Feminism on the internet: a workshop hosted by Women'sNet and Association for Progressive Communication (APC): 21-22 November 2016.

Image: ICTs for Feminist Movement Building Activist Toolkit (Source)

In our uneven society, how has the internet been created and how is it shaping us? This question was interrogated at a workshop titled Feminist Principles of the Internet and ICTs for Movement Building hosted by the Association of Progressive Communication (APC) and Women’sNet (held on 22 and 23 November 2016). Today, the internet offers vast access in terms of resources, news, opportunities and networking - to those who are connected. However, many are not able to access internet due to a lack of infrastructure, unaffordability of data, language barriers or the tricky task of sifting through the enormity of information for action. Just like in the real world, gender (and other oppressive structures) determines access differentially, often with violent and discriminatory effects for women or non-conforming genders. But, as in the real world, there is hope and the possibility to work against this.

Some questions posed were: Who controls the internet? How does the internet control us? How do we stay safe and help others to feel safe on the internet? How has the landscape of activism changed as a result of the internet? Are we more connected or more divided as a result of the internet?  

The workshop included a range of women from the groups GirlsNet and Rockgirls; sex worker-activists from SWEAT, Right2Know activists, teachers from Robertson, representatives from the Department of Social Development, NGO members and myself from the Traditions of Popular Education project.

In antithesis to the internet, the workshop began ‘for real’ or ‘embodied’, outside, under a palm tree with the participants debating several important tensions related to the internet. For example:

Statement:“Anonymity should be banned” or “feminism has nothing to do with the internet”.

Instruction:Place your bodies somewhere on the line between fully agree and fully disagree. Now, try to convince others to move closer to where you are standing.

The workshop included discussions led by SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force) and the Right2Know. We learned about various ways in which the internet is used, abused and struggled with: SWEAT representatives explained that the internet has offered them safety but also division, due to differential access. The Right2Know spoke about their campaign #datamustfall (a challenge to cell phone companies to make data affordable to enable access for the poor), and their critical resistance to internet regulation bills. Two young women shared their experiences with internet policy making spaces which rarely communicate their decisions to those whom they affect and at which women’s voices are marginalised. 

In addition, the workshop revealed the efforts and resources available on the internet for feminist activism.

APC presented feminist principles of the internet which they created under their women’s rights programme. These principles are conceptualised towards dismantling patriarchy and realising a greater freedom for “women and queer persons” on the internet. They are broken down into:

  1. Access: While the internet provides access to information who decides what information is added to the internet?
  2. Movement building: resistance to domination on the internet but also re-imagining the internet space.
  3. Economies: How has the internet been used to build wealth unevenly? What about the open sources alternatives?
  4. Expression: How do we strike a balance between important terms (such as ‘intersectionality’) and exclusivity? Has the regulation of pornography taken away our right to erotic and sexual expression?
  5. Agency: how does consent work on the internet? Memory – what happens to our personal information online?

The ICT’s for Feminist Movement Building Toolkit. This toolkit considers the ICT strategies or activism from the point of view of feminist movements. It is filled with examples (such as the #mydressmychoice campaign led by Kenyan women in 2014) which illustrate the different possibilities, challenges and risks associated with ICTs in activism.

The final session introduced the movement Take Back the Tech – a movement to decentre control of technology and the internet. Partly, it is organised in response to violence on the internet, particularly gender based violence. Not only does this movement draw awareness to and act for safety on the internet but encourages women to contribute towards shaping and reimagining the internet.

In particular, I found it useful to learn that there is a community working to critically challenge the internet with respect to access and with respect to its ab/use. How important it is to bear in mind the divide between those who have internet and those who do not, and the uneven power that results - that we, who have access to the internet, must understand the effect of the internet on those who do not have access, are not able to add their voice. For this website, which aims to share resources on popular education, we need to remember those who do not have access, survey our library for feminist/women authors, provide possibilities for women to add content, and perhaps our sharing needs to merge with other ICTs. Given the discussion on how the internet can be a violent space, I would like to know more about what ‘protective clothing’ we can use to continue to learn and engage on the internet, safely.

May this dialogue continue! The resources linked below are very useful for understanding how power plays out on the internet and how those of us who have access to the internet need to act for those who are excluded. Technology and the internet have huge potential for learning, connecting with others and acting in our world. However, while we use it we need to maintain a questioning feminist mind and body: how does learning happen on the internet? How do we truly connect (or disconnect)? And how do we act for change?

Summary of resources

Anna James

1 December 2016