Often, we hear that with the increase in the number of people accessing the internet and social media, it has been an empowering journey for many, with women and other marginalised groups being able to freely express their opinion in the public sphere which never had been possible in the past.
However, with greater participation from the society at large, the internet also became a place filled with hostility as societal vulnerabilities crept inside. While many of us have faced online bullying, it is the women, people who identify as queer, people from Dalit communities, people of colour, and religious minorities who have faced the brunt.
Joseph Swetnam, in the 17th century, wrote an ‘anti-women’ pamphlet which became highly popular and also received criticism from various women. ‘Swetnam the Woman-Hater, Arraigned by Women’, an anonymously written feminist play, had the character Swetnam who was named Misogynus. Partly because of its origin, it still is defined by many dictionaries as ‘hatred against women’.
The second wave of feminism, with Andrea Dworkin’s 1974 feminist critique, brought a new understanding of the term misogyny. The understanding suggested that misogyny is evidently structural, as even if individuals did not hate women society was structured in a way which posed a certain bias against women.
Women across the world who frequent social media has faced online abuse. These range from threats of violence, discrimination, online harassment, doxxing, sharing sexual and private messages without consent, and more. The perpetrators hail from across the political spectrum; from white supremacists, men’s rights activists, right-wing Hindutva men and leftist anti-identity politics pages.
Apparently, any view with which men do not agree brings hostile men in comment boxes and inboxes with rape threats, threats of organised violence and in many cases personal information of the woman are put out in the public sphere without any consent on the part of the woman.
There are online groups, pages and subreddits that posts anti-feminist rants, objectify women, openly sexist and sometimes legitimize their actions by distorting narratives of old classics, philosophy and using famous anti-feminist academics like Jordan Peterson.
According to Kiruba Munusamy, an advocate at the Supreme Court of India, the character of online abuse apart from being gendered is also casteist. “It gets even worse when the abuser finds out that the person posting her picture or opinion belongs to a ‘lower caste’,” she recounted. “Comments on a short dress turn into comments on a woman belonging to a lower caste wearing them.”
For many women, the empowering effects of the space that social media provides becomes a space associated with horrific experiences. Due to the recurrence of abuse, many women are forced to change their online behaviour and beliefs. This defeats the whole purpose of such a space. In many cases, women have had to move out of their homes, stop going outside, and diminish their social interactions because of the fear of violence.
In a personal account, a friend of mine narrated her experience on Facebook when she was at school. Men and boys constantly approached her inbox and insisted her to go out on dates in spite of her constant negative response. They repeatedly asked her of private and personal information until and unless she blocked the accounts. When her family got to know about her usage of social media, she was denied access to the internet.
Many women like my friend have been denied access to information and the right to free speech in the offline world and when they approach the online space they are vehemently attacked by the misogynistic groups.
When Suzanna Danuta Walters’ op-ed “Why can’t we hate men?”, was published in the Washington Post she was criticised by men and women, but, the criticisms from men came with death threats, while women mostly seemed to politely disagree. Incidents like this evidently describe how the right to freedom of speech and individual liberty is cracked down when men protect their privilege.
While writing this piece, I came across a news report that takes online abuse to unprecedented levels. A recent report by HuffPost Canada narrates the incident of a disgusting sticker that was shared by some employees of a Canadian oil company in Alberta.
The sticker depicted a girl-like figure, being sexually assaulted, with the name of the environmental teen activist Greta Thunberg. The name of the oil company was written boldly in the sticker. The oil company repeatedly denied its involvement, and when asked for comment because it depicted a rape of a minor the general manager of the company replied, “She’s not a child, she’s 17.”
The Alberta Energy Industry has been constantly under pressure from global communities to cut carbon emissions. Greta is known for her climate activism and her fearless questioning in the face of climate change to world leaders.
I feel the incident clearly depicts that when women speak up, finding no other response, masculine enterprises resort to flagrant misogyny and threat of violence.
In this era of online misogyny, the only way, I think, is for women and all marginalised groups to organise and reclaim the public sphere, both offline and online, and cracking down on any display of misogyny while simultaneously laying bare the structural biases.