Sexism and Internet Purdah

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. But here, in what is supposed to be my space, I am still unable to post a real picture. By hiding who I am, I feel freer.

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.

Update: I changed my profile picture after this post. This is the best I can do for now.


Filed under Culture, Gender, Media

14 responses to “Sexism and Internet Purdah

  1. confused


    The only thing I disagree is your statement on ”left liberals decrying bigotry”. I submit that many of us who are not left liberals have done so too. Bigotry is rooted more in the individual and less in the ideology.

  2. Kishore

    Instead of choosing the Purdah, one way to retain the status quo is to ensure that the virtual communities that get formed in the blogosphere between like minded people sustain for a long period. Only way to fight the kind of perverts is to stick together – because that’s what they do!

    Those perverts are after all such cowards, that they resort to such insane actions as they did to Kathy. Before it latches on to India, we should overwhelm them.

    These are times when there are men who drop their pants at the first sight of sex but still expect their wife to be a virgin. A Purdah would do no good against these air-headed perverts. They need something.. that, which hurts.

  3. jeet

    Another good way is to have “comment moderation” on your blog so you can delete “you are so hot” comments and leave the ones who are actually contributing to the post.


  4. Aishwarya

    Good post. My way of ‘fighting’ it has been to use my real name and occasionally put up pictures.

    I don’t think Indian female bloggers get anything like the kind of abuse someone like Sierra gets but I have had my share of unpleasant anonymous comments that threatened physical violence. heh.

  5. Chimera

    but there was a case of some guy going by the name ‘hawk’ harassing girls in Indian blogsphere way back in 2005 – read this -

    comment moderation can only prevent other people from seeing the comments but not our plight at receiving them so I do not think comments moderation would help unless we turn off comments completely.
    and I do notice that men in indian blogsphere do not advertise their name or photographs either – what better example of this than Falstaff?

  6. anonymouse

    *abuses Aishwarya*.

    Hey, some of us are just people who decry bigotry. I refuse to bother about gender, race, or creed as long as the other person does not start with that first.

    I am left wing in some parts, liberal in others and conservative elsewhere. Here’s a question though:

    Where does the right to dish out nasty speech end? What are the limits on freedom of speech? Yelling fire in a crowded theatre? Posting abuses? Using death threats? Note that two of these are criminal offenses, even in the US.

    I *have* dealt with my share of being abused (personally, professionally, by caste, by creed, by dint of what I do online and offline). The easiest thing to do is report the abuse. There *are* formal channels to deal with such things (abuse@, domain contacts, whois contacts …).

    Oh, and the other thing to do is never to stop doing what you are just because someone says you shouldn’t (as long as you aren’t abusing a third party’s resources. I don’t care what you say as long as you are paying for it. Use threats, and the cops will show up. Abuse me too much, and your abuse department will get a note. Spam me, and I am hell on bits.).

  7. The Mad Momma

    loved this post.. got here via desicritics where i blog too… and found we have friends in common… orange jammies and iz.

  8. OrangeJammies

    I know what you mean about posting pictures. I thought about that too, but decided, what the hell, they could look at me on the street and think their dirty thoughts and since I’m not likely to scribble my deepest darkest thoughts, fears and secrets on the blogosphere anyway, they can all take a peek at what I look like. I am aware that I get view hits because I’m female and don’t look ghastly, but that comes with the territory. I feel comfortable doing it so far, and am happy to share my face with my readers who are also friends now, but in the future, who knows… maybe one nasty experience will let the fear seep in and then I may not be as shiny-happy and confident as I am now.

  9. Cuckoo

    My first visit here. Loved your post.

    Yes, I am with you on this thought.

    Comment moderation is not going to help us (we will have our share of mental torture), so I have kept commenting open to all. Fortunately I have not recd much of abuse except once when I recd some threatening messages after I posted something abt a blog.

    Can’t post the picture but I don’t have much of regret. Those who are/become my friends have other ways to have a look at them.

    But I guess, that’s the price we have to pay to remain tension free.

  10. Vidya

    Loved the last line of your post.Drives home the point loud and clear.As for social networking sites, I think the whole inequity behind social networking sites is this chaser-chased paradigm and mindset between the genders.

  11. flying death

    All that you wrote is true. But it has nothing to do with the internet or blogs or online stuff.

    You walk in streets and ppl think the same they will spk ugly things. Here it is easier ‘coz kind of anonymity you get… But this is all ‘coz of our society.

    Girls are made to hide in their home.. Not allowed to go all alone.
    We need to change our narrow thinkin…

    I strongly believe we need a change. We are influenced from the western world but we dont follow them well…

  12. N

    confused: Point taken.

    kishore: hmm…that may be true

    jeet: I’m not sure that would have worked in Kathy Sierra’s case. Those threatening her were also using other forums to do it.

    aishwarya, cuckoo, vidya: Thanks.

    chimera: yes, falstaff is an example but i can think of a lot of others who are not – amit verma, jai arjun singh, samit basu…to name a few.

    mad momma: thanks for dropping by. Yes, i found your blog via OJ too!

    OJ: You go girl! Don’t let anyone scare you off.

  13. Hiren

    I visited your BLOG for the first time today and I liked this entry too much…completely agree with you in each of this sentence.

    Really problems with social and community sites are nowadays increasing day-by-day and not much has been coming out to avoid such issues.

  14. Chris Persheff

    I have to agree with you. The inferior behaivior of sexism is so much more easily expressed on the internet.

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