Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Each time I behave as an angry, loud woman, I feel less shame and less fear

This post has been a long time coming: first, because I have not updated this blog in a long time as I spent most of the past year focused on my novel; and second, because internet trolling is something I have been thinking about, discussing and tweeting for a couple of years now.

I have been blogging, first for a separate, now defunct, site and then here, for over a decade and although I am an infrequent blogger, I learned the first rule of placing myself online early on. Initially, and for the first couple of years, my blog was read mostly by friends and family, and a few strangers who stumbled upon something I wrote by accident and who left interesting and thoughtful comments. However, even back then, my brother, who also built my first website and helped me initially design this blog was adamant that all comments be moderated. I wondered about his protectiveness and laughed it off. After all, wasn't the net the brave new world where all humans were equal?

Then one bright morning, I checked my email and found the notification for a comment awaiting moderation. Strangely enough, it was left on a post about Shilpa Shetty and Celebrity Big Brother.  It read simply, "You dumb bitch. Shut up."

The unexpected venom of the comment, left anonymously of course, stunned me.  With a great deal of naivete, I spent quite a bit of the morning wondering if I should publish the comment, and respond to it.  I walked around my flat, another cup of tea in hand, veering between anger, shock and an unreasonable flush of shame, trying to un-bundle all my emotions and thoughts, trying to make sense of a stranger's abuse. Then I remembered the very first time I had been physically harassed. I had been a teenager walking down Third Avenue in New York, when a man had suddenly reached out and grabbed my breasts.  It had only been an instant, but I remember the shock I had felt, and the instant sense of violation. And I can still call up the ineffectual fury I felt at the grin on the man's face as he stepped back, leered and then kept walking.  The teenage me had cried secretly for days, even wondered if some how my sweat pants and bulky coat were 'wrong,' or 'provocative.' Finally, a friend had talked me through it, pointing with acute insight that I had simply been on the street: "I bet you have never walked on a street alone in India. You were alone. As a female, you are prey." Those words have lingered in my mind since, with even harsher significance as that friend's country soon disintegrated into civil war and massive sexual crimes against innumerable women.

Eventually, I went back to my blog and deleted that first abusive comment, realising that online, just as in real life, I had done the same thing: by simply existing as a woman, I was prey.

As social media has grown, and more women have begun claiming a space online, this sort of abuse has also grown. The classics scholar Mary Beard's trolling has opened the debate on misogynist online abuse in the UK, yet many more women are harassed daily and receive far less attention.  On social media, especially twitter, the worst abuse appears to be directed at women who express opinions on politics, economics, security or other seemingly 'male' matters. When male commentaters express similar opinions, they do often get abused, but rarely does the abuse descend with skidding, rapid, efficiency into graphic, sexualised violence.

For example, few men active online will have received these responses to expressing their opinions: "fucking bitch, all you need is rape" (for commenting on EU economic policy); "ugly whore, I'll fuck you till you are dead (for my remark on global financial crisis); "Arab whore, how many Muslims fuck you every day" (for reading Gilad Atzmon's book); "you're so ugly, I will have to cover your face with a pillow while I fuck you" (for tweeting about Delhi gang rape); the last comment was cheered on by various others who suggested anal rape because that way they would not have to see my face. And more recently, "I will cut your cunt and ass, and fuck your mouth till you die, whore. Just like the bitch in the bus" (for tweeting on how religions, including Hinduism, aid misogyny).

Why have I listed the above? Because I have come to believe that this kind of online abuse is exactly like facing sexual harassment on the street. Women are told to keep their head down, walk fast, walk away, not make eye contact, and a thousand other little 'safety tips.' All of these apparent remedies subtly but clearly shift the blame from the abusers to the abused. They make the abuse a 'women's problem' rather than focusing on the men who make safety, even basic dignity, impossible for women.  Same happens with online abuse: too many men have told me that I am giving abusers air by naming and shaming them, that I should ignore the men who spout sick violence about women, that if I ignored them the abuse will disappear. And in that wonderful social-media condoning, I have been told by many men that "I am unfollowing you because you keep talking about abuse and not more interesting things."

Such arguments, attitudes and reactions ignore the evidence: women have stayed silent in real life for generations and there has been no palpable reduction in misogyny.  Most women in print, online, on social media, who speak their minds are harassed on a daily basis, in terms of sexualised violence and the only way the abuse stops is when they stop speaking their minds, by stopping to publish, or by leaving social media. On twitter, some of the most extraordinarily brilliant women have locked accounts to avoid abuse, and to retain the ability to express themselves in a protected space. Sadly, such online veiling also ensures they speak only to those who are allowed past their protective boundaries, limiting their audiences and reach.

For everyone who thinks women should ignore online harassment, I would ask, would you do so? How would you react if you woke up every morning to a dozen emails detailing explicit sexual violence for you and your family? Would you 'ignore' it if people you loved were abused and threatened?

