A Women's 'Commons'? An Exploratory Dialogue on the Potential of the Knowledge Commons for Women

2 June 2010

At the recently held Asia Commons Conference (6 - 8 June 2006) in Bangkok, Thailand, the idea of the 'commons' was contestedly understood as being both a principle of understanding content and creative products, and a community that supports the sharing of information and creative content. Some participants of the conference attempted to succinctly define the 'commons' as below:

“The commons is:

  • any common resource that is available to all (but can be defined locally, or specifically as 'everybody in category x');
  • a series of specific institutional formats used to manage such;
  • the movement that promotes them.

The open/free, participatory/p2p, and commons [are related to the] the three [four?]-legged stool of paradigms:

  • Free and open -- ensures access to the raw material to build the common;
  • Participatory -- refers to the process of broad participation in order to actually build it;
  • The commons is the institutional format -- used to prevent private appropriation of said creations;
  • Cyclical -- The circle is closed when commons-generated material is again free/open raw material for the next cycle of the circulation of the commons." (source: Asia Commons on Wikipedia)

The 'commons' is directly linked with subverting current Intellectual Property Rights paradigms, where ownership and control of information, knowledge, and other types of content - including creative and cultural products as well as scientific information - has been commodified in the interest of those who can afford to own knowledge.

But how different is all this from past initiatives by women's groups and networks to share resources?

Women's movements, networks and groups have been sharing information and content for much longer than this idea of an information 'commons'. In the late 1990's, an Asia Pacific network of women's resource centres was formed primarily to develop a multi-lingual database that would allow them to share information on women's issues. The network, called the Asian Women's Resource Network (AWORC), endeavored for more than three years to develop this multi-lingual database and search mechanism that will allow women's resource centres from the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Mongolia to share bibliographical content on women. Aside from this, AWORC also set up the Asia Pacific NGO website for the 5th Year Review of the Beijing Platform for Action . This initiative was built on women's groups in the region submitting and sharing their content related to the status of the 12 Critical Issues of Concern and on the implementation of the BPFA in different countries. This lead to AWORC's participation in WomenAction, a global network of women's organisations and networks that aimed facilitate participation in the 5 Year Review of the BPFA in 2000. It was also a global platform for resource-sharing where various regional sites that were monitoring the review process were able to pool content. Isis-Manila has also produces a collection of art work that is free for all women's organisations and networks to use: Isis International Manila Clipart.

These are just examples of how women's resource-sharing has always been an important and intrinsic aspect of women's networking. The idea of "common resources" that is available to all and the building of governance / institutional structures / formats required to manage the sharing of resources are not new to the women's movement/s. Before exploring this new terrain of the knowledge 'commons' and how women can part-take and take part in it, it is important to acknowledge this. Women and the idea of a 'commons' is not a completely new idea -- and women's groups and movements have valuable lessons to share.

So what exactly is so 'new' about the 'commons'? Is it simply another buzzword to add to our already burdened dictionary of political terms and concepts? Looking back at the four paradigms where ideas about the 'commons' are supposed to operate, perhaps it is possible to see if developments towards a Knowledge Commons resonates with feminist tactics/agendas/isms.

Resource-sharing is static. Information is shared and distributed but might not allow modification, re-creation and transformation. The cyclical leg of the commons reflects the principle of being able to take from the commons to create something new, of being able to build on another creator's output. Resource-sharing does not necessarily encompass this principle.

Also, the technology that backs up the idea of the 'commons' have transformed radically, supporting the "free and open" aspect of the 'commons', where access to raw materials is an intrinsic component to building any kind of commons. From the days of AWORC developing a clunky multi-lingual database and search mechanism and a static HTML-based regional NGO website for the 5th Year Review of the BPFA to the holding of the first Asia Commons Conference in 2006, technology has advanced a great deal. Web 2.0 technologies are geared towards making sharing information and collaborative knowledge creation easier, more dynamic and a lot less labour-intensive. New technologies like blogs, wikis, content management systems and RSS feeds have made online collaboration and sharing an intrinsic part of the World Wide Web. These new tools, coupled with women's history in networking and resource-sharing, creates an optimal environment for the creation of a women's 'commons'.

The question is, do women have equal access to the development of these tools, as well as to the utilisation of it?

Equal access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the internet is still a problem for many developing countries. Furthermore, the gendered dimension of the FOSS community has been cogently discussed elsewhere. The short of the long is, masculinist cultures prevail throughout the field of software development. Likewise with the utility of ICTs. Specific gender indicators have been called to measure the differential impact of the potential benefits of ICTs on men and women. This is because invisible gendered norms, such as domestic, economic and social roles, can significantly affect the extent to which a person is able to use and become familiarised with ICTs to meet their own concerns. However, this is not to say that a Knowledge Commons will be irrelevant to women. The point that comes up is that, as with most aspects of social, economic and political life, attention needs to also be given to unequal access in the first instance.

