Social media is as sexist as the street for women to speak their mind

Nishtha Gautam
Nishtha GautamJul 01, 2015 | 12:09

Social media is as sexist as the street for women to speak their mind

Jurgen Habermas's conceptualisation of Öffentlichkeit, or public sphere, has not been understood by anyone better than perhaps the digital social networking giants like Facebook and Twitter. Technically a nowhere land, these social networking sites are the ideal public "spaces" where formulation, articulation, distribution and negotiation of ideas takes place. Habermas suggests that it is in the public sphere that the private individuals constitute themselves in a collective body. This is exactly how people huddle together on social media sites through various "communities", "pages" and as "followers".


Feminist critiques of Habermas' conceptualisation of the "public sphere" coming from theorists like Nancy Fraser, Seyla Benhabib, Iris Marion Young, Mary Ryan, Carole Patman or Joan Landes have alerted us to the physical exclusion of women from the public sphere. Additionally, their responses have flagged bigger problem - Habermas' unwillingness to critically deal with the subject of women's exclusion. Portuguese sociologist Filipe Carriera da Silva also contributes to what Lisa McLaughlin's calls "the feminist project of revising the Habermasian public sphere" by formulating how the gendered exclusion is interlinked with the sexual split between public and private.

The history of silence

In a lecture last year, the classicist Mary Beard put forth how the prejudice against women has hardwired over two millennia: from Homer to Twitter. Women are always denied the gravity, which is easily granted to their male counterparts, whenever they voice their opinions on "non-women" issues. Worse, they are easily shut up not by debate and engagement but through abuse and intimidation. Going back to Habermas, the Hellenic public space-polis, as explained by him, was in contrast to the private space oikos. Oikos was the site of basal needs, wants, desires and their procurement. Polis, on the other hand, was the space that facilitated more dignified pursuits. The public life was played out in the marketplace and that is where people gained prominence through their various skills: intellectual and physical.


The near absence of women in polis can be taken as a given. What is noteworthy is that women were denied a voice even in the oikos. In The Odyssey, Penelope requests the Bard to stop singing for which she is banished to the private quarters by her son. Telemachus' rebuke of his mother for asserting her wish in the presence of guests highlights two things: the patriarchal nature of public spaces and an added nuance of "private" for women.

Cut to 18th century, the bread-march by the market women of Paris was a signal movement for the French Revolution and an iconic moment for women's role in public affairs. What is interesting, however, is the fact that the women marchers remain anonymous and a man Stanislas-Marie Maillard emerges as their leader and spokesperson.

A peep into the history of women's writings alerts us to the ordeals of the pioneers. Who will write, where will she write, how will she write, what will she write and most importantly, why will she write are the questions that always riddled the early women writers. Today, the situation has improved, but the debate lingers on, even if it has shifted base to social media sites.


Gendered digital space

As per a Huffington Post report, 62 per cent of Twitter's more than 200 million users are female. And yet this public space too is "gendered" much like our nukkad paan shops. While it is true that women have a sense of empowerment when their thoughts are "retweeted" on Twitter and "Liked/Shared" on Facebook, it is still far from the utopia that they had hoped for. The codes of propriety, naturally, apply more stringently to women, even in the virtual world.

Reports on cyber bullying demonstrate that women users are far more vulnerable than their male counterparts. As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2013, sexual harassment happens to be the second most reported cyber crime. Irking the ideologues that assume a kind of "Representative publicness" - Reprasentative Öffentlichkeit, non-conforming women face threats that sometimes spill over to real life. Obfuscation of their identity by hiding behind the veil of anonymity offers safety from physical harm, but doesn't shield one from psychological trauma.

Countering the class/religion/regional/linguistic/caste/professional collaborationism is more difficult for women. Identity formation in the virtual world on the basis of the above parameters often culminates in a majoritarian monolithic worldview with a relentless thrust on conformity. Voicing contrarian viewpoints often comes with a different price tag for women. For example, a Muslim woman talking against hijab or a Hindu woman questioning karwa chauth gets subjected to sexist and fundamentalist attacks from her "own people," while she gets appropriated as a champion by the other side.

Shrinking further

The recent furore at @genderlogindia, a feminist handle on Twitter, over its curator's provocative views, however, brings in another element in the picture. Is the space for women in danger of further shrinking because they are now beating men at their game? Yes, women are also trolling like never before. It cannot be denied that men belonging to socially marginalised communities are sometimes at the receiving end of some women's casteist, communal and elitist abuse. The kind of polarisation amidst feminists that this curator (@nicemangos) effected, however, is unprecedented. The constant calls for censorship of her views from some women who publicly identify themselves as feminists and have formidable body of work to bolster their stature may force one to think that collaborationism overrides ensuring freedom of expression for all.

Through social media many women have found their voice and many have reinvented themselves. But the most important contribution of social media for women empowerment is providing a platform for speaking the unspeakable. Is it not almost criminal to create no-go zones in an already limited space? Should public spaces for women, a hard earned luxury, not be open to all women and their views? Amidst growing voices for intersectional sensitivities, turf-wars are the last thing that feminism needs.

Nietzsche had reminded us that sedimented interpretations of the world, often touted as truth, must be countered by individual imaging and imagining. The notions of self, unfolding on the social media through the individual re-imaginations, attempt to do precisely that. Through dialogue and multilogue on social networking sites, the givens are challenged in a Bakhtinian carnivalesque way. Cacophony on social media, despite its flaws, is a step towards realisation of self.

Last updated: July 01, 2015 | 12:09
Please log in
I agree with DailyO's privacy policy