Masculinity, Femininity, Equality – Gender Scripts in the Lives of the Born Digital

Authors:  Anita Gurumurthy and Amrita Vasudevan

This blog is part of the series ‘Righting Gender Wrongs’ and is based on feminist reflections on the life of women and men in the glocal digital public sphere in 3 Indian states, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

In our study on the prevalence of gender-based cyber violence in Karnataka, IT for Change had the opportunity to hold focus groups discussions in Bengaluru and Mysuru with college students between the ages of 19-23. At each site, there was one all-male focus group and one all-female focus group. In this blog, voices from the groups have been juxtaposed to produce the gendered vignettes that characterize what it means for women and men to be ‘born digital’ – a term that Palfrey and Gasser use to capture the sociological portrait of a generation that is both “extraordinarily sophisticated and strangely narrow.”

 

Theme 1: ‘Its just a joke da1 – Of memes and masculinity

Male voice: “Take for example if I mock or make sarcastic jokes of my friend. If it is a boy, then it is okay, but the moment I tell it to a woman, they say you’re abusing her, you’re dominating her. What is there to dominate in sarcasm? Anyone can be sarcastic, right? Women’s empowerment means equality. Men and women should be equal. So if I make a non-veg joke2 about my guy friend, that’s ok; so, if I make a non-veg joke about a girl, that should be ok. Otherwise it is unfair… hypocritical.”

Female voice: “They (men) never mean to say anything of that sort, but, they get very unnecessary memes sometimes, and we just laugh it off. We know what our personal opinions are about things, and they don’t intend to say such things.”

Female voice: “They term me as a feminist. But the term feminist is so conflicting now. It just gives a negative notion because that’s how people have made it now. But the meaning of feminism is just equality and not putting men down.”

We discussed the circulation of memes online by male students. A powerful artifact of social commentary that is often presented as humor, the meme has now firmly established itself as a medium of communication online. It is also an excellent analogy for internet culture — ephemeral and glib, sexist, but assumed to contain some ‘vague seed of truth’. The men in the focus groups invoke the language of feminism, even, patriarchy, using it as a post-feminist justification for explaining how equality is about equivalence.

According to them, labels like ‘patriarchy’ are used by women to sustain a narrative of victimhood that they don’t, or no longer, deserve. Equality is not only assumed to have been reached, but also breached, giving women an unfair leg up.

In the virality of online flows, sexualized femininity masquerading as jokes is naturalized as the commodity for masculine sub-cultures. Women friends must know that sexist jokes are just that — jokes. Women who do respond and challenge sexism are branded ‘feminist’, a pejorative that discounts their arguments. In conversations with young women, we were told that the best they could do is ignore it — “It’s sad that we’ve become so used to it that we just go ahead.”

As young men sort through content, they are able to ‘see like a feminist’. Yet, they choose to subscribe to the sexism the attention economy throws at them, using it, in fact, for the very performance of masculinity. Liking or circulating a sexist meme or sexualized picture of a classmate that she may not be aware of, is an essential rite of passage to manhood.

 

Theme 2: ‘Pls send nudes’ – Entitlement and control

Male voice: “Before taking nudes with a guy, the girl must think. There is no use crying now. If she was that deeply involved with him, she should have stayed in the relationship. If she cheats on him, she should know this can happen. The fact is both of them have cheated, and that is the way it is. They (women) have to think of the family before getting into the relationship.”

Female voice: “(If it happened to me) I would have been like – ‘You should have known better.’ ‘What were you thinking?’ ‘Were you in your right mind to send those pictures?’ Especially in this age of technology, we’re obviously cautioning each other.”

Female voice: “I think it’s actually come to a point where people are okay with such things. I think that’s how we’re moving on right now. Like our generation… they’re just okay with it.”

In ‘Sluts r Us: Intersections of gender, protocol and agency in the digital age’, Nishant Shah points to an important dimension of non-consensual circulation of intimate images online. The slut shaming that follows such an act is not (just) about shaming women’s sexuality but (also) the censure of women’s shamelessness — that they dared to expose themselves to the technology, stupidly allowing the artifact to be available for posterity on “the perpetual memory machine of the Web”. The easy transcendence of affairs of the private sphere into the gut of the public sphere is about male entitlement. It is the point at which the quest for liberation must meet its logical consequence. If women throw caution to the winds, they are bound to be shown that they have breached the gender protocol.

