Why men won't let women speak

Even as public fury builds up in the case of the mob murders of Reuben Fernandez and Keenan Santos, two Mumbai boys who stood up against the sexual harassment of their female friend, an online campaign seeks to highlight how women are not safe from misogyny and violence in the virtual world either. Women bloggers tell Sowmya Rajaram, while they are inured to it, they certainly don't take it lying down

Hey sweet t**s I'd like to bend you over a dumpster sometime and f**k you up the a**. Let me know when you are free."  "When a woman has to go through 1% of what a typical non-alpha man has to go through then maybe she can talk about having actual problems. Until that happens women should keep their mouths shut."

Women are at risk in the real world too, and yet we manage to travel,
work and live reasonably safe lives. There are laws to protect us and
there is a social structure in place; it tells you what's permissible and
what's not. Whatever safety and freedom we enjoy, comes because we
all recognise this structure. I'm hoping that the Internet will follow the
same principle. This will be hastened if there are tangible measures
attached to curb online harassment. -- Blogger Ramya Pandyan 
Pic/ Satyajit Desai

Outraged? There's lots more where that came from, on a Twitter hashtag called Mencallmethings. An attempt to highlight the misogyny and trolling women are subjected to online, whether in the blogosphere or on social media networks, the hashtag, started by US blogger Sady Doyle, has been making some serious news for the last two weeks.

The regular garden variety trolls who want to have sex with you are a
daily nuisance on Twitter. You just ignore them... The campaign
(Mencallmethings) draws attention to something that most people accept,
and don't believe is an issue to start with. -- kiran manral Blogger
and Twitter personality
Pic/ Rane Ashish

While women are no strangers to gender-specific violence, what everyone knew but didn't always talk about is the extent of hate they face in the virtual world, simply because they are women with opinions. "Often enough," blogger and self-confessed 24x7 tweeter Kiran Manral tells us in response to a question about how often she faces misogynistic cyber bullying. "The regular garden variety trolls, who want to have sex with you, are a daily nuisance on Twitter. You have to just ignore them," she continues, wryly.

Manral, who is well known online for writing across six blogs, dealing with subjects ranging from parenting to child sexual abuse and violence against women, welcomes the campaign for highlighting an issue, that, like molestation or sexual harassment on the street, isn't taken seriously enough. "The campaign draws attention to something that most don't believe is an issue to start with," she feels.

Harini Calamur, prolific 'Tweeter' and the author of the blog called POV, agrees. "I'm glad stuff like this is out in the open. Some of the things could be an over-reaction, but a lot of it is real and what people deal with online," she says. The Mumbai-based blogger, who, for seven years, has been posting a combination of opinions, photographs, reviews and views on anything that catches her fancy, recalls a time when she was disturbed by violent, sexist remarks that would make it to her blog. Today, she ignores or simply blocks those IDs.

The anonymity of the web
Sociologists and researchers ascribe this variety of violent behaviour to what they call deindividuation, a process through which an individual's sense of self is reduced by the environment. Michael Marshall, moderator of the website of New Scientist magazine, explains the term in a 2007 article as, "Social psychologists have known for decades that, if we reduce our sense of our own identity; a process called deindividuation, we are less likely to stick to social norms. For example, in the 1960s, Leon Mann studied a nasty phenomenon called 'suicide baiting', when someone threatening to jump from a high building is encouraged to do so by bystanders.

Mann found that bystanders were more likely to behave in such a manner if they were part of a large crowd, if the jumper was above the seventh floor, and if it was dark. These are all factors that allowed the observers to lose their own individuality."

But what about sexism and gender-specific violence? In a 1999 paper titled, Gender and the Internet: Sex, Sexism, and Sexuality, Lisa R Hoffman makes an interesting point. "The fact that the Internet was originally designed by the DOD (US Department of Defence) and was male-dominated from its inception, means that the few activities that took place were structured primarily by men.

Not surprisingly, most Internet subscribers are men, resulting in a male-dominated cyberculture. Kimberly J Cook and Phoebe M Stambaugh state that the problem for women is that men got there first; thus cyberspace reflects male socialisation and interests. A growing number of complaints about the hostile climate for women and unwanted sexual advances and sexual harassment has been reported by institutions supporting Internet access."

Mahim resident Ramya Pandyan, who blogs at Idea-smithy and XX Factor three times a week, agrees. "The anonymity offered by the Internet allows for any sort of behaviour. Women are at risk in the real world too, and yet we manage to travel, work and live reasonably safe lives. There are laws to protect us and there is a social structure in place; it tells you what's permissible and what's not. Whatever safety and freedom we do enjoy, comes because we all recognise this structure. I'm hoping that the Internet will follow the same principle. This will be hastened if there are tangible measures attached to curbing online harassment. We're still in the early days of figuring out how to handle a worldwide open and free medium."

