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African cyberfeminism in the 21st century

How are African feminist activists navigating the potential and the power dynamics of communication in the digital age? Jennifer Radloff surveys the field in her introduction to Feminist Africa’s latest edition, “e-spaces : e-politics”.

The advent and development of the internet have expanded the frontiers of feminist activism. Feminist Africa is itself a prime example of the audacious digital engagements of women’s movements all over the world. Established over 10 years ago with the support of Africa’s resurgent feminist community, Feminist Africa (FA) is the continent’s first open-access online scholarly journal, and still the only one dedicated to publishing and promoting independent feminist scholarship as an activist project.

Unless challenged, information and communication technology (ICT) access and reproduce not only gender inequalities but also historical, linguistic, geopolitical, economic, cultural, racial and other interconnected axes of privilege and power. As access and use of the internet mirror the sex/gender, class and other power dynamics offline, so do the violations. State control, censorship, surveillance, invasion of privacy, curtailment of freedom of expression and association, and violence against women are some of the issues that internet rights organisations are taking up, and which United Nations structures are also attempting to address.

Enter Feminist Africa’s latest edition on e-spaces : e-politics – offering perspectives on the implications of global digitisation that emerge out of feminist praxis across the continent; keeping pace with the rapid expansion of cyberfeminism by presenting the latest on African women’s ongoing and remarkable contribution to this global arena.

Historical evidence reveals that it was a woman – Ada Lovelace (1815–1852) – who wrote the first computer programme. Lovelace also originated the concept of using binary numbers, and was an early visionary – seeing the potential of the earliest computer models to develop far beyond simple number-crunching. Xide Xie (1921–2000), banished during the Cultural Revolution, was key to the development of solid-state physics in China. Rose Dieng-Kuntz (1956–2008), Senegalese scientist, was one of the first scholars to understand the important of the Web and to map how it would evolve to specialise in artificial intelligence and knowledge management.

Since their inception, women’s movements have responded to the patriarchal privileging of male knowledge by developing a rich array of alternative communication strategies. These have ranged from women’s collectives to feminist presses, radio stations and films. Today ICTs and the more recent proliferation of social media and digital tools are profoundly and irrevocably reshaping our world, and so feminist activism, too.

In the mid-1990s, there were intense debates amongst feminists on the use of ICTs in women’s rights activism and in academia. Feminist communications rights activists started lobbying for ICTs to be included in platforms and processes such as Section J of the Beijing Platform, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and the African Union. Non-governmental organisations began using email and mailing lists, building websites and requesting capacity-building in order to integrate these new tools into their work.

In Africa organisations focusing on building women’s capacity to use ICTs effectively were born, such as Women’sNet in South Africa, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) in Uganda, and Linux Chix Africa. Collaborative networks were created such as FLAMME, a network of African women online committed to strengthening the capacity of women through the use of ICTs to lobby, advocate and participate in the Beijing +5 process. Both FLAMME and Women’sNet brought women from organisations across Africa together to share skills and build capacity in creating websites and facilitating mailing lists.

The Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) sector acknowledged what became known as the “digital divide” and provided statistics which proved how polarising ICTs could be. The schism between the “developing” and “developed” world again reflected inequalities in access and reinforced exclusions with statistics showing that 77% of people in developed countries are online against only 31% of people in developing ones. The “gender digital divide” reinforces the inequities women face as well as the disparities between developed and developing world. By the early 2000s, women’s groups in Africa, fully aware that ICTs had revolutionised access to information, were creating alternative digital spaces and setting up dynamic and creative networks that challenge the monopolisation of power and control over contemporary technologies by rich nations and corporations dominated by men.

The advent of the more interactive Web 2.0 technologies and social media have further catalysed women’s digital engagement. Blogging proliferated and became a popular way for women to write, debate, comment and self-publish on a range of issues. Facebook became not only a social connecting space but a way for activists to reach wide audiences at very little cost. Twitter enabled activists to share, almost in real-time, updates from meetings and conferences and include links to videos, websites and online petitions. People not able to attend important policy spaces could comment and include their opinions. YouTube facilitated the instant uploading of video clips which allowed activists on the frontline to document and display violations, now often picked up by mainstream media, and so on.

The present state of play: An overview of Feminist Africa 18

The most ubiquitous digital tool and means of accessing the internet in Africa today is the mobile phone. Research indicates that the uptake of the technology by women has been huge, although in most countries, men still outnumber women in terms of ownership of mobile phones. In her article on mobile technologies and feminist politics, Brenda Sanya engages with the ways that mobile phones in Kenya have the potential to circulate indigenous feminisms, cultures and cultural products, “to reveal the multiplicities of black, rural Kenyan women’s identities,” and to enable such users to assert their agency.

Kutoma Wakunuma’s standpoint piece warns that there is a danger in focusing on a single technology when working to bring internet access to developing countries, however. She problematises the focus on mobiles as the development tool which can assist in building stronger economies and fighting hunger. Robust regulatory policies are as important for sustainable economic growth, including an inclusive information society.

