An FIR was filed against journalist Rana Ayyub for sharing the video of assault of an elderly Muslim man in Ghaziabad recently. It was alleged that she shared the video without verifying its authenticity. While she got transit bail in the case, Rana shared a deluge of abusive messages she received on Instagram following this. These messages ranged from death threats to rape threats.
It is not the first time that she has faced this kind of threat. Rana Ayyub has been on the global list of journalists under threat released by the TIME Magazine launched One Free Press coalition in 2019. What sense of impunity enables these cyber bullies to time and again threaten the autonomy of Rana Ayyub, who is not just a journalist who has spoken truth to power, but also belongs to the highly persecuted Muslim minority in India?
UNESCO’s Survey On Violence Against Women Journalists
The global survey by UNESCO was launched in October 2020 to assess the scale of online violence targeting women journalists around the world. Over 900 participants from 125 countries participated in this survey. This survey was a part of the larger global study by UNESCO to assess the scope and impact of online harassment of women journalists around the world, specifically to the understudied Global South, to develop concrete recommendations for counter-action.
Their reports showed that 73% of women journalists who responded had experienced online violence in the course of their work. 25% of women journalists had received threats of physical violence. 18% had been threatened with sexual violence. 20% reported being attacked offline in connection with online violence they had experienced.
In the World Press Conference held by UNESCO in December 2020, sharing her own experience with online harassment, Rana Ayyub noted, “I wanted to quit social media, I wanted to quit journalism. These things don’t happen to men. The cost that we are paying to amplify our work on social media is not something that journalists should face.”
Historicity of Communal Violence on Women
It would be futile to try to understand the present nature of online harassment of the women journalists like Rana Ayyub who comes from a persecuted religious minority, without looking at the history of communal violence against women. Historically, women’s bodies have been the sites of communal riots and wars even though they were not the ones who started it or gained anything from it. Men were the heteronormative citizens, while women were kept from having their own political lives and found themselves receiving the brunt of the political agendas and actions of men. Women, other than their roles as the carriers of culture and markers of community boundaries, were just conventionally expected to be passive participants in nationalism and politics.
Women’s bodies have been subjected to rape, assault, kidnapping all in the name of infiltrating the honour of the ‘enemy’ community, thus emasculating the men of the community, whose masculinist role is to protect their women. A quick look at the vile abuse that Rana Ayyub is subjected to, from time to time, in her DMs on Instagram, is a case study of the said hypermasculinity of Hindu extremist men.
People belonging to oppressed gender minorities should have their own political status like men who have been assumed to be the normative citizens for the longest time. Incidents like what has happened with Rana Ayyub time and again do not just expose the underlying misogyny that still lives on. These are also telling examples of everyday realities of women, who have known multiple layers of oppression by virtue of their gender and belonging to a community that has been at the receiving end of widespread attack and hatred.
Imagine being a woman who continues to speak the truth, defying these boundaries in such a cultural context. One like Rana Ayyub, who doesn’t only have her own socio-political identity but is also doing a commendable job as a world-renowned, award-winning journalist. She stands as her own person and is thus, seen as a threat already. One only shudders wondering about the everyday lives of women who do not have the privileges of security, safety and access that Rana Ayyub has. How does the hierarchy politics of caste, religion and gender play out for women who do not have the social influence to raise an alarm on Twitter or Instagram? Whom do they turn to? The moment that somebody disagrees with a woman journalist like Rana Ayyub, they attack her with rape threats, reducing her to nothing more than a mere object in whom lies her community’s honour.
If someone disagrees with a man’s work, the criticism that follows almost never is in the range of the rape threats that a woman journalist like Rana Ayyub receives, centred around her gender and religious identity.
Toxic Digital Extremism
Couple this communal violence against women with the digital extremism of present times, and you get cyber trolls who cannot bear a vocal Muslim woman in a public space, almost immediately sending her death and rape threats. The digital world is such that it lessens the barriers, making it possible for trolls to get easy access to anybody’s inbox. The sense of impunity that cyber trolls get from attacking someone from the safety of being behind computer/phone screens do not even feel criminal, because well, there’s not a lot of accountability involved. Often, the Centre’s calculated silence and even endorsement of their actions only makes them feel invincible. Meanwhile, the implications of such threats on the mental and physical well being of the victims go unaccounted for.
In Rana Ayyub’s case, this digital extremism, in addition to disrupting Ayyub’s bodily autonomy, also invalidates her credibility and takes the focus away from her work. The engagement is such that it is to belittle them and not to critically engage with them, even if they made a mistake.
When women journalists face online threats and trolling, it takes a toll on their freedom of expression as well as their mental well-being. It leads to silencing of voices that have fought so hard to be heard in a profession, which like any, continues to be male-dominated. Several journalists, irrespective of their gender, religion or caste, have been calling a spade a spade but we have time and again, found women to be at the epicentre of vitriol that often and predominantly consists of graphic descriptions of rape threats. And well, if you are someone who belongs to ‘othered’ communities, then like we see in Rana Ayyub’s case, the intensity of abuse against you, only stands to increase.
Featured image source: Maktoob Media