Not long after she got home from a Women’s March event in Jakarta in 2018, Anindya Restuviani opened her Instagram account to find hundreds of follow requests — and a slew of insults. In direct messages, users said she “looked like a dog,” that her genitalia smelled, and that they would remember her face so they could rape her on the street. 

Restuviani works for several feminist associations in the Indonesian capital, and a photo of her at the rally had been circulated on the Instagram account of a religious hard-liner with hundreds of thousands of followers. 

“The scare made me take more precautions on social media, [do] more self-censorship,” Restuviani says. 

As civil rights groups in Indonesia increasingly come to rely on online tools for discussion and organization, female activists in the country are struggling against relentless abuse and discrimination. 

From a small house on a side street in Jakarta’s Tebet District, veteran human rights activist Dhyta Caturani is trying to reclaim the internet for women and minority groups through her own initiative, PurpleCode Collective.

“At the beginning, there was this imagination that internet technology was a democratic space — equal, open, and a decentralized power. In reality, it is not,” Caturani says.

“Technology is still mostly developed by cisgender, heterosexual white men from the global north countries who have biases, therefore, many women, along with gender and sexual minority groups, are marginalized.”

Caturani, who often wears thick-rimmed, oversized glasses, has been on the frontlines of Indonesian civil movements for more than two decades. In 1999, at a political demonstration against military interference in the country’s politics, she was hospitalized after being shot in the back with a plastic bullet. Since the Reformation — Indonesia’s democratic revival, which spanned the late 1990s and early 2000s — she has led a number of women’s rights campaigns, including the Purple Rose Campaign against sex trafficking; Reclaim the Night, which fought the stigma attached to women going out after dark; and One Billion Rising, a movement to raise awareness about violence against women through flash-mob dance parties. 

Over the past few years, she has turned her gaze online, after concluding that women are just as unsafe in digital spaces as they are on the street. Like most women — and particularly activists — on social media, Caturani routinely faces threats of violence and abuse. In 2010, after she posted on Facebook about a protest against a government official who publicly blamed a rape victim for wearing a miniskirt on public transport, a man sent her a message saying: “You deserve to be raped. Just wait, there will be someone who comes to rape you.” 

Caturani says the threat was particularly disturbing because the sender wasn’t a random stranger — he had attended a workshop that she had been involved in. “I thought he may have known where I live,” she says.

Courtesy of Dhyta Caturani

Most of the threats Caturani received came from male social media users. Women do go on the attack online, but their threats are different, Caturani says. Male users often target women’s bodies and sexuality, usually through rape threats or name-calling.

In 2014, Caturani began to research security techniques for women online. She found that the software she needed to protect herself — even basic products, such as password managers, programs to safeguard sensitive files, and virtual private networks — were out of reach for most people in Indonesia, and especially women and marginalized groups. Getting and using them assumed layers of privilege that may not have occurred to developers — including being able to afford digital tools and being fluent enough in English to use them. “You have to have the knowledge first, and that’s a privilege,” Caturani says. “Digital security was still very masculine, so I had problems when entering the ecosystem.”

Those same biases have led to the creation of unsafe spaces for women, Caturani says. 

In Indonesia, cases of online gender-based violence spiked by 300% in 2019, according to a report by Komnas Perempuan, the national commission on violence against women. Caturani says that social media platforms bear some responsibility for this. 

“The platforms allow people to commit violence because of the way they were created. They never considered safety for women,” she says. “The platforms were built by the biases of their developers, which is why the platforms become unsafe and marginalize many people.”

Caturani was one of 50 activists convened by the Association for Progressive Communications, an independent network of activists, for a 2014 meeting that led to the formulation of the Feminist Principles of the Internet.

The 15 principles — which were updated in 2016 to include two additional points — are designed to reclaim the internet for women and minority groups. They reject surveillance, anonymity restrictions, online gender-based violence, and attempts to control data and women’s expression by the state and corporations. They ask for greater access, greater data protection, inclusion at decision-making tables, more free and open source tech, and embedding the ethics of consent into the design and policies of internet platforms.

In 2015, Caturani founded PurpleCode in Jakarta to help implement these principles. At the time, there was a growing number of online feminist initiatives in Indonesia. There was Magdalene, a feminist online magazine set up in 2013; Jakarta Feminist Discussion Group, a Facebook group created in 2014 that later evolved into a formal association; and Indonesia Feminis, a multiplatform provider of feminist news and events established in 2015.

But unlike those outlets, which simply use technology to disseminate information, Caturani says that PurpleCode’s main purpose is to question technology and disrupt its culture by encouraging more women and minority groups to become developers and to get involved in designing governance structures in tech.

Until the pandemic forced PurpleCode’s physical space to shut, it hosted incubation programs, workshops, and training for women and gender-nonconforming people. When it reopens, Caturani hopes to hold coding classes for middle and high school–age girls.

While the issues that Caturani first identified a decade ago seem as or more prevalent today, Caturani says that is partly because Indonesian women now have the language to articulate their concerns. As it is increasingly common for people to talk publicly about online violence, more women are able to identify experiences they have had as violent. 

PurpleCode’s work has taken on fresh relevance over the past few months. Demonstrations against the government have been met with a campaign of digital threats against protesters, and the collective’s security tools have been adopted by a number of activists. 

Caturani says that, as protests increasingly move online, it is vital to remember how the internet is not just a tool for the movement but a place where real people live and interact.

“If the internet is our space to build movements, then [it] must be fought for to be the space we all had imagined it to be at the beginning,” she says.