MUMBAI, INDIA - India's foreign minister has spoken out on abusive tweets directed at her, a move welcomed on Monday by women journalists and campaigners who say they routinely battle rape and death threats on social media.
Online trolls targeted Sushma Swaraj, the most senior woman in India's government and an active Twitter user, after she helped a Hindu-Muslim couple who accused a passport official in her department of discriminating against them.
Most of the abuse was from Hindus who accused her of "appeasing" the Muslim community by not taking the official's side, and called for her to be removed from the Hindu nationalist government currently in power.
"Had she been India's daughter, she would have put nation first. But she is a secular Visa Aunty," read one tweet in Hindi.
Women applauded Swaraj for speaking out after she took to Twitter on Sunday to expose the trolls.
"These are organized swarms of gender trolling. It has the approval of someone, somewhere," Kavita Krishnan, an activist with the All India Progressive Women's Association, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Twitter trolls have attacked both men and women critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, but activists say the attacks against women are particularly vicious and can include rape and death threats.
Dhanya Rajendran, editor of digital newspaper The News Minute who was trolled last year by fans of an actor whose film she had criticized, said the targeting of Swaraj showed how far the trolls were prepared to go.
"People are not even scared of a senior minister who is among the top four of the Indian government," she said.
Online abuse and harassment pressure women and girls into censoring themselves on social media and makes them fear for their physical safety, with many withdrawing from public conversations, rights groups have said.