The men we spoke to express similar approaches to intimacy through tech-mediated spaces. While sending a man risque pictures, a woman should have known that it will be leaked if she steps out of line – for instance, by breaking off the relationship – and that it’s all fair game. ‘Hidden cameras’ and recording women clandestinely, cases wherein women’s agency is passive, on the other hand, elicits a more sympathetic response — the perception that her ‘modesty has been outraged’. However, this does not accommodate the very negation of women’s consent in such an act. In our conversations on ‘revenge porn’ with women, the ubiquity of these acts became apparent. Again, while no judgment is passed about engaging in sexual acts, regret is expressed for perceived shortsightedness in allowing oneself to be captured in the act. A surprising outcome of the pervasiveness of ‘revenge porn’ is that women today are able to brush it off with a, “So what, it’s just my body. Who cares!” Shame and guilt it would seem are not always seen as feminine burdens that women in patriarchal orders must carry. If this is a one-off remark or a comment from someone empowered will need to be better understood. However, what is clear is that the ignominy of public exposure, the experience of fear and indignity attached to the denial of consent are real for the majority, and need to be addressed.

 

Theme 3: ‘Your safety is in your hands’– Self-discipline and techno-fixes

Male voice: “But girls also should keep their accounts private and within their friends’ circle. There are faults in them as well. Girls should be more careful. If they are concerned, why aren’t they more careful? There are a lot of ways to do this now. You can share things with only a group of friends. But girls want likes and fame. That may be a problem.”

Female voice: “ You can control the kind of content you’re following. But, it also depends on the kind of people on the Internet. You can’t stop these people from existing. When you think about it, what you can do personally is small changes in your privacy settings.”

Female voice: “Websites should make people submit their Aadhaar details so that we can immediately get to know all their information, report and block them… and arrest those who misuse screenshots. At least the person will be scared that they can’t misuse pictures.”

The men betray a deep discomfort with the visibility of women in online spaces, especially in cases of image based self-representation, a decidedly agentic exercise. As a consequence, when women post selfies or pictures, they are inevitably sexualized, and blame associated with sexual expression is evoked to deride the violation of gender scripts. The ‘good girl’s’ narrative does not include garnering likes or going after popularity. This presents, as Salter observes, ‘an incompatible demand’ that young women should not be sluts, but should also not be prudes.

Public spaces have historically been unwelcoming of women, and women who do stray into the public have no choice but to accept any deprecatory ascriptions that, in all likelihood, will follow. Gender norms on mobility and visibility on the Internet are seamlessly tied to cultures of female responsibility and self-discipline. Women are told to build walled gardens through technological aides, so that they can remain online and benefit from the wonders of technology without encountering any of the harm. While some women resign to this discourse, others demand technology be underwritten by identification — for access to some form of security.

For digital corporations, these are ideal responses, allowing them to occupy the position of the ‘innocent by-stander’ or the ‘willing conduit’, that have no control over the core content, but are ever-willing to tweak the edges. The evolution of the Internet and the rise of culture as visual rhapsody, carefully engineered by deliberate design choices of platforms should tell us otherwise. Those who are born digital, are born into the rapid replacement of textual content by image based, user generated content. When the burden of creating safe spaces is displaced on users, it falls on the shoulders of those that demand safe spaces in the first place, i.e. women and others from marginalized locations, to effectuate it. And when their demands aren’t met, which is invariably the case, they have no choice but to give in to the disciplining force of violence, by self-censoring.

For feminists fighting for safe online public spaces, confronting the complicity of digital platforms in cementing gender norms is as important as challenging hypermasculinites.

The project, ‘Righting Gender Wrongs: A Study of Law Enforcement Responses to Online Violence Against Women’, is an ongoing exploratory research study of gender-based cyber violence led by IT for Change with feminist partners across six sites of study in India, covering the states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The research project has used mixed methods — self administered surveys with college students between the ages of 19-23, key informant interviews with law enforcement officials, women’s rights lawyers and activists, family court lawyers, counselors, digital rights activists; and focus group discussions with young men and women in colleges to study violence online as well as conduct a systematic assessment of institutional pathways to change. The intent is to make recommendations for improvements in access to justice for victims, based on robust evidence on the gaps in law, with particular focus on law enforcement agencies.The full report will be published in February, 2019. To learn more about IT for Change’s research and advocacy on the topic visit –https://itforchange.net/e-vaw/

The authors are with IT for Change.

