In a deeply stratified society like India, accessing and engaging with digital media platforms affects and is affected by the hierarchies and inequities of caste, gender, sexuality, class, and disability. While we see these inequities, oppression and violence being reproduced and amplified online, these inequities have also been actively challenged by historically marginalized groups to recenter marginalized caste, gendered, queer, disabled and classed histories (Sharma 2014; Subramanian 2015; Harad 2018; Gajjala 2019; Kumar 2021). The possibilities of leveraging digital spaces through organizing around particular issues, community building, and engaging in socio-political discourse across geographical boundaries make digital spaces a rich site to study social justice movements in India.
Feminists engaged with digital spaces have grappled with these questions of the possibilities of leveraging these spaces to advance social justice, the inequities embedded within and circulated via these spaces, and how might we begin to build a different, more radically inclusive digital world. In this short reflection piece, I ponder over the question of legitimacy of digital, particularly social media feminist activism using the case of #LoSHA and reflect on the challenges of studying these spaces as legitimate sites of feminist activism.
Social Media and “Legitimacy” of Digital Feminist Activism
From some of the early engagements of feminist communities on social media platforms like Facebook, to the various hashtag and other forms of digital feminist activism on platforms like Twitter and Instagram we see today, questions around the legitimacy of digital feminist activism have continued to persist. Because of the imagined binary of the online/offline, and the privileging of one over the other, digital feminist activism has often been critiqued for its lack of “real world” engagement or for being “slactivist” (Subramanian 2015). Take, for instance, the discourse around #LoSHA or List of Sexual Harassers in Indian Academia, a crowdsourced list of sexual harassers published on Facebook by Raya Sarkar (now Steier), a Dalit queer law student during the #MeToo movement in 2017. While on the one hand it garnered a lot of support, it also attracted a lot of critique. Among which, a notable critique was around the legitimacy of this social media “name and shame” list created by “fingertip activists.”
What made a social media platform a viable alternative to legal-institutional “due process?”
In Sarkar’s own words, they chose a digital space to publish their list because they believed these spaces enable a certain culture of transparency and accountability (Gajjala 2019). Further, they argued that despite the limited access to internet in India, digital spaces are still more accessible than offline spaces for many people. As a list of caution made publicly available for students to protect themselves from predators in academia, LoSHA wrested power from institutional forms of justice to center the narratives of survivors and provide a sense of closure to “women who have suffered through trauma in silence” (Chakraborty 2019). LoSHA thus, became a radical act of “talking-back” to these legal-institutional forms of justice, which have often worked “to silence survivors, protect predators, and perpetuate systemic oppression” (Sharma 2021).
Further, it is also vital to understand that in the absence of a radically transformative space, where the most marginalized women are empowered to speak their experiences and where systems of accountability and survivor-centric healing are centered, alternative forms of justice and healing are bound to rise.
For Sarkar, social media became such an alternative avenue to generate a feminist vision of justice through #LoSHA.
For those of us immersed in the digital feminist space, this question of legitimacy is often also accompanied by the question of who has the authority to legitimize or delegitimize?
Acknowledging the limitations of corporation run social media platforms and the skepticism around its usefulness for social justice, why is it that social media continues to be a space for feminist resistance? And why do these forms of resistance continue to be delegitimized in favor of other more acceptable modes of resistance?
As a feminist media studies scholar, I have been grappling with these questions and thinking about the importance of feminist activism on social media even as these spaces continue to become very precarious to do this work (especially for already vulnerable folks as we have seen in the increasing crackdown against queer, feminist, anti-caste, and other social justice activists online and offline).
Additionally, as digital humanities (DH) as a scholarly field of inquiry and praxis grows in many interesting directions, what spaces does DH hold to study the complexities and negotiations of social media and feminist activism? How can a feminist digital humanities lens be sharpened to engage in these inquiries? Especially considering that these platforms aren’t going anywhere anytime soon and continue to be utilized by feminist activists. These are all questions which may not have neat answers but might be starting points (or general questions to reflect on) for folks like me who are interested in feminist social justice movements and social media.
Chakraborty, Arpita. “Politics of #LoSha: Using Naming and Shaming as a Feminist Tool on Facebook.” In Gender Hate Online, pp. 195–212. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2019.
Gajjala, Radhika. Digital Diasporas: Labor and Affect in Gendered Indian Digital Publics. Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.
Harad, Tejas. “Towards an Internet of Equals.” LiveMint, August 31, 2018. Towards an internet of equals (livemint.com)
Kumar, Vijeta. “Between Rage and Silence: Being Dalit on Twitter.” Feminist Media Studies 21, no. 1 (2021): 157–58. doi:10.1080/14680777.2021.1865605.
Sharma, Ditilekha. “Queer Expressions in the Online Space.” April 2014. Accessed September 29, 2020. http://cscs.res.in/dataarchive/textfiles/queer-expressions-in-the-online-space-ditilekha-sharma-tata-institute-of-social-sciences
Sharma, Riddhima. “List-Making for Social Justice: Responses, Complicity & Contestations Surrounding #LoSHA.” Feminist Media Studies, 21, no. 1 (2021): 165–168. doi:10.1080/14680777.2021.1864876.
Subramanian, Sujatha. “From the Streets to The Web: Looking at Feminist Activism on Social Media.” Economic & Political Weekly 50, no. 17 (2015): 71.
This article was commissioned by Sayantani Saraswati.
Bio-note: Riddhima Sharma is a doctoral candidate at Bowling Green State University and the founder of a digital feminist platform, FemPositive. She previously taught courses in gender, law, and public policy at the Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai as visiting faculty and led numerous workshops around gender, digital media, gender based violence and law in India. Her research lies at the intersections of digital media, feminisms, and critical feminist pedagogy in India.