Beyond the issues of access are the processes of participation. Here, the solution is evident, although tricky in actual practice. Participatory processes generally mean decision-making mechanisms that include as many people as possible. Usually those involved would be invested the outcome of those decisions, and should be largely representative of those who would be affected. How much say each person has in the building of the 'commons' will depend on how the 'commons' community choose to organise themselves, if at all. This is where potential complexities could arise. If most discussions, decisions and implementation are conducted online, the differential access from leg one will have an impact here. Questions such as how initiatives will arise, who is the imagined 'stakeholder' or 'subject', how are priorities organised according to which perspectives, what kinds of efforts and networks need to be established towards its fruition, what prior-knowledge is essential, the culture of communication that is being formed or utilised, the legal and technological choice of tools and so on, need to be addressed to ensure that 'participatory' does not dissolve into another rhetorical outburst.

So how about the idea of a Women's Commons?

This means that those who work towards building this commons will have to share similar principles around issues related to women. Whether the capacity for this shared understanding comes from shared struggles, identity or political ideology is up for debate. As would the feminist principles that the 'commons' will be grounded upon, and its motivation or intended effect. Nonetheless, this is a potentially exciting idea to explore. The seeds for a Women's Commons (or several of Women's Commons) have already been sown. One seed is that of resource-sharing being an already intrinsic part of women's movements and networking. Yet another seed is that more and more women are using Web 2.0 tools like blogs and wikis to generate, create, re-create and share content.

What kinds of content would be relevant for such a commons? This leads us to the third paradigm, i.e. protection of the commons from external appropriation.

A cursory glance over the 'commons' landscape shows that some of the more popular uses of 'commons' have centred around sharing of creative, academic and socio-political content. Another troubling aspect of the 'commons' is in relation to 'culture'. When sharing of resources, knowledge and information is touted as the ultimate tactic against proprietary notions of intellectual property, questions about existing unequal power relations come into play. Eric Kansa of the Alexandria Archive raised this issue at the recent iSummit, on how open content licencing should incorporate strategies that can reverse processes of cultural colonisation. On a similar vein, Nhlanha Mabaso of CSIR Open Source Centre stated the need for "careful sharing of culture" in Access to Knowledge initiatives. The crucial point highlighted by both of them is that 'culture', as signified and encapsulated within information in specific forms (such as music, research outcomes, art etc) that is exchanged or shared is imbued with historicity.

For women, this is particularly significant. Feminists and rights activists have comprehensively demonstrated how women are often held as the embodiment of culture. This is evident in how women, particularly their representations, are mobilised for 'cultural authenticity' in entertainment, tourism and situations of border conflicts. Not only that, women are also holders, innovators and transmitters of traditional and/or indigenous knowledge, some of which are potentially lucrative to pharmaceutical, agricultural or manufacturing industries.

In this sense, is there a need for a 'safe' space to exchange, build from and engage in knowledge that specifically relates to and impacts upon women? How do women maneuver the current terrain of intellectual property rights regime to ensure that knowledge which are produced and circulate within particular locales are not appropriated? In other words, how do women ensure that what they know does not suddenly become removed from their ability to use them as they see relevant? Putting this in relation to the development around Knowledge Commons and connected movements, how can the idea of a Women's Commons ensure that information and knowledge is opened up (instead of forming more barriers) without compromising their capacity to ownership? In fact, how can interrogations around concepts of property (knowledge as property), ownership and women's historical exclusion from these principles trouble the whole discourse around Access to Knowledge, Knowledge Commons and Open Access?

Whatever the array of answers that may crop up from these questions, and the many more questions that will arise as the field continues to develop, it is clear that feminists have an important stake in this issue. Especially if the idea of a Women's Commons might also prove to be a useful strategy to overcome the increasing fragmentation of women's movements and to re-familiarise ourselves with the practice of 'solidarity'. Perhaps thinking through the framework of 'commons' can help initiate stronger and more diverse participation by women into the field of knowledge and content production and ICTs.

So do we work towards building a Women's Commons or just ensure the participating and stakeholding of more women within mainstream 'commons' practices and initiatives?

Building a Women's Commons has the potential to also encourage women to move beyond users / consumers of ICTs into content production roles, but this also has a danger of ghettoising women's issues and participation in the 'common's debate, discourse and practice. If women create our own commons, we may be trapping ourselves in a tiny space where women's issues are addressed while the bigger 'commons' concerns itself with "bigger" issues that do not at all take into account women and gender issues.

The other option, mainstreaming women's participation and stakeholding in 'commons' practices and initiatives, will require the current stakeholders in this knowledge 'commons' to allow for greater women's participation as well as require women's movements to take the 'commons' debate seriously.

Perhaps another way of looking at these two options would be to see one as contributing to the other, instead of mutually exclusive strategies. Building a Women's Commons can be a strategy to increase and deepen women's participation and stakeholding in the mainstream 'commons' practices. Also, the Women's 'Commons' does not need to be a singular entity and initiative. It can be multiple, parallel initiatives (perhaps along different women's issues and interests) that merge the principles of the 'commons' and Feminism. As more and more Women's 'Commons' emerge, so will women's participation and stakeholding in the mainstream 'commons' debate and practice.

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Responses to this post

Interesting! Permite me to share it with the PARTICIPANTS mailing list, so that more people can share your ideas.

Frederick "FN" Noronha - 12 years 9 weeks ago

feel free to share this anywhere you feel it might be useful. this site adheres to 'open access' principles :)

would be interested to hear more thoughts and feedback about this from diverse perspectives!

jac - 12 years 9 weeks ago

Agreed. If this starts off a discussion, that would be brilliant.

c5 - 12 years 8 weeks ago

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