Why are there so few women on the Internet in India?
In order to attempt to close the digital divide, we must recognize not only the economic factors but also address the social and cultural barriers that discourage women from meaningfully using the internet.Updated: May 29, 2017 11:55 IST
While conducting research on young women’s engagement with online spaces, I had a conversation with 16-year-old Jyoti about how she uses the internet and the websites she likes visiting. Jyoti, who lives in a single room apartment with her two parents and older brother, told me that every time she logs in to the internet, her brother looks over her shoulder to keep an eye on which website she is accessing. While it is acceptable for her to use online dictionaries for help with homework and occasionally access news websites, she is not allowed to use Facebook or other social media sites. Unlike her brother, she is also not allowed to have a mobile phone since her parents are worried that she might use the phone to chat with boys.
The ‘Digital in 2017’ report compiled by Hootsuite, social media management platform, and We Are Social, a social media agency, demonstrates that compared to the global internet penetration rate of 50%, only 35% of the Indian population uses the internet. This digital divide is largely understood in terms of lack of access to digital resources and the absence of digital literacy skills. However, the report also makes visible gender as a crucial factor that determines internet usage; the report demonstrates that when it comes to Facebook users, the percentage of male users outnumber female users in every age group. In India, of the total 191 million Facebook users in India, only 24% are female. In order to close the digital divide, we must therefore recognise not only the economic factors but also address the social and cultural barriers that discourage women from meaningfully using the internet.
My conversation with Jyoti is reminiscent of the many instances where women’s access to mobile and internet technology has been a cause for moral panic. Recently, a panchayat in Uttar Pradesh decided to impose a fine on women seen using mobile phones outside their homes, stating that mobile phones lead women to a “wrong path”. Such a fear of women using mobile phones must be understood in the broader context of patriarchal restrictions on women’s autonomy, mobility and self-expression.
Accessing online spaces allows women to forge friendships and relationships, and express sexual and romantic desires outside the surveillant gaze of their families and communities. As can be seen in Facebook pages such as Feminism in India and Dalit Women Fight , access to online spaces also enables women to form communities and voice their resistance to the many forms of gender and caste-based violence that they face in their everyday lives.
However, efforts by women to participate in online spaces and make their voices heard is often met with violence , leading women to withdraw from such spaces. Earlier this year, Gurmehar Kaur spoke about deleting her Facebook account after receiving rape threats in response to one of her posts. The incident exemplifies how the presence of women in online spaces and their participation in political debates is seen as a challenge to the status quo that limits women’s participation to the private sphere. Efforts towards addressing the gender gap in internet access and use must not only take into account issues of access but also work towards creating spaces where women can participate without fear of violence. Only then can the potential of the internet as a space for education, self-expression and mobilization be realised.
Sujatha Subramanian is with the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Ohio State University
The views expressed are personal