A week ago, I had no clue what Feminist internet meant or looked like and how the term was being used on social media and in offline discussions. My participation in a three-day workshop titled ‘Imagine a Feminist Internet’ in Malaysia organised by EMPOWER Malaysia and Foundation for Media Alternative, with the support from Association for Progressive Communication (APC) and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), was an eye opening experience.
The workshop was held from November 14-16 2019, drawing participation of around 40 feminist activists from South and South East Asia, who are actively advocating for a feminist internet space. The age group was diverse, with as young as 18 year old school girl to older feminists, all present in the same room ready to share their personal experiences and learn from others. The workshop had drawn participants from countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, and Taiwan.
The workshop was not bound by any watertight agenda, the floor was free to discuss any topic as and when they were being raised, although the crux of the workshop rotated around the fundamental principles of feminist internet– Access, Agency, Autonomy, Economy, Expression, Movements, and Public Participation. The larger question that often remained the basis of all the activities and group discussion was to imagine internet as a space, which is safe, open and free for organising feminist movements.
The first day of the workshop started with us getting divided into groups and deliberating how we would want our internet to look like. As the room was diverse in terms of identity, culture, profession and language, the discussions resulted in a variety of ideas. Some wanted the internet to be like a book, which is free and can be accessed by everyone but at the same time for the internet to have a wand, a magical one that can intercept threats like trolls, online sexism and violence and thus, can protect the feminists by creating a magical boundary through which such comments won’t pass. While others drew internet as a goddess that has ten hands, each hand carrying a tool to protect the feminist from the onslaught of violence and the queer collective had drawn internet in the form of a cat, which can connect with other queers around the globe, create solidarity among them and works on the principle of equality and self-determination.
Later the discussion revolved around the principles of feminist internet which was very helpful especially for people like me who were new to this concept and had limited knowledge of the subject. All the 17 principles of internet were discussed; my group presented the Principle of Movements and Public Participation. The discussion sparked a debate on online activism and movement building; whether they really make a difference in creating the buzz or the required chatter on the issue. While some older feminist were skeptical of the use of social media in creating movements, other including a 18 year old activist commented that “our online activism can be as active or passive as we want it to be”. I shared the example of India where movements have been built online and later they have successfully found a space on the ground like the movement around Nirbhaya gang rape case in Delhi and Justice Verma Committee Report which was constituted to recommend amendments to the Criminal Law so as to provide for quicker trial and enhanced punishment for criminals accused of committing sexual assault against women, decriminalisation of Section 377 of Indian Constitution, #MeToo, Not in My Name and online movements on the issue of reading down of Article 370 and Armed Force Special Protection Act (AFSPA). There was a consensus later that every hit that generates like, tweet or share does contribute in creating the chatter around discourses, which often remain invisible and do not find atmosphere conducive enough to carry on activism. Internet provides the platform for marginalised identities, groups and communities to come together and create a solidarity network, give voice which often goes unheard in the cacophony of everyday politics. And patriarchy that controls not just the society in the real world but also the online space through a network of corporates that advances and strengthens the idea of male chauvinism.
The second day of the workshop started with mapping of the timeline of movements and the various ways in which feminists around the globe have contributed in creating and developing internet as we see it today. As the workshop was focused on imagining a feminist internet, we got into groups with each group getting two cards containing some or the other item drawn my group got wine glass and bread. With these cards we were supposed to make software that can be used by feminists. My group created olfactory stimulating device that can transfer the smell of objects/nature to other feminist to calm them and soothe their senses and at the same time make fragrances available to women who are devoid of it, because of the socio-cultural barriers in the society they live in.
Post lunch, the groups started discussing topics such as fake news, surveillance, cancel culture, ways to end feminisation of poverty through feminist internet movements. Although fake news seems to be making rounds across the world, but listening to the narratives from other countries like Bangladesh, Singapore and Philippines, India seems to be leading the pack of fake news. People were familiar about the concept, but they were not able to share the instances of fake news. I presented a few instances of fake news in India like during the time of elections when political parties were using morphed pictures of Syrian war to showcase the unrest in the Kashmir valley or the Muzzafarnagar riots which got worsened after a video clip showing two boys being attacked by a mob went viral on WhatsApp. As discussed by the Singapore participant, there are hardly any instances of fake news in their country because the laws are so strict that no one can risk even spreading such information. A doctor from Bangladesh narrated how a forwarded message on WhatsApp took life of a woman who was believed to be practicing black magic and abducting children from the neighborhood. While other messages that made rounds on the social media were about Rohingya Muslims, the messages being circulated had influenced the perception of the doctor who considered that the regular influx of Rohingyas are affecting economic structure of the country by taking over their jobs and resources. Although the cases of fake news came majorly from Bangladesh and India, participants from Singapore commented more on surveillance by state which is done by making such technologies like smartphones, drones, internet etc. available at cheaper rates. Surveillance by states with the help of big tech companies is being increasingly used to curb the voices of dissents or further their commercial interests.
