Misogyny In The ‘New’ Public Sphere: How Women Navigate Social Media

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.

Understanding ‘Misogyny’

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.

Online Misogyny

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.”

From Shehla Rashid to Swara Bhaskar, every one of them have recounted receiving abusive tweets.

The Psychological Effects

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.

For many women, the empowering effects of the space that social media provides becomes a space associated with horrific experiences. Representational image.

When Suzanna Danuta Walters’ op-edWhy 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.

What Happens When Women Speak Up?

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.

Featured image for representation only.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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