The Do-It-Yourself Feminist Internet: Cyber feminist actions from Latin America

19 May 2016

I have tried to look this kaleidoscopic network in the eye, from dozens of viewpoints and approaches.

This exploratory article stems from the desire to continue debating, as well as co-creating, the “feminist internet”. I first heard of the feminist internet in 2014 in Southeast Asia at a meeting of activists from all over the world. I then participated in subsequent discussions in July 2015 in Malaysia alongside Latin American, Indian, African, European and Arab women.

This record is written in the first person, not only for reasons of style but because it reflects my personal exploration in imagining an internet that is political, corporeal, challenged and confronted by feminist and transfeminist demands. I have tried to look this kaleidoscopic network in the eye, from dozens of viewpoints and approaches. This intention was impressed upon me after I participated in a number of meetings together with feminist cyber activists, cyber feminists, communicators and human rights defenders from all over the world, discussing the kind of feminist internet we imagined.

My feminism embodies the need to question many generally accepted truths. Why are women and people of dissident sexuality latecomers to technology? Do we question the web while we use it? What are its masks, and what do they hide? How can we amplify our identity on the net so as to move it away from the predictable? How can we translate, clearly explain and share this knowledge that seems to be confined to privileged minds?

A good method of answering these questions is to look at how they have been answered in practice – my own or that of others – and to do this in an intersectional manner: taking into account my social class, origins, age, history, ethno-racial heritage and sexual orientation. I try to think about the different ways that condition the reception of what I write, without taking anything for granted. I want to open up the code, use language accessible to everyone. In my case, I am motivated to disseminate issues that are not easy to read.

As part of such a project, a few months ago I circulated a multi-author exercise. I proposed that it should not only be in writing, but also expressed through as many resources as possible: podcasts, design, animations, videos, poetry, performances and digital security workshops. So far I have shared knowledge, reflections and the wish to create a more participative internet with cyber feminists in Honduras, Argentina, Mexico and Bolivia. I contribute to Libres Locas Lab, an online column in text and pictures that aims to get out of the computer screen and into discussion forums, workshops for activists and presentations at trans/fem hack events.

The idea is to continue to link debates, pendrives, violence, sexuality, libertarian desires, multiple identities and encrypted mail; to keep actively perforating superficial relationships with technology, the body and digital tools (applications, platforms, hardware, software). What is the internet? What does feminism mean? How can we politicise our relationship with technologies? From here on in, we shall enquire together.

More generous, more political and less ostentatious

So far, in the light of my personal experience of cyber feminist debates, I am bold enough to propose that our starting basis is that a feminist internet must be constructed collectively, and be inclusive of resistances and uncomfortable (and necessary) questions. To imagine a feminist internet also leads to the denaturalisation of the tools that surround us and that we use, that have become prosthetic props to our knowledge of the world, but that also invite us to open them up, unscrew their covers and take a look inside.

In order to arrive at collective answers, I approached colleagues, activists, “movers and shakers” from very different areas of art, culture and activism, and asked them how they thought women could be involved with technology in creative and provocative ways. From free radio stations, zines, festivals or autonomously organised FemHacks, these activists unite art and technology and propose the deconstruction and reconstruction of technology.

bruna z is a Brazilian radio producer who works with free software and teaches journalism workshops with a feminist perspective. From the interior of the state of Sao Paulo she led a not-for-profit community free radio station (which to this day suffers from legal persecution for broadcasting without a permit). bruna believes that creative and provocative use of technologies with the participation of women and trans persons involves “action on many fronts.” This means “using existing technologies to strengthen groups of people, but also investigating and hacking these technologies. We should not accept technology as ready-made, a given, stagnant; nor that it is something we cannot tinker with unless we are technical experts or have a diploma or a postgraduate degree. It belongs to all of us, and is ours to be used. It is there and can strengthen groups and enable harmonious living for people to enjoy. This is not a passive harmony, but one which must be constructed by joining together the various intersectionalities of feminism, which is a difficulty nowadays. The difficulty is very palpable in Brazil, and sometimes has the effect of dividing people. The idea is to engage in hacking in order to get involved with technology and give it a personal meaning, to understand what it was made for and how it is useful, to subvert it, learn from it and create new forms, in a word: to create free radio and television programmes.”

Asked whether she had ever imagined a feminist internet, bruna said: “I wonder whether the internet could be more feminist, in the sense that the internet has not yet changed our way of doing politics, our micropolitics. And also... it seems it only helps to promote bad things, hate speech, prejudice and segregation, instead of being a space for public consultation and participation in public policies affecting women and human rights. It is thoroughly underused for these purposes. It is only used as an electoral tool, just for electing someone.”