Over time, I have come to believe that the only way for women to stop sexual harassment online and in real life is for more of us to speak up, as loudly, and as often as we can. But the only way to not treat sexual harassment as a 'women's problem' but a social one is for more men to actively get involved. If more men spoke up against sexual harassment of women, the abuse would be seen as less acceptable.  If more men insisted on claiming a masculinity that does not rely on non-consensual, power-based sex, we could start thinking of sexual harassment as a social, political and economic problem and not one that only impacts women (and is thus treated less seriously).  If more men acted when they saw a woman being abused (and this is more so online, as I do realise there are real safety concerns for many on the streets), fewer men would think it 'funny' or indeed 'safe' to abuse women.

After that first experience of street harassment, I promised myself that I would learn to react, physically and mentally. In subsequent instances, I have shouted and shouted loudly; I have reacted physically, hit out, and in one case, confronted abusive men (this time in London's Brick Lane) till they backed down. For years, my sister walked in Delhi with a hockey stick and full backing from my father for using it as a weapon. Even now, we automatically keep the heavy handle lock my dad acquired for the family car in close reach while driving in India.

But more importantly, each time I take a stance, each time I behave as an angry, loud, woman (yes, a bitch, a cunt, a harpy as some of the abusers would surely consider it), I feel less shame and less fear. In taking a stand against harassment, I run the risk of escalating the abuse, but I feel more empowered and more pride for not letting myself be cowed, frightened, and pushed back to the margins.

I am fortunate. I have many men who stand up alongside me in support. And they speak for me not only because I am their daughter, sister, aunt, lover, friend, or colleague, but because they recognise me as an individual and a human being who deserves safety and dignity. More importantly, they stand as allies to women elsewhere and everywhere. I have always wished that there would be more such men because then more women, including me, would be able to participate more fully in social, economic, political struggles of our times. But then, I guess that is exactly what the abusers want to stop!

PS: Discussions with women activists across the world has thrown up an interesting little nugget: online abusers seem more able and secure in directing their vilest, most violent, abuse at women they see as their 'own' or ethnically, nationally, religiously, of their own grouping.  So the worst abuse I have received is not from the random Islamists or Middle East regime supporters, or Christian evangelists. It has come from self-professed 'Indian patriots, proud Hindus.'  This neatly mirrors the abuse my Arab women friends get, generally from men of their own countries, religions, and ethnicity, as well as the abuse focused at white, middle-class women commentaters in US and UK whose abusers are similar to them in class, race, etc. It seems, as has been noted by many feminists, there is an unspoken pact for men of each grouping to keep 'their' women in line!

PPS: This post has been long time brewing but today's post by Soraya Chemaly with its extraordinary list of abuse against women online as well as evidence that confronting abuse works gave me the impetus to actually write down my thoughts. Thanks to Soraya and to Darshana, the tweeter with @lilforeigngirl handle who sent me the piece so it was my first reading of the morning.

31 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing about what most women on the internet have probably thought about or felt at some point.
    I actually discovered a few years ago that whenever I intentionally make a comment online without identifying my gender, I am left alone and not insulted for speaking my mind. This mini-experiment taught me how much of a difference my gender makes even when I express my point of view on the internet.

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  2. THank you so much for this post. YOur insistence that harassment is a problem for EVERYBODY and not just women is essential. For some time we have been thinking (you are not alone in this observation ;) that it would be good to produce some guide book or educational material for men wishing to oppose harassment. I wonder if that is something that maybe we could put together as a collective project. So many men dont even realise or understand how they, in daily small ways, allow and approve this behaviour. I have opened a pad at this direction http://titanpad.com/4eSQkAE4QF with some first notes, maybe we could contribute all there and generate a first document ... thanks for everything. Its so encouraging what is happening now in India and Egypt (especially) in raising consciousness and opposing sexual violence. Thank you.

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  3. First of all , I can understand the pain,disappointment you are going through with the ol abuse. The more say about this is less.

    In my view, we can have difference of opinion but verbal/ol abuse is something show a persons standard/upbringing.

    Rest, your blog site look decent and approachable.Someday will take time and read archive.

    Stay happy..God bless -:)

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  4. Early in the history of the internet everyone was identified only by "handles," by newly invented names with less marking for gender, race, etc. This habit was ridiculed and driven away on the pretense that it wasn't "real," but of course it was a very real attempt at forming here an equal just non-discriminatory society. Oppressive groups and people and authorities wanted very much to bring into this conversation a clarity as to everyone's (simple, superficial, categorical) identity, so that the same habitual dramas could be enacted here to divide and control and silence.

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  5. U r strong and brave i wish every gal should speak out and react instantly to any kind of abuse or harrasment.
    God Bless

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  6. No one, woman or man, should have to put up with that kind of abuse, and I'm sorry you get that instead of rational discussion to the rational and insightful discussion you put forth. I said it on twitter and I'll say it here too (in expanded form): I hope my daughters grow up to be like you; in other words, intelligent, wise, full of compassion for their fellow human beings, and courageous.

