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ICTs And Feminist Activism: A Reflection On The Benefits And Shortfalls

Activist using FTX Hub at AWID Forum 2008, South Africa. Hub organized by WNSP of APC, AWID and Women's Net. Photo credit: Gabriela De Cicco

“Without a doubt information and communication technologies (ICTs) are changing the way we carry out our activism – in our neighbourhoods or globally – and women´s rights activists are in the thick of it.” AWID interviewed Erika Smith of the Association for Progressive Communications Women's Networking Support Programme (APC WNSP) on women using ICTs to mobilize.

By Gabriela De Cicco

AWID: Can you tell us some of the ways that ICTs can and have been used to mobilize especially with regard to women’s rights?

Erika Smith (ES): Right now the possibility of mobilizing via social networks is the rage - to the extent that some people credited Facebook and Twitter for the Arab Spring and not the millions of people who made such turning points possible over many years of struggle!

There are a number of international petition and action sites like Avaaz, Care2, 350.org, applying pressure - and raising money - for very specific causes in specific time frames. Avaaz has almost 10 million members and has mobilized millions of dollars for different actions, including urging South Africa to take measures to end “corrective rape” against Black lesbians, convincing Hilton Hotels to take responsibility in the fight against sex trafficking, helping local groups stop the Uganda bill proposing gays be sentenced to death.

In some countries, global actions and protest calls get labelled as ‘imposing western ideals’. There is also criticism on how effective “Internet activism” can truly be.  Critics assert that people are too comfortable clicking and are not taking action and changing their own lives in order to topple structural injustice. While I do think there is power in petitions, online mobilisation becomes all the more powerful when accompanied by real-time, offline, in-your-face activism.

Women online are bearing testimony - they are actors and agents rather than objects. They determine how they will be portrayed and represent themselves, demanding transparency and accountability, building new worlds in creative multimedia.  Mobilizing on the Internet for women's rights is evidenced in myriad of ways over the years; see examples of online campaigns below[i].

AWID: Do women and men have equal access to ICTs, and how does this affect their ability to use these tools effectively as a way of mobilizing?

E.S: Overall women are closing the digital gender gap - but when you examine those Internet populations it is clear that women over 30, who do not speak English and who do not live in urban areas have much less access.

An estimated 30% of the world's population now has Internet access but – what part of the world?  According to the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ITU), this translates into seven out of ten people in the “developed” world but only two out of ten in the “developing” world.  And if you compare Africa and Latin America – only 11.4% of Africa's population has access to the Internet, versus 36.2% in Latin America[ii].

There is excitement about how mobile phones are a major equalizer in terms of access to the Internet, especially where computers are few, broadband is costly or electricity scarce.  Cisco Systems reported in January of this year that there are 48 million people worldwide who have a mobile phone but do not have electricity at home.  But mobiles face a serious gender gap – across countries women are 21% less likely to own a mobile phone than men.  And, in research around violence against women and technology, mobiles are frequently a source of contention and control.

But access is much more than infrastructure, it is also about whether the available information is relevant to you as a woman, in your language; if you have the technical skill and an enabling environment, etc.  It is very important to take a gendered look at countries' digital agendas – so many are completely gender blind, and prioritize corporate growth, not social development or citizen participation.

AWID: Are there challenges or shortfalls in using ICTs for mobilizing?

E.S: Yes, there are risks. All bloggers will get nasty comments, for example, but women bloggers – and especially feminists – face not only critical comments about content but sexualized violent threats. Given the information we inadvertently reveal about ourselves online (especially over time!), attacks become personalized and can be quite intimidating. The backlash against feminists online is intense and is an attempt to silence and censor.

Through Take Back the Tech! Campaign we have heard of all kinds of harassment – women's pictures being interposed on nude pictures and circulated online to discredit them, women getting blackmailed by photos or videos of them in intimate situations, computers or accounts getting hacked or stolen, mobile phone theft. As activists we have to think not only about our own data but also the data we have on other people who we fight to defend. APC WNSP created a tip sheet to help prevent women from being targets of cyber harassment, as well as other advice for being safe online, hosted on Take Back the Tech!

Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) need to pay special attention to secure online communications and should become tech savvy.  Learning how the Internet works and where vulnerable points are because of hardware and the way the Internet functions, as well as how to use and store data, is crucial.

Indeed, another risk to women's activism is censorship and/or filtering.  The APC WNSP Exploratory Research on Sexuality and ICT (EROTICS) revealed how sex workers, sex rights and reproductive health advocates, and LGBTI communities depend on the Internet, in many cases, as their only outreach or information provider. EROTICS research revealed the vital role that Internet plays for marginalized communities, and its fragility if more people are not involved to fight filtering. Feminist activism must defend our Internet rights as communicators and the Internet as a public good.

AWID: Are there any mechanisms in place to protect ICT users from violence and harassment?

