estudos feministas / études féministes
Cyberspace as a networking tool for feminists
‘Internet most of all ... has empowered us, by giving us the information, the analysis, the sense of solidarity, the experience of shared achievements, the encouragement and moral support that comes from being part of a network, a movement with common goals and visions’. Peggy Antrobus, 2004
When I first started writing about women and the Internet there was a sense of excitement that we were hovering on a communication revolution. Feminist groups were quick to think how they could make it their revolution – adapt it as a tool that could move forward agendas beyond the local space, yet operate within that space.
In the Women on the Net project we had listserv discussions about the possibilities for Internet to transform our feminist local work, reaching out beyond the barriers of time and space, connecting to one another while birthing, caring for those in our homes, speaking social transformation in the middle of the night. It was an exciting moment and I know the book that resulted - Women@internet:creating cultures in cyberspace (edited Wendy Harcourt, London: Zed Books 1999) hit a nerve of interest among people working in communication and development and among feminists who in their 1,000s were getting on line.
Looking back it seems somewhat strange that people viewed the use of Internet as a new frontier of politics and with such excitement. I recall when I was speaking at a Berlin seminar in 2000 feminists were seeing cyberspace as the way to transform gender identities. They saw it as potentially creating a gender neutral space, bending old patriarchal modes. At the opposite extreme the same year I was invited to speak to women in a tiny island off Tanzania, Pemba, their most avid questions (through translation) was how to connect, how to reach out in whatever language, hungry for access to different economic and cultural worlds. Almost a decade later we are wiser. Even if those Pemban women are now on-line, the old barriers remain of language, state control and foreign consumer demands. Instead of gender neutrality and equality we receive unwanted floods of pornography in our in boxes and have to set up spam to screen it out.
Cyberspace is not transforming society into a revolutionary place for feminists or any other group that wants social change. But it undoubtedly has made our communication much easier, it has shifted spaces and ways in which we interact even if the same power/knowledge nexus remains, and we are learning how to manipulate it rather than being manipulated.
I have never claimed to be an expert on cyberspace although I certainly inhabit it, and I am willing to argue it has become an important networking tool for feminists. Over these last years I see how the Internet is being used by women as a political tool. Some of my work has been on how feminists have self-consciously tried to shape Internet to be more openly their space in an effort to ‘empower’ women, to use technology as a political tool. The project Women on the Net, for example, aimed to bring together individual women and men working from different institutional bases (women NGOs, information technology networks, academe, women activists) to explore a transnational women’s movement agenda in response to and shaping evolving telecommunication policies and to create a resource (community and support) base which could be tapped into by different women’s groups in terms of analysis, knowledge and skills on navigating the Internet.
The world of policy and decision-making on telecommunications and other areas affecting access and use of cyberspace is proving a difficult ground for feminists. The world of Microsoft, high finance and telecommunications business are not the spaces in which women or those pushing an alternative agenda easily find a voice let alone a decision making position. The fact remains that the majority of the world’s women are poor, illiterate and cannot hope to have access to this cyber world. The digital divide, among women and men in the Global North and between people living in the geographical North and South, remains. There continues to be little awareness of the different uses of the Internet by men and women in varied cultural contexts. And there is our continued lack of knowledge of digital capitalism – from who owns sites to the creation of elite spaces, largely male and executive, that exclude others in order to keep high-level knowledge to themselves. Northern-based consumers of “citizen.com” are largely where the mainstream ICT interest and investment lies. There is still a crying need to advocate for much more gender-aware and socially aware communication policy at the top levels.
Despite these concerns, I am convinced that cyberspace functions as an active feminist space from my experience in my international work and in Europe (as Chair of Women in Development Europe and as co-coordinator of the European Feminist Forum). What I would like to do in this essay is to explore how feminists are using Internet today, quite unselfconsciously as a major communication, networking and lobbying tool. I would like to explore if Margaret Gallager is right when she says “cyberspace provides women with a new terrain to wage old struggles”?
It has certainly turned out to be a cheap and affordable means of communication, flexible in terms of time and one that lends itself to speed in terms of organising and creates a personal/political mix in terms of language used with which many feminists feel comfortable. But does it work as a political tool for feminists?