Looking at the “clash” that occurred at the 2012 Joburg Pride parade between its organisers and gender activists demanding their solidarity for murdered members of the LGBTIAQ community, Nyx McClean explores how digital spaces may enable conversations that may not happen offline. They do so in part by providing anonymity and cover for those not wishing to be exposed to public scrutiny or attack.

Caroline Tagnay and jac SM Kee’s standpoint explores issues arising in the EROTICS (Exploratory Research on Sexuality & ICTs) project. Focusing on marginalised social groups, including young women, transgender and queer communities, they write about how sexual expression, sexualities and sexual health practices, and the assertion of sexual rights, play out in uses of ICTs. They also examine the moral and cultural attitudes that drive the regulation of sexual content online.

With all the revolutionary possibilities and creative potentials of new communication technologies, we are also witnessing the emergence of new divisions. Young people born into the digital information age are engaging with digital tools and living in ways in which the “older” generation are not. Desiree Lewis, Tigist Shewarega Hussen and Monique van Vuuren provide critical reflections on the generational challenges arising in social media, noting how the assimilation of a few women into positions of structural power undermines feminist politics if such individuals do not care to advocate for the interests of other women. They discuss a digital activist project that engages women students at a historically marginalised university, the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, and young women from socially marginalised communities surrounding the university.

In her feature article drawn from her extensive PhD research on radio and rural women in Zimbabwe, Selina Mudavanhu provides ethnographic insights from her research participants to challenge the popular notion that new communication technologies have rendered radio redundant in Africa. Although the ubiquity of mobile phone technology is very clear, she argues that this has not displaced radio as the most accessible and powerful communication tool on the continent.

Creating secure and supportive spaces for witnessing, discussion, disagreement and knowledge sharing is an important element of feminist activism. Mailing lists (or listserves) are relatively “old school” in the midst of proliferating social media platforms, but are still often the preferred medium for activists in creating facilitated online spaces with a relative sense of safety. One example is the Gender and Women’s Studies in Africa (GWS Africa) listserve, established in 2002 just ahead of Feminist Africa to provide African feminist activists and academics with a forum for sharing and engagement.

Sarita Ranchod provides an analysis of responses on the GWS Africa listserve to the objectionable “Undies for Africa” marketing campaign of a Canadian private company, Nectar Lingerie. She reflects on the politics of feminist communication and activism, noting that such virtual spaces reflect the power relations that characterise non-virtual production. Following Ranchod’s discussion, Bella Hwang describes the rapid cyber-response to the Undies for Africa campaign as an “armchair revolution” and documents the effectiveness of the angry collective response from African women all over the world. 

Oumy Ndiaye tells of how M-Pesa, a mobile banking service targeting poor communities in Kenya, has benefited poor and rural women. She lauds it as “revolutionary” – clearly not using the word in the same way as Ranchod. However, Ndiaye does not fail to acknowledge the serious need for further research to assess M-Pesa accurately.

Undies for Africa represents only one example of the corporate-sponsored indignities that can be found online and demonstrates how the internet reiterates social injustices, exclusions and violence in the “real” world.  Other “digital dangers” range from technology-related violence against women to censoring of life-saving sexual health information. Digital surveillance monitors and those wanting to infiltrate and entrap others are much more effective and pervasive than we could possibly have imagined in the 20th century. Both Dan Clunaigh and Wakunuma explore digital safety issues and the ways in which African activists are building capacities within movements to secure their spaces and voices from online threats.

FA 18’s bumper “Conversations” section underlines the ingenuity of feminists employing social media to pursue change agendas. Hakima Abbas interviews Blessol Gathoni about the Watetezi-Haki platform which documents abuses of sex workers and LGBTIQ persons in public places in Kenya, most of which tend to remain undocumented and unreported. Jane Bennett speaks with Sally-Jean Shackleton, currently director of SWEAT (Sex Workers’ Education and Advocacy Taskteam, Cape Town) about her work with Women’sNet, the first feminist e-technology hub in South Africa, while Selina Mudavanhu speaks with Maggie Mapondera of Just Associates, eliciting her reflections on the place of contemporary communications technologies in storytelling.

FA 18 profiles the Asikana Network, a vibrant network of young women in the information technology industry in Zambia who are challenging the “male geek stereotype” and forging space for young women and girls to chart careers in technology. Also profiled is Inkanyiso which provides a digital space and community for queer activists in a South Africa in which homophobic violence is still widespread.

Feminists all over Africa continue to engage with the internet in ways that support creativity, activism, social connections, pleasure and change, strategically moving into the virtual world in ways that will continue – like Feminist Africa itself – to ensure voice and visibility for women’s rights.

 

This article is part of a collaboration between 50.50's Our Africa and Feminist Africa. Feminist Africa is a journal published by the African Gender Institute, University of Cape Town, that offers cutting-edge, informative and provocative African feminist scholarship. View all articles in the series

About the author

Jennifer Radloff works for the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) in the Women’s Rights Programme and coordinates capacity-building work, particularly with women human rights defenders and digital safety. She is a trainer and facilitator working mostly in digital safety and digital storytelling


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