V for Vale: 10 year journey of TBTT! Campaign in Bosnia and Herzegovina

14 November 2016

Initiated in 2006, the campaign Take Back the Tech! in Bosnia and Herzegovina has greatly contributed to raising awareness of how ICTs are connected to violence against women, and it has strengthened the ICT capacity of women’s rights advocates, while creating original and varied content. At the same time, BiH Take Back the Tech! and their campaigners have worked actively on building a community to strategize around eliminating violence against women through digital platforms. This year, along with other local teams across the globe, the BiH team of campaigners is marking the 10th anniversary of activities on advancing advocacy and priority issues on technology related violence against women. I have been following this teams’ activism through these years. Certainly the most passionate voice about gender justice and women’s rights in the ICT field in BiH that I have had the honour to meet and work with is Valentina Pellizzer. Vale, as she is also known, is the global coordinator for Bosnia and Herzegovina Take Back the Tech! campaign. In this interview, I asked Vale to share her experiences and the advocacy that their team has generated in the past ten years.

Lamia Kosovic: It has been ten years since you and OneWorld joined the APC call to Take Back the Tech! and reclaim technology for the fight against violence against women. Can you first tell us about the initiative itself and then situate it in the specific context of BIH.

Vale: I remember when I first started getting involved in the 16 days of global campaign against violence against women – I found it very very wide and general, perhaps too global. And technology or the internet was never relevant…
With the Take Back the Tech campaign I just “felt” it – it was love at the first sight. First, for the design, the girl is so empowering – so strong, so beautifully pink – and yes, if you want arrogant but in a positive way. I would say it’s powerful.and joyful and also fresh. You have a feeling that you will talk about a tough issue, like the violence against women, but from a different angle. Not crying about being victimized, not “swimming” against injustice but reclaiming your agency.

With many global campaigns like the 16 days of activism against VAW, I found it very very wide and perhaps too global. With the TBTT campaign, I just “felt” it – it was love at first sight.

Yes, the world is not as it is supposed to be and as we have been promised, in fact the world is shit. But we can be in this world in the way we want and we can use technology and this big thing that is called “progress” to communicate amongst each other and to make a difference. To tell a story in a different way. Everything in the campaign from the design to the messaging was about reclaiming agency.

At that time for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the use of technology was just beginning. We were starting to use more and more the Internet, and it was only email and dial-up. But within one year, we saw the expansion of forums and of platforms. The use of technology became popular and was not limited to work.

Our campaign was lucky that we were starting with really ordinary people using technology, and were seeing possibilities even though it was still quite expensive. Take Back the Tech! started in the right moment in Bosnia and Herzegovina… in the moment in which the use of technology in organising and in social networking had accelerated. It was this connection between technology and the violence against the women, and also the presence of women online that was empowering.

16 days campaign logo, 2014

LK: What can you tell us about the progress that you see has happened within those ten years of your engagement with TBTT, especially in terms of advancing the advocacy? How has it evolved?

V: It is difficult to talk about results somehow because if you look at changes in institutional policy, I think that ten years is a short period of time. Everyone now knows that violence happens and that online violence is the same old story, just incredibly more fast, almost instantaneous in its ability to hit the target individual. So now there is acceptance that violence is there and that women/girls should be able to respond and protect themselves. There is a now a need to enshrine or build on this awareness, even the change that have taken place in institutional policy, and to capture these things in a more proactive and positive form.

The change for me is in two things. The first one is that people today are so heavily online but seem to be less aware of how to protect their rights, their privacy, and to control the technology that they are using. Before because of the lack of access this issue was obscure and intangible. Now it is like the issues of rights do not exist and we need to engage more deeply to bring back the understanding and the right to say YES/NO meaningfully. The box that we “tick on” needs to be understood as a negotiation and not as default capitulation.

The change is that people today are so heavily online but seem to be less aware of how to protect their rights, their privacy, and how to control the technology that they are using.

At the beginning we had a social network called Dernek where people from the various online portals were connected and talking about the issues that were relevant to them, whether entertainment, party or politics. People were excited about the possibilities of being invisible or anonymous, and to talk about things that matter to them. They were still careful because they were afraid of being outed.

