William Gibson, famous science fiction author, described the Internet as a ‘cyberspace’, in which anyone can assume any identity and venture into a life that is not limited by their own physical appearances; a virtual community that continues to grow and expand as people find new ways to live their lives online. Women from countries, such as China or Iran, in particular, have become avid internet users because, to them, it is a platform for self-expression that is not hindered by any conservative principles. On the other hand, cyberspace can also be a repressive environment, where women can be vulnerable to online harassment. The Gryphon explores women in cyberspace.
One of the main reasons why women have become major online users is that it provides them with the freedom to vocalise their opinions. In more restrictive communities, with strict gender expectations, it is difficult for women to break free of those traditional roles in a public setting. For example, Iranian media, including television and newspapers, is heavily censored and monopolised by the government. Therefore, opinions that challenge the expectation that women must be submissive and obedient will not be published on those platforms. More than 54% of internet users in the Middle East are women from Iran, because cyberspace is an alternative platform that allows for those opinions to be expressed. Dr. Golzard, of the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds, interviewed several Iranian women who were active in cyberspace. One participant stated she did not need a mask in the virtual world, and felt that she could expose herself and her feelings regarding her unsuccessful marriage with no fear of governmental restrictions.
Similarly, women in China find cyberspace to be a useful conduit for promoting self-expression. Despite the extreme internet censorship imposed by the Chinese government, women still find a way to use the technology in their favour. A study conducted by Kung Eng Kuah, discovered that women would reveal their emotions and thoughts about love, sex, and so on, on personal websites and online diaries, rather than disclose those feelings to family members and close friends; in fear of being condemned. Abiding by the expectations of how women should act becomes important in order to avoid disappointing or being ostracised by the people around them. The internet is a liberating environment for them, where they can indulge in activities and discussions that they enjoy and consider important.
At the same time, cyberspace can be a dangerous environment that puts women at risk of harassment either offline or online. The vast number of people, not just women, on the Internet means that like-minded people can come together to form online communities or networks. These networks can take the form of online dating sites, which are platforms that people can use to interact with each other. In China, these websites have become convenient platforms for women who are unsuccessful in finding partners in real life and allow these women to meet partners in a more comfortable setting. Unfortunately, the people that these women meet online are not always honest about their identity. The disadvantage to online dating sites is that there is the risk that the profiles women and men browse through are not authentic representations of the people behind the screen. The possibility of discovering that someone was dishonest about their identity is a risk that both women and men face when indulging in online romances. What makes this reality more dangerous is that when a man or woman eventually meets their online partner in real life, the relationship can shift into an oppressive state in which the other partner reveals a controlling personality that they had previously hid in their online profile.
Women also face the possibility of harassment when engaging in online discussions. When they decide to create profiles and blogs for personal expression, they are opening themselves up, not just to supportive individuals, but also individuals with malignant intent. Women are more likely to receive sexually inappropriate messages and images from strangers, even when these responses are clearly uninvited. One of the participants in Dr. Golzard’s study admitted to receiving sexual messages from men who had read her weblog, asking her to sleep with them for a night. Often these requests and messages are not kind and can be abusive and threatening. Cyberspace is a platform that these abusers exploit because it allows them to remain relatively anonymous and not face retribution that would otherwise have been possible if a woman had been physically harassed in a public setting. Therefore, although cyberspace does allow women to be themselves, the very fact that they are women still puts them at risk of being sexually harassed.
Overall, the Internet can be a beneficial tool for women, particularly those in conservative communities, because it can be used to foster personal expression and the development of supportive relationships. Yet despite these advantages, cyberspace is not an entirely safe environment for women, who are still susceptible to harassment from men who come across their profiles or blogs. Cyberspace exists as a double-edged sword, but, ultimately, can still be a useful device for women who, without it, would have no means of expressing their true self.
Image: UN Women