Twenty years ago, when Indians were just getting accustomed to the sound of the modem making its strange buzz connecting us to the world wide web, I took to the medium like a captive fish being released into open water for the first time.
Coming from a traditional Indian family with patriarchal value systems, I hadn’t so far had a say in my choice of husband or career or even hobbies. Nor did I have access to likeminded people and communities, and opportunities for growth. My life and movements were restricted to whatever physical and social spaces the adults in my life chose for me.
The internet opened up my eyes and my avenues. I found platforms to express my views and creativity. I landed my first job. I found my life partner. I got a glimpse into a world community far out of the reach of my own little existence, and I got access to infinite possibilities.
Over the past two decades, having interviewed thousands of women and girls in the course of my internet-enabled career as a magazine editor, I see countless stories that reflect my own. The internet has given Indian women exactly what patriarchy denied them – agency. Within the confines of the device, the user has complete autonomy to choose what to click, what to view, what to follow, and what to close. And since one’s device is all the key one needs to enter an unlimited universe, the internet has democratised accessibility and opportunity between genders, classes and age groups. It is the antithesis of patriarchy.
For all their privacy pitfalls, social-media platforms have given millions of young Indian girls avenues to achieve freedom, financial independence and even fame. Take Mili Sarkar, a teenager in a West Bengal village, who got sponsorships and a source of income when her Tik Tok videos doing backflips in a sari went viral. Or the ‘Smule twins’ who popularised classical Indian music as a digital art form.
The internet also brings women together into empowering communities, where they can encourage one another, network with those outside their own locations, and find jobs and freelance opportunities. Dating and matrimonial websites have further enabled women to find partners outside the shackles of caste, class and geographical limitations.
E-commerce has made it easy to source and browse through products that were once out of the reach of small towns. This not only benefits women buyers but also women sellers and entrepreneurs in smaller towns who can now operate from their own homes and reach national audiences.
Online education and edtech platforms – often run by women – have made it easier for those confined at home to earn formal certificates and become job-ready. Podcasts like Suno India and digital-media platforms like eShe have made it possible for ordinary women’s voices to be amplified.
And yet, precisely because of its success in emancipating women, the internet is seen as a threat to ‘Indian culture and morality’ and girls are systematically denied access by not just controlling families but also the patriarchal nation-state.
Khap panchayats in India have been known to ban girls from using mobile phones and the internet because it ‘encouraged them to elope’. At a talk I gave (online!) a couple of months ago, the audience – most of whom were in their sixties or older – considered the internet to be dangerous and worried their daughters and granddaughters would get into trouble online.
But the answer to online safety for women is the same as that for offline safety for women: Educate boys to respect girls and treat them as fellow human beings, educate girls to respect and protect themselves.
Increasing women’s participation online leads to gender equality and nation-building in all spheres – social, economic, political. Instead of restricting girls from venturing online, we must instead enable them to do so with security and confidence, and restrict boys from behaving like boors.
Offering free WiFi for girls’ colleges everywhere in the country would encourage girls to go to college every day, even if their parents may be sceptical. Giving free or subsidised data for mobile-phone connections taken by women has the added benefit of raising their social standing in their families. Incentivising online education and making it free for girls is another way to get them on the internet.
Like sex education, making ‘internet education’ mandatory in schools – teaching kids about algorithms, trackers, cookies, digital footprint, privacy – is wiser than letting kids learn the hard way through trial and error.
Both the private and public sector should make the cause of getting Indian girls and women online a top priority. The Indian government’s Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan was set up to make six crore rural Indians digitally literate. Google India’s ‘Internet Saathi: Helping Women Get Online’ project has trained over ten lakh village women since 2015 on how to use the internet. Both are steps in the right direction.But with only one out of three internet users in India being female at present – many of whom will encounter harassment, abuse, threats and intimidation online by virtue of being female – there is still much work to be done.