The only way I can imagine is to pull those relations apart, not only by appropriating the technologies in the sense of hacking them and remaking them differently, but also by occupying those spaces and creating new technologies afresh from feminist points of view.

In spite of the conservatism that bruna complains of, she can indeed imagine a feminist internet. “A feminist internet is an internet created by women. There comes a point at which the internet becomes such a hostile environment and so functionalist in the sense of maintaining everything that has come from its domination by white men in neckties who have a lot of power, and because of that power they ultimately swallow up a multitude of people (including feminists) and any demands that have nothing to do with power relations. That's why the only way I can imagine is to pull those relations apart, not only by appropriating the technologies in the sense of hacking them and remaking them differently, but also by occupying those spaces and creating new technologies afresh from feminist points of view.” They don't necessarily have to be cis women, just different people trying to create viable alternative logics.

Geisa Santos is one of the most active women members of Raúl Hacker Club, a space for free/libre technologies in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. As well as her activism there, Geisa is a driving force in Wikipedia Editatonas and training events for young programmers, like Rail Girls and Pyladies, among others. “I am currently working with several initiatives on women and programming, because I felt this need. I started from the basis that technology should be embraced by women and that they should feel a part of that technological context, because technology is for everyone, but unfortunately this is not always the case for women. I organise some activities for teenagers, and it's been a very good experience to work with girls and young women aged from 12 to 25. It's great when I can show them how technology can be used in their everyday lives.”

On television they do not see reflections of themselves, because no one is making content for their age group, nor inviting them to take part. Yet on the internet they can create that space.

In Geisa's view, the point is not only to create a website, but to show young women that they can solve their day-to-day problems and to stimulate creativity, whether by “creating a blog to discuss literature, with every girl posting the effects she wants on the blog, and tinkering with the design.” So she used many different free/libre software tools so that they could learn how to position a mark or an effect on an image. “Interesting things have emerged. One girl made a video channel and observed how people reacted to her video, and how she could improve it, add effects, improve the soundtrack or separate audio from video, and so on. Another young woman started to write poetry. Previously she had only written her poetry on paper or in text files, and now she began to develop her writing on the internet. I showed her other artists who also write poetry and create art using technology. She made a collage of recycled street posters with stick-on decals. When they showed their work at school the girls received feedback and comments, and came into contact with other people. Of course some people are malicious, but the majority are supportive, and this was a very good way to boost their self-esteem. And they began to see themselves on these media, because they are avid users of the web and of television. But on television they do not see reflections of themselves, because no one is making content for their age group, nor inviting them to take part. Yet on the internet they can create that space.”

Geisa gave examples of the importance of looking beneath the surface. She said “one of the activities I created is to show them how programming really works, because many of the girls who participate have never been able to see how code works; so they start clicking on the source code of the page, and they see how it works. And a very good way I found to make it all gel was through games and how their programmes work. First, to help them understand programming logic, I invited my students to grasp how algorithms work, so that they realised that an algorithm is like a recipe, and then I explained this step by step and connected it with real life.”

The illustrations Geisa uses are drawn from the participants' daily lives. “I devote some time to researching what the girls are watching on television, what they are reading or listening to, because their needs are connected to this. And the girls really liked the games, and their enjoyment led them to question the idea that “that game is only for boys,” and to perceive that actually it is the advertising that sells games like that. Advertising is aimed at a specific audience, but when they started playing swordsman or hero and realised they were games that they, too, could and did enjoy, that was when we started to break down those myths.”

Do it yourself (a feminist internet)

The internet has been a springboard for many of us to explore diverse sexual identities and the right to sexual and reproductive health. It also provides the opportunity, through free, open, easy-to-access tools, for us to construct our own narratives that question the nature of desire and the way it is usually represented. Inspiration from post-pornography on the internet, for example, could transform it into “a factory for producing new narratives about pleasure,” according to researcher Laura Milano.

Lucía Egaña, better known as @lucysombra, is a feminist researcher, writer and artist. She has spent many years exploring the relationships between the body, sexuality and technologies, from unusual viewpoints (or at least, viewpoints that are less known so far). Although she prefers not to be narrowly defined, and would like us to access her multifaceted profile in poetic fragments rather than by linear approaches, she gave her opinion on the uses feminists can make of the internet.

Conversation focused on the internet, and how our bodies and identities are “split” in unpredictable ways, obliging us to rethink our perceptions of ourselves. The internet gives us an opportunity for closer contact with other types of feminism, like trans feminism, that hand in hand with the new technologies, are exploring the many faces of desire and the creative blurring of the boundaries of sexual practices.

