The F-Word the Internet Can’t Hear

Last month, female students at the Hindu University of Benares protested against the authorities. One of the reasons for this – why do the boys have internet connections in their hostel rooms, while the girls don’t?

Khap Panchayats in villages in states like UP and Haryana are known to think women using the internet is a bad idea. This leads to blanket bans on women using cellphones, apps, social media, as Dr Anja Kovacs, founder of Delhi-based freedom of speech group Internet Democracy Project, explained in a research paper on mobile phone bans in northern India.

She writes that the Baliyan Khap Panchayat in and around Sisouli village near Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh issued an order in mid-November 2014 banning women from using online networks. “From now on, all under 18s in villages covered by the Khap Panchayat should no longer be allowed to access chat apps like WhatsApp or social media sites like Facebook,” the order reads.

Kovacs noted that although Khap Panchayat leader later claimed the order was for both boys and girls, others, like Union District Bhartiya Kisan Chairman Rahul Ahlawat, were clear that it is girls in particular who should refrain from using new technologies. .

The underlying thought process seems to be, “how will women use smartphones when they’re alone?”

“Or worse, what if my wife knew what I did when I was alone!” Sheetal tells Alwar, one of Google’s Internet Saathis who is working to educate other women about using the internet, telling Gadgets 360 that this is a real concern expressed by the husband of one of the women she helped in Alwar, Rajasthan.

The women who Internet Saathis taught to use a smartphone
Photo credit: Arjun Dixit

“Many rural families only have one mobile phone, which is with the man,” says Prasanto K Roy, Vice President and Head of NASSCOM Internet, Mobile and E-commerce Council. “So, for example, when health workers try to reach rural women through mobile messaging, they often only reach the male in the family. He is the one who receives all the messages about hospital deliveries, breastfeeding, etc.

India’s digital gender gap is 36%, in part because phones are seen as a threat to male power.

This is what the Saathi Internet project, set up in 2015 by Google and the Tata Trust, intended to change. Back in Alwar, Sheetal travels to the villages by bicycle, with tablets and smartphones to teach the women. “Aap humare mihalon ko kyun bigaad rahi hai (why are you ruining our women),” is how the men she meets usually greet her.

Like Sheetal, there are many internet saathis in rural India. Google India says the project has helped 2.6 million women get online. This is a very small number of women if you take into account the large number of women left behind, creating a second digital divide – the first between cities and towns, and the second between men and women.

The internet may have a gender, but the patriarchy is unisex
The headmistress – a woman herself, if that matters – of a school in a village in UP was agitated when Preeti, another internet saathi, taught her students how to use a smartphone. “You’re going to turn my students against me and spoil them,” the principal said, Preeti told Gadgets 360. This principal is responsible for the future of 1,200 students, Preeti added.

The Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board has organized its exams online. The idea behind this is that online exams can increase participation and make it easier for everyone to participate, explained Bhaskar Lakshakar, Director, Professional Examination Board, MP. However, Lakshakar told Gadgets 360 that he fears the number of female students taking the exam will drop.

“The internet and mobile telephony are a serious cultural challenge for a country like India,” says Osama Manzar, founder and director of the Delhi-based Digital Empowerment Foundation, an internet access campaigner. “It gives you individual opportunity, individual freedom and individual opportunity. And India is a patriarchal society where control is the biggest frame of a family, community or society.

When health sectors try to reach rural women through mobile messaging, the devices end up in the male family. They are the ones who receive all the messages about breastfeeding, etc.

This is something that Kovacs also pointed out, Tweeter“The digital gender gap in India is 36% and that’s partly because phones are seen as a threat to male power.”

In this scenario, can women really be digitally empowered? The Broadband Commission’s Task Force on the Gender Digital Divide has identified four areas for bridging the gender digital divide. One of them is tackling the barriers that restrict gender equality online.

The recipe for digital gender equality isn’t just about adding devices and a decent internet connection. Digital India needs to understand what digital empowerment means to a woman in India. Technology companies, security application developers, e-government, communities, families – all stakeholders, in fact – must face the facts, and rather than rush to provide a solution, must stopping and making changes only after actually observing people on the ground and considering local idiosyncrasies, which makes any progress slow and steady.

The problem is that slow and steady are not the adjectives we use to define the Internet. But when it comes to bridging India’s digital gender divide, progress seems to be stuck in this sentence.


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