How activists use the internet to fight back? Though the space [for activism] is shrinking, we have the tools and there are opportunities. We can find ways to exercise our rights online and raise our voices again and again,” says Ritu Srivastava of the Digital Empowerment Campaign. Across the world, women are using information and communications technologies (ICTs) to amplify rights agendas, tell their own stories and tackle emerging issues such as access to technology. In Africa, women writers and organizers are using the internet, radio, and other ICTs to throw open the door for wider and more diverse representation of voices in the media and to challenge the status quo. African women are breaking the silence and stigma about violence, sex and sexuality on the net in ways that was never possible in traditional environments. Women members of parliament use social media to promote their political agendas. Rural women access market prices via mobile phones.
Activists are using ICTs to make their movements and base of support bigger, connect their offline (face-to-face) organizing with online activism to get their voices heard and make a difference beyond their localities. For example, the Keep Saartjie Baartman Centre Open e-campaign, in which feminists at Saartjie Baartman Centre and the African Gender Institute of the University of Cape Town worked in solidarity to publicize the Centre’s financial crisis and save a vital resource for women and children survivors of violence from closure.
A continuum of violence against women…
As exciting as these advances in technology are, they are not without challenges or complexity. The forms of violence that women face on the streets are replicated “online” in more insidious ways. Often, these risks and violence are not recognized as part of a continuum between women’s offline and online lives. The ICTs for Feminist Movement Building Activist Toolkit was developed by JASS, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and Women’sNet as a resource to help activists to identify the opportunities ICTs offer while navigating the risks and challenges they present creatively and safely.
It doesn’t matter who you are. [Whether you are a] famous journalist or well-known celebrity—you can be targeted because [you’re] culturally or socially doing something ‘wrong.’ Whether it is wearing something that ‘provokes men to rape’, wearing too-revealing clothes or being outspoken online.” – Ritu Srivastava, Digital Empowerment Campaign
ICTs, particularly online platforms and chat circles, are being used as to shame, silence and “make examples” of women often in highly sexualized and gender-specific ways. For example, in 2013, a video of a young Zimbabwean woman having sex with a male partner in front of her four-year old son went viral on Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and other social media. The video prompted commentators across the Internet to claim that this woman was “shameless” and “unfit as a mother”—she bore the brunt of this abuse and moral censure, while her male partner escaped mostly unscathed. Further afield, Farid Ahmadi, an internet café owner from Afghanistan, has encountered over fifty complaints from young women with a common thread, “fake Facebook profiles using their photos, hacked personal information, inboxes deluged with pornography, and violent threats from aggressive suitors and alleged militants.” This form of defamation in a context like Afghanistan can endanger a woman’s life, although the subtleties of how cultural differences and fundamentalisms impact women’s experiences of ICTs are often overlooked.
For some people, these incidents are unremarkable. But it’s not just women who are facing these challenges in their every-day use of ICTs but women’s rights activists as well. In fact, for activists who are challenging gender inequities and social norms, and speaking out against these troubling trends to name them explicitly as violence, abuse and harassment, the backlash can be swift and vicious both offline and online. On October 9, APC and Take Back the Tech’s collaborative campaign to reclaim technology was targeted by people who self-associate with #Gamergate. The Gamergaters hijacked the hashtags #takebackthetech and #imaginingafeministinternet, flooding the conversation with over 20,000 tweets and memes containing racist, violent, misogynistic and abusive expression. Just weeks later, South by Southwest, the annual film, media and music festival held in Austin, Texas, received criticism for canceling two panels on video gaming due to ‘threats of on-site violence.’ One of the panels, ‘Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,’ featured women who had previously been the targets of harassment for criticizing sexism in the video game industry.
“Let’s think about women in online spaces who are talking about VAW, their issues and rights in relation to their gender, sexuality, LGBT, sex workers. [In India]… you can count them on your fingers,” says Ritu Srivastava. “What happens in those spaces, particularly online spaces—hate speech comes to you, harassment, abusive language, threats and intimidation. It may not be physical but it is psychological and it is real, and it can become so much that a defender will choose to leave that space.”
Using ICTs to Fight Back
Nevertheless, women and many marginalized communities are harnessing ICTs to expose violence and corruption and be hear d while keeping themselves safe. In South Africa, a sex worker detained and threatened by a police officer used his cell phone to record the incident and later used the recording to seek justice. The Pink Chaddhi campaign in India used Facebook to mobilize thousands of people to speak out against attacks on women for “disrespecting Indian culture” by being out and drinking publicly. Tapping into the frustration that women felt in the wake of the attacks, the campaign blazed a trail for other organizations to use Facebook to organize locally.
Many of us feel isolated in our unhappiness with right-wing groups of any religion disrupting our way of life. This campaign was aimed to protest the climate of fear created by right wing groups in Mangalore. And to an extent we have succeeded in creating a dent – giving people a sense of hope.” – Pink Chaddhi Campaign organizer
APC, Take Back the Tech and a wide range of organizations are carving out spaces for dialogue on what it means to create a feminist internet: an internet that is safe and secure for everyone. For activists, many of the threats that come with using ICTs to mobilize in great numbers are not going to disappear. Similarly, the need to take advantage of the opportunities ICTs present—to open the lid on the issues that no one wants to talk about like sex, sexuality and violence and amplify women’s voices to build movements for change—is that much more pressing. ICTs for Feminist Movement Building Activist Toolkit does not have all the answers, but it is a resource to help activists grapple with some of these critical questions and communicate for maximum impact and reach.