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 a variety of backgrounds. 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 the topic of Gender and ICTs and the discussions that surround it in the fields 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.
The image above is part of a syllabus of a Design course I delivered at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. In this post I discuss topics that hopefully inspire creative practitioners to take on these issues within their creative endeavors.
What is meant by "access"?
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 infrastructure to access the internet is available, women, kids, and less privileged groups 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, power relations at the household and neighborhood levels, the set of possibilities she has for navigating the public space etc. In other words, 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 inequality.
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 - According to what this means in specific contexts.
4. Internet policy environments that enable participation of women in policy decision making.
2. ECONOMY AND LABOUR
One strong historical interconnection between internet technologies, economy, labour and gender is 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 initial stages of technological innovation systematically left women aside from technical and managerial roles of technology production. Therefore, crucial decisions about the design and implementation of technology were made by teams who were unaware or denied the realities of women.
In addition, women have had limited access to scientific and technological careers throughout history. 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, and the repercussions of limited access to professional circles given the multiple burdens of domestic work.
We still need to expand our understanding of the effects / affects and consequences of the multiple and pervasive technologies that have not been thought and developed by involving the voice and realities of women. How do they reinforce patriarchy? This question also expands to environmental concerns and labor relations involved in materials extraction for manufacturing and delivering electronic devices. This is especially relevant as centers for mass production and assembly are mostly located in countries of the global south, and maintained by workers under precarious working and living conditions.
3. EMBODIMENT - POLITICAL DIMENSIONS OF THE BODY
The digital age or the information age has been described as post human – where 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, asserting 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 (always in contestation) – 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 great potentials for Feminist movement building. The use of ICTs in movements and protests across the world is evident, as it is also the use of surveillance and tracking against the formation, building and growth of these movements. This is the core of the discussion: one one hand we can analyse and exploit the potential of ICTs for organising remotely and in scale, and at the same time expose 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 shared purpose, there is a need to ensure that women’s movements are guided by a shared understanding of political rights, governance norms and a close understanding of the limitations of exercising power on the internet, or as it has been coined by some authors, an engagement with “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. We have seen the high emergence of movements that reclaim the internet as a space for expression, demanding zero barriers or fear for women to exist and interact online.
We must continue the discussions about organising in the internet and for equal, affordable and safe internet, and specific strategies for feminist activism.
As mentioned above, this is an overview of deeper conversations we held in the expert meeting. I wanted to share main pointers for those readers that may be less familiar with these areas. Happy to continue the conversation!