About our guest contributor: Vani Viswanathan is a student of M.A. in Development Studies in Mumbai. She is especially passionate about women’s issues, and her M.A. dissertation explores the influence of Tamil cinema in college students’ perceptions of sexual harassment. She is also an avid writer, and co-edits an online literary magazine Spark (www.sparkthemagazine.com). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When was the last time you clicked ‘Like’ on a Facebook post by a page whose cause you associated with? Or shared an article whose content you agreed or disagreed with? Or signed a petition for a cause you wholeheartedly support?
Welcome to the world of online activism. The internet has been such a big leap forward for many of us in terms of helping us know more and connect with often unknown people on shared ideas, thoughts, passions and – as this blog does – shared forms of oppression. It has especially been powerful in giving the oppressed, often silenced communities a voice. The sheer volume of information from across the world exposes our minds to things we might never have thought of before.
I personally consider the internet as having given shape to my nascent feminist ideas. I strongly believe online activism is very much a force to reckon with. I think it has especially given a boost to the Indian women’s movement, taking it to a different level by letting passionate individuals – in addition to organisations – lead causes of their own. Take, for instance, the Blank Noise project, started by Jasmeen Patheja in 2003 as a college final year project, or the Pink Chaddi campaign, started by Nisha Susan, a freelance editor/writer. While the Pink Chaddi campaign raised a lot of attention during its short life, the Blank Noise project has today grown into a national-level movement raising awareness on street sexual harassment – and all this was possible because of the internet. Additionally, it has helped spread the bases further – into the hinterlands, for causes in the hinterlands. Finally, a very positive development is that the internet has helped extend the cause to cover all aspects of gender, not just women – it now embraces the transgenders, intersex too.
One such movement that especially intrigued me was SlutWalk in Kolkata. Led by an enthusiastic group of college-going students, they survived nation-level dissent against the SlutWalk movement in general, targeting its relevance in a place like India, where arguing for the ‘right to walk dressed any way they wanted’ belied the ‘more basic’ issues of dowry deaths, female foeticide, etc. and was irrelevant in rural areas. Others argued that the word ‘slut’ was hardly used among the larger Indian populace, and therefore the movement was restricting itself to the small upper/upper-middle class aware of the word. A few wondered why Indian women, who have earlier fought against objectification, now want to be ‘called sluts.’
These concerns are beside the point: sexual harassment is as much as an urban problem as it is rural; it has nothing to do with the clothing the harassed survivor wore, and SlutWalk movements across the world have given participants the freedom to dress the way they liked, not only as ‘sluts.’ Finally, using the name ‘slut’ was a reflection of the patriarchal ascriptions to a woman’s behaviour: that she dress a particular way, behave a particular way, be out only at particular times – any transgression made her a bad woman, a ‘slut.’ One of the organisers, Shreya Sen, said that ‘slut’ pretty much captures the essence of victim-blaming, for it almost justifies sexual assault on someone. The Kolkata movement therefore wished to retain the name ‘SlutWalk,’ giving the movement a shock value, and a possibility of reclaiming the word for a positive use, such as was done with the word ‘queer’ and ‘gay.’ Indeed, the movement also had queer and transgender participants.
To me, this movement exemplifies the changing nature of the Indian women’s movement, and the way the internet is supporting it. The SlutWalk Kolkata movement was pretty much led online, with their Facebook group being the medium that helped form the organising team, the vehicle to mobilise participants, the primary information resource, but most importantly, the platform for discussion. Hundreds of discussion threads on a diverse range of topics around dressing, Indian ‘culture,’ sexual harassment, saw many, many participants, and hundreds of comments (sometimes going up to 700!), which continues to this day. While posters were pasted in college campuses across the city, and pamphlets distributed at busy junctions, the Facebook page essentially mobilised and helped conducted the actual walk, held in May 2012.
One may wonder just how much the internet is useful in raising awareness in a country like India, where barely 10% of the population is online. Statistics show that over 50% of the online population goes online using their mobile phones; with mobile connectivity growing in India by the day, it’s not simplistic to say that the number of internet users will increase, and will come from the hinterlands too. Additionally, organiser Sen says that urban users are just as important a target for such movements because equipped with communication and technological skills, it is very easy for them to spread their misogynistic views further. Some very disturbing comments on the Facebook page come from urban, well-educated users – why should they be any less of an important target in tackling sexual assault?
Julie Zeilinger, a popular feminist blogger in her early 20s, argues that the web has allowed feminists across the world to unite, see what ‘sisters’ in other countries are doing and support them, give access to real stories from people going through situations one has only heard of. I can’t help but agree. Thanks to the internet, we are opened up to a world of possibilities and a host of ideas from distant geographies, which make us question the status quo. Online activism may not change the world, but it enables us to dream of a society that respects individuals for who they are, and try to move towards such a society.