Believe it or not, we’ve been using hashtags for a full decade.
What started out as a method of organising Twitter posts by topic has morphed into something much greater than we ever imagined. The word may seem like it doesn’t mean anything more, but when you hear it, you feel trapped in the middle of something huge. Hashtag. There’s a buzzing energy behind it, hints of power, popularity, movements and revolution, an energy barely contained by its own slashing lines, existing at the intersection of the present and the future… Forgive me. Hashtags excite me.
A colleague once told me that men and women use hashtags differently: That men are more likely to use “label” hashtags, like #gender or #language, whereas women use hashtags expressively, by tapping into an emotion. I don’t know if this is true (by which I mean I believe it but can’t prove it), but I do know that women have been using hashtags in really interesting, impactful, hilarious and ingenious ways. In fact, Twitter data reveals that conversations around feminism have grown 300 percent over the last three years. And tracing the evolution of feminist hashtags is a rewarding click-hole to fall into.
One of the earliest feminist hashtags was slightly lacking in creativity, but hey, it was early days. The hashtag #fem2, which stands for feminism 2.0, gained popularity in 2008. It was used to tag discussions, quotes and articles on new forms of feminism and its future. Perhaps, part of the excitement might’ve been just marvelling at how big the movement could be.
Indian women and feminists got their own hashtag power moment, after the December 2012 gang-rape. Hashtags like #braveheart, #JyotiSingh, #Nirbhaya and #IndiasDaughter became global, and helped organise plans, commentary, videos, reactions via Twitter, contributing to solidifying the wave of outrage that this case set off.
In the Delhi 2012 case, most people were on the same side: They wanted to express disgust at the violence women face daily, and change it. But not all hashtag wars are simple. An interesting case of opposing hashtags was the #HappyToBleed vs #HappyToWait fight in Kerala (nobody won and the battle is currently the SC’s headache). #HappyToBleed was mobilised by women who insisted that period blood is normal and that they shouldn’t be barred from entering temples like Sabarimala until menopause because that violates their rights. #HappyToWait was this movement’s equal and opposite reaction, with women saying they were willing to wait until menopause to visit temples.
And not all hashtags are serious, and that’s part of the reason why I love them so much. One of my favourite hashtags this year was #ThanksForTyping, a hilarious trend that outed male authors who used their wives to type out their manuscripts. Another that gave me giggles was South Africa’s #MenAreTrash, which called men trash for being part of a society that condoned rape culture. Of course, it was met with lots of anger, with men deploying the oft-used brahmastra in response — #NotAllMen.
#NotAllMen resurfaces periodically when women come together to talk about gender or sexism. It gives us a sense that there are legions of men waiting, with their fingers hovering above keyboards, for the moment women begin discussing sexism online, just to flood the conversation with #NotAllMen. Or to insist that women are being unfair when they talk about sexism by painting all men with the same brush.
Which reminds me of another classic, #MasculinitySoFragile, first tweeted in 2013 and gained popularity in 2015. It was meant to be a humorous and sarcastic challenge to social norms that dictate toxic masculinity, and the ways in which men overcompensate to achieve those impossible standards of manhood.
A lovely one that crops up every year is #ReadWomen — where you read a book by a woman author. It’s also a good way to collate recommendations.
A recent Indian hashtag that took a lot of people by surprise was #AintNoCinderella. When Chandigarh DJ Varnika Kundu was stalked by Vikas Barala, the son of a powerful BJP politician in Haryana, politicians immediately started asking what Kundu was doing out at midnight. She was able to respond to the taunts — and thousands of women had her virtual back. They immediately responded with #AintNoCinderella, tweeting about how they were out at night and how the night and streets belong to them too.
#PinjraTod or #BreakTheLocks ruffled some feathers when it was first started as a group of Delhi-based colleges protesting discriminatory hostel rules against women. Now, it’s grown into a collective supported by colleges and universities all over the county, and has lent its voice to a number of different cases and issues faced by women in colleges today. Similarly, #DalitWomenFight was used by Dalit women to powerfully call out and discuss caste, patriarchy and oppression.
#NotInMyName, started by filmmaker Saba Dewan, was meant to display the public’s anger against the communal mob lynchings and murders of Muslim and Dalit men who allegedly carried or handled beef. It led to some controversy with people who were unhappy with the politics of the verbiage, but the movement, which metamorphosed into protest meetings in cities all over the country, drew huge crowds.
Indian feminists obviously aren’t alone in turning hashtags into political movements. Back in 2013, a humble hashtag set off a massive political and social wave that the US establishment (read white) is still trying to deal with: #BlackLivesMatter (BLM). It was a woman-led reaction to the spate of racially-motivated murders of young Black men by police and citizenry, from Trayvon Martin, who was shot dead by a man suspicious of his hoodie, to Mike Brown, an unarmed teenager from Ferguson shot dead by police and left to bleed to death on the street. BLM found itself replicated in local chapters worldwide, and is now a global, political movement to end police brutality against black and marginalised communities. (Of course, white folks tried to make #AllLivesMatter, a hashtag that whitewashes the issue, but was thankfully immediately dismissed).
The nature of the hashtag is such that it can cross borders and turn a local struggle into a global issue. In 2016, we saw #FreeTheFive, which demanded action in the case of five Chinese feminists who were jailed for organising a feminist protest. #BringBackOurGirls, from Nigeria, was an even bigger movement. In 2014, 276 Chibok girls from Nigeria were kidnapped by Boko Haram. Celebrities in Nigeria began sharing posts with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, and it was soon picked up by celebrities, politicians and world leaders. The successful campaign prompted a number of countries, from China to Israel, to pledge to provide any information possible. Despite the global attention, 195 of the girls remain captive.
This kind of situation makes people say bad things about what happens when hashtags and activism meet. They say it’s easy to imagine that a movement is emerging when you see huge numbers online, but that it doesn’t always translate into direct action, even in highly publicised cases.
Others say that our greatest victories, as feminists, have traditionally been won by going onto the streets to register our protest. This is true. But it’s also true that the Internet is young; we haven’t fully explored it. And movements like Arab Spring and Wikileaks are enough to tell you that even our early experiments are working. Social media is spelling out exciting things for politics and activism, and we can only hope to embrace the possibilities with open arms.