Women take a byte
This morning I attended a discussion on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and women as part of an all day programme co-hosted by Women’s Net and Agenda to launch the latest issue of the Feminist journal, a special issue titled ICTs: Women Take a Byte, guest-edited by Janine Moolman, Natasha Primo and Sally-Jean Shackleton. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but look forward to digging in.
As one of the panelists at the opening discussion, I pointed to some of the misconceptions about ICTs and ICT use, and I used one of my favourite anecdotes from Nnenna Nwakanma, the Chair of the Free and Open Source Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA) about the washing machine and the river. She tells the story of development aid workers who cross an iconic village en route elsewhere, and, in an attempt to help the women “advance” since the former currently carry their household laundry to the river, the latter introduce several washing machines to make laundry duties easier. These washing machines are received by the village community with much pomp, celebration and ceremony. The well-meaning development aid workers see this as a fantastic thing and feel sufficiently thanked for their philanthropy.
Imagine the grave disappointment of the same workers who chance upon the same village a few years later only to realise that the women have moved the washing machines to the river and are using them in the exact same way as they used boulders before. The washing machine make the laundry motion easier on the waists, the women remark, upon questioning.
When Nnenna Nwakanma tells this tale, she usually uses it to point to how technology is often erroneously presented as the simple, solve-all problem without any attention to the needs and resources of the people it is being “given” to as a solution. The village had neither electricity, nor water, so the women made use of the washing machineslogically given their setting.
It has always struck me, however, that the women’s choices can be reconciled with the development aid workers’ larger intentions at the ideological level. The gift is provided to make the women’s lives slightly easier, but without fundamentally alterning the power dynamics of the society in question. Even if electrified and provided with running water, the village would still expect the women to embark on a whole range of other domestic chores sanctioned by patriarchy. So their time might be freed up to take up some other chore, rather than being freed up and therefore available for the women’s own leisure.
Some of us are much more interested in technology that does feminist work, and therefore not the introduction of more technology into our lives only to modernise the unfree ways in which most women live our lives. New technologies work politically, which is to say ideologically, the same way as other older technologies and social phenomena. ICTs are never neutral, and never gender neutral at that.
Therefore, ICTs can be used equally easily for violent pornographic use as they can for interesting dynamic work. Experiences of discussions of women’s closed sites, or feminist listservs show how safe and exciting virtual spaces can do the work of building community and political activism. At the same time the pornographic spam that occasionally makes it through our email filters, or the growing industry that trafficks in women’s bodies and body parts online, point to how the same enabling tools can be used to oppressive, violent ends.
For example, research on women in (even) some of the IT quarters with the most egalitarian-speak, has shown that the IT world is incredibly masculinist. A cursory glance at the iconography of many of the key sites of the Free/Libre and Open Source (FLOSS) Movement, which is the ICT sector I am most biased in favour of, shows it to be a male-centric culture that is often alienating to women, and oft times directly hostile. Here’s a how-not-to drive women away from FLOSS and other IT communities manual, which illuminates many of the reasons women IT professionals and geeks have given for feeling alienated from IT spaces. And if that still doesn’t make you think, then take a look at the icons here and here, for example.
At the same time, there are some incredible uses of the ICTs in the interest of transformation towards a more equitable world. Among these are the NGO, Women’sNet, and Girl’sNet whose many programmes spread the benefits of new technologies widely by combining them with older technologies for dispersal. I am particularly fond of them because they take content generation very seriously across languages, media and spaces, and also because they are unapologetically feminist techies. Another favourite, which is also an enormous resource especially for academics is the Gender and Women’s Studies for Africa’s Transformation portal, and LinuxChix, especially LinuxChixAfrica, although I prefer the old template to their new one.
I like these sites, and many blogs, especially Blacklooks, who I am sad to say is not blogging anymore, for a while anyway. I hope it is temporary.