The Pandemic and Public Space: Seeing Like a Cyberfeminist

Disasters are gendered. They play out differently for men, women, and gender non-conforming people. So also the COVID-19 pandemic. In the domestic-private spaces, an incredulous increase in levels of violence against women during these weeks, a “shadow pandemic” — as the UN Under-Secretary-General referred to it — has laid bare the patriarchal depravity of human civilisation.

Then there is the space of the public. The gendered consequences for the public in a post-pandemic world constitute an absolutely critical question for equality and justice. This is because, across cultures, women’s public participation is a de facto assertion by women of their personhood. It is a woman’s first-order claim to being recognised as a human being with natural rights. As we plunge into an uncertain future dictated by the new socio-political realities of the virus, women’s struggles to retain their claim to the public must remain a front-and-centre concern.

Pandemic governmentality and public discourse

So, what did the pandemic reveal about public space?

The initial days of the pandemic saw a takeover of public discourse by a rhetoric of national emergency, with clarion calls of war against the virus. Ideas of lockdown have followed from a centralised, hyper-masculine authoritarianism in many parts of the world, with a ruthless crowding out of women's voices from the public sphere.

A Google Trends analysis by IT for Change for the terms ‘violence against women’, or just, ‘women’, revealed a significant drop in user searches from India of these terms in the period between 25 March and 25 April, when compared to the preceding couple of months — indicating low interest in these categories. In the same period, the National Commission for Women and several civil society organisations reported a significant rise in complaints of gender-based violence compared to previous months. As widely noted, locked down with their abusers and with no access to digital spaces, women could not reach out for help. This is perhaps also evidenced by the 50 percent dip in March and April as compared to February in search requests for “cybercrime.gov.in”, the cyber-crime reporting portal set up by the Ministry of Home Affairs, India.

Thus, not only were women in trying situations unable to access the digital realm, but their lives and experiences were also, evidently, not in the reckoning in the online public domain.

The siloing and parsing of narratives in a digitally mediated public sphere into fleeting, monetisable data bytes has not augured well for women’s claims. It would seem — from silences in the news — that the challenges of lockdown did not impact women’s reproductive needs and rights at all. Digital public spheres have also been conveniently co-opted during the pandemic to legitimise statist discourses of gender and womanhood, at the expense of women’s voices.

The pandemic saw the sudden discovery and elevation by public propaganda of ‘dutiful’ nurses (with Twitter registering 46.8k tweets on International Nurses Day on 12 May this year and trending at an unprecedented #1), even as the largely female community has been instrumentalised as disposable bodies in essential services. Women’s human rights defenders are being forced by a surge in state surveillance to go underground everywhere.

In exposing the systemic obscuration of women and the derecognition of their claims, the COVID pandemic has shown just how deep the fault lines of gender inequality run and how women’s claim to the public is but a carefully negotiated allowance given to women.

Gendering through algorithmic mediation

While the erasure or invisibilisation of women in the public is not new, what is new is how the digital, through its algorithmic cultures, reorders spaces and bodies in particular ways. Digital sociality’s ever-expanding and fluid private-publics lend new dimensions to the social experience of corporeality and gender. Bounded within the norms of surveillance capitalism, these spaces make way for desire and agency, but are also seamless extensions and powerful determinants of hegemonic and violent masculinity. They span innumerable, inscrutable worlds of toxic maleness — multiplying misogynistic hashtags and proliferating homosocial (male-only) communities — that are subterranean, but always ready to strike. From bro-clubs to incel groups and women-hater gangs, digital space is constantly growing the patriarchal space.

Thus, the structures of the digital, while being no exception to real world patriarchy, also remake the frames of everyday as contemporary cultural outposts of gendering. Women have appropriated the digital to forge collectivity, seek legitimacy and create subversive spaces for nurturing a feminist politics. However, a generation of born-digital women who have sought these spaces to break away from the shackles of the domestic-private have found themselves trapped in a corporatised quasi-public that normalises vicious gender norms and practices. Cyberspace births and perpetuates a new masculine that terrorises women if they dare to assert their public selves. The masculine troll armies and men-for-men’s-rights groups of multifarious shades make sure that women know their place. To remain online, women must continuously self-discipline themselves in an unending negotiation and adaptation to a normalised misogyny. Yet, the dehumanising spectre of gender-based abuse online remains largely hidden.

In the thick of the pandemic, the #boislockerroom case — a male-only chat group with the classic ingredients of sexism and male entitlement — destabilised an otherwise disinterested public sphere, sparking renewed — even if fleeting — public attention to gender issues in the country. Boys on the group, investigations revealed, were talking about girls’ body parts and sharing morphed pictures.

IT for Change’s Google Trends analysis also showed that between 5 May and 11 May, when the #boislockerroom case was doing the rounds, online queries from India for the term “feminism” saw a spike. What is noteworthy is a pattern of related search queries for “fake feminism”, “pseudo feminism” and ‘toxic feminism’ as “breakout” trends (a rise of 5,000 percent in search) consistent with this upswing.

Entrenched misogyny in digital spaces, it may be inferred, rears its head in the form of virally amplifying anti-feminist sentiments during times of feminist political contestation.

The #boislockerroom group is just the tip of the iceberg. There are countless locker rooms that make up the architecture of the public domain. They must not be mistaken for subcultures; they are, in fact, the dominant culture that must be uncovered.

Democratising the public, legitimising women’s personhood

The de-legitimisation of women’s public-political persona is not unique to the digital moment in history. Yet, it must not be overlooked that in digital capitalism, patriarchy does not even pretend to strike gender bargains. To belong in the privatised quasi-publics of the online, women have no choice but to fall in line. The costs of rebellion are brutally punishing. They extend seamlessly beyond the online into the realms of the body and physical space.

Where do we go from here? Women’s equality and emancipation in digitality is tied both to building new ideas of the democratic public, and an urgent recognition and legitimisation of women’s personhood, online and offline.

The trend of de-democratisation, an erosion of the very consensus about democratic ideals in human society, reflective of the digital condition, needs to be challenged. Feminist theories need to be adequate to the crisscrossing fluidity of online and offline space.

The intersecting authoritarianisms of Big Tech market interests, Big Brother vigilance, algorithmic virality, and patriarchal culture are real enclosures that define and domesticate women’s agency — whether in the intimate-private, community-social or political-public. Women have been chipping away at the unrelenting structures of patriarchal power; claiming their space, showing the way to becoming public. The vital project of institutional transformation in relation to the digital is the next frontier for engagement.

This article was first published on Firstpost.

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