Today, however, our task and work is different. Before we focused on the issue of making people understand they can use technology. Today we work on issues of understanding the technology so you can reclaim it. Now, we need to make people realise that all these platforms are using their information and are robbing them of their own data, exposing them, and depriving them of their rights. People don’t even feel that they have the right to negotiate how to be part of online platforms. This is the new stream of hypocrisy – having wonderful, easy, smooth networks that take from people more than what they are giving them. People should actually receive a share of the income of these big companies, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and so on … because they are what make these big networks and platforms work. So, I think that our advocacy has changed in terms of talking about privacy and consent, and talking about the right not only as a consumer but as an individual. Before it was more about making people access the technology and enabling them to use it.

On the other side, if we look at it in terms of advocacy at the institutional level, then we have moved much further. Now institutions understand and recognize that harassment, hate speech, and violence happens online. And again this institutional change might still be within the logic of patriarchy and protection, in ways that we haven’t defeated yet. While there is recognition, it is limited to acknowledging online violence as an issue or as a problem, rather than part of systemic violence. Thinking of it as an issue, allows for instance, reaching for just technical solutions, which is obviously not enough.

LK: In the context of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where do you see virtual reality and the offline world intersecting when it comes to gender violence?

They intersect constantly. The virtual space is just the transposition and extension of reality. Patriarchy is immanent and now it is super fast – technology is not only the asset or accessory of boys/men but it’s the tool to ensure that women belong to them. Social judgment is the normalised mode for censoring, and if you state that you are a women or girl online, you can be attacked at any point from any side. There is an escalation happening too with everyone feeling entitled to express their opinion. Today we see that all this projection of sexism and misogyny has no borders.

As a society, Bosnia and Herzegovina is conflictual, in spite of recent and relative prosperity. This is not a society where dialogue has the highest recognition or space. And it is not as if our questions are limited to VAW and gender; it becomes even more complicated when we do not belong to the mainstream binary ideas of gender, to male or female. The Balkans are fragmented and nationalist which by extension means that often women and gender non-conforming people are faced with the worst forms of patriarchy, the brutality of the frustrated men at the bottom of the alpha-male scale.

What we need is a network of solidarity that can respond and support anyone who is the target of an attack, whether it is women/girls/non binary self-identifying individuals. We need to respond with love and passion.


Vratimo kontrolu nad tehnologijom!(Take back the Tech! Croatian)

Institutions are also slow, they have not been trained in understanding the infrastructure of the internet. There is regular campaigning on children’s safety and as TBTT we intersect with them because we know how important it has been to reach out to girls to talk about their sexuality and the desire to be loved. Teenage girls can feel like goddesses and just as quickly, like garbage. The lack of reaction from institutions on some of these concerns for children and girls is problematic. You know, Bosnia and Herzegovina copy-pasted all the laws necessary, just to show that it is a state that respects the international conventions on gender based violence against women. This was to prove that it is aware of these issues, but in reality there is no money, no specific training. Bottom line, everything exists only at the level of statement, but not in action.

What we need is a network of solidarity that can respond and support anyone who is the target of an attack, whether it is women/girls/non binary self-identifying individuals. We need to respond with love and passion. To state our common and shared diversity while in the long term, we build institutions that will not be gender blind. I dream of this, but it may take for more than one or two lifetimes for this to happen.

LK: The campaign itself, among other things, creates awareness on how ICTs are connected to violence against women. Can you tell us about the strategies that you have used to increase this awareness, and its outcomes?

Each year we tried to localize the campaign… to mix our activities to be online but also offline It was a process to find the right size, and it went from a mini tour with one of the best and first cyberfeminist in the region Saiber Wanderlast to distributing Chinese fortune-teller cookies with messages around tech. We organized storytelling workshops to think and talk about how we experience technology. Do trainings to talk about consent and anonymity. As for specific activities, we would do trainings for people (small groups, teenagers, students) that are not directly related to technology but they would use this training as means to talk about technology.

We have worked a lot on localizing which is not just a simple translation. It involves a lot more because languages have their pattern and their own way of saying or not saying things.

