in the long and vibrant history of feminism. As part of my research, I decided to interview 13 feminists across India who see social media as an integral space for activism. I also decided to delve into different Facebook pages and groups that identify as feminist and address different aspects of feminist politics.



One of the questions that I initially grappled with was how I would define the word activism, and whether online initiatives independent of offline actions could be seen as activism. At the heart of this question is how we see the very nature of online spaces. The binary of offline-online is often assumed to be a given.



The same binaries of offline-online that are used to dismiss gendered and sexualized violence on online spaces as not being “real” are also used to question the legitimacy of online forms of activism.


Recently, a colleague and I were discussing an incident where a young Indian woman publicly outed a man who had been harassing her through lewd messages on Facebook. My colleague dismissed the seriousness of this incident, stating, “But why would you get so worked about what some man on the internet messages you? Even if they are lewd messages, it’s not the same as catcalling on the streets. Why spend so much time and energy responding to it?” Such a response is not unusual.



As a student of gender and media, I have learned about how women are subjected to a spectrum of violence on online spaces, from being silenced in all male spaces, to sexual remarks and threats of rape. Other forms of violence, such as “revenge porn” sites and creepshots forums, which serve as a justification for further policing of women’s bodies, also limit women’s participation in online spaces. However, these instances of violence are not recognised as such because online spaces continue being seen in opposition to the “real” offline world.



The same binaries of offline-online that are used to dismiss gendered and sexualized violence on online spaces as not being “real” are also used to question the legitimacy of online forms of activism. A significant outcome of being feminist and being online has been that most of my respondents consider it critical to engage with online spaces, rather than dismissing them as being “not real”. Initiatives in this regard, such as the Take Back the Tech! campaign or Chennai-based organization Prajnya’s 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence have focused on the different ways in which violence against women is perpetuated through ICTs. Recognising such forms of violence against women and rallying together in our fight against them is the first step towards ensuring that women can seize control over technology, and use it for diverse forms of self-expression, experiment and play.



Thus, as part of my research, I found it important to not just study and document such instances of misogynistic violence in online spaces but also instances of activism, of resistance, of solidarity.



Access to the internet continues to be mediated by structures of class, caste, gender and able-bodiedness.


In our discussions of online spaces, my respondents emphasized that the focus needs to shift from the perceived “reality” or lack thereof in online spaces to questions of access and power. Internet penetration in rural India remains at 6.7% and access to the internet continues to be mediated by structures of class, caste, gender and able-bodiedness. Addressing this imbalance of power is important to ensure that a diversity of voices populate online spaces, making spaces of activism all-inclusive. The creation of consciousness-raising spaces on social media can be truly transformational only when different marginalised voices are assured of equal representation. As one of the respondents had stated, “On social media, all of us are publishers.”



…highlighting narratives of pleasure, fun and transgression are just as crucial as naming instances of violence.


Interestingly, when it came to the sharing of personal narratives on social media, respondents’ emphasised that highlighting narratives of pleasure, fun and transgression are just as crucial as naming instances of violence. Varied discussions, whether of body hair, selfies, loitering or fashion, allow women to author multiple subjectivities for themselves while also forging meaningful relationships with each other. As seen in the “A Bad Girl” poster, these subjectivities resist and challenge hegemonic modes of femininity as prescribed by the Hindutva notion of “Indian culture”. Whether it is through the Kiss of Love Facebook page or the Pink Chaddi campaign, feminists have utilized online spaces to question and disrupt the categories of “Indian”, “woman”, and “feminist”, among many others. The importance of anonymity and privacy, as well as the importance safe spaces were underlined in these discussions.



In the process of doing this research project, I have continuously reflected on my own relationship with social media and technology. One such moment of reflection happened recently, while reading Bell Hook’s Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Discussing the institutionalisation of women’s studies, Bell Hooks writes:



Feminist theory began to be housed in an academic ghetto with little connection to a world outside. Work was and is produced in the academy that is oftentimes visionary, but these insights rarely reach many people. As a consequence, the academisation of feminist thought in this manner undermines the feminist movement via depoliticisation.


In reading those words, I realised that Bell Hooks had voiced the very dilemma that my friends and I often experience as student of women’s studies. However, there was some solace to be found in Hooks’ words. She further writes,



Literature that helps inform masses of people, that helps individuals understand feminist thinking and feminist politics, needs to be written in a range of styles and formats. We need work that is especially geared towards youth culture…Imagine a mass-based feminist movement, where folks go door to door passing literature, taking the time (as do religious groups) to explain to people what feminism is all about.


As I reflected on these words, I realised that social media is of critical importance to me. The very reason being- my feminist peers, through their blogs, tweets, Facebook groups, memes and hashtags have reclaimed online spaces to ensure that feminist theory does not stay limited to academia. As a feminist and an aspiring educator, I find the possibility of creating online feminist spaces very exciting. Connecting with women who have been exploring the radical possibilities of staking claim over technology has had another outcome. I have recently started learning how to code and hope to be a part of the vibrant and incredibly inspiring feminist tech community.



Read Sujatha’s paper From the streets to the web: Looking at feminist activism on social media



References



Hooks, Bell. Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. Pluto Press, 2000.



Image: The Ladies Finger Facebook page

Responses to this post

Hey Kaca, thank you for your kind feedback! I completely agree with you- this division between our real lives and online lives makes lesser and lesser sense in light of our growing engagement with online spaces.
Posted on 07/10/2015 - 20:09 | Reply
Thank you Sujatha for the enlightening article. Brilliant graphic, it made me laugh a lot – i am a bad girl of bad girls.<br />If we believe and witness that online pornography can turn humans on – through visuals and words, why we tend to dismiss online VAW as not having ‘real’ harming and distressing impact on our offline bodies?<br />I like the idea of a mass-based feminist movement knocking offline&online door to door and taking the time (which is so precious in today’s world) to explain to people what feminism, equality, women’s and sexual rights are all about.
Posted on 06/23/2015 - 09:40 | Reply

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