Cyberspace and the potential for feminism
After the first flurry of excitement and perhaps over engagement in listservs the use of cyberspace is settling down. While there is still the sense of precious time lost in responding to e-mails, people are working out the dangers of never ending conversations, messages too quickly sent, tempers flaring, unwisely shared fears and hopes. People are adapting to different styles of working. There is far more translation, even if English continues to predominate, French and Spanish language feminist conversations are intermingling. There is also a reaching out to engage with feminists working in localities and more and more young women are joining, totally at ease with the technology.
There is also recognition that there are safe spaces and not safe spaces. There are cyberspaces designed by others where women are controlled as consumers, as objects even persecuted. However there are also cyberspaces that are opening up spaces for women created by feminists. There is a wide universe of feminists around the world interacting in a variety of ways on cyberspace. There are feminist zines and Web sites, women’s networks on the Internet, women’s widespread use of e-mail to maintain family relations, and listservs that function as a political tool for mobilization as well as an entry point into economic and social worlds from which women are traditionally excluded. These examples belie the impression that the Internet is full of prowlers, pornography, and companies trawling for names to send promotional material aimed at women as buyers and “pinkwash” computer products aimed at girls.
The challenge for feminists in search of gender justice is to use cyberspace not only as an immediate empowering tool for their strategic needs but to open up its potential to others. Cyberspace lends itself well to women’s traditional support role and networking. As women begin to train others and learn to create new software a more interactive, more user (women/other) friendly and new types of communication technologies are emerging. A more women designed web-weaving is reflecting women’s sense of community and taking us away from the consumer focused alienated individual interaction the screens of porn and advertising that characterizes most mainstream cyberspace. Women and other marginal groups are fashioning cyberspace for their own empowerment and are part of alternative design (the ‘knowledge ware’) and use process.
A Women on the Net Zanzibari experience
I would argue that the part of the ‘commons’ of the cyberspace is operating to foster the world’s social capital, building up a community of users that are creating participatory community-based interconnectivity. To begin with one example from a workshop of Women on the Net held in Zanzibar (ZaWoN), a small island off the East Coast of Africa. The workshop was held in Kiswahili workshop run by Zanlink, a youth organization who were in turn trained by one of the founders of Women on the Net, a media expert working in development, Fatma Alloo (see ZaWoN, www.zitec.org/info/zawinfo.htm )
The workshop illustrated how working with needs of the women in the community opened up new economic and political spaces. As one of the trainers Ashraf Mohammed commented: ‘not only were the women enthusiastic and keen to learn but the fact that they asked many questions about health impact of computers. I was watching them being scared to even touch the mouse and then after the second day they were surfing the web for information on seaweed farming, jam making and types of ropes to make. I felt very inspired because I felt this training is going beyond training. It is going to impact their livelihood. The women constantly were talking of how they will show this to their friends and family members. I felt good that demystification of technology was taking place and it would go beyond the boundary of this class room’.
Fatma Alloo who facilitated the workshop wrote to me later: ‘By the time the workshop finished one could feel the sense of empowerment in the room … As a facilitator of the workshop my role as founder of ZaWoN was to mobilize in terms of not only demystifying the technology so women feel more comfortable with it but the whole notion of network for change in one’s life and the lives of people around’. She translated from Kiswahili for me some of the responses of the women:
‘I feel someone over the moon because there is all round information in computers and different websites i.e. from family life, childcare to office life and so on’
‘I was so scared of even touching the computer but this training has liberated me from the fear and I will make sure that my children also realize its worth in our lives’.
‘I always thought that these machines are for town people so when I got invited to come to this workshop I was a bit surprised. I thought you people will be disappointed in a person like me but the way I have been treated in this workshop has made me realize that I can also contribute to my own life and to my community and I should just believe in my worth’.
‘ Here I learnt how to access information on seaweed. I am a seaweed farmer and always I have wondered how I can improve now I have surfed the net and there are so many nice ideas including how I should bend to farm so that my health does not suffer. I am so very inspired!’
‘This workshop is exciting because it helps me understand how fast I can get information and how I can use it for my benefit and build a network among us’.
