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Archive for April, 2012

Liberation Inc. – more reflections from the Awid Forum

I spent a full day yesterday focusing on the intersection of feminism, activism, and Information Communication Technologies (ICTs). And I kept running into the same women (the feminist Twitterati?). And these women were mostly already known to me from my own work on the issue (alongside Miz Raftree). This worries me a little bit. Could it be that there are so few feminist / female Techies in the world that we all know each other?! This is an important space. As Valentina says ‘Internet is a strategic feminist issue’. Especially if u subscribe to the opinion that the web is just a new space for old kinds of bad behavior; then this is absolutely a space that requires our intervention. And this should be broadened out even more – technology is a feminist issue. We need to be wary of falling into complacency in thinking ICTs are empowering without recognizing how they have been co-opted. In other words, we need to differentiate between the practical uses of ICTs which are democratizing and the political uses of ICTs which are mapped onto existing unequal social relations.

At the CITIGen session Srilatha Batliwala posed a hypothesis – that ICTs have given rise to a new social paradigm – The Network Society. And this is a paradigm that requires a feminist intervention seeking social justice as it is reproducing power imbalances, and we are taking part in this reproduction. Anita Gurumurthy posed that women have been innovating within the Network Society, and these are sites of subversion, but not of struggle. Feminist activism has concerned itself with appropriating and co-opting of ICTs, but we have not treated ICTs as a determinant of the political economy. So we are trapped in the user discourse, while this discourse is being shaped by the ‘powers that be’. We are meeting, as ‘activists’, in a space that is a vector of capitalism. And this is actually de-politicizing civil society. We now see the rise of new actors such as the Gates Foundation who are hugely active in the areas of technological health innovations and human rights, and yet they are representing capitalist profit driven interests.

Which brings us to our next point: Facebook and Youtube for instance are tools that provide spaces for activism, but they are not liberation technologies. In fact, we repeatedly give up our privacy in order to use these platforms. According to Jac Kee from APC data mining is sold in online auctions – this is how our information supports the profit margins of large corporations. ‘Every time you search on Google for something, this information is gathered and sold’. According to the experts in the room ‘Google are Information fascists’. And this is a core feminist concern. There is content online that is challenging the ideas of normativity and gender normalization. And this is worrying the corporate powers that be. So they try to contain what can be said online and they are battling users. According to Melissa Ditmore, who managed the American part of the ERoTICS research project, SOPA and PIPA were proposed by corporate lobbyists to prevent users from sharing and copying content and to shore up corporate profit (and by politicians who don’t use the internet, otherwise they would know that sharing & copying content is pretty much the ONLY thing people do online).

Regulating the internet = regulating sexuality. According to Melissa Ditmore the internet has become a nexus of moral panic. For instance, the US government requires school and library computers to restrict youth access to “harmful” content. But there is no guidance on what is harmful, so this usually means sexual content. Things that have been limited in different places include the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders website, sites about breast cancer and websites providing information about Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Reproductive Health. And it’s not just governments who are deciding for us what is ‘sexual’. For instance, Facbook doesn’t allow pictures of women breastfeeding (which you can report under ‘nudity and porn’). According to Nadine Moawad Facebook is moving towards open data platforms. But this means more surveillance and less privacy which is critical (and even dangerous) in the context of what can be seen as ‘sexual deviance’ (i.e. LGBTQI). Moreover, in the USA, under 18’s can be prosecuted and put on the sex offenders list for taking a sexual photo on their mobile phone or sexting. But this is private content (!) and it is being used with the complicity of Tech companies to police adolescents.

After a full day of discussions it seems to me that the ‘Techie’ space and surrounding debates, both from a feminist and a civil rights perspective, is sorely lacking in visibility within the broader women’s movement. So many feminists believe the only way to protest is to take to the streets. But it is no less important to protect a website that is providing information about safe abortions which is being attacked by governments and users. And it’s no less important to critically evaluate the ways in which surveillance and lack of privacy is compromising women’s rights and freedom. I hope there will be more opportunities in the future for feminists to discuss and mobilize around these issues – and I hope to be there to tweet about it!!

Keshet Bachan

Sisters in Istanbul – some reflections from the AWID forum

I arrived (very) early on Thursday morning to attend the 4 day Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) forum 2012 in Istanbul. I was immensely excited. This conference is probably the biggest meeting of feminists I have ever attended (aside from the Commission on the Status of Women) – and the most radical. There are over 2,000 activists here from all over the world that have made the pilgrimage to the Forum in the hopes of learning, networking and sharing, building coalitions, increasing solidarity and consolidating action.

I had expected to meet women from all over the world, but even I was surprised to (literally) run into a delegate from Syria (they are enjoying celebrity status here, everyone wants a photo op with the Syrians). Maybe less surprising is an interesting conversation I had with an Iranian delegate who has had to resort to crowd-funding her project (working with children refugees) due to the sanctions. As an Israeli activist it is both unnerving and exciting to meet women activists from places I only hear about in scary news stories. I’m pretty sure they feel the same way about me.

In fact, it seems that the decision to hold the forum in Turkey was right on the money allowing for delegates in the MENA region to easily attend, and more importantly, to put the Arab spring discussions firmly on the agenda. From what we are hearing in the sessions and in the corridor conversations, this ‘Spring’ has not been entirely good for women and girls. In fact, Manal Hassan, a prominent Egyptian Techie, told harrowing stories about women activists who were detained by the military and subjected to virginity testing. When the story broke, the Egyptian military claimed this was done to prove they were not raped at the holding facility. As if it’s ok to rape non-virgins.

Other issues that are receiving a lot of (tweeting?) attention are the intersections of feminism, activism and ICTs. There are some obvious links between undermining hegemonic culture and patriarchy, and the unregulated, open-ended, user-driven nature of the Net. More unexpected however are the ways in which indigenous women are harnessing technology to document and archive their knowledge, and the use of flip cameras in the DRC to capture women’s struggles against violence. In addition, the internet, and social media sites, are being discussed both as sites of resistance and as sites of commodification. The argument being made is that the profit driven nature of giants like Google and Faebook is mediating, disrupting and appropriating user-driven knowledge, attempting to subjugate this knowledge under ownership and privacy laws. This regulation is reproducing patriarchal and discriminatory practices online, stifling the democratic and subversive nature of the web. In addition, the content being generated by ‘users’ is reflecting existing power dynamics – according to a Wikipedia rep, 80% of their articles are edited by men. So the questions we are asking are – where is our feminist knowledge? and how do we share it online without losing its political sting?

As with all feminist struggles, there is a tension between those who believe the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, and those who believe we need to seize these tools to undermine the foundations of the house. This is being played out online where feminists and female bloggers are fighting for voice, recognition and a chance to be at the table. As one panelist said, if you’re not at the table – you’re on the menu. While other feminists say – It doesn’t matter how big your share of the pie is if it’s a poisoned pie. I’m firmly on the side of those who want to be at the table and so I’m sending forth this user-driven blog to disrupt the patriarchal nature of the web. Or something.

 

Keshet Bachan

 Stay tuned for more from the 2012 #AWIDforum. Follow me on @keshetbachan

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