Without Fear ?
Exploring online civic space participation by marginalised women in India
Women activists and political organisers who belong to marginalised groups and challenge oppressive social orders often face state scrutiny, identity-based delegitimisation, sexual harassment and abuse in India’s online civic space.
This online civic space also seems to be ‘shrinking’ due to the increased criminalisation of dissent, social media censorship, internet shutdowns, troll and bot manipulations, and widespread hate against religious minorities and oppressed caste groups.
While such ‘shrinking’ is assumed to repress all civic space actors equally, women organisers belonging to marginalised groups often bear disproportionate impacts and heightened abuse. This is likely due to the reproduction of social power structures within the civic space (including online), and the marginalised groups having limited access to legal, medical and financial aid, political power and social networks of influence.
Marginalised women have been historically excluded by the mainstream Indian feminist movement, which is framed for an archetypal Hindu, upper-caste, cis-gendered urban, middle-class woman. Since proportionally few marginalised women have access to participate in India’s online civic space, any shrinking disproportionately affects them as they are already underrepresented.
This qualitative, exploratory study examines marginalised women’s participation in the online civic space through in-depth interviews with 12 participants.
Censorship and self-censorship
One participant reported censorship attempts by state actors while another stated feeling direct and indirect state presence through the surveillance of her livelihood. Nearly all participants reported practising ‘self-censorship’ due to state surveillance, criminalisation and online speech repression. Such ‘self-censorship’ was not directed by their ‘free’ will but by the fear of possible state repression. Participants were habituated to being hypervigilant about the content they shared in the public domain and its tone. They constantly carried out risk assessments in their heads of the limits within which they could express their opinions without getting into trouble or facing further repression.
Delegitimisation and harassment
Two-thirds of the participants faced online sexual harassment from platform users. Participants reported attacks on their identity with casteist, Islamophobic, homophobic and transphobic remarks; misogyny and collective trolling; unauthorised access and use of personal information (e.g. morphed photos) and hateful messages in their inboxes. Participants reported increased harassment when the content they shared received more visibility or had higher reach.
Powerlessness and impact on personal life
Participants reported feeling various degrees of fear and powerlessness, inseparable from their marginalised identity and the lack of access to capital or influential networks. Several participants expressed the fear that they may be subject to legal proceedings or unjust incarceration. They raised concerns about the risks by association for their family and friends, doxing, account takedowns and the consequent loss of networks, and the wider implications of state persecution, such as impacts on livelihood, future employment and pursuit of higher education.
Impact on mental health
A majority of participants reported adverse impacts on their mental health due to online harassment by platform users and hostile interactions with state actors. They described feeling trauma, triggers, hurt, depression, anxiety and shock. Some participants had taken social media breaks for their mental health. Without support systems such as publicly funded mental health facilities, participants’ mental health risks remained largely unaddressed.
Inadequate support from reporting mechanisms
All participants reported receiving inadequate redressal from online reporting mechanisms. They highlighted that reporting mechanisms do not account for context, have limitations as they are designed to only censor specific words or phrases, and are content-agnostic, which enables censoring of human rights abuse documentation.
On approaching law enforcement
A majority of participants reported that they did not feel comfortable approaching the police for online harassment. This is unsurprising given the police’s historical and present role in enforcing social hierarchies.
In order to navigate the unsafe online civic space, participants reported making their accounts private and refrained from sharing their personal information, work or field information and physical location. Participants did not necessarily have greater awareness about, or access to, digital safety and privacy.
Steering online discourse
Participants reported that the mainstream Indian feminist movement was exclusionary. They shared that the online civic spaces were often captured by privileged persons who offered conditional allyship or spoke on behalf of marginalised women. Some participants shared that they were slotted into specific, narrow categories and work domains. Participants also reported the risks of having their labour appropriated by bigger accounts run by privileged persons. Here, they identified algorithmic features and technological tools as facilitators of erasure and appropriation. Lastly, participants reported how online discourse on specific movements have started being steered by communities themselves only recently.
This exploratory study recommends:
- Systematic, comprehensive and disaggregated documentation of abuse which captures the particular experiences of organisers in their self-determined, intersectional identities;
- A disaggregated and longitudinal study of vulnerabilities and risks from online abuse to help determine appropriate support and redressal strategies;
- Further research about platform governance (including its purpose), platform architecture and the political economies of platform profits and state patronage;
- Building diverse and specialised networks that provide safety, legal, medical and technological support to the different groups of marginalised women online;
- Studying access and power within the online civic space and the feminist movement to help dismantle power hierarchies; and
- Studying the exercise of police powers, including police discretion, online.
The complete report can be freely accessed here under CC-BY-SA 4.0.