For all of its breathtaking potential, the internet has not liberated Indian women.
Instead, we have simply been made to adapt to a precarious digital environment, because the digital world mirrors the structural inequalities of our physical lives.
Before we look at how women experience the internet, a good question to ask is — how many of us experience it at all?
According to the National Family Health Survey, the percentage of women using the internet in 2020 was less than half that of men in at least 10 documented regions — an inequality compounded by a stark rural-urban divide. The first reason for this is the infrastructure. The second is the same one that disallows women and girls from wearing the clothes they like, talking to the people they like, or stepping out as and when they like. These are familiar, chronic deprivations of autonomy and power long endured at the intersections of caste, religion, and class. Once the free internet dared to change this dynamic, it became a threat waiting to be curbed. The state of access of Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Muslim, and Queer individuals is even more distressing, and this is more pertinent than ever given the kind of digitalization that COVID-19 has necessitated.
The digital is not just a reflection of the physical, it is also a resounding amplification of it.
The inequalities we experience in the physical world are simultaneously built into the anatomy of the internet and etched into our intimate engagements with technology.
On one hand, this is a story about women being highly accessible in the public sphere that is social media. Boundaries are intangible — they invite people to harass or threaten you via private messages or public announcements.
While platforms have sought to correct such mistakes over time, these mistakes exist because the safety of the vulnerable was not built into the platforms’ foundational designs. So there will only ever be imperfect corrections with varying degrees of effectiveness. This is why platforms like Twitter and Facebook continue to warp the scale of our interactions, expanding even petty violence into something larger than life.
On the other hand, this is a story about voyeurism.
Big tech incentivises objectification, relying on algorithms that position young women as a selling point to voyeurs. Even outside of social media, think about how new technologies allow for deepfakes of women to be created with ease — their faces on the naked bodies of other, virtually disembodied women — this is not just voyeurism, but exploitation, which is after all about power.
What complicates this further is that responses to such voyeurism often stem not from a rights-based approach but from a protectionist, moralistic lens.
Public authorities strip women of privacy in the name of moral accountability and safety — like when Lucknow Police thought that deploying Facial Recognition Technology on women non-consensually was a helpful, not harmful move. Or when government ministries recently sought to regulate the media by codifying patriarchal norms of “obscenity” into what we see on screen.
This is to say that the sharp eye of surveillance remains on the victims of the patriarchy, not the perpetrators.
This story may even be about the ability to have a voice. The most marginalized are historically the most stifled. The internet had once promised to change this by “democratising narratives”. But the chilling effect on free speech online in recent times affects those who have the most to lose from speaking their minds.
Has there ever been a time when women have been able to speak freely? In today’s climate, has the internet truly changed this, or amplified the problem?
Maybe this is even about ignorance, where collusion between authorities and corporations threatens to potentially take away even the most basic rights of the marginalized via unconstitutional provisions.
How can we not question the unhindered access of intelligence agencies to our data, when so many stand by their belief that these institutions — functioning on dominance and coercion — are built around assertions of masculine aggression?
Perhaps it is this ignorance that leads to authorities validating things like weak security infrastructures, the disregard for the fundamental right to privacy in various proposed bills, or the threat to women’s safety brought about by legitimized mass surveillance.
This ignorance does not consider that privacy is a form of empowerment for women in a world that seeks to, both online and offline, keep a constant check on them.
Social media platforms and dating apps cannot prioritize the freedom of women because it is incompatible with their profit margins.
The fundamental blueprints of the internet represent a critical lack of diversity.
Technology will magnify surveillance and allow it to thrive in ways we would not have imagined even a few years ago.
And the proliferation of data is such that women stand to lose control of their autonomy in new and novel ways.
We circle back to the idea at the very beginning, then — that the internet has not liberated Indian women. And at the pace we are moving, it might further oppress them.
How do we go about fixing this?
Obviously, the internet has also brought communities together and healed them. It is the reason that the scale of solidarity that was seen in #MeToo was possible, that many queer Indians found community and sanctuary, that people across intersections had their voices heard. But all of this has happened by the power of the people who have chosen to take technology and use it as a force for good — it is not because of any inherent virtue of technology itself.
While we talk about civility, kindness, and empathy online, it is integral that we start having more challenging conversations about privacy, power, and autonomy because this is what serves as the pathway towards building a safe, inclusive and liberating internet. This is what will shape the future of our engagements with technology. The first step towards this is educating ourselves, and thinking about tough stuff like:
In what ways has technology and the internet benefited us, and in what ways has it harmed us?
What is the right to privacy, and why does it matter in our lives? What are the laws that keep allowing for the suppression of our free expression?
What are the questions we need to be asking the people in power, and what are the arguments we can present in favour of our safety and freedom?
If we feel liberated, does everyone else, too?
And then, we must move towards advocacy, resistance, and meaningful change. Gender has always been an important intersection in human rights issues, and digital rights are a human rights issue, too. There is a storm brewing in this regard, and we need to start articulating its severity.
You can start by raising your voice and saying — I reject every threat to my privacy. I reject my exploitation and voyeurism and silencing. I reject intimidation and control, surveillance and gaping disparities. I call for the participation of women not only in building technology, but also in challenging it. And you can say then, with confidence in your sisterhood: I am not, and never will be, alone in this.
Here is a disclaimer, though: putting the entire onus of privacy and safety on women is kind of like saying: ‘don’t go out at night if you want to protect yourself’ — it’s not a sustainable solution, and individual action can only go so far. The internet is shaped and built by big tech and policy, and it is ultimately those in power who must become more cognizant that women are not just beneficiaries of technology and the internet, but active stakeholders, too.