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  7. Thank you so very much, all of you. You have no idea how much the support of even a few (brave) people means in such situations...its like oxygen for a dying planet!

    Pedro: love to collaborate so please get in touch.

    And wow! Daughters! That is serious responsiblity. I will reference what Einstein said when they suggested naming my old uni for him which basically says - don't admire anyone who is alive as you never know how they turn out in the end :-)

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  8. Well, Einstein was wrong about the cosmological constant. ;)

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  9. Well written and so true. I wish more women would read this and confront their bullies / stalkers head-on.


    - Parikshat

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  10. Bravo! And more power to you. :)
    Also, do read Ramachandra Guha's article on "internet hindus" and the kind of abusive, vitriolic comments he gets. These trolls seem to react when any set dynamic is seen to be threatened - whether it's patriarchy, or religious/racial superiority.

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  11. If you ever have a problem on twitter, I would be more than happy to come to your defense. I dont tolerate this and take great joy in pummeling men like the aforementioned. Give me a hollar. I follow you...info addict :-) I was the one who recommended using the picture of you wielding a sword as an avatar.

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  12. Thank you all for your kind comments. And informed critic - thank you! I am very grateful for the team of twitter women who rally in support and solidarity. The sword pic may be a little extreme for a DP though :-)

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  13. Great going and thanks for staying put. I have once come across a gentleman on hub pages who did not like what I wrote about, my body did shake in anger at being called stupid, but that was it. Would however say this has less to do with gender more with inability of people with contradicting point of view to handle some strange sense of power which they derive out of anonymity which Internet provides.

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  14. feel happy to read such a strong brave post.. You've written some of my thoughts not just mine but most of women's... your words give me strength.. spread it to everyone who needs it.. Thank you so much...

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  15. excellent post. u spoke for so many women out there who are targets of hate and abuse. our support with you.

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  16. you have long way to go... so keep going.... the male species are just other part of the world... they demean u... abuse u.. just to make themselves believe that they are male... but unfortunately... none of them turn in to "MAN"
    ALL THE BEST

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  17. Extreme anger, doesn't matter if expressed verbally or through physical posturing or both,is one way to confront beasts in men.Only other is,beasts cease to exist.
    Power to women!

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  18. Extreme anger, doesn't matter if expressed verbally or through physical posturing or both,is one way to confront beasts in men.Only other is,beasts cease to exist.
    Power to women!

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  19. Christopher Redl2/02/2013 1:43 pm

    The average man just doesn't know that they live in a world that shares features of NAZI Germany or Apartheid South Africa along the lines of gender. If they did I believe the average man would not tolerate the kind of abuse that you've described here. Sexism needs to have the same social standing as antisemitism or racism. Men need to know that expressing this kind of attitude is linked to actual, current and frequent violence; that when their girlfriend, mother, sister, aunt walk down the street they are prey. But the average man doesn't think this is interesting or have anything to do with the world they live in. Thank you for helping make more people realise what world they live in.

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  20. Thank you all for your encouraging and supportive comments.

    The most extraordinary part of writing this has been the realisation that most men do not realise the level of harassment and abuse women get, and how many are shocked and horrified by that knowledge. Gives me heart that so many men are horrified and angered, and also hope that perhaps more of them will now step up for women.

    Many thanks

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  21. Very interesting point. Nice blog work. I came across your blog while “blog surfing” using the Next Blog button on the Nav Bar located at the top of my blogger.com site. I frequently just travel around looking for other blogs which exist on the Internet, and the various, creative ways in which people express themselves.

    In April, I will have been blogging for 5 years. I address some pretty controversial topics. I have never moderated comments. Interestingly, I have never had a comment which I was concerned about publishing. Interesting.

    Thanks for sharing, and best wishes for the New Year.

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  22. Just a short message of support - I agree! Best wishes.

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  23. Thanks. Much appreciated.

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  24. BRILLIANT POST.
    T completely am in agreement here and i feel proud that i have never ever entertained any abuse online because i'm nobody's slave that i should listen to some abusive morons online.

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  25. Thanks for such a though provoking, honest post. When I was 18 went to a pub alone waiting for some friends. 2 men came up to me and pulled my top down "Beacuse my boobs are nice and big". I locked myself in the bathroom and cried. My grandfather told me as a woman I shouldn't have gone to the pun on my own. . He wasn't being sexist just pointing out how sad society is. I think me see woman as going they own ... It hurts -😧 M

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    1. Sadly every woman has had some sort of nasty experience like that. It is NEVER about us. It is about the entitlement that patriarchy teaches men which makes many think of women as less than fully human. Sadly even the 'good' men as in those who try to protect us are often complicit. But we fight on. Hugs

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  26. Just a quick message to say thank you for writing this. It made me well up with emotion. Please keep writing, we need your voice. It inspires other's (like me) to speak up too, and together we can challenge how we view and treat women. Thank you again.

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    1. Welcome. And thank you for your message. You are right, together we can change things. Much solidarity.

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