“In the context of producing pornography, or another kind of pornography, such as in my very concrete personal experience at the Muestra Marrana festival, the call for do-it-yourself videos has been most interesting. There were no required criteria of quality or format in this section. Participants, before fixing on a subject, want to know how to make the video: they ask you how they can edit it, or tell you they have such-and-such an operating system. Many people begin to edit their video with free/libre software (which is a source of great satisfaction). The videos must have a free licence; this is not a condition, but it would be very difficult to enter a copyright video at our festival. It is much easier if the video makers use a free licence, as this opens up a sort of exchange traffic with music under free licence, creating a kind of audiovisual production circuit that is different to what normally happens, and fosters a way of working in which people are present with their bodies and with their most basic devices. Many videos are made using mobile phones, which nearly everybody has, and are edited using computers that are not very good. I think feminist practices can have a big impact, with stories narrated from personal experience but which have the capacity to resonate collectively. Issues related to the body and sexuality are key at the present time. They are experiences that all women have, of oppressive sexualities and systems that try to teach us in no uncertain terms what we have to be and what we have to do. So any deconstruction of the system of social norms resonates with all people, even when it arises from personal experiences. At the festival, and in the materials that we receive, people are working with their own body and with the bodies of a couple of friends or one friend who happens to be there. It's all very home-made.

Lucía went on: “I don't know that these videos will ever become viral, because they are very difficult to place online. It's hard to place them on networks because they are sensitive material for today's network system. Meanwhile, the more autonomous servers do not have the same viral capacity as commercial platforms, so that is a problem. But I do believe that this was a very important exercise, with potential impact, if only on the micro-political level where someone starts to make a video, and even more so when someone starts to make a video with their own body in it. When I think about impact, I tend to think about macro-political examples, huge examples, when in fact impacts can occur in concrete lives, in experiences. I think our experiences are altered by machines, by technology and by the media that currently act as our prostheses.”

Finally, in Lucia's view, a feminist internet will require a sort of ecological balance. She would like the internet to be a more secure and caring place, a space that is more careful about the exploitation and production of content. “In other words, if you want to disseminate a piece of information, you can post it a thousand times, but there is no concern about ecology; I'm not talking about the amount of electricity used up, but the ecology of images. If you look at 500,000 images, none of them is going to make more of an impression than any other. Content is overproduced, no one accesses content in a very conscientious way. That seems to me to be an ecological problem.”

Anamhoo is Mexican and belongs to Acción Directa Autogestiva, a collective. Speaking about feminism and creative forms of technology, she said feminists “involve themselves in quite practical and creative ways,” and she gives as an example the story of Berta, a blogging granny. “I remember she used to say that she didn't know how to use much of anything, until she was shown how to write blog posts, and that's when she realised she could tell a great many stories that in her day could not be told, and she started blogging based on telling those stories. From the moment women hold technology in their hands, they begin to see what it can be used for. That's when they discover that there are a thousand and one ways of having a voice, transmitting images, or being part of a network.”

In the context of Anamhoo's work, the urgent need to communicate is plain, because “there is a great deal of resistance and fear of in-depth exploration of all the capacity that exists or is intuitively perceived. Women need to be encouraged to fully develop their ideas. This has to do with how technology makes women feel. I think what is most creative is being able to transmit messages from a lesbian or a feminist perspective. I also work with women who are resisting big mega-projects, on telling the story of their struggles, saying what has happened to them, and also getting communication going between women in the various resistance movements. Perhaps in my context there is not so much technology transfer going on. We do not receive the latest gadgets and tools because the city I live in is quite conservative. Neither are there many women with an education in electronics or computer science who join alternative spaces to work on knowledge transfer. I feel we are at a very early stage compared with other spaces.”

Turning to creative uses, Anamhoo – who also delivers training workshops on free/libre software tools – said that the possible uses of online radio stations are super creative, “and they are increasingly migrating to free/libre, more experimental software. Once women have the capacity to make radio programmes, there is no stopping them.”

These are the voices of some representatives of the active cyber feminist movement. In their own personal ways, they challenge and question power structures and turn them upside down. It is up to all of us to follow the debate, deconstruct it, peel it like an onion and walk together towards a world of bits and bytes and flesh and blood with greater opportunities, with justice in all its forms, and with no more violence.

This article was written in airports and planes overflying El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Sao Paulo and Panama. The videos were edited with free/libre software, a thirst for knowledge, impatience, precariousness, guidance from Lucia Egaña, out-of-sync soundtracks, improvised translations, and above all: the extraordinary participation and solidarity of women who filled my life with (more) exciting questions.

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