  • 1. Informal way to address your peers, used across South India, roughly translating to ‘bro’.
  • 2. Colloquial reference to a sexual joke.

Riding the Tiger vs. Hanging on to its Tail? TMVAW in Kerala and the Resistance to it

Author: J Devika

This blog is part of the series ‘Righting Gender Wrongs’ and is based on feminist reflections on the life of women and men in the glocal digital public sphere in 3 Indian states, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. 

“For women, using the social media is like riding a tiger” quipped Reeha*, a second-year graduate student from a prominent college in Kerala’s capital city. We were there to conduct a survey among students regarding technology-mediated violence against women (TMVAW). She continued, “climbing on might be easy, riding it is tough. Besides, it isn’t easy to control where the tiger’s going.” For young women like her, ‘climbing the [ICT] tiger’ was almost a rite of passage into young adulthood, but a risky passage undertaken almost all alone. No wonder many of the young women spoke of ‘stumbling’ on the way, and how the passage to becoming an individual through it was terrifying rather than exhilarating.

The simile of the tiger is indeed a revealing one. To those who are less-privileged in emerging techno-social worlds, ICTs are daunting creatures, wild and originating in hard-to-negotiate terrain. They are powerful and agile, and almost impossible to tame. Yet avoiding them may not be an option at all. This is especially so for women, and this in turn relates to the sociological changes that Kerala has experienced over the past two decades or so, in and through which many more women are questioning the social expectation that their individuation should primarily serve the ends and interests of family and community.

Given Kerala’s distinct history of public education in which more girls stay in school and public education than boys, they are likely to be far more individuated than boys. Kerala’s higher education scene is now predominantly female; successful female role-models who have fought to build spaces of their own are readily available in Kerala across diverse fields – cinema, journalism, sports, science, governance, academics, art, literature, music, and so on. However, the stratospheric rise of dowry rates across communities, well-entrenched patrifocality, as well as the valuation of the female child mainly in terms of her potential to raise the family’s social worth through marrying up has also rendered her ‘structurally worthless’. That is, the girl child, however capable she may be, cannot escape being a financial liability. The structural mechanisms that constantly work to confine the educated young woman in order to keep her marriageable are many, and they straddle domestic, community, and public spaces. Imagine what this does to the individuated woman – this silent, everyday patriarchal violence.

It is therefore not surprising that more and more young Malayali women seek the social media not just as a place to hang out but also to assert themselves as full human beings and citizens. For it appears to them that the constraints imposed on them by offline spaces may be overcome here. As a feminist lawyer who helps young women survivors of TMVAW noted, “It was not common, if you remember, for a lot of women to actively participate in public forums of debate – I mean, even if there were lots of women, for example, in student organisations’ meetings, not many would speak sharply and vociferously. Most women had no experience of speaking at a gathering, and definitely little experience in debating. That lacuna began to be felt less with online access, since women were now not constrained by time … or the challenge of having to face so many faces – faces that would be judging and evaluating even though not always hostile – in a real audience. I think that has spurred women’s ability to argue, to use strong words, and especially to use humour! This is provoking a lot of male insecurity.” The risk of ‘climbing on the [ICT] tiger’ seems worth it!

This then provokes insecurity in Malayali men, especially young men, who are now fewer in institutions of public education and by no means dominant in major fields of public achievement. The same lawyer notes perceptively the nature of mass attacks of misogynist trolling and cyberbullying of articulate young women in Kerala’s social media: “In an offline gathering, maybe an active woman would be suppressed with a couple of sharp retorts, but when it is online, you don’t know if she has really backed out. You have no way of checking if she’s really flustered, sad, contrite! So you go back again and again, get your friends to join, and keep increasing the intensity of the attack till you are satisfied, till you feel the woman has been effectively silenced! That is perhaps why these men, young and old, are so intensely violent, so unashamed of using all kinds of tactics, below-the-belt blows, in online conflict, especially when a woman is at the centre.”

