Street Talking

How gender hierarchies online mirror those offline

01 July 2013
For women, gender-based harassment is often part of being in public spaces.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

IN DECEMBER 2004, news broke of a sex video doing the rounds on the internet and on mobile phones. In the video, shot on a mobile phone, two Delhi Public School (DPS) students, a young man and woman, engaged in a sexual act; or, if we stop mimicking the language of the censor, she gave him a blowjob. Indian modesty was outraged, and when blame was duly apportioned, the chips fell somewhat like this: the victim was a girl being shown having sex; the criminal victimising her was technology.

The DPS scandal sparked deep anxieties about how best to protect women from new media. Having made it easier than ever to create and circulate images of a woman having sex, digital technology had become the perpetrator of a crime—against women, but more significantly, against Indian public morality. Historically, the female body has been seen as a marker of cultural and national worth around the world; the body of the Bharatiya nari, in this case, had to be protected at all costs. The MMS clip had caused the ‘indecent’ representation of women to be served up on a new, large-scale platform; the technology that had enabled it would therefore be policed.

Indecency is a longstanding legal concern in India. Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code was developed under British colonialism to curb the “obscene”, which the law still defines as “lascivious” or “in the prurient interest”. It continues to serve as a way to curb representations of female sexuality in popular culture today. The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, which prevents the publication of sexually explicit images, was developed in 1986 (and is being amended today to extend its reach to virtual spaces) to further these legal provisions. In effect, it suggested that ensuring respect for a woman meant rendering her sexless.

Richa Kaul Padte Richa Kaul Padte is a freelance writer living between Mumbai and Goa; you can read her work on www.richakaulpadte.com and follow her on Twitter @hirishitalkies.

Keywords: gender Internet freedom of speech and expression sexual abuse social media sexism Indian Penal Code
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