Women Activists in India Face a Brutally Sexist and Violent Twittersphere

Prominent Indian television news anchor for CNN’s Indian Broadcasting Network, Sagarika Ghose, told the BBC on Tuesday that brutally “sexist,” "threatening," and “foul-mouthed” online comments are driving her to leave the Twitter-sphere. She claims fellow women’s activists in India are encountering similar hostility from “right wing nationalists, angry at women speaking their mind…”

While Ghose has, like many journalists, encountered her dose of criticism for her reporting, recent gender-bashing targeting herself and her daughter, including numerous horrific gang-rape threats, crosses the line. This hostile online environment for Indian women reflects a broader social problem facing many of the country’s leading women’s activists facing threats for speaking their mind.

Other socially active women have encountered gender-based online hostility, such as leading Delhi-based women’s activist Kavita Krishnan, who was attacked with rape threats by an anonymous poster with the handle @rapist during an online chat about violence against women on leading Indian news site Rediff.com. A young blogger Meena Kandasamy has echoed claims about gender bashing, particularly on Twitter, claiming many Indian men are hostile to posts that criticize “caste” or “Hindu nationalism,” claiming she encounters, on average, 30 to 50 gender abusive tweets when active on twitter.

India actually has fairly stringent laws relating to internet speech, where section 66a of the National Information Technology Act forbids sending inflammatory and indecent messages online. Critics maintain that the law has actually been used to quell dissent more than it is used to protect victims of sexist online bashing. Any meaningful solution to sexist online bashing clearly lies in social, and just simply legal change.

Women's activists in India have been identified as exceptionally engaged in international networks to engage in feminist activism, since at least the 1970's. The horrible shame of the matter is that, when productively leveraged, online platforms like Twitter offer remarkable new tools for women’s activists to engage in their societies by sharing information and shaping national discourse.

India ranks 105 on the Global Gender Gap Index of 135 states, lagging behind only 30 states including Pakistan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. Controversy over a culture of gang rape has been brewing with recent high-profile cases relating to the matter. Controversy over the rape and subsequent death of a young New Delhi girl in December 2012, for example, sparked international outcry and renewed debate over issues of women’s rights governance in India. Given this environment of high-profile cases of rape and abuse, the persistence of relentless online rape threats facing prominent Indian women is particularly disheartening.

Indian women’s rights activist Ranjana Kumari has recorded a moving interview on rape and women’s activism in India that’s worth watching, available here.