I start with this example as the ZaWoN experience shows how it is possible to use Internet to create a cyberspace that is accessible to people living in economically marginalized areas of the South. By working directly with the community and its local political leadership the digital divide can be overcome, not just by providing access markets but also by providing support for the community and family livelihoods, and strengthening women’s self worth and their roles in providing for the family and how they can network beyond their own community. The Za WoN experience illustrates how with very little women can learn and spread of information and new ways of networking in ways that enables them and their community to manage and control their own lives.
European Feminist Forum Joinemail@example.com
Another feminist cyberspace experience for me that has been empowering in my own life has been the setting up of a European Feminist Forum EFF in cyberspace. The EFF emerged from a meeting in October 2004 of feminists funders and activists living in Europe working together to set up a strategic programme of action for women’s rights in 2005. Our discussions were dominated by the UN agenda in particular the five year review of the Millennium Development Goals (the eight key goals The Millennium Declaration adopted by 189 States at the United Nations’ Millennium Summit in 2000 identified for 2015 http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/) at the heads of state World Summit to be held in September 2005 and the non event of the 10 year review of Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women held at the Commission of Women in March 2005 in New York.
The participants looking at this somewhat lack lustre international agenda asked where was a European feminist agenda to be expressed? It seemed from the interest of the participants in what was happening in Europe there was more to be said about the changes in Europe than these international spaces were going to provide. Even those engaged in the Social Forum process (such as the Europe Social Forum) felt that there among the no global and alternative visions their feminist vision, theory and action were receiving short shrift. At the meeting there was a strong enthusiasm expressed to hold a feminist forum, a meeting of women from all 25 European countries, modeled on the Latin American forum. However where was the means? The immediate lack of money, travel and institutional ability to carry forward the discussion was solved by IIAV a Dutch based information technology institution setting up a d-group which ran an e-mail listserv and also Web based forum. This communication mechanism kicked off the debate on issues around how feminists are coping with the process of European enlargement, the decline of the nation state, the dominance of the market and consumerism, the growing poverty, social and political inequalities and insecurities within Europe and outside in the face neo conservatism and dominance of the US. Debates, postings and arguments are now flourishing in the EFF space around how the gains made by women’s rights movements are now under threat as the state retreats and new forms of fundamentalisms appear in the guise of appeals to the family and the care economy.
The EFF cyberspace with now 100s of women participating shepherded discussion among feminists on how women from all corners of Europe’s large political and economic domain live their lives, tell their histories, fight their struggles, create the space for change, survival and celebration. It is helping to identify what could be a European feminism and how to craft a dialogue that is multi-facted, multicultural and multi-political and perhaps inspire a much needed economic and social transformation in Europe.
The current struggle after almost a year of engagement and debate is how to move from cyberspace to a face to face forum – how to engage small feminist groups working with local struggles to broader international debates and vice versa. A small group of us is now engaged in organizing a European Feminist Forum at the end of 2006/beginning 2007. The challenge of being open and democratic in cyberspace as feminists is now telling. Questions around who has the legitimacy to call for such a meeting, how to ensure that Europe is understood as the wider Europe, eg EU and candidate countries and neighboring countries – Western Balkans and ‘European parts’ of the Former Soviet Union are being raised. And most tellingly is it possible to create and establish links and space for discussion and cooperation only in cyberspace?
So far EFF has operated as a space for alternative vision on development; a ‘sounding board’ on women’s rights issues in Europe vis-a-vis the global situation with discussion and agreed strategy within the women’s movement in Europe. The issue of how to use EFF to generate dialogue within a political forum, as feminists with all our differences means confronting the problem of diverse histories, our own racism; inequalities across the region, as well as how to use the EFF for movement-building with different means and levels of organization (institutionalized women’s movement as well as autonomous groups; working locally as well as European-wide or globally) is proving daunting. It seems to require a new form of process, thinking out of the box on how to create a cyberspace that can translate into real world politics.
