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Understanding the Feminist Internet Discourse

By Y.Z. Yaú

This week I will be participating at the fourth Bauchi Feminist Internet School (BaFIS) organized annually by the Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD). Two questions have often been raised about the Feminist Internet, which are first, why feminist internet and second, and more generally, what has gender got to do with technology, especially digital technology such as the internet,

These questions are innocent projection of the view that technology is neutral and has no gender specificity. Yet such a reading is historically and philosophically incorrect. Moreover, it is does not accord to the reality of how we insert and use technology in society.

Technology is embodiment of ideas. It is a respond and product of our efforts to address specific societal problems, sometimes even personal problems (just on that last point, remember that the motivation for the invention of the automatic exchange that we have come to take for granted as natural, was that someone wanted to ensure the privacy of the discussion between him and his girl!).  As a tool for solving problems, we know that problems do not just make themselves candidates for solution. Which problems are addressed by society at any given time are the product of power contestation. The problems of those who have power are the ones that are considered urgent and important to merit immediate solutions. Take the simple case of malaria. For years, Malaria has been killing Nigerians or indeed Africans, at an even much higher number than COVID had done. Yet, within comparatively smaller time frame, various vaccines for COVID were researched, tested, manufactured and made available for use while we still battle with our malaria). Women as the gender lacking substantive power would have their problems pushed to the background to have accidental solutions rather than searched ones.

But it is not only in the problems that we select to address that gender is implicated: it is also in the biases embedded in the design and development of the solutions. One bias is the limited understanding of the end user spectrum, often because the designers and developers tend to be overwhelmingly males, the end user in mind the fully understand are men and research has shown that the needs of users whose characteristics match those of the designers tend to be best served by the designed solution. Since these designers design with men in mind, the products tend to be more effective for males than for other categories of people. Second, is the type of data that is used to frame or model the solution. When data is skewed to a particular category of people, the solution tends to be unappealing or impractical for some other categories of people.

When we deploy technology and insert it in society, how we do so is shaped by not only power relations but also by gender relations. The culprit here is that we tend to be gender blind and assume that every technology would function equally for men and women. Take the early insertion of the internet in Nigeria. Because penetration of internet was limited and access to cost high, the most dominant points to access and use the internet at those earlier ages were cyber cafes. These cafes were not designed with cultural sensibilities. For instance, there were no provisions for children and so consideration was given for mothers who are nursing babies, even though cultural practice in much of the north stick to segmenting men and women, the cafes did not think of this and so in many cases, they appeared out of bound to women. this led to increasing the gap between males and females in terms of access to and use of the internet, a gap that has continued to grow even as we officially acknowledged the need to close it.

But how we use technology is also shaped by our preoccupations or ideas. So several researches have shown that many women do not want to use digital technology because of contents that they consider offensive. Gender harassment online and other practices that dehumanizes the woman are so common. But it is not only women that fear the internet because of this harmful content. Men also are known to prevent their wives and daughters from using the internet for fear of them being exposed to the influence of this offensive content. Now there are two issues relating to this.

First, since women discouraged from using the internet because of harmful content, the relevant question to ask and to act on is, who is responsible for putting these contents? Certainly it cannot be the women, who hardly occupy the space. So why not men tell men to stop using the internet because of their misbehaviour or better still. Be told to behave more honourably? There two explanations to this use of violent contents. This is an attempt to frighten and squeeze females out of the cyberspace in an effort to control their communicative practice. It is a control technique by men to assert patriarchal authority over women. Second, it is also an attempt map out the areas women could be tolerated. This can be seen from the way women in professions and career such as female journalists, academics and politicians are subjected to abuse and harassment online. In fact, research conducted by CITAD in 2018/2019 shows that women political office aspirants were harassed out of contest using the social media.

But use of technology is also about economic ability which is loosely described as affordability. Affordable is that ability for people to access and use any device without sacrificing other equally important needs. Women, because they have relatively low economic power index, have lower affordability threshold.  Although we now know that affordability is relative and dynamic, yet when we think about making technology more affordable, we do not think it in terms of gender.

So we could see that technology is often deployed to reinforce patriarchy. At one level, women, especially married ones, are not supposed to communicate outside circles of people with who their husbands may not be comfortable with. This patriarchal social expectation in the communication scope of women expect them not indulge in “frivolous” communication and should therefore not be seen to using the social media and even the internet as a whole. If they must use the internet, they should use it sparingly. Stories, some of which may be anecdotal, have it that many marriages have collapsed on account of the wives using social media

Patriarchy society does not expect a married woman to have a male friend, talk less of hundreds, if not thousands Facebook friends, many of whom she probably does not know offline. She would have many “followers’’ on twitter and belongs to several chat groups on WhatsApp. All these would be frown at. This aspect of patriarchy is about control of the woman by man.

The second level at which patriarchy operates is a mirror image of the control level which is that women are seen as objects of pleasure, lacking subjectivity of their own.  This is at the root of gender based violence in society. Gender based violence is not limited to the physical space or offline relationships. It is also reflected in online behavior, giving rise to the concept of gender based violence online.

While social control seeks to place restriction on the use of internet by women, gender based violence online creates fears that make women not to want use the internet. Like gender based violence offline, online violence against women tends to be less visible. In fact, it is less visible than offline violence because it takes place mostly at the private level.  For this reason, there is little attention about it and in some cases there is résistance to accept that in fact it is a major problem.

Which then leads back the two questions, as for the first, we now see how complexly linked technology is to gender. As for the second, the feminist internet is not about a specific internet. It is about making the internet safe, secure, and more affordable to women. On the surface of this, it may look like merely more of attitude than technology. The reality is that we need to deconstruct the ideas that shape the current architecture of the internet and make rebuild a safer internet with ideas of justice, gender equity and egalitarianism that speaks of inclusivity and non-discrimination.

The Feminist internet or more broadly, Digital Feminism is used to describe the movement to overcome social constructs, norms and policies that constitute the obstacles to addressing gender digital divide. At the level of ideas, it is informed by the feminist principles of the internet as articulated by the Association for Progressive Communication (APC) but also borne of long traditions of feminist power discourse.

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