What is feminism? What does being a feminist entail? Are you a feminist? Is your friend group feminist? How do you contribute to the world’s feminisms and levels of equality and inequality?
While scrolling through Twitter, I came across a post that said, “everyone is a feminist on the internet, because you’re either a feminist or on the wrong side of history.” This isn’t attributed to anyone in particular, but to the larger scheme of activities and ideas frequently witnessed and engaged with online.
The 21st century is by far not the first epoch to encounter and tackle issues of gender, sexuality, class, caste, or race. Nor is it the first time when voices of dissent and protest first arose in the form of collective mobilisation. It is also not the epoch when the Internet was invented and communication became as convenient as sitting in your living room and chatting with people across oceans.
However, it is the era in which feminism became a topic of popular debate. More specifically, ‘being’ a feminist on the Internet was as important as being one in the offline world. While feminism is hardly a new term, its conception and integration with day-to-day life has evolved with time—as well as the rise of social media and neoliberal paradigms of development.
Yet, users identifying themselves as ‘feminist’ within the Internet, suggests that this digital sphere may not be as neutral as it is often perceived. To explain by comparison: why is it that feminists assert their identities in the offline world? It is often to ideologically distinguish themselves from societies that are largely guided by rigid ideas of gender and hierarchy, ideas that only disenfranchise women and the marginalised. That users of the Internet do this online, suggests that there is an implicit assumption at play here: that both the ‘free and fair’ Internet and those who participate in it are complicit in perpetuating patriarchal ideals. To assert one’s commitment to feminism online—whether sincerely or otherwise—is to perform this ideological distinction in a digital setting instead.
So, if the Internet falls prey to the same structural inequalities and inequities of the offline world, then by extension, it may be possible to rebuild it to meet the ultimately feminist goal of treating its users as equals. But, before we grasp this radical reimagining of our digital world, we first must ask a few questions. What does a feminist Internet look like and what might it entail in the Indian context? Would the Indian woman be the primary beneficiary of a feminist Internet? If yes, which Indian women benefit from it?
The Internet for Indian Women: What Does It Give and Take Away?
The Internet is a digital extension of the communities that we are already a part of—and is a space to interact with new ones. It provides an avenue for interaction, expression, activism, and much more for each of its users.
For women and other marginalised groups specifically, it opens avenues for them to express themselves in manners that were previously not available to them offline. While the arenas of expression are predominantly social media websites and apps, the modes include increased self-expression by posting selfies, other pictures, art, and other digital artefacts.
It is often argued that this enables women to explore their sexuality, interests, and opinions with more freedom. In the process, they build communities or become parts of communities formed around issues that they may care about, but may not have the ability to access in their own immediate circumstances.
“In my early 20s, I was a full-time mother,” says Professor Radhika Gajjala, Professor of Media and Communication and of American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University, in an interview with The Bastion. “My sense of being completely stuck at home was because I was living in my in-laws’ house. For things as basic as talking to my parents, I had to talk to them from a phone in the middle of the living room where everyone could hear me. A large number of women still face this structural situation [of a lack of space],” Gajjala says, “Publishing gave me a sense of empowerment, as it gave me access to the public [and space].”
The Internet provided access to the world: it became a medium of empowerment through self-expression, for those trapped in their physical or social settings. This is perhaps why ComputerAid, building on the Principles of a Feminist Internet, describes a feminist Internet as one that “starts with enabling more women and queer persons to enjoy universal, acceptable, affordable, unconditional, open, meaningful and equal access to the internet.” Such tools become necessary as the Internet becomes a tool for empowerment and social justice: not just for ‘offline’ issues, but for the issues of the online world as well.
The freedom of the Internet is a double-edged sword: the Internet mirrors the patterns of discrimination observed in ‘offline’ society, making it an avenue to abuse people, especially those marginalised identities. Online abuse has been consistently observed over the years globally, but the pandemic has amplified previous instances of it. As per a 2020 survey by the World Wide Web Foundation, 52% of 8,109 women surveyed expressed that they had experienced online abuse and 87% of them think the problem is getting worse. According to the International Council for Research on Women, in India, Google searches for information on doxxing, image-based abuse, and gender-based trolling increased during the pandemic. Of a random sampling of 8,000 social media posts by Indian users generated during the COVID-19 pandemic and prior to it, 47% were related to gender-based trolling and 35% to sexual harassment.
Simply put: while the Internet does create spaces that were previously non-existent to women and marginalised groups, these are not wholly safe spaces for them to exist in.
