In September 2017 I participated in an expert meeting for mapping the research on Gender and ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) in Malaysia, organized by the Women's Rights Program at the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). This event brought together researchers, academics and activists from all continents. The conversations span around 4 research areas: Access, Economy and Labour, Embodiment and Social Movements and Activisms. Here I compile the general points that serve as a framework for those who want to understand this topic and the discussions that surround it in the field of research, academia and activism.
The full report can be downloaded from this link. Each of these topics is explained in depth in the document.
I hope this gives ideas if you want to guide a research project in these areas!
What is meant by "access"?
The dominant discourses from policy circles define access to ICTs as the physical infrastructure needed to access an internet connection. This means cables, towers and metrics of connectivity. Under this logic, as long as there is an internet tower near a village, one can assume that the people around, and specially women, are accessing the internet. However, this techno-centric perspective dismisses power relations in any social setting. Even if the infrastructure to access the internet is available, women will not necessarily adopt or enjoy universal, affordable, unconditional, significant access to its benefits. Serious obstacles prevent them from accessing a digital device and feeling safe using it. For example, abusive environments, the specific relations with her relatives, the possibilities that she has for navigating the public space etc. Once a women has accessed the internet as a space for self-expression, there are another set of obstacles that make it difficult for us to enjoy the whole spectrum of information as a commons. When technology is located in a patriarchal and oppressive context, even if it is used by women and gives her apparent freedoms, technology may be aggravating the inequality.
The mere access is therefore insufficient. Meaningful access depends on how and the extent to which women use ICTs.
4 main areas related to access that need further investigation
1. The availability of adequate and secure infrastructure.
2. The cost and affordability of accessing infrastructure, devices and information.
3. The availability of relevant and appropriate content. - What makes content relevant? I believe the answer to this question must be found locally.
4. Internet policy environments that enable participation of women in policy decision making.
2. ECONOMY AND LABOUR
The history of the inter-connections between internet technologies, economy, labour and gender lies in the fact that women used to be computers – they did the jobs of calculation and data processing that used to be the primary functions of computers. However, the division of labor that followed the initial stages of technological innovation were systematically leaving women aside from the technical and managerial roles of technology production, and crucial decisions about the design and implementation of technology were then blind to the realities of women.
Another historical barrier derived from this is the limited presence of women in scientific and technological careers. Women tend to have lower literacy and education levels than men in many regions of the world.
Questions about gender disparity in access, skills and education should not leave the impression that women do not participate in the digital economy. Gendered labour broadly refers to the ways in which labour and work is divided amongst people based on gender expression and roles, and certain kinds of labour are expected particularly of women – it refers to a historical split of productive vs reproductive work, or work inside and outside the domestic sphere. In addition, women have limited access to professional circles given the the multiple burdens of domestic work.
We still need to expand the understanding of the effects of having an excess of technologies that have not been thought and developed by women. How do they reinforce patriarchy? The question also expands to environmental concerns and the labor relations involved, especially in massive manufacturing places, which are mostly located in countries of the global south.
3. EMBODIMENT - POLITICAL DIMENSIONS OF THE BODY
The digital age or the information age has been described as post human – here technology and body combine and collude from a molecular to a grander scale. Digital technologies have taken prosthetic and intimate forms in our lives. Simultaneously, the body is rendered and converted into information and data by governments, corporations, social media, welfare agencies, and so on. Historically feminist theory has focused on women’s lived experiences of the body, that the body is both a material thing in the world as well a point of view towards the world. Whether it is the feminist articulation of the personal as political (feminist text circulated in 1969 in the USA) or the split between sex and gender as biology and social conditioning (now hugely contested) – the body has been an essential site of contested meanings, articulations and theories within feminism.
The discussion of the body as a political arena in the technological sphere includes the following aspects:
1. Online violence against women, transgender people, non-conforming and intersex people.
2. The internet as a space that supports or hinders the discussion about sexual rights. For example, the possibilities to spread information on sexuality and reproduction, including dissemination about safe abortions.
3. Privacy, data control and surveillance by governments and corporations. The implication of this for our safe being in the world.
4. SOCIAL MOVEMENTS AND ACTIVISMS
ICTs offer a huge potentials for feminist movement building. The use of ICTs in movements and protests across the world is evident to see, as it is also the use of surveillance and tracking against the formation, building and growth of these movements. This is the very core of the discussion, and the conversations that either elevate the potential of ICTs for organising remotely and in scale, but at the same time exposing the cut of liberties and excessive surveillance that prevent movements to achieve goals of social justice.
About scalability, the internet brings the possibility to transform local struggles for gender equality into “global rallying cries”. Digital networking technologies, according to Manuel Castells, can coordinate flexibly “along a network of autonomous components” towards a shared purpose. However, in order to find such a shared purpose, there is a need to ensure that women’s movements are guided by a shared understanding of political rights, governance norms and the limitations of the exercise of power on the internet—as some authors define it, they need to understand “digital constitutionalism”.
Aside from amplifying and giving voice to people and movements, ICTs can also be used to map, study, research, and draw greater attention to underlying issues about the access and use of the internet. From here we have seen the high emergence of movements that reclaim the internet as a space for expression, where no barriers should make women fearful or unsafe to use it.
On this area, it is necessary to continue the discussions about organising and the objectives of including online strategies for feminist activism.