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Online abuse aims to attack and dehumanise women. Are we ready to join these Malayalam actresses who are raising their voice through Women in Cinema Collective?
Do you think twice about making a strongly opinionated post on social media? If you are challenged about your views, especially by a man who disagrees with you, do you pretend to agree with him even though he hasn’t changed your mind?
Are you wary of opening DMs sent by strangers, especially from men you don’t know? Have you been sent sexually explicit messages/photos? Have you been at the receiving end of rape threats/ threats of violence for sharing your opinion online about things like movies, books, current affairs etc?
For women with an opinion, the online space is a hostile one. In fact, women don’t even need to have an opinion, to face abuse online. From their skin colour, to their weight, to the clothes they are wearing in the pictures they post, women receive abuse just for existing online.
It is to bring about the unfairness meted out to women online, that the Women In Cinema Collective, which aims to promote women in cinema, and protect their rights, especially in the Malayalam film industry, has started the #RefuseTheAbuse campaign.
In support of the campaign, prominent actors like Manju Warrier, Anna Ben, Ranjini Haridas, Nimisha Sajayan, Srinda and Saniya Iyappan, posted videos with messages for their fans, highlighting the harms of cyberbullying, and emphasizing that it is not okay.
The collective is also sharing excerpts from a 2019 study by J Devika, Chithra Vijayakumar, Darshana Sreedhar Mini, Resmi PS and Elizabeth Alexander titled, “Walking on Eggshells – A study on gender justice and women’s struggles in Malayali Cyberspace.”
The link to the research report itself was also shared in a blog post titled, ‘Malayali Culture in Cyber Space.’
A 2018 report by the National Crime Records Bureau, showed that cases of cyberstalking or bullying of women or children increased by 36% from the previous year, even as the conviction rate for the same fell by 15 percentage points. While I can’t find the current numbers, I am sure that they have only become worse in the ensuing years.
As someone who is very vocal online, I have been at the receiving end of more than just a little abuse –and not just from men. From calls to ‘stop writing,’ to intentionally ‘misunderstanding’ my work, to ‘angry’ comments from people who haven’t even bothered to fully read what I’ve written, to personal comments about my character, to sexually explicit messages, I’ve experienced it all, and it is more than just unpleasant.
There are other reasons these days to be wary of what one writes and says online, and such abuse on top of that is a strain on the mental health. In no way am I going to let myself be silenced, because I do #RefuseTheAbuse, but I do wish that I had better legal protection.
I am lucky, because I have the support of my family, who do not force me to stop writing or stop using social media. However, in most cases, women are often victim blamed for the abuse they face. The refrain is often, “she should have known better,” “why did you post that?” etc. The result is that, in the name of “protection,” their right to free speech and expression gets curbed – both by their family and by the police.
In a way, they get punished for the actions of the abuser.
All the women surveyed for the aforementioned study reported that family support is the single most important thing necessary to help them fight such harassment. However, they also said that having family support was just a starting point. “The real hurdle lay in the police station. In each, convincing police officers of the seriousness of the violation was a laborious task even for women with considerable political connections and social networks, and even when senior police officers had already intervened on their behalf.”
I have developed my own ways to navigate my way across this abuse, but it shouldn’t be my responsibility to do so. The idea that ‘if you say something online, you will be attacked, and you should just deal with it,’ is just not okay, even though it is widely accepted. It puts the responsibility to protect oneself on the person being abused.
It is like saying that ‘if you walk on the road, you may be run over by a car, and you should just learn to accept it.’
Just like we have laws against people running over each other on the roads, and protections and compensations for those who are the victims of accidents, there need to be laws and protections that ensure that everyone can use the internet and social media, freely and safely.
This means that social media companies need to step up and better regulate how complaints about abusive comments/content are handled. Our state and national legislatures should draft new laws, and provide legal protections. The police has to learn new ways of investigating complaints, and enforce laws. Our judiciary, at every level, should be able to provide justice to those who have been unfairly targeted online.
One can only hope that at least one abuser will see the light and change his ways as a result of the #RefuseTheAbuse campaign. I hope that this gives women the confidence that they are not alone, and encourages them to speak up about the same. But most importantly, I hope that this urges social media companies, the police, and the judiciary to reevaluate how they do things, and make the necessary changes to ensure that women can be digital citizens, fully, freely and without fear.
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