Online Protests, Standing Up For Women’s Rights In Solidarity Is Not Just ‘Armchair Activism’

For women who have access to the internet and social media, speaking up about issues and standing with others in a sisterhood is more than just 'armchair activism'. 

For women who have access to the internet and social media, speaking up about issues and standing with others in a sisterhood is more than just ‘armchair activism’. 

For urban Indian women, the internet and social media provide platforms that allow them to bypass gatekeeping, speak up about the issues that matter to them, and build support networks. However, much more needs to be done to ensure that these platforms become safe spaces that allows dissent to flourish.

I abhor the term ‘armchair activism.’ Yes, there are many who use the internet to “perform” dissent and gain social brownie points, without any deeper engagement. However, to tar everyone who uses digital spaces as a platform for dissent with the same brush, would be a mistake.

There is some value to screaming into the void of the internet.

Especially for educated, urban women, the internet in general, and social media platforms in particular, are powerful tools, that they use to challenge the patriarchy. I should know – I am one myself.

The internet for me has performed multiple roles. It has been teacher, amplifier, and friend.

How the digital space prepares the ground for dissent

I doubt I would have found my identity as a writer, if it weren’t for the internet. First via social media posts and personal blogs, and later via online literature magazines, and digital platforms like Women’s Web, I have consistently been able to talk about the issues that matter to me, and have found support and solidarity from others like me. I have access to information that I need, both personally and professionally.

From others like me, and more importantly from others who are very different to me, I have learnt. By following Dalit women, queer women, disabled women, Black women, Muslim women etc. online I have come to understand the narrowness of my own feminism, and while I wouldn’t presume to call myself an ‘ally,’ I would say that it has helped me understand the ways in which I can do better. Even as I have come to understand the impossibility of claiming an “universal sisterhood” in a world that is fractured by inequalities, it has helped me understand my own privileges – and by extension helped me understand where my opinion and voice matter, and where my silence and amplification of other voices is necessary.

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It also has helped me find sisterhood, with a tribe of women who share my interests and ideologies – something I have struggled to find offline all my life. I share some deep bonds with women I haven’t actually met in person yet, who I feel like I have known all my life. They sustain me with their empathy, solidarity and words of advice.

All of the above put together, give me, and others like me, the confidence to dissent.

Examples of digital dissent

A particularly strong example of somewhat successful dissent in recent times is the #MeToo movement. One doubts if the movement would have had the reach it did, without the digital platforms that enabled it.

As Priyanka Dubey writes in her powerful book, No Nation For Women, the journey to justice for Indian women is full of hurdles. The police and judicial systems are patriarchal and misogynistic. “Shame of losing one’s family, job, friends, social circle, and most importantly, the fear of losing one’s self respect, keeps women away from reporting rape at police stations…In a situation such as this, with little or no help extended from the legal and administrative infrastructure, most women either choose to stay silent or back out from complaints…” she writes.

Indira Jaisingh writes in this powerful letter, how even the language used in court is often casually misogynistic.

In such a situation, the #MeToo movement has enabled many women to come out with their stories, and find solidarity, if not justice. It has also pushed the conversation, ever so slightly away from punishment for the rapist to rehabilitation and restorative justice for the survivor.

Admittedly, not much has happened in terms of change in organizational policies, or law, but one hopes that even that will come, as the voices of dissent keep getting louder.

Social media is also a medium to throw light on and challenge traditions and social beliefs and practices that are regressive. For example, as this piece by Kivleen Sahni, for The Citizen, points out, digital artists, in response to the Netflix show Indian Matchmaking, flooded social media with pictures of women who do not fit the conventional beauty standards of ‘fair and slim’.

The personal is political, and so also is dissent

In a culture where women are dissuaded from being ‘political’, women are increasingly awakening to the fact that the personal too, is political. We have seen women protesting not only about ‘women’s issues’, but also engaging with bigger issues like the CAA-NRC issue, or even the farmer’s protests happening right now. When the mainstream media is increasingly serving fascist agendas, the voices of individuals who can speak truth to power are all the more important.

Here, social media becomes useful, not only to register protest, but also to plan and disseminate information about on ground activism. Especially when the youth, who are intimately familiar with these platforms, and who are able to creatively leverage it, get involved, social media becomes a powerful tool of dissent indeed.

The dark side of the internet

Yet, the digital space also has a dark side that is hostile to women. Women often are subjected to enormous amounts of online abuse, that range from unsolicited sexual messages, to rape threats, to offline stalking and attacks. Worse, a woman must also face victim shaming, for “attracting” such abuse. 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.

Even the government itself is using internet shutdowns to curb dissent. As this insightful article says, “Shutdowns also have a particularly adverse effect on women’s lives. In areas where women’s presence in public spaces is already limited, having further lack of access to information is detrimental to their rights and freedoms.”

Whenever I have had to deal with trolls online, I’ve always had my female friends to back me up. I’ve done the same for them, when they have been at the receiving end. This solidarity is wonderful. But it is not a permanent solution.

What is needed, to ensure that both digital dissent, and the solidarities it helps build thrive, are safer, more ethical platforms, an assurance of privacy, better legal protection, and a police and judiciary that allow women to be digital citizens, fully, freely and without fear.

Forums like NGAGE, a virtual forum from Durga, help to foster this kind of connection.

Gender Equity paves the way for Equality

NGAGE (Next-Gen Advocates for Gender Equity) is a virtual forum from Durga in partnership with Women’s Web for tomorrow’s leaders – our youth.

Why youth? They have the power to bring about major changes, in their personal and social circles, for a gender-equitable future!

The Forum is also open to all allies of Gender Equity.

Register to this insightful 3-day virtual forum and interact with thought-leaders and peers to learn more on how we can be changemakers in our capacities.


Image source: geralt on pixabay

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