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(R)evolution: How India’s Women Carve Out Communities Online

Any space, physical or theoretical, which has enough people congregating in it will give rise to smaller communities within the space. Earlier, this meant people in a specific geographical location, with some common characteristic, belief or goal, would bind together. The Internet, however, has eased these limits and, in doing so, has helped more diverse voices – voices which otherwise have to struggle to be heard or be found – to come out. And many of these voices are of women and queer persons.

Women have a long history of carving out their own space for connectedness and support. A global study on sex, rights and the Internet speculates that queer communities might have been the first ones to actually use the Internet to “socially network” given the lack of physical space afforded to them. They lived out their otherwise secret queer lives ‘online,’ organising and socialising first over letters and cables, then radio waves.

In fact, India’s current online communities have their roots in a postal community of lesbian women, or women who loved women. Sakhi, as it was known, was one of the earliest, explicitly lesbian organisations in India. It advertised as a lesbian organisation in Bombay Dost, India’s first gay magazine, and asked others who identified as the same to write to them. They usually replied to each letter and, once it was clear that the writer was a woman, would enclose a list of others who had also written in, along with their postal addresses, thus enabling a networking system between lesbian women across India. By mid-1994, there was a large and constant flow of letters to the Sakhi postbox. Many of the letter writers were not women from the big cities. They were often located in smaller towns, with English as their second language if at all. Some of them were married and some others even had children.

Yet in the shift to the online space, women got left out. The Khush list, an email discussion group aimed at South Asian queer persons, was created in 1992. A group from the Khush list went on to make the more locally focussed Gay Bombay mailing list, which sought to facilitate discussion on queer-related issues within a safe space. Soon, there were chatrooms for gay persons, most of whom were men who had sex with men, on Indiatimes, Rediff and Yahoo prominently.

Once again, women carved out their own space. Chatrooms for only queer women on Rediff popped up. Some women formed their own communities with those whom they met on dating websites. With the spread of Facebook,  the opportunity for connectedness only expanded. One such group, made by Priya*, from Chennai, goes by an abbreviation which actually stands for a Tamil innuendo for vagina. The About section of this group clearly states that it is not a crisis management group and is more for discussions and sharing of information for queer women from Chennai. A closed group, its members count is at 290 currently.

“We actually were an open group earlier, but were constantly overwhelmed by men asking if they can fix us, or if someone is interested to hook up with their wife, or just randomly posting nude images of women on the page. So we turned it into a closed group and for only LBT persons,” explains Priya.

That hasn’t kept women from finding it.

“When I came out to my friend, she told me about this group. And am I glad that she did! It really helped to talk to the others in the group about my fears and also my doubts and queries. I also met my first girlfriend here,” adds Charulata*, from Chennai.

With the spread of mobile Internet, the types of online communities available to women further expanded. WhatsApp groups have greatly helped in expanding the real-time circles of women, particularly women who are mothers.

“I used to work at an IT company but have taken a break for a few years till my kid grows up a little. It’s really hard to be cooped up at home once you’re used to going out everyday,” says Indra*, from Mumbai. “My friend who lives in Delhi also had a child around the same time as me. She added me to this WhatsApp group for new mothers.”

The diversity of the group, which Indra says includes new mothers and mothers with multiple children, single and married mothers, working and stay-at-home mothers, heterosexual and lesbian mothers, creates an openness between its members, many of whom have never met.

“It’s such a relief to have a group where I can talk freely!” she says.

Indra’s relief hints that the left-out feeling that dates back to the Khush list is still present – not only between the sexes, but between generations.

Rani*, from Lucknow, explains, “Our husbands don’t always understand what we say.  They don’t get just how much changes in a short period of time when a child is born. And not all women can adjust to it immediately. When I tried to talk to my mother about this, she just said that it will be fine soon and didn’t want to discuss it.”

Rani and Indra’s WhatsApp group has 137 members from across the country and is constantly active. The members exchange tips on breastfeeding, food recipes for toddlers, recommendations for paediatricians, jokes (“The clean and not very clean wale also,” clarified Rani with a wink), and articles they think are interesting.

At one point, “someone on the group mentioned post-natal depression and that immediately clicked in my head,” Rani says. “The group supported me through it and ensured that I got proper help.”

The need for support is what seems to be driving more and more women, queer persons, persons with disabilities, persons from oppressed castes and classes, from non-English speaking economies, and many more marginalized from mainstream conversations, to carve out a space for themselves where they can express their opinions, share information, and perhaps most importantly, be found by others like themselves. Over time, the often unintended, but welcome, result is the ability to challenge the norms that bind the group offline.

The body-positivity movement is a good example of this. A visual medium and comments sections are rarely kind to bodies which are not considered conventionally good looking or ‘healthy’. Yet Instagram is a platform which is being increasingly used to subvert both ideas. Users such as Ragina R and Aashna Bhagwani post photos of themselves as well as fashion tips, brand recommendations, reassurances and more for their community of followers. A friend recently also told me about an Instagrammer who posts about curly hair care. Pallavi Juneja, who goes by @thecuriousjalebi on Instagram, has tips on how to manage curly hair, styling ideas, and simply photos of her owning her curly hair.

“I don’t really follow any of the body positive bloggers actively on Instagram. But I must admit, I do enjoy seeing their photos in the Explore section amidst the photos of conventionally good-looking models,” says Sathya, from Bombay. “Some of my more fashion- and clothes-oriented friends really go through their posts and go shopping. It’s nice to see diversity in body types. Nice is an understatement, to be honest.” 

These communities, as varied as they are, are formed over the Internet and built upon a sense of common reality and bonds which are formed through mutual openness, often from behind closed doors. They transcend geographical restrictions and societal norms, and provide companionship, support, and sometimes basic understanding. They are, of course, not perfect. But they’re a damn good beginning toward what’s actually needed: change.

*Names have been changed to protect women’s privacy.

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