We spent the last day of the workshop discussing all about creating feminist movements. It started with a common question what is a movement? The room was filled with different statements such as likeminded people coming together for a common cause, challenging power structure or coming together for a collective action against a common political, social or economic goal. This was followed by enacting our first participation in a movement, which included shouting slogans, buying tee-shirts, capturing the moments in camera, dancing and even kissing a girl. We ventured into the nuances of how movements are built online; this was understood by getting an insight into different elements of a movement which are outrage, political vision, community, backlash etc.
Movements keep on building but in a span of few days or months, they lose steam. This was understood with the help of a graph. All of us, who have been part of building a movement, emphasize more on the result, we invest all our time, money and energy to get the desired result, but we pay least attention to its preparation. Although I personally believe that it is difficult to prepare in a planned way for a movement like feminism, since it varies at region, group and personal levels.
All the social movements have highs and lows, which were represented in the form of peaks in a graph. Every peak signifies the time when the movement is in its heightened state of activity, but gradually the movement starts to wane. When the movements are suppressed or when they face massive backlashes from the state, smaller movements are born with their own set of agenda. These movements are often sporadic, unstable, short lived and are not able to garner more attention, thus movements especially feminist movements should be built slowly taking breaks in between and should continuously reflect on their trajectory. The emphasis throughout the day was on building stronger movements, which can be achieved by widening the base of participants by including diverse group of people like researchers, techies, artists especially those who are looking forward to work together and solidify their ideas. These people should not just be seen as service providers, but also someone who are contributing as movement builders, valuing their skills as they strive to make the movement successful.
Talks on movements brought us to the importance of online platforms and how they are providing a safe space for activism. Online platforms that includes social media, reduces the geographical distance, makes even the marginalised voices heard and brings us closer to the state as it gives us the power to question the government for the quality of services it provides or the laws they frame. The building of a movement also led us to the question of funding. Most of the social movements approach big corporates for fund, as a result, the agenda of the movement gets hijacked. Thus, it becomes important to approach right organisations. This may save the movement from undue influence by corporates which have their own axe to grind every time they put money in something. The participants decided to create an information bank with full list of corporates that can be approached to support feminist and allied movements all over the world and blacklist those who nurse their own agenda.
While talking about the movement building, the issue of bond that connects younger and older feminists also cropped up. Older feminists lament that young generation feminists are confined only to the online activism while younger feminists blame older for their obsolete ideas and rarely including them in planning or execution. Thus, it is imperative that both older and newer generation converge to make this movement successful and combat intimidation in virtual as well as physical world.
The importance of solidarity was re-emphasized by the moderator who narrated an incident; where a group of young female feminists decided to mark International Women’s Day on the Twitter by holding few placards and banners in a neighborhood park, the whole planning of the small gathering was done on Twitter while the other senior feminists were holding seminars and workshops at different places on the event, one of the young feminist held a placard, which said “I wish to be the next Prime Minister, but I can’t because I don’t wear Hijab”. This created backlash on the internet, the girl was being attacked and trolled for calling out the prime minister. Fortunately the whole chatter about gathering in park on IWD was being monitored by other senior feminists and feminist organisation, and looking at the trolls/attacks, a meeting was called by feminist to control the situation and action plan was drafted and implemented on Twitter. Within next six hours the whole trolling and insults were controlled by another hash tag that was created and used to flood Twitter in support of the young feminist.
The workshop culminated in plans for creating a tech history zone, a feminist online repository and library, and a feminist peace network in order to continue working in the sphere of imagining and creating an internet that operates on feminist principles that encompass Access, Agency, Autonomy, Economy, Expression, Movements, and Public Participation.