Barriers to women’s participation on the internet evolve with increased ‘access’

3 September 2015

In the opening session at this year’s Gender and Internet Governance eXchange (gigXAfrica), participants highlighted some key questions they had that they hoped would be answered during the exchange. One participant innocently asked: if the internet is free for all, how are women really marginalized in that space? This is my attempt at a calm response to this question that I am slowly realising occupies the minds of many.

Indeed, the internet is now generally widely accessible, seemingly offering countless opportunities and making it possible to create, mobilize, inform and express. However it also amplifies some massive inequalities.

Countless papers have been written about why in the supposed age of free access and empowerment, women still encounter barriers to participation online. In my view, these barriers keep evolving, and there are persistent and new ones. We talk about cost for instance, as a persistent barrier, especially in view of high data costs in most developing countries. Many women neither control nor have sufficient finances.

We talk about the ‘digital divide’, which is basically the gap between the ‘haves’, – those who have access to critical ICTs, and the ‘have-nots’. Importantly, from what has emerged in the Africa Internet Governance school (Afrisig 2015), ‘access’ should be looked at beyond the physical access to permission and ability to use. Where we assume that computers and internet are available but are not necessarily being used, this tells us that ability to use is not and should not be a taken for granted thing. Often times we neglect to consider that availability alone is not sufficient, and it is redundant to have access to technology without the relevant skills to effectively utilize it.

However we also talk about how online violence against women presents barriers to participation. A lot of the times, such discussions largely tend to focus on overt and direct forms of violence perpetrated against women, such as trolling, cyber bullying and outright misogyny. Rarely do we deeply analyze covert forms of violence as possible barriers to participation of women online. And the violence does not necessarily always have to be personally directed at them, in order to be effective.

At the recently held Zimbabwe Internet Governance Forum facilitated by MISA, I spoke about how the open internet, just like ‘open society’, does not mean equal, or neutral. I gave examples of how in our work at Her Zimbabwe, very often we have observed how a lot of women will come via inbox messages to comment on articles they read on our website, but they will not publicly own that opinion or openly leave a comment in the public comment section.

Her Zimbabwe is that space where we will have the difficult conversations, be they about women’s politicized bodies or society’s messed up attitudes.

When supposedly empowered women still feel subjugated and cannot publicly have an opinion on potentially controversial issues, it opens your eyes to the fact that the internet, while providing many opportunities, can also be a very cruel space, presenting many subtle obstacles to participation. It is not just a place where one is confronted by threats of hacking, identity theft, privacy invasion or surveillance among other things. It is place where cyber bullies, trolls and misogynists assume avatar like powers and behind the veneer of their screens, hog all conversations and silence others.

Many women’s online experience is about being bullied or just plain intimidated. Essentially, it has been our observation that the online space is not devoid of the sexism and patriarchal attitudes that currently permeate society today.

It starts with subtle forms of harassment that many of us attempt to laugh away or allow some offenders to get away with, not realizing that the more they get away with ‘little transgressions’ the more emboldened they become to do worse things in the future.

In the Zimbabwean twittersphere for example, there is a form of bullying that is fast but silently gaining traction online, through subtweets. Members of the Zimbabwean twitterati would know one or two individuals who, because they are men, always get away with telling everyone to ‘eff’ off, while they are perfectly incapable of confronting contrarian opinions without dispatching expletives or insulting the holder of an opinion that they disagree with.

Sub-tweets – in their worst form – can be considered a sort of passive-aggressive insult slinging or digital side-eye, where one calls out or tweets about someone without directly mentioning them.

One moment you are sharing an opinion about something on Twitter. Two or three people converse around the subject. Fourth person with a differing opinion doesn’t join the conversation, but chooses rather to sub-tweet and insult any and all those holding a certain opinion. You know that it is a sub-tweet because interestingly, this person happens to be suddenly throwing seemingly untargeted but offensive tweets about the same issue you are discussing. Try that when you are a woman, and you are lucky if you are not virtually lynched for being an emotional creature on her periods. Ironically, like Donald Trump, the Twitter bullies’ verbal abuse of others bafflingly seems to be their most endearing quality to their supporters.

In recent months I have seen some members of the Zimbabwe twitterati virtually ‘gang up’ – ostensibly to create a digital lynch mob – and provoke known Twitter bullies to ‘deal with’ some users deemed to hold unfavorable opinions about something. Fellow users often feed the bullies and do not speak out against them for fear of retaliation or lest they themselves become targets for online abuse and public ridicule.

Such tech-related violence intimidates and silences women’s voices on the internet, because it has the downstream effect of hindering freedom of expression and participation through creating an environment of fear, intimidation and social isolation.

Image by Caroline Tagny

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Responses to this post

Interesting read. I suppose online spaces do some what mirror offline realities though there is definitely an increased opportunity for participation in view anonymity and pseudonmity. At the end of the day people will be people, social relations will still remain the same.

MIII - 1 year 3 weeks ago

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