What we talk about when we talk about violence



November marks 11 months since the tragic gang-rape and death of a young woman in Delhi, India. This incident, amongst others like the gang-rape in Steubenville, Ohio, in August last year, drew attention to the pandemic of sexual violence against women worldwide. There has been a significant uptick this year in campaigning, online and televised conversations and awareness-raising about sexual violence and gender relations.

In this virtual flood, a poem called Rape Joke by Patricia Lockwood surfaced, which then ‘went viral’. The poem was re-tweeted, liked and favourite-d for days after; it also received a fair bit of  criticism. Rape Joke is a clever piece of writing: it doesn’t directly censure people who would make rape the subject of humour; instead, it describes the violation in such a way that anyone who would make a joke about rape would feel a little more educated about what victims experience, and perhaps a little chastened. Humour has always been able to speak truth to power, however the rape joke is a sharp knife-edge to walk and many lose their balance.

My eye caught a tweet about  Rape Joke that went: “If I were writing a poem about rape, I would leave the page blank.”  The tweet captures some real and conflicting aspects of articulating  violence: that many women still remain silent about the violence they experience;  that violence can be so horrific that even language cannot capture the experience; and that the certainty we invest in activism and ‘speaking out’ may not result in comforting solutions.

Over this past year there have been a number of online and offline initiatives and campaigns such as the successful #fbrape campaign, tweetathons such as #orangeday and #endvaw and their various local versions, hackathons and mapping initiatives for the development of mobile and web-based applications to respond to violence against women. The meteoric rise in popularity of @everydaysexism on Twitter is another notable example of the increased discussions about sexual violence. Participants from the Info-Activism Camp profiled in this issue of the Micro-magazine – Nancy Schwartzman, Dalia Othman and Furhan Hussain – tell us about their work in empowering communities through similar initiatives.

‘Rape is everyone’s issue’ said a sign during the Delhi protests against the gang-rape in December 2012;  unfortunately, verbal abuse, sexism and hate-speech don’t seem to be. Language, it turns out,  is perhaps one of the most complicated parts of violence.

As more women, in particular, are talking about gender-based violence, sexism and discrimination, two related things have happened: one, there has been a virulent backlash online against vocal advocates ; and two, abuse that women have been facing online has surfaced more clearly as a particular form of violence. Thanks to social media, for the first time on a global scale we can see how ways of talking about gender are being challenged for their sexism and violence and what happens when they are.

The violence directed against the designer Anita Sarkeesian for highlighting problematic stereotypes of women in games is a case that was widely reported. At a recent Python developers’ conference, a participant who challenged two others for their allegedly sexist comments became the target of vicious trolling and harassment and eventually lost her job. The extent of hate speech online and its reporting have increased to the point that Twitter was petitioned to add a ‘report abuse’ button. Association for Progressive CommunicationsWomen’s Program commissioned research on online abuse in 2009; since then the identification and reporting of the problem only seems to have increased.

Memorably, the columnist Laurie Penny said about the abuse women face online: “a woman’s opinion is the mini-skirt of the internet.”  What she meant is that to be a woman speaking out, being political, being articulate is itself seen as a provocation and an invitation to abuse. From a UK Member of Parliament to everyday bloggers and tweeters, women are now continually and visibly being targeted online and offline for their opinions.

Another set of related questions lie at the intersection of women’s rights and digital activism against violence. Put simply, even simplistically: are we looking for technological solutions to gender-based violence? Is it possible to use technology tools and platforms to address the social conditions that perpetuate gender-based violence and discrimination, to deploy emergency response mechanisms to violent acts as they occur and seek accountability from law enforcement to address violence? Are the mapping projects popping up around the globe telling us something new about violence in that location, or merely telling us what we already know: that violence against women exists everywhere? Bishakha Datta’s interview with Dalia Othman about street harassment in Ramallah introduces a fascinating back-story about what it means to set up and sustain a mapping project on violence against women. It is a fitting reflection on what it takes to engage with sluggish and unfriendly bureaucracies that are actually tasked with providing a public and official response to violence.

Some activists work at a more foundational level:  the education of young people, building the capacities of women to bring their voices into mainstream conversations, to challenge and change the sexist and gendered representation of women. In this issue Bishakha Datta tells us about her work attempting to right the gender-balance in Wikipedia, and Nighat Dad writes about the revolutionary new Burka Avenger from Pakistan.

This issue of the Evidence & Influence Micro-magazine brings together the work of participants at the Info Activism Camp on how they respond to violence and discrimination against women.  We hope this inspires you to think about how we talk about violence against women.


Maya Ganesh, November 3rd, 2013

Cover image by Gabi Sibley



I started the editorial for this Gender + Violence issue being aware that here in India we were approaching a year since the Delhi Gang Rape. In the few weeks since this issue has come out, another significant story about violence has surfaced. The proprietor and editor of the news magazine, Tehelka, faces arrest for sexually molesting a young colleague.

Tehelka made a name for itself reporting on crime and corruption and for some years lived up to their motto ‘Free, fair, fearless’.  Unfortunately, Tejpal, for all his assumed sophistication, urbanity and intelligence has devolved to resorting to what men faced with rape charges tend to do – blame the victim.

In the week since the case exploded on our screens, there have been some casualties aside from the victim, most significantly, the ethics of reporting on sexual violence; emails from Tehelka being leaked including personal details about the crime, which the victim did not want to publicise. There has been a concerted effort on social media by some journalists to talk about the ethics of reporting in cases of sexual violence. Here is their new Tumblr – Report Responsibly

A friend said to me the other day that there was too much Tehelka in the air,  the echo chamber reverberating with the tweets of journalists and their friends. What has this to do with the rest of India? My response was that this story is as significant as the Delhi Gang Rape, a case which I think shook India and the world. If the Delhi Gang Rape made it obvious our women aren’t safe on the streets, then the Tejpal case reveals what Indian women have known for long now – we aren’t safe in places of work either.  It is, as Arundhati Roy says, ‘rape number two’. This time the abuser isn’t a poor, uneducated young man from the hinterland. This time the abuser is a well-to-do, powerful, successful, upper class magazine magazine editor & proprietor.  Every myth and stereotype we nurture about women, men and violence ought to be consigned to the rubbish heap.

India has an excellent sexual harassment at the workplace law, called Vishakha, which actually encourages prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace and establishes guidelines for investigation into complaints. That many organisations have not instituted sexual harassment prevention policies and complaints mechanisms is hopefully going to change. There is a crowdsourced effort to document how many media institutions actually have these mechanisms in place.  And in less than a year since it was drafted, the newly amended Indian sexual assault law is being put to the test.

In another curious twist of timing, Nov 25-Dec 10 is the annual global ’16 Days of Activism Against Violence’ Campaign.  India has a lot to campaign for this year.


Maya Ganesh
November 28, 2013