E.S: Recourse against violence or harassment via the Internet depends on the country you are in.  Cyber harassment legislation is being adopted in many countries around the world.  But in the absence of such laws, it is important to document any and all harassment, and alert friends and police about what is happening.  There may also be special cybercrimes units, but legislation in this area is difficult. Frequently the reaction to these sorts of problems is to legislate the Internet – leading to censorship – rather than dealing with the violence of the crime.

AWID: In the way that social networking works (comments, tags, etc) sometimes groups can lose the control of their contents, how can one ensure that their content is not misrepresented in other online spaces?

E.S: You can't! But can you in offline spaces?  Look at how media has portrayed (or censored) women's activism for years. For example, if we are to believe the photo coverage - pride marches are only small parades with transvestites in amazing costumes. Media literacy, critique and discernment are vital skills for all of us, online and off.

So yes, you can be misrepresented and taken out of context, but ICT tools also help you follow the debate using analytics and alerts. You can keep the discussion going, keep your messaging strong, keep pointing back to your original arguments and growing them, or be convinced to change your mind! Also keep building, recognizing and learning from diverse feminist communities that will back you up and slice down the trolls.[iii] 

Perhaps another concern is how social networking can keep us talking to the same circles of “friends” rather than moving beyond our comfort zone and changing our discourse to be more effective and appealing to more people – so that future “waves” of feminism get higher and are more fun to ride.

Eli Pariser coined “the Filter Bubble” flagging that activists can mistakenly feel they live in a world concerned about social justice because increasingly google search results will intuitively hone in on our areas of interest based on our previous internet behaviour, and we think that other users’ searches will yield the same great results. He points out that our social networking communities are reflections of ourselves rather than reality. Frankly, with the misogyny women face online, I am not so sure that feminists live so encapsulated in the filter bubble, but it is important to be aware of how technology (shaped further by market interests) is also conditioning our awareness based on what it intuits our preferences to be.

AWID: The use of ICTs has helped to ensure and support freedom of expression in countries were censorship and repression is strong, but recently there was a disturbing incident where a blogger was found to be inauthentic. What are some of the risks in this? Could these incidents affect the legitimacy of ICTs as authentic tools for freedom of expression?

E.S: Absolutely! The APC statement points out the importance of online anonymity and privacy, especially in repressive regimes, especially for human rights defenders, including LGBTI activists. Macmasters' Gay Girl in Damascus puts the integrity of such rights and the Internet as a platform at risk, puts other LGBTI activists under intense scrutiny that can compromise their safety, and in addition to the fictional character he created for his blog, he stole the identity and trampled the privacy of Jelena Lecic. His actions undermine the very movement he purported to support.  But these false appropriations do eventually tumble under the chorus of true voices (even if anonymous or assumed identities). Akiba Soloman's critique is especially insightful and a lesson on listening and discernment.

[i] Online campaigns

  • LGBTI organising in Lebanon grew right along with the Internet, from chatrooms, to a lesbian-centred online community, Meem, to clear video messaging on You Tube (ie http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9wgxHMTSEI), social networking, and a queer Arab weekly (http://www.bekhsoos.com/web/) with ¼ million hits last year. 
  • Feminist bloggers forced MAC-cosmetics to withdraw its product line “inspired” by the factory workers of Juarez and donate to help end VAW. (http://www.blogher.com/frame.php?url=http://bonerkilling.blogspot.com/2010/12/mac-makeup-romanticizing-mexican-womens.html)
  • IPAS Brazil's YouTube video making people think twice about the criminalization of abortion (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2ITf3o5Byo)
  • Iran's One Million Signatures Campaign to demand an end to discriminatory laws against women (http://www.we-change.org/english/)
  • Radio FIRE's unrelenting accompaniment of women in conflict and crisis (and celebration) eloquently evidenced in Haiti, after the earthquake, and from the feminist solidarity camp, to ensure that Haitian women's voices are heard, recognising the importance of testimony and also rescuing the history of the Haitian women's movement, along with so many other Haitian and Latin American feminist communicators.
  • Saudi women urging support on Twitter and Facebook for #women2drive, and the accompanying viral videos “Honk for Saudi Women”.
  • Egypt's HarassMap to end social acceptability of sexual harassment
  • Take Back the Tech! To end violence against women during the 16 Days campaign
  • Live tweeting, video and audio streaming with cell phones take the movement and the message further – for example in Mexico with the coverage of the Peace Caravan to Ciudad Juarez, or marches world-wide by sex workers carrying the symbolic red umbrella on March 3, International Sex Workers Rights Day.
  • New, feminist platforms have emerged, such as nist.tv which offers quick, easy access and storage of feminist video.

[ii]http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8552410.stm

[iii] People who make deliberately provocative statements to disrupt debate and draw attention to themselves and away from the cause

Article License: Creative Commons - Article License Holder: AWID

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