After the first year, we got a wonderful designer in the team – Hana Kevilj. Hana did the logo for zenskaposla, and then she continued to work with TBtT and did the super girl and the boxer woman. All the visuals she has produced are terrific. As for this year, we also recreated the logo, and made it really friendly and fresh, to encourage people to ask questions. I think, from this point of view, the visibility of our activities and materials we produce do make people interested in the campaign. We have worked a lot on localizing which is not just a simple translation. It involves a lot more because languages have their pattern and their own way of saying or not saying things. After the first year we change the local name of the campaign from “vrati” to “preuzmi,” the first is less active while the second is pure action, just like the campaign itself.

And of course a campaign without people that give time, energy and ideas would not go anywhere. I have been lucky through these years to have had support of very dedicated and motivated, local Bosnian girls and women with lots of artistic creativity and who are really good coordinators. They are young enthusiasts, feminists and interested in technology, and always willing to take a risk, which is a prerequisite for success. From Alisa Karovic, who was the first girl coordinating the local campaign in BiH, to Sejla Dizdarevic, she was the one who made me realize that design and visibility are two different things and how design can be essential, manageable and meaningful. It was when she left that Hana Kevilj started working on TBtT and then the last two BiH coordinators Leila Seper and Belma Kucukalic. And it is following their kind of activism of taking back and owning the tech that the campaign changed and got better during these years. The success of Take Back the Tech! happened because of these people.

Vratimo kontrolu nad tehnologijom! Logo

LK: In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Take Back the Tech has become an axis for people to connect and create varied content when it comes to strengthening the ICT capacity of women’s advocates. Could you give us a specific example of your contribution to women’s empowerment in the field of ICT?

V: Take Back the Tech is a continuum. It starts with the visuals, the stickers, the diary and goes on with the actions and the activities. Little things happen all around the year and then bigger events. Some go in deep such as WomenRockIT, the bootcamp we started three years ago on safety and privacy. “Do you know who is Ada Lovelace,” with young girls participating, or “Virtual is Real” to make visible that violence is everywhere or “I know what you google last summer” to laugh at and debug the big Google.

Our achievement is that we are not alone, there are now many women’s organizations, centers for legal advice and aid for women, and many activists that talk about safety and privacy. Belma and Lida are traveling around BiH with the UNWomen team talking with teenage girls about technology and the right to understand and control it. I think those were the most successful things that we have done.


Original text by Nadine Moawad

How did the campaign and your ten-year engagement with it affect you on the personal level? How did it impact your understanding of the virtual and real in terms of power relations?

As I said I love TBtT because it is fresh and deep and for me it was a way to synthesize thought, big talk and questions into practice. It was the first time that I could visualize that we can talk about the violence against women but not from the perspective of the damage, but from the side of pleasure and sexual rights. Because for me TbTT, from the visuals to the content, is about agency. And agency too can be a continuous learning; you can have a say but also learn to let go.

TbTT, from the visuals to the content, is about agency. And agency too can be a continuous learning; you can have a say but also learn to let go.

It is about sharing the knowledge. If you are a coder or programer you are sharing your technology with us; if you are an artist you share your visuals. It is also a reality check with time, energy, resources – financial or human – and again with the language and context. The global campaign is smooth and fascinating but local realities are different and ask for a sort of cultural mediation. The rural, the urban, the younger, the older, the one who lives and breaths online and the one who looks at her daughters not sure of what is happening and what should their role be. I am more and more learning of my own generation and the roles we are supposed to or are expected to play.

The campaign for me is also about debunking the mythology of technology as something that is the field of experts, or that it belongs to specific people that have spent many years studying. Thus, for me, taking back the tech is part of my job. It is talking about the difficult challenges but from the perspective of the agency we have and with positive and affirmative energy. I am now going towards 50 and I have considered myself an activist and feminist since I was 15. I remember we always focused on the damage – how to repair and how to protect; how can we heal? And I am tired of this because the bad things will happen in life anyway, so I think we need to finally take this positive and affirmative stand. It is just pure energy that we all need today.

I am now going towards 50 and I have considered myself an activist and feminist since I was 15. I remember we always focused on the damage – how to repair and how to protect; how can we heal? And I am tired of this, it is just pure energy that we all need today.

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