On Cybercrime Against Women and its Larger Causes

This is an electronic interview conducted between Anita Gurumurthy and The Quint, India on cybercrime in India and its larger cause in the wake of the 'bulli bai' app incident in January, 2022.

Q. How do the digital spaces become a readymade tool for people to harass and humiliate women? Does the anonymity on offer on these platforms combine with their communal and misogynist instincts and allow them free rein of sorts unless brought to attention?

The digital space is constitutive of what we know and experience as the public sphere today. Its particular characteristics, norms and affordances are both technological and socio-political. For eg. social media platforms and their interfaces contribute to specific social behaviour - the virality of content that we mindlessly forward is a case in point. On the other hand, the organisation of social power also extends into the technological architectures - the abhorrent prejudices against women, religious minorities, gender/sexual minorities etc.,  and their larger-than-life dimensions we see online.
Misogyny in cyberspace -- arising as it does in patriarchal cultures of society -- finds an easy threshold of entry into cyberspace. It is the most convenient clickbait for the perverse cultures of patriarchy. The asynchronous nature of platform communication also encourages disinhibition -- terrorizing and toxic disinhibition. Which means hate can be unleashed without immediate consequence and without any intercepting mores that normally regulate social exchange.

The fact that social media is based on a techno-design that privileges viral transmission on scale and the owners of such social media are seldom liable for the disastrous consequences of the spread of hate and misinformation, and individual users can do nothing about the power of algorithms to incite the worst of human behaviour, all of this create a situation in which a life of indignity is normalized for those who are in vulnerable and tenuous social locations. This means Muslims and Muslim women, in particular, are going to be targeted because they are Muslim (and othered in a majority Hindu society) and because they are women (and can be dehumanized easily).

Harassment and humiliation online cannot be seen as actions that are individualized and apolitical. They are very much about the structures that create and sustain the ideologies through which the privileged stand to gain. Not only is the risk of being victimized by doxxing, trolling, etc., directly correlated with who you are; which woman you are, but the immunities one enjoys online are also linked to these reigning ideologies. The fact that a young 18-year-old woman was involved in the crime is a testimony to this ideological climate that normalizes the dehumanizing of Muslims and the expedient indignification and disenfranchisement of Muslim WOMEN.

Our research at IT for Change has found that women from the born-digital generation resort to self-censorship - once they experience the paralyzing fallouts of an online attack.
This fear and extreme physio-psychological impact increase manifold for women who speak their minds. Which is why, if you are a Muslim woman in public life, you will need to be made of steel .. and we know the strongest of these public-political leaders cracking up at some point.

Q: Does nabbing the perpetrators of the cases of the likes of Bulli Bai or Sulli Deals solve the root problem? What must be done to address the same?

Digital space creates virtualized lives that we have no control over. That is why, in the Bulli bai case or in the previous cases, unsuspecting women found their worlds turning topsy turvy in just one moment. The perpetrators of hate in many instances are not nabbed. This is clear from the call for genocide against Muslims we witnessed in late December. When the rule of law is not part of the predictable expectations citizens have in a democracy, institutional redressal simply fails. This is not to say that nabbing perpetrators is not important. One needs to be able to exercise a variegated yardstick of online offenses. The Bulli bai case points to the paradox that those who perpetrated violence and rights violations, in this case, are an insignificant part of a larger socio-political fabric in which religious polarisation and hate against Muslims is the ordering principle. They are not just the tip of the iceberg, but in some sense, foot soldiers of an ideology that many others, much more powerful than them construct, endorse, normalize. The powerful cant be nabbed easily when institutions of democracy are not impartial, humane and just.

We need a balanced approach to deal with cyber offences - one that does not penalise free speech, but at the same time ensures that the chilling effect of misogyny and hate against people from vulnerable/marginal locations is taken cognizance of. Laws for privacy and personal data protection could go some distance in protecting women and checking impunity of perpetrators. Platform liability and accountability are much needed - and inaction by platforms in the case of illegal content must be dealt with seriously by the law of the land.
The antidote also lies in the elementary, but long term, processes that make us all citizens - how our education system is, how we approach the seemingly innocent aesthetics and sensibilities of curriculum, our media, our fiction, etc.

Q: Is the abuse on these platforms a direct consequence of deeply sexist mindsets, irrespective of the community it comes from or is directed to? How can one disentangle the different aspects of this behaviour?

Sexism is an ingredient that fuels social power crossculturally. But the manifestations of sexism and misogyny are situated. The corporeal experience of misogyny is always at specific locations. A study we have done about women in public-political life on Twitter shows that attacks are particularised. so - if you are a single, unmarried woman in politics, you may be subject to degrading abuse that refers to you as a "sexually starved" person. Even if you are from the ruling party, you may not be protected from such attacks and vilification.

While the truth of sexism is the common thread that penalises all women in society, the experience of hate assumes a multidimensional quality rendering women from locations or communities with least social power the most vulnerable. Expletives that are used against a dalit woman are not generic; they directly attack her disempowering social antecedents as a dalit. In patriarchal societies that are Brahminical (as in south asia), and highly regressive when it comes to controls exercised over women's and girl's sexual and bodily freedoms, attacks on women are also acts of patriarchal, masculine assertion of communitarian supremacy. This plays out everywhere in the south asian subcontinent.

What I am trying to say is that - experiences of misogyny and their consequences need to be seen for their origins in and ramifications of social power, social hierarchies and the social arrangements of oppression that are historical. The digital space brings new complications to these social arrangements. And as always, resistance to the current order is also visible in the many ways by which women also use the online space. The task of mounting a challenge to the powers that be is by no means easy, but it is important to note that many of those who have been subject to harassment are telling us that they will stay and be seen and heard.

Q:A lot of social media handles on Instagram that engage in this vile behaviour, sexualise women using photos and images that may not be identifiable, or linked to someone prominent, but does the very existence and continuation of these handles point towards a larger malaise that remains unchecked? Could anything be done if so?

Anonymity is necessary - (as privacy is) - for the powerless to speak up and for social discourse to allow democratic debates. The handles themselves are not the problem. Instagram's policies for example are clear that Illegal Content or Hate Speech, Bullying, and Abuse - including threats of violence, hate speech and the targeting of private individuals will be de-platformed, as also attacks or abuse based on race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, disability or disease. These community guidelines can be the basis of complaints to request content takedown. Offenses concerning circulation of non-consensual images are well covered by the law, and enforcement authorities in any case can trace perpetrators if they wish to and take action (with the exception of those in other national jurisdictions).

The real issue is that the platform may not pay heed to credible complaints nor offer explanations to users for refusal to take down images that are non-consensual or violative. And similarly, law enforcement authorities may not act in the interest of complainants, dismissing such offenses with patronizing advice or complete apathy or sometimes, even shocking victim-blaming.

Much more needs to be done by platforms to publicize their complaints mechanisms, put out reports of action taken on complaints in the public domain, and use cutting-edge technology to hash and create a digital fingerprint for patently illegal content/links that violate community guidelines. The refinement of these guidelines and harmonization with the law of the land is another important issue - not without contentions, but important, nevertheless.

All of us as online citizens need to become responsible bystanders  -- calling out and flagging handles/ tweets/ posts that perpetrate rights violations. Training enforcement authorities, lawyers, and judicial officers to recognize the nature of cyberattacks on women is also important.

Excerpts from this interview were published by the Quint in their piece United by Misogyny: The Larger Problem of Sexualising Hindu, Muslim Women. Read it here.

Explore more of our work on online gender-based hatespeech as part of the Recognize, Resist & Remedy Project.

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