“The Internet has given women new avenues to express themselves, whether it be sexual expression, or otherwise,” says Dr. Anja Kovacs, the director of The Internet Democracy Project, in conversation with The Bastion. “So, a lot of the abuse that happens online, indicates both the opportunities the Internet presents and the safety crisis: it shows that women are really speaking on the Internet in ways that they can’t often offline in their communities. The reaction that is observed is because people, usually men, are trying to shut women up again in these spaces.”
Didn’t check Twitter last night. Woke up this morning to realise my name, along with those of many other Muslim women was up on GitHub as a list of “Sulli Deals”. Thankfully by the time I came across it, it had been taken down. But just the screenshots sent shivers down my spine. pic.twitter.com/CGXivEyjyC
— Fatima Khan (@khanthefatima) July 5, 2021
The growth of influencer culture, predominantly led by women influencers, is a familiar site where this violence plays out: it has been increasingly observed that social media users, especially men feel free and entitled to demand sensitive pictures and content publically. The Economic Times reports that Indian influencer marketing agencies are often shocked by the comments and requests their clients receive: as one male founder of an agency puts it, “the hate male creators get is nowhere close to what female creators get on a daily basis. It’s not easy to deal with this level of hate.”
These experiences help further refine the abstraction of what a feminist Internet should look like. As Charlotte Jee writing for the MIT Technology Review says, a feminist Internet “would be less hierarchical. More cooperative. More democratic. More consensual. More customizable and suited to individual needs, rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all model [on its users].”
It’s clear to see how an Internet that operates on the basis of consent might help reduce the instances of bodily and sexual harm that women and marginalised groups face online. But such an Internet does not present from thin air: it has to be built to be this way by its programmers. Beyond the principles of a feminist Internet, this points to a critical question: that of building a ‘feminist’ digital infrastructure.
What is ‘feminism’?
“I think about a feminist Internet in infrastructural terms,” says Dr. Padmini Ray Murray, the founder of Design Beku, an organisation working to make design and technology more locally rooted, contextually relevant, and ethical. “So, when I’m talking about a feminist Internet, I’m talking about an infrastructure that is built on feminist principles: one where we embed a feminist ethics of care at the heart of technology. This is difficult to do in the incredibly top-down, corporate model of [Internet development and penetration], which is circumscribed by what governments want for their country. All of these [prevailing] models are antithetical to feminist values.”
A corporate, top-down model is antithetical to feminist values (even though companies may preach otherwise). Why, because it disregards the individuals and their needs by prioritising the profitability of the tech company building Internet solutions—bear in mind that globally, 95% of leadership positions in the technology sector are occupied by men, as are 75% of coding jobs. Such a sector is unlikely to be committed to the feminist values Murray describes, unless seriously incentivised to be so.
Yet, the question of ‘feminist values’ here could also be a contentious one: after all, these values are described differently from individual to individual. That is, defining a singular ‘feminist cause’ can be difficult: given that the experiences of India’s women are sharply differentiated on the basis of religion, caste, class, regional identities, and much more. Such disparities make it difficult to imagine building a space that accommodates all while also not generalizing or discounting their experiences. “When we use the term feminist Internet, not everybody means the same thing,” says Dr. Murray.
This is demonstrable in instances of how feminism even comes to ‘become’ visible on the Internet and in social media spaces—especially in English-speaking ones in the Indian context. These spaces are often dominated by an urban, upper caste and class feminist imaginary—and as a result, ultimately receive more visibility in national media too.
Gajjala argues, “what’s reduced as a feminist Internet is an idea that it is savarna women who should put women and people from historically oppressed backgrounds forward and that people from these backgrounds should [singularly] portray themselves as victims.” As Professor Vijeta Kumar argues in Being Dalit on Twitter, such reduction not only points to the shortcomings of English-speaking Indian social media spaces often amplifying the voices of the socially privileged, but it also promotes the idea that being heard is only available to those who tread the fine line between rage and silence.
(5/10) survivors – esp. those @ intersections of marginalised class, caste, gender & sexual orientation felt alienated as a lack of cultural backing & support systems further failed to create & vacate spaces for intersectional narratives over social media
— Aparna Moitra (@aparnamoitra) February 17, 2021
This points to the fact that the responsibility of erecting a feminist digital space—one that is truly committed to equity—partially lies in the complete interrogation of hierarchy by those who desire to dissolve it. Given the limits of intersectionality on social media that Kumar notes in her work, this vision of a feminist digital society may only be reached in the future.
Clearly, popular and visible digital societies of feminists built online may have to reconsider their politics—an ongoing discussion social media users will have amongst themselves. But, along with this, what about the platforms that they are built on? Do they have a role to play in raising a feminist Internet? Is expecting them to be feminist at all—when definitions of the term seem complex—perhaps too idealistic?