Kerala’s cyber worlds have seen mighty battles recently, led by cyberfeminists. In 2015, a group of Malayali cyberfeminists started an international campaign against Facebook’s real-names policy, which flagged women’s and minorities’ right to privacy, safety, and culture, in the wake of atrocious hate campaigns by men against a widely-followed vocal woman social commentator. A great deal of discussion followed, and while this has encouraged more and more women to enter the social media, stay back, and look at their attackers squarely in the eye, our recent research seems to show that the organization of male violence, especially on Facebook, seems to have changed for the worse. Now it appears that there are organized gangs of men who may be paid to relentlessly stalk, troll, and dox targeted women; there also seems to be organized ‘monetization’ of intimate images of women that may be available through revenge porn or through morphing images of well-known women available online into saleable porn a la Hunter Moore! These are not as explicitly justified like for instance by the Gamergate criminals or by Moore’s openly virulent misogyny, but that is hardly a consolation. The real consolation is that women seem to be steeling against such attacks, refusing to be intimidated by ‘leaks’ of their images, words, or other aspects of their private worlds, and openly refusing protectionism as an option to stay safe, as emerged in our interviews with survivors.

The disconcerting fact however appears to be that police officers, even those who would want to side with the survivors, veer too frequently into precisely protectionist discourse. Both in our interviews with them as well as in survivors’ recounting of their experiences in police stations, their chief advice to women is to avoid ‘catching the tiger by its tail’ (this appeared in casual talk preceding the interviews with police officers more than once). Once you do that, they imply, you are done – you have to follow it endlessly, for it eats you up if you don’t. Therefore do not loiter in social media. A senior police officer, known to be sympathetic to women complainants in TMVAW cases, told us: “…we are still to learn what I call cyber discipline. That refers to the ability of the person to go to the cyberworld with a pre-fixed purpose, use tech to complete it, then log out safe. Are you buying something on Amazon? Great – go there, buy, come back and log off. Don’t browse. The very concept of browsing on internet is dangerous and leads to harm.” Perhaps even more disturbing was his insistence that his concept of ‘cyber discipline’ is gender-neutral, for it seemed to cancel out the very possibility of building publics in cyberspace.

How contrary this is to young educated public-minded women’s expectations of the social media is evident from the words of a female college student who survived mass trolling across cyber spaces for her bold views. Stating her determination to maintain online presence, she noted: “The internet is so informative, the place where you get to know things – indeed I am so grateful for it, it gives us a space no one else does to grow inwardly. My response [to trolls] now is no-response – that is, I don’t care, the cyber bullies can say or do whatever they can. If they morph, fake photos, whatever, it does not affect me.” Here is a young woman who sees herself as riding the tiger, not merely being tossed about behind its tail, fully aware of risks and danger – and the pleasures.

Perhaps it is the shared simile of the tiger that we must dismantle first. The association of ICTs with the tiger and thereby with notion of wild, potentially violent, untameable masculine strength attributed to the creature is not coincidental; it is a product of the still-lingering patriarchal mystique about the Internet that sees it as hypermasculine. Riding this tiger by women could then be too readily read as foolhardiness; then injuries they may suffer could readily be attributed to their own recklessness. Yet it is clear from our research that many women are not deterred by such intimidating portrayals; that they are willing to treat it as an adventure. However, perhaps not all women have the privilege that helps them convert a danger into adventure and therefore this manner of perceiving of ICTs needs to go. We cannot help hoping against hope for the promise of ‘newness’ once held out by the social media – that its newness lies precisely in renewing our democracy, making way for the hitherto-muffled voices of underprivileged subjects.

The project, ‘Righting Gender Wrongs: A Study of Law Enforcement Responses to Online Violence Against Women’, is an ongoing exploratory research study of gender-based cyber violence led by IT for Change with feminist partners across six sites of study in India, covering the states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The research project has used mixed methods — self administered surveys with college students between the ages of 19-23, key informant interviews with law enforcement officials, women’s rights lawyers and activists, family court lawyers, counselors, digital rights activists; and focus group discussions with young men and women in colleges to study violence online as well as conduct a systematic assessment of institutional pathways to change. The intent is to make recommendations for improvements in access to justice for victims, based on robust evidence on the gaps in law, with particular focus on law enforcement agencies.The full report will be published in February, 2019. To learn more about IT for Change’s research and advocacy on the topic visit –https://itforchange.net/e-vaw/

The author is with Centre for Development Studies.