A few hours ago, I sorted through some of my photographs, found a flattering one, zoomed in a little, deleted all colour, and then posted it on Instagram, of course after using a magical filter. #ChallengeAccepted.
Over 5 million women over the past few days have done the same. These are women from different parts of the world, the famous and not-so-famous, across races, various ages, countries, religions, all enthusiastically joining the campaign and posting their selfies. The idea is positive affirmation, a celebration of womanhood, an occasion to support and appreciate one another. #WomenSupportWomen. Who knows where it all began, but it has caught on – 5 million and counting.
Hashtags can be a powerful tool. People, brands and organisations have been using social media actively to spread their ideas and find support for their causes. # is the thread that ties in the online conversation. In this case it is bringing women together. This is certainly not the first time. #metoo, #timesup were powerful binders. They grew to be cultural movements that changed the discourse and renewed public awareness on issues of sexual misconduct and harassment at workplaces. But do they really work?
The long-term impact of these online campaigns are still unclear. Scholars do not have much faith in ‘armchair activism’ given the low level of user engagement. But there is no denying the fact that hashtag activism is influencing the growth and development of global movements.
The conversation around women in particular has changed shape over the years. It has expanded and shifted in many ways. New media technologies and the smartphone in particular have opened a new frontier of activism for women. By lowering the barriers and making it easier, it has become possible for more and more women to participate, and become a part of a larger movement. As the numbers increase, the emotional momentum carries it forward, giving it the potential to shape public opinion. Collectively they can be agents of social change. There is strength in numbers.
And thus, even as activists are finding new ways to engage, a diverse demographic of supporters are rapidly emerging from the online world. Which is why we are seeing millions of pouts and smiles and poses, all washed in black and white. The imagery is striking, even though the cause is hazy.
No wonder then, questions are being asked. Does this have any real meaning?
There are suggestions that a movement like this would make sense if it featured trans-women, or differently abled women. Perhaps we could feature our heroes, women we look up to, instead of vain self images. Marginalised communities need our support and our attention. Poverty, hunger, violence, health, lack of education are all much worthier causes. Instead what we have is just a selfie.
But do we always have to chase a higher, loftier ideal. Can’t we sometimes just pause and derive our joy and strength from the simpler sides of life?
We don’t know why or how a photograph—posed, filtered and captioned, can help. What does it stand for? How does it inspire anyone or bring any hope? But it does. Ask millions of women, who are posting, liking, telling and tagging.
Social media can be used to create a sense of belonging among the participants. It can be very powerful, as we have seen time and time again. It is the first step towards mobilising a socially and geographically dispersed community – women.
It is difficult to measure the outcome of digital activism or the emotional impact of campaigns like this one. It should not be rated by sterile digital analytical tools like the number of likes, comments or followers. The emotional connection is deeper which perhaps explains the numbers.
An online campaign has the power to unite women, encourage solidarity, share lives and feel connected to a larger world outside. So what if it is a series of beautiful black and white images cluttering our Instagram feed. There are secrets we share - scientists, coders, wives, mothers, celebrities, sportstars, CEOs, gamers, writers, dancers - our whispers and our unspoken pacts travel across invisible networks.
As per the dictionary, a challenge is a difficult or complex task or situation. Posing for a photo is really no big deal. The challenge really lies in connecting, supporting and reminding one another – of the joys of being a woman.
(Ekta Kumar is a writer, columnist, artist and works closely with the European Union on gender and civil rights-related issues.)
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