OPINION

Sexism, Threats and Internet Purdah

May 09, 2007
Anindita Sengupta

About two months ago, eminent tech blogger Kathy Sierra decided to stop blogging because of the horrific death threat comments she received, many of them explicitly sexual and violent. Last month, Jessica Valenti from Feministing talked about how the web became a sexists' paradise in her column at the Guardian. She mentioned her own experience with sexism in the blogosphere as well.

All of this leads me to wonder when this is going to catch up with us here in India. So far, women bloggers have been relatively safe because the blogosphere is dominated by a handful of left leaning liberals, many of whom decry bigotry at every opportunity. Not too far in the future, this may change. More people are becoming Internet-savvy. More people want a voice. More people are learning that blogging is an easy way to get one.

Feminism already has its share of urgent opposers in the blogosphere, some of whom hang out at Desicritics quite frequently. It may be only a matter of time before the rabid paranoia and misogynist hatred displayed against Kathy Sierra catches up with us here.

Even now, even without the threat of explicit sex or violence, many women bloggers tend to write under pseudonyms and refrain from using pictures. I don't have any statistics on the exact numbers of male bloggers who use their real identities either but I have a hunch that there are probably more. In her column, Jessica points out:

Some argue that the increased visibility afforded people by the internet - who doesn't have a blog, MySpace page, or Flickr account these days? - means that harassment should be expected, even acceptable.

and later,

"I think there's a tendency to put the blame on the victims of stalking, harassment or even sexual violence when the victim is a woman - and especially when she's a woman who has made herself public," says (Jill) Filipovic. "Public space has traditionally been reserved for men, and women are supposed to be quiet."

Ah, the old, timeless, tired argument. By showing themselves, being themselves, women are somehow 'asking for it'. The circumstances change; the specifics vary. The fundamentals remain the same. If you put your picture on Orkut, you are asking for a hundred hormonal boys to bombard your page with requests for friendship. If you use a real picture for your blog, you are asking to be judged on the basis of how you look instead of what you say. No wonder so many women feel that it's easier to hide. It's easier to lie. It is easier to choose purdah.

Some time last year, a rumour started doing the rounds about social networking sites. Posting your picture on the profile page was apparently dangerous because it could be stolen, tweaked and used by pornographic websites. Overnight, all my colleagues replaced their sunshiny, smiling photos with pictures of cartoon characters, flowers, birds, and faces edited to show just the eyes. Clever, yes. Creative even. Mostly, just afraid.

Undoubtedly, some people just don't want to be known because they like their privacy and this is their right. But I suspect that many women are uncomfortable with displaying their real identity--and certainly, with displaying their photographs--on the blogosphere because they are afraid of exactly the things that Kathy and Jessica have had to deal with: censure, criticism, judgment, sexual objectification and threats.

I have felt the fear too. I used to vacillate between posting my real picture and not posting anything at all until I started treading the middle path--using PhotoShop effects to obscure the features. Recently, the pictures have got clearer, truer.

Merely being oneself, showing one's true face in a public space cannot be, is not, an act of indiscretion or self-indulgence or exhibitionism. It's just somebody saying 'this is me', 'this is who I am'. It's important to remember that, no matter what space we are in. Even if it is just the Internet.

Anindita Sengupta is a freelance writer and journalist. She lives and works in Bangalore and can be contacted at anu.sengupta[at]gmail[dot]com
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Sexism, Threats and Internet Purdah

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Author: Anindita Sengupta

 

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#1
Deepti Lamba
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May 9, 2007
11:48 AM

Excellent post! The net is not a safe place but neither is the world. Anyone can take your pic in a public place and put it up- at least thats the reasoning I go by.

Obviously its a very subjective matter and boils down to personal choice but I feel we'd be letting the bogeyman curtail our freedom.

There should be stricter laws. One of our DC writers had a net stalker and she had posted an article about it.

#2
Amrita
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May 9, 2007
11:50 AM

You're right on the money when you say it is fear that keeps our pic off the net. The other day someone asked me for a pic while doing an interview and I kinda freaked out. I didn;t know what to do and nearly called the whole thing off before i realized i was over reacting and could simply say no. And then I took the passive aggressive way out and gave him a teeny tiny pic and told him i'd rather he not use it. heh.

So here's the conundrum: the comfort we find in anonymity vs. the desire for fame.

#3
Amrita
URL
May 9, 2007
11:51 AM

You're right on the money when you say it is fear that keeps our pic off the net. The other day someone asked me for a pic while doing an interview and I kinda freaked out. I didn;t know what to do and nearly called the whole thing off before i realized i was over reacting and could simply say no. And then I took the passive aggressive way out and gave him a teeny tiny pic and told him i'd rather he not use it. heh.
So here's the conundrum: the comfort we find in anonymity vs. the desire for fame.

#4
Jawahara
URL
May 9, 2007
01:24 PM

Interesting and thought-provoking post. About the danger, I totally agree with D, that the world itself is dangerous. The Internet is merely a subset of the world and reflects all the dangers of the real world.

Sometimes some of us reminsce about the pre-web Internet (yes, kids, there was such a thing) when the only denizens were professors and students from universities, some organizations and institutions. It was a safer, more innocent world...and most people had higher IQs than the "asl please," crowd that took over eventually.

But change is inevitable as the author fears. Of all the tens of millions of people on the Internet, how many are stalked and victimized? We know of one Kathy Sierra and I am sure there are some more but not everyone online is being threatened and harrassed...much like real life.

We have to take the same care online as we do in the real world I guess but we can't keep running away forever.

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