Janaki Ghatpande, the face behind since 2004 agrees. "Women face it even more because of an inability to perhaps deal with views they don't like and being abusive is the only way they know how to express disapproval. Full equality in all spheres will ensure that abuse of this kind will reduce. Since it is not the case in everyday life, equality and its acceptance on the net may be a long way off."

How dare you say that?
Interestingly, it's not only chauvinistic men who take it upon themselves to decide that women, by virtue of their sex, cannot harbour opinions. A Delhi-based freelance journalist and blogger (name withheld on request) behind six year-old blog The Mad Momma has experienced cyber-bullying at the hands of women too.

"The assumption seems to be that because I have a uterus and talk about my children, I'm not allowed to have an opinion on social or political matters. Women have been vitriolic, saying I should stick to writing about my children." That's one of the reasons she has chosen to keep her identity a secret, because she doesn't want her opinions and responses to comments  colour people's judgement about her husband and children.

"The fact that I am very clear that I work flexi-hours also inspires anger, mostly from working women who decide that I can't have a brain or anything to do since I talked about spending an afternoon at the park with my children," she tells us, in a telephonic interview.

Pandyan finds that it's the issues she discusses, often those that have no easy answers, that attract offensive responses. "There are rabid ones that blame women's liberation, working women and women in general for the downfall of society, the breakdown of marriage and even the increase in rapes. Expressing such sentiments in the real world would provoke severe reactions. Online, they are just shrugged off as 'creepy characters on the Internet'," she says.

Examples range from commentators, who have responded to a post on her views on marriage with a Taliban-esque list of Do's and Dont's on women's clothing, to those who have interpreted her post on what annoys her about men to mean, as one comment put it, "the problem with women.. you are always self-centred... in this case.. its ri8 to call you a B***h.... I wil b surprised if anybody had proposed to an idiot like you!!"

"When we took up the Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month in April 2011, we were sent child porn links, accused of running a pornography blog, of publishing rubbish to titillate when all we were publishing were actual survivor stories. When we observed Violence Against Women Awareness Month, we received maximum trolling on days we 'tweeted' and wrote about Domestic Violence. We were called home-breakers and worse," recalls Munral. She puts such behaviour down to a misplaced sense of morality and righteousness.

Solution lies in awareness
While the existence of a campaign like Men Call Me Things is interesting, Pandyan cautions against letting it be "sabotaged by the very people whose minds it's meant to change." She explains, "When I logged into Twitter to check out #mencallmethings, I found #LadiesWe WantAnswers trending. This hashtag was intended to raise pertinent questions around the shifting social equations. However, the stream was pouring out filthy taunts, sleazy comments and passes to women."

The Mad Momma adds that she doesn't agree with criticism that the campaign defeats the very purpose it is meant to serve by calling attention to something that's dangerous. "I don't think the campaign provides an opportunity for this kind of behaviour to be displayed, in fact, it's letting people know that such a problem exists."

Pandyan has the final word. "I believe that talking about problems is the first step to resolving them. From there, the next step is realising that if it happens to so many people, it can't be 'just my fault'. Get enough people to believe that and perhaps one of them will figure out a solution. Where there's a need and a sizeable one at that, a solution will eventually turn up."

A selection of what else the haters have said (at least the stuff we can print)
"What terrible tragedy must have befallen you at the hands of a man, to have turned you into such a venomous, vindictive shrew? Did your daddy refuse to buy you a Cadillac when first you got your driver's license?...Whatever the cause, you sure have got it in for us." "Everyone on #MenCallMeThings is a whiny, blubbering baby. Please kill yourselves right now."

Kiran Manral: "The online world is like the offline world, there are the good, the bad and the ugly. Watch the company you keep. And if you do get trolled, don't take it personally. Block. Ignore. Trolls feed on attention, when you respond, you give them just that. If you refuse to rise to the bait, it frustrates them."

Ramya Pandyan: "My spam filter is set to a basic level, so the obvious foul words get screened out. If someone is starting to bother me, I approach them in private, if there is an email address, Facebook account or Twitter account available. If none of these are available, I respond to their comment wherever it has shown up, asking them to refrain from trolling. I block them. In the more persistent cases, I've tweeted and blogged about it. Reader response often helps, as other people shame (or scare) the offender into shutting up."

The Mad Momma: "When I realised these people don't deserve the free publicity they get by way of their hate, I stopped taking notice." She recalls an instance of persistent trolling by a male ID, who accused her of posting naked pictures of her children online (after she posted a picture of herself massaging her newborn) and made comments to the effect that breastfeeding and a thinking brain couldn't go together, which led her to contemplate paying a visit to the cyber crime cell. "Through tech-savvy friends, I figured out who it was, and sent across a message about lodging a complaint with the cyber crime cell. I also took a screen shot of his page. As soon as my threat was conveyed, every mention of my blog was deleted, and all the posts were taken down."

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