The Truth About Online Rape ThreatsBloombergQuintOpinion
Neha Dixit remembers the first time her mother, a schoolteacher, took the help of her students to sign up for a Twitter account so she could follow her journalist daughter. The first thing her mother saw was a horrific tweet thread where people were debating what weapon they would use to rape her daughter.
“There was a detailed discussion about whether they should use a steel rod or a thorny rose bush. It was a long thread because these people were organised,” says Dixit. It was 2016 and this was the backlash to her five-part investigation published in Outlook magazine, on the trafficking of young tribal girls to ‘Hinduise’ them.
The recent rape threat against standup comic Agrima Joshua on Instagram by Vadodara resident Shubham Mishra, 26—for an old joke about the Maharashtra government’s proposed statue of Maratha warrior king Shivaji in the Arabian Sea—was similarly explicit. It highlights a universal truth about Twitter: If you’re a woman with a public profile and an opinion that goes against the patriarchy/dominant caste and/or the state, be prepared for a rape threat every time you speak up.
In recent times, women have been issued rape threats for naming their favourite actor, debating nationalism, criticising Hindutva, calling out toxic masculinity, defending a rape victim, being political, reporting the news, discussing a beef-eating festival, objecting to a film dialogue, and not helping their sister on Koffee With Karan. I wouldn’t be surprised if the women quoted in this piece receive fresh rape threats for talking to me about rape threats.
Rape threats always existed on Indian social media sites but the abuse was rampant in the run-up to the landslide victory of Narendra Modi in the 2014 general election. After six years of being exposed to toxic online behaviour including from elected representatives, we’re older, more cynical—and we grew armadillo-style skin that acts as our armour.
“I remember people used to constantly tell me ‘why don’t you take the rape threat and make a joke out of it?’,” says stand-up comic Aditi Mittal. “There are only so many jokes you can make on someone threatening to tear you from anus to mouth without dehumanising yourself in front of your audience and normalising this language and behaviour.” Mittal believes not enough attention has been spent on studying the toll this abuse takes and how much time we lose when we stop to process/address these threats.
“Most women who speak up on social media understand that they will have to pay this price,” says Hasiba Amin, national convenor of the Indian National Congress. The first rape threat she received was as a bright-eyed 22-year-old party worker after she featured in a 2014 campaign ad for the INC. She had just moved to Delhi from Goa, where she had always lived with her parents.
“I went through major anxiety issues. I was really scared someone might recognise me on the road and do something,” she recalls.
“I’d be scared every time someone looked at me. I would cry, I panicked every time there was a knock on my door. There were days when I didn’t get out of my house at all.” The fact that these threats don’t affect us anymore is because we’ve lost faith in society and the system, Amin adds.
Dixit said she complained twice to the cyber cell set up by Maneka Gandhi, then minister for women and child development, but nothing happened. Now, she just ignores the threats.
Journalist Rana Ayyub, a veteran at handling online sexual abuse and Islamophobia (they always go together for Muslim women), says every time she goes to the police, they first want to know whether they should delete the offensive messages because “aapki badnaami hogi” (you will be shamed).
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“People think the one who is being targeted is getting humiliated, when actually it is the person issuing the explicit threat who is humiliating himself,” says Ayyub. “They think the only way to silence a woman is to use such explicit language that it shames you into silence. They are just playing into an existing mindset.” Needless to say, the abusers haven’t had much luck silencing her despite trying everything from issuing fake tweets in her name to morphing her face on a pornographic video.
For a culture that works hard to silence women from the time they are little girls, outspoken women on social media must seem like a serious national threat.
“Once parents are assured that their newborn baby girl has a functioning sound system, they teach her not to make a sound,” says author Deepa Narayan, who in Chup: Breaking the Silence About Being A Woman Today writes about how girls are taught not to argue, to listen and follow, to lose their opinions, and to not answer back. “And once parents are assured that their little girl has no speech defects, she is taught not to speak.”
Imagine their shock when their little girl grows up and joins the non-stop global heave of opinions on social media. Mishra says in his rape threat to Joshua: “I respect women but not whores.” Translated in the Indian context, a whore is a woman who is not scared to speak up.
That Mishra recorded himself issuing the threat without worrying about protecting his identity is hardly surprising. In recent years, the accused in lynching cases have gotten away scot-free, despite the fact that they appear in videos committing, abetting, or discussing the crimes. Mishra was arrested by the Vadodara City Police and charged under five sections of the Indian Penal Code.
A group of people on Twitter, tweeting from @NoRapeIndia reacted to Mishra’s video with this suggestion:
Senior advocate Rebecca John explains why this wouldn’t work. “The failure of social media platforms to regulate violent content is regrettable but the answer does not lie in expanding the rape definition to include verbal sexual violence. That would be completely unsustainable.”
John points out that Sections 509 and 354 A of the IPC “adequately cover verbal sexual abuse although the language used in 509 is regressive as it locates the offence in a woman’s modesty.”
The idea of the ideal Indian woman is engraved even in the laws of our land.
Meanwhile, real Indian women continue to do what works best for them. “I’ve drastically reduced social media use,” says activist Shehla Rashid. “My participation is limited only to amplifying humanitarian messages. I report, block. I highlight rape threats to record what we go through, and not suffer silently.”
Suffering silently, most of us would agree, is highly overrated.
Priya Ramani is a Bangalore-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.