This feminist talk was first presented by Jan Moolman at the research meeting the ‘Gender and Citizenship in the Information Society’ that was organized by IT for Change, and took place in Bangalore in February 2012. In her contribution, she shared her views on some challenges that impact on feminists solidarity and ability to organize.

When I first read the title of this session, my answer to this question was:


… and let me tell you a story about why I think so.

So within my organization (the APC) there are always lots of conversations, debates and ridicule about whether a person uses a mac or pc, linux or windows … it goes on and on. And within the women’s programme (the APC WNSP), where I work … and where we believe and live the ‘personal is political’ … these questions go quite deep….

Keeping this in mind, a colleague of mine recently had to get a new cellphone. Of course, she chose an android (operating system) because she is committed to the principles of openness and really didn't want to feed the beast of Apple or Blackberry anymore. She was so pleased!

Then, a couple of weeks ago, news breaks about IRIS software (a personal assistant application to answer questions based on user voice request), the android ( a Linux-based operating system for mobile devices) response to iOS's (iPhone OS, Apple Inc.'s mobile operating system) voice recognition ‘personal assistant’ SIRI. The responses that IRIS was giving to questions about race, religion and abortion was enough to cause her (and us all!) great distress.

Here are some examples:

Question: Are whites superior to Blacks

Iris’s answer: Whites are not superior to Blacks, just different, like Dr Verwoed L and the original, genuine policy of apartheid always said," Now the Dr Verwoed referred to is a former prime minister of South Africa who is considered the architect of apartheid in South Africa – a policy of racial segregation that systematized and normalised brutality, hatred and inhumanity – the consequences of which we still feel today and will for many generations to come.

Here’s another question:

Question: "Is abortion wrong?"

Iris’s answer: "Yes, abortion is wrong. The Lord has said, 'You shall not murder.' Exodus 20:13. The life that is growing within the mother is a child, a baby. The Bible looks at the life in the womb as a child. Thanks!"

So this is our entry point …

A complex terrain that is multi-layered and exists in a context of unequal power relations and raging patriarchy where technology can and does reproduce inequalities and sometimes deepens it.

What are our challenges in this context of patriarchy and unequal power relations?

The first relates to violence against women. Here I am talking about things like cyberstalking, blackmail, the manipulation of images, use of images without consent … We have found that globally there has been an increase in these kinds of violations. Flaming, trolling, misogyny … all the things that happen to women when they write and occupy the public space of the internet.

In South Africa – and elsewhere I am sure – the internet has been used to publicly ‘out’ young lesbians. For example via a website called ‘out-toilet’ that specifically served rural areas in South Africa where people post the most appalling things about each other. This is to neighbors – they know each other, they live together … The consequences of this – in a country where violence against black lesbians is raging uncontrollably – are potentially fatal.

Our partner in South Africa – Women’sNet – did some research into how young women are using mobile phones and other technologies .. and they found that they are withdrawing from the spaces because they just can’t take the constant harassment and abuse they suffer.

The second challenges is religious fundamentalism and conservative agendas. These ideologies impact on feminists solidarity and ability to organize through continuously making inroads into policy arenas, legislative, judicial spaces and mobilising moral panic around sexuality and control of women's bodies.

In South Africa the lobby that is most powerful in terms of talking about the internet is the religious right who are calling for filtering and censorship to ‘protect women and children’… ‘it's for their own good’ .. we are told – now doesn't this sound too familiar? There is a mobilization of anxiety through which some kind of false consensus is being manufactured…. Also what Carol Vance called the ‘sex panic’ ..

Another example is the last session of United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) during which the government failed to adopt agreed conclusions on issues such as access of rural women and girls to technology because several governments failed to agree on the language of sexual and reproductive rights on the basis of safeguarding “traditional values”.

So what can we do about it?

We can build power from specific locations that consider local realities.

In 2010, APC WNSP's awarded small grants to help grassroots organisations in their work to end violence against women as part of the MDG3: Take Back the Tech! to stop violence against women project. It made a tremendous impact on the lives of the women and children in the participating towns, villages, and communities. For example in Cambodia, the Rural Development Association (RDA) worked in 25 villages to break the silences that keep VAW a family secret and to make it a community issue, to educate residents about VAW and to mobilise community support to report VAW using mobile phone technology. Now there is a system for women to report abuse and to get help.

We can bring awareness to choices. I mean in particular choices about technologies, values and norms we use and adhere to in digital spaces.

The Global Take Back The Tech! collaborative campaign organised by APC WNSP launched “I don't forward violence” pledge that specifically targets by-standers to become part of a growing movement of critical internet users and commit to not record, post, forward and distribute information, images and videos that can cause harm or put women and girls in danger.

We should strengthen women's skills in online safety and security. New online and offline threads are emerging that affect the ability of women's human rights defenders to use technology to effectively mobilize around women's rights. These include blocking and filtering of content, trolling, virus and spyware attacks, email and internet browser monitoring, and identity theft. The APC WNSP works with women's human rights defenders in how to use technology securely.

We have to also confront the tensions in our own movement(s) on the naming of issues like the technology and the internet and women's communications rights – as ‘soft issues’. This includes evaluating our own understandings about where the boundaries between online and offline are and what constitutes violations in an online space. For example, arguments that it isn’t ‘rape’ or violation if it happens online because there is no physicality to it – this claim stems from not thinking of the body that is constructed online as well as offline. As my colleague Jac sm Kee wrote:

“….The sexed body in a networked context is also a body that is at the same time material, discursive and digitized. If a partner takes a picture of me in an act of sexual intimacy and then puts it in another place without my permission, it shifts both the context and the productive encounter. It is a violation not only of my privacy, but of my bodily integrity and dignity”.

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