The Building Blocks of a Feminist Internet
You’re a humanitarian
A feminist and a vegetarian
But you hit the wrong bend and all of it ends
There is no doubt that building a feminist Internet may seem idealistic: but so have all major movements for social change when first brought forth. “Why would the idea of a feminist Internet be too utopian? We make the world,” argues Kovacs. “It is right to point out that there are a lot of differences between women and the importance of intersectionality. But, at the same time, it’s also true that there are certain principles that actually apply to everybody.”
One way in which this plays out is the manipulation of the data generated by a user—already a searing privacy concern in and of itself in India, this specific issue affects Indian women and the marginalised differently. “If anything, it [the Internet] is less friendly to activists than the press was! A physical press could be set up in subversive spaces with nobody surveilling it. But there is no space on the Internet, where you cannot be surveilled.” says Gajjala. So, while there is a higher degree of awareness about this kind of surveillance, and a certain slick look that all the new and emerging technologies possess, the dangers of the Internet persist.
“One massive challenge that we all face online is the difficulty of controlling how our data is used: this manifests in terms of how consent works on the Internet,” explains Kovacs. “Consent is generally granted by users in the form of bulky terms and conditions that are filled with legal details that most people cannot understand.” The risks of data manipulation have been repeatedly reported on: they can be used to commit banking frauds, manipulate elections, or exacerbate violence and political polarisation. “The issue is that the effects of it, the harms that it brings with it, will be different for different women,” adds Kovacs. “Our lives are being re-engineered, not just by companies, but also by the government, for us to live online. On top of that, we are not given any leeway in terms of negotiating about how we want to do that and what we find acceptable.”
— Srinivas Kodali (@digitaldutta) August 7, 2018
Much of this has to do with the fact that users of the Internet, be they women or otherwise, often don’t know what they’re ‘consenting’ to when they use the Internet—reflective of an extreme power imbalance between Big Tech companies and users. “We have been spoon-fed technology for the last 15 years,” Murray argues. “As soon as mobile phones became ubiquitous, we were spoon-fed the digital online experience for free. It’s not how it used to be where we built websites from scratch or knew basic coding. And so, the more ‘user friendly’ the Internet has become, the more disenfranchised people have become, from ways of building the Internet.”
In this light, giving people the agency to navigate the Internet on their own terms doesn’t just become a cornerstone of privacy—but of a feminist Internet as well. For Kovacs, “having much greater control as a user over what happens with your data would be a very good starting point [for a feminist Internet], as there has been much feminist activism around power and consent. Then different women might decide on how they participate online differently.”
Yet, none of this change can happen without educating India’s women on the Internet and how to use it creatively and safely. “The key is education,” says Murray. “The [popular] conviction that we can change the Internet [for the better] will only materialise through education.”
So, it is through changes in IT education, policy and law, tech design and infrastructure, and much more that a feminist Internet can be built. But, what is more significant, is the recognition and demand for one.
What Does A Feminist Future for the Internet Look Like?
Around 600 million Indians use the Internet. The latest statistics note that as of 2020, “about 57% of active Internet users in urban India are men and 43% are women. In rural India, 58% of active Internet users are men and 42% are women.” With India projected to hit 900 million Internet users by 2025, it is only likely that more women will be logging in to the Internet.
So, as we aim to build a feminist future, we have to think about what such a future would look like for these users. What will a feminist Internet achieve? Will it help women and marginalised people who aren’t connected to the Internet at all? If it does, to what end?
“What can [an education or a feminist Internet] do for all these women?” asks Murray. As we ask this question, the Internet still remains a space that is accessible to those who have access to more than just basic amenities in India—a vastly heterogeneous population. In this light, for Murray, “safety and equity” are the key goals a feminist Internet might achieve. “One of the major issues around a corporate Internet is: it is a walled garden which is very difficult to push back against. So, when I say safety, I mean the safety to not be surveilled by the government or by a corporation. It [agency and education] will give them the understanding that they are operating within this universe. Does it mean that they will be a little more careful or cautious? Possibly.”
For Kovacs, a feminist Internet can help reorient the transformation of Indian society. “When we talk about a feminist Internet: we are really talking about a broader digital society,” they say. “The Internet is the backbone of that society in the sense that even if you don’t use the Internet [but use services that do], how it works will affect your life directly. That’s really important to keep in mind: the debate here isn’t just about who is connected and who isn’t.”
When dealing with an idea as dynamic and necessary as that of a feminist Internet, that confounding questions related to identity, privilege, necessity, and excess arise is not a surprise. Yet, it is a worthwhile idea. To wish to build an Internet that caters to and protects all women and minorities should not be considered a Utopian dream just because the road ahead is unclear. In this case, the destination is what matters.
Featured image: ‘1984’ by Australian artist Ben Frost, click here to view more of their work; reproduced with permission.