She is a powerful, fiercely political, single, independent woman, and Internet trolls can’t stand that
What would your reaction be if a grown woman shared the following story about her experience of child sexual abuse when she was eight years old? “Little did I imagine that this much-older, family figure—someone who would take the kids for piggy-back rides and twirl us around in the air—could be such a monster. Worse still, as a child unable to process the magnitude of what had happened—I was the one who felt grotesque and dirty…. But after the first few times I had innocently followed him to ‘play’ with him in his room, I was overcome by panic and disgust.
“Ridden with guilt, unable to shake off the feeling of being dirty and trapped in a sink of fear, I finally told my mother that something terrible had happened…. As I grew older, what stayed with me, strangely enough, was the rancid smell of hair-oil; even years later, anything that smelt faintly similar made me nauseous."
If you’re Barkha Dutt, the most trolled Indian woman on social media, you’ve just provided your haters their latest opportunity to abuse you. Your dark revelation is cited as one more exhibit of your anti-nationalism (apparently sharing “negative" stories about the Indian experience is just cause for this label).
Responses to Dutt’s story (and another tale of an abusive relationship in college)—which she wrote about in her book This Unquiet Land: Stories From India’s Fault Lines and then shared at the Women in the World Summit in New York—on Facebook and Twitter ran the gamut: She’s doing this for publicity. How could anyone abuse someone who looks like her? How come every feminist/celebrity has been abused in her childhood? And, everyone has a rape fantasy these days.
I’ve stripped away the abusive adjectives that decorated this PhD-level analysis. Who are these Indians who are savvy enough to share their bigotry on all the latest technology platforms but who still don’t know that we are a nation of paedophiles?
Here’s a quick refresher course for Proud Indians: Two in every three children in this country is sexually abused but doesn’t report it, a government-commissioned study found in 2007. Sexual abuse has nothing to do with the way you look, act or dress—one-month-old babies and 80-year-olds are raped too. Indian feminists and celebrities, both male and female, have increasingly shared their stories of early sexual abuse these past few years, notably after the Delhi gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh that shook us on 16 December 2012. Several new and stricter laws were passed as a result of this case. As sexual violence suddenly moved to the front page, the seething anger of so many previously quiet survivors found a voice. Their stories continue to chisel away at the conspiracy of silence around rape and sexual abuse.
Dutt has only one thing to say about all the people who mocked her story: “Their responses illustrate simultaneously why so many women do not speak out and why we must."
She’s the troll army’s favourite target. On Amazon, her book has 4,045 reviews (only 155 of these are positive). If you believe them, it’s the worst Indian book that’s ever been written. Her publisher, Aleph Book Co., says it’s already their most popular book of the last 12 months.
Why does everyone love to hate Barkha Dutt?
They hate her because she is a powerful, fiercely political, independent (and in this case single—an added negative) woman who is unafraid of articulating her voice. She’s “arrogant", that classic descriptor for any non-conforming Indian woman. Her presence on the Niira Radia tapes that uncovered a telecom scandal involving journalists, politicians and chief executive officers in 2010 is a chink in her armour and becomes a convenient entry point for blatant personal abuse. The male journalists on the tapes have long moved past that news story.
Dutt, who tracks Kashmir and Pakistan, is routinely labelled a Muslim woman—maybe because her trolls think it’s the worst possible slur? She turned some other frequently used abuse on its head when she recently wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister titled A Letter To PM Modi From “Anti-National Sickular Presstitute" Barkha Dutt.
The game of online hatred, as many studies have shown, is about intimidating a powerful, outspoken woman who doesn’t conform to your ideas of femininity. Even when it comes to sexual abuse and rape, we decide the narrative—who is deserving of our sympathy and who is not.
Of course misogyny, unlike jugaad, is not a home-grown idea. The Guardian newspaper recently analysed the 70 million comments it has received since 2006 and told us what we all know: Articles written by women attract more abuse and dismissive trolling than those written by men, regardless of what they are about.
Caroline Criado-Perez, who ran a campaign to convince the Bank of England to depict women on bank notes, describes, in a paper on online abuse, the hate she faced on Twitter: “On the 25 July 2013, I got my first rape threat. That was a Thursday. By Sunday, police had collected 300 A4 pages of threats that had been made against me.
“There were threats to mutilate my genitals, threats to slit my throat, to bomb my house, to pistol-whip me and burn me alive. I was told I would have poles shoved up my vagina, dicks shoved down my throat. I was told I would be begging to die, as a man would ejaculate in my eyeballs. And then they started posting an address linked to me around the Internet. I felt hunted. I felt terrified…The message was simple and clear: these men very much wanted me to stop talking."
Classics professor Mary Beard was at the same conference in New York as Dutt earlier this month, in a discussion on “Sex and Trolls in Ancient Rome". Beard has a million examples to show how the establishment has tried to silence outspoken women as far back as the Greek epics and in ancient Rome. She once wrote a job recommendation for a young troll who had abused her on Twitter because she didn’t want that virulent tweet to destroy his professional life.
Dutt sees trolling as a mind game, an attempt to bully, intimidate, silence. “That oddly makes me even more determined. Damned if I’m going to let poison and gutter-level sniping direct my choices and reactions," she told me.
Forget Mumbai’s dabbawallahs, the Harvard Business School should study how Dutt and that other much-trolled journalist, Sagarika Ghose, flick off all the horrific abuse that comes their way and retain their right to express their opinions online—smile firmly in place.
Thank you, ladies, for not letting anyone shout you down.
PS: I won’t be online for a few days.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable every fortnight. She tweets at @priyaramani and posts on Instagram as babyjaanramani.