From this experience I see that cyberspace is a tool that is all to be explored as we build new processes to work with today’s realities. It has raised practical issues about how do we listen to each other, coming from all these different backgrounds, how do we tap into and build on trust, solidarity and friendship networks? Different models are now being tried out in EFF such as: an affinity model where everyone invites 10 of her friends/those she would like to work with, and starts from there; and a ‘scenarios model’: ‘envisioning’ – coordinated process, creating its own dynamic, with creative outcome; envisioning different scenarios of a future feminist Europe, from different perspectives.
The international arena
There are many other examples of active cyberfeminism operating in the international arena, consciously looking at how to use cyberspace in a transformation process. For example at the World Social Forum, which is in itself experimenting with an alternative world is possible, women’s rights and feminism is represented by many events, demonstrations, panel discussions and debates. Digitall Future a bilingual feminist quarterly produced by an international team of feminist writers was there (see www.iiav.nl) reporting from the Forum and publishing through a number of websites including www.penelopes.org/anglais and www.enawa.org. These feminist zines analyze such an international event from a feminist perspective, interpreting local situations from a global context.
Another example of feminists creating an international cyberspace for transformation, is the Feminist Task Force of G-CAP Global Call to Action against Poverty, Llamado Mundial a la Acción contra la Pobreza, Action mondiale contre la pauvreté http://www.whiteband.org/ . This is a very active feminist listserv made up of members of the feminist collective working in the international call to action against poverty G-CAP. G-CAP is a global civil society campaign to raise issues of trade and debt in relation to the MDGs, the Millennium Summit, and the push against global poverty. Linked to UN and international development processes the feminist task force was set up to support the women working on the steering group of G-CAP that was decidedly dominated by men working in powerful NGOs. The Feminist Task Force of G-CAP held its launch in New York in March 2005, in tandem with the UN Commission on the Status of Women. The Feminist Task Force seeks to ensure that G-CAP brings a gender analysis to all of its analysis and efforts. In doing so, they link macro-economic concerns and gender justice concerns, including sexual and reproductive rights (Global Call Against Poverty 2005, http://www.awid.org/go.php?pg=gcap).
The group works as a safe space engaging known feminist activists and groups working on documents with great speed, proposing feminists as speakers in civil society selection processes with considerable success in a very difficult UN arena and influencing both the G-CAP, the media and UN as a result. The feminist task force engages women of great political skill and know how, yet aims to retain an openness to new feminist groups and by working in both English and Spanish changes the anglo face of the feminist debate, with Latin American women leading. It is uphill work as too often the gender messages get weeded out else where in the process but the list serve provides support and timely work and is a fascinating example of international feminist lobbying using cyberspace as an effective networking tool.
To return to Margaret Gallagher’s question, undoubtedly cyberspace is a new terrain to wage old battles. However the terrain is also changing the battles. It is providing new ground that is shifting how we are working together. The advocacy work by the Feminist G-CAP, the feminist zines and the forums such as EFF are opening new types of spaces where feminists can debate strategy which allow for differences in approaches and it is not just the loudest voice that is heard. There is a certain leveling in cyberspace. At the same time feminists are having to build up a different kind of trust. It is both a public trust among feminists and then the on the side discussions which happen between people, some of whom one never actually meets. For me, these on the side discussions have opened up whole new ways of letter writing, engaging with people intellectually and personally and enabling me to know people quickly through e-conversations that are spontaneous and guided by a common passion or interest. These new forms of friendship that endure with no meeting or between meetings sometimes years apart are enriching my feminist networking tremendously. Such e-friendships enable me to share various public and private thoughts and ideas that resonate through cultural differences. Such conversations allow for a much richer sense of feminism around the world and result in easier advocacy and networking at key moments. It is one of the exciting dimensions of cyberfeminism that blends creativity with politics and opens up for feminists a new political world that is by no means yet gender neutral or fully equitable but begins to be one that we are shaping.
Wendy Harcourt is Editor of the internationally renowned journal Development and is Director of Programmes at the Society for International Development, Rome Italy and currently Chair of Women in Development Europe. Her many writings on gender and development include Women@Internet: creating cultures in cyberspace (London: Zed Books, 1999). Her latest book with Arturo Escobar is entitled Women and the Politics of Place to be published by Kumarian Press in October 2005.
estudos feministas / études féministes