“It is terrible – wear a sleeveless dress in a selfie that you upload, and you get inundated with comments and advice by your folk about being decent, safe etc.” , said a young woman who is from a rural area but studying in a city. “They all want me to stay a paavam village girl. I can be what I want to be at least on FB!”
All this indicates that there is a struggle ongoing between many young women in Kerala and their patriarchal guardians over the control of both their bodies and body-images, and the time they spend online, and that they do resist.
In the experience-sharing session, many women joked that they preferred pre-paid mobile plans to keep parents from finding out how much data they used! The survey shows that 86 percent of respondents used the prepaid data plans. They make strategic use of their online presence in quite unexpected ways….
Another woman student who said that she now used the internet confidently to explore topics and issues that her family and immediate kin considered taboo for women recalled her early days of using the internet – very diffidently, but learning all the time. She related how she managed to stay online without becoming the target of attacks by strangers and also keeping her guardians unsuspecting, outlined what she called the ‘Cinderella approach’. This is especially interesting for it points to the agency women may exercise and the learning they may acquire even under strict surveillance and the experience of fear:
“I took the ‘Cinderella’ approach. I was never even curious. I got internet only after Class 12, into Facebook in the second year of year B.A, and into WhatsApp in the first year of M.A. I got an Instagram account only a month ago. My Facebook account was safer than the Swiss Bank! There are no men on it, except a cousin, and a boring friend of my father’s. For a long time, I wouldn’t log out — I deactivated every day, and then logged in the next day. When I started responding to people’s comments, I would comment, and then deactivate because I was scared of what the response would be. I was scared to put up a profile picture. I added one only after becoming a researcher.”
“After studying, the most pleasure I get is from films. I watch movies online. Bollywood films especially SRK! Now I don’t have to wait to hear my favourite dialogues or songs. When we used to wait for long earlier. Also, I got an exposure to fashion. Thirdly, I cannot thank photo editing apps enough! Since I’m very cut and dry, people do hesitate to come talk to me. So with social media, they feel safer about sending a smiley or two. So I’ve made more friends. ..When in school, we used to get seminars on the negative sides of sex, ‘bad touch’, harassment. But as to how a child is produced – no one really knew, no one tells you that. Even our biology teachers wouldn’t answer us. I was 20 when I found out what really happens! …Internet and my phone gave me my first love. I was able to propose to a guy. I consider that a great achievement!… …The internet is the first place we’re really alone in. Everywhere else, your parents come drop you off, pick you up, your friends are around. So here, we can go to any limits. We have to be able to manage ourselves. I feel confident about it.” (Respondent, Focus Group Discussion)
“I watch films at home with my brothers. There was no problem in watching the most violent scenes with me, but when intimate scenes came up, they’d change the channel! They’d send me to the kitchen and watch by themselves. I started with YouTube – I wanted to see what they were seeing, and what they wouldn’t allow me to see.” (Respondent, FGD – Focus Group Discussion)
The above quotes bring out clearly the ways in which young women value internet access and social media as spaces of free self-building. This however does not mean that they romanticise any of these spaces. The young survivor who we interviewed made it clear that she understood the dynamics of capitalism that shaped Facebook which deployed usertime, for example, and therefore did not want to spend too much time on it. Even when such awareness is absent in most young female users we spoke with, they see pleasure and danger intertwined in them, and the necessity of taking risks to build them-selves away from purely patriarchal frameworks of self and identity.
….There are short-term and long-term benefits in cultivating the required courage – or more literally, ‘own-space’ – thantedam – as one of the respondents put it. To reiterate, the assertion of agency in this context is not always seen as a positive attribute that can immediately bring in change or transformation. The resistance here is tactical and positioned to calculate how far and to what extent one could push the challenges and work through the possibilities available.