What does movement building look like in a digital age? Even as we are increasingly aware of and dependent on the internet for public engagement and mobilisation of ideas, have networked technologies significantly impacted on the characteristic and sustainability of movements?
This was the central question that some 80 people engaged in feminist activism in different parts of the world came together to pause, reflect on and interrogate at the “Making a Feminist Internet” (MFI) convening that took place from 3-6 October in Malaysia. It is almost an impossible task to bring together into one body of text the textures of the conversation that took place during those four days, the different turns it took and the depths in which some of the turns went to.
It is almost an impossible task to bring together into one body of text the textures of the conversation that took place during those four days, the different turns it took and the depths in which some of the turns went to.
This is instead, an attempt to surface some of the threads from the convening that can act more as the beginning of a collective conversation that perhaps we must all make time to have. Even as we continue to figure out the complex issues that confront us, the intersection between feminism and digital technologies remain as one urgent dimension that we must consider seriously, and expansively, for our movements to remain strong, nimble and tenacious.
Memory as resistance.
We began with stories. Personal and collective stories of our struggles that form as bookmarks and knots to the long thread of feminist organising and movement building in issues as diverse as queer rights in Aceh, to sex work in Uganda, funding women's rights organisations in Georgia, and building autonomous feminist internet radio networks in Brazil. We brought artefacts from our movements – photographs, posters, publications, stickers, protest banners, anti-surveillance toolkits, bottles of healing elixirs and more – and threaded our stories through them. How we became involved, why this mattered, how we lost people whom we were loving inspired by and through that, building relationships of care and solidarity, and how our presence and action ruptured the normality of discrimination.
This was important not just to locate ourselves in our collective history of movement building, but to also to recognise that we've got this. That as a movement, or as movements, we have encountered innumerable challenges and worked together in different ways to figure things out and respond with shared political commitment. To also know that we have much to build from, and that this is a moment in a long trajectory of feminist organising in creative and resilient ways all over the world. And that memory is resistance, especially when our histories and contribution have been and are actively being rendered invisible. The act of recalling, of naming, is to also make visible our claim in shaping the world we are in.
The act of recalling, of naming, is to also make visible our claim in shaping the world we are in.
Documentation of MFI meeting 2017, Malaysia. Photograph by Fungai Machirori
Discourse as a site of activism
Digitally networked technologies have seeded and enabled the proliferation of feminist expression in multiple spaces, from online journals to podcasts, digital archives, the humble comments section, digital storytelling projects, social media engagement and more. This has contributed to the most stubborn and invisible quadrant of change in the classic framework of how change happens: that of culture and norms, and in behaviour, thoughts and attitudes. There were many activists at the MFI who were engaged in content and discourse related initiatives, such as the Kohl Journal that surfaces critical analysis on gender and sexuality in the MENA region, Skin Stories that provides deep reflection on the many dimensions of disabilities and sexuality in India, and Bnt Al Masarwa, an independent feminist band that transformed conversations with women across three villages in Egypt into lyrics that provoke further conversation. This does not yet include the many people present who engage on social media as a political site of their everyday activism in pushing back against patriarchal discourse and norms, and face serious and critical backlash in response.
This has contributed to the most stubborn and invisible quadrant of change in the classic framework of how change happens: that of culture and norms, and in behaviour, thoughts and attitudes.
Yet, women's movements tend to instrumentalise our engagement with digitally networked technologies. There is an approach of “using social media to reach out to more people,” instead of seeing it as a space of activism in and of itself. Perhaps this is understandable due to the milestones achieved in engagement with policy and legal reform in recent decades, but in an age of unprecedented circulation of information, discourse, visuals and knowledge – there is a need to reimagine and understand better discourse as a site of activism, in and of itself, and its potential for deep transformative change.
Constellation of actors, leadership & accountability
In particular, discourse as a site for activism is important to also see new and emerging actors who are part of feminist organising, but remain outside of the more familiar format of organisations. Some of them are content creators, some are social media activists, some are part of interest-driven collectives, some are feminist techies, and some are what I like to call “free radicals” - nodes that connect between formal organising and informal networks who act as key bridge builders and interlocutors of different actors and different spaces. The internet and its capacity for anonymity and distance has also enabled actors who are diffident of visibility for various reasons (e.g. risk, introverts etc) to participate actively and expressively in organising for change.
Some of them are content creators, some are social media activists, some are part of interest-driven collectives, some are feminist techies, and some are what I like to call “free radicals” - nodes that connect between formal organising and informal networks who act as key bridge builders and interlocutors of different actors and different spaces.
This is significant for several reasons. First, to appreciate the actual breadth and diversity of the movement. Even as there are valid concerns about the sustainability of organisations in terms of new leadership, it is both pivotal and reassuring the recognise that the movement is in fact, much more diverse and broader than imagined. This brings with it some key questions compel attention as we think through how to contribute to building stronger movements. For example, the backlash and attacks that are being faced by those who agitate patriarchy with feminist narratives in the public-private domain online. Without a recognition and an effort to forge connections, we are coming up short in our efforts at solidarity and resilience.
Another question is on leadership and accountability, where we have placed our investment on this, and the challenges that arise from it. One instance is on addressing sexual harassment in the movement – a conversation that is currently alive and having the potency of upturning the quiet toxic culture of sexualised power in our everyday engagement. We have thought through and provided for this through the model of institutions. But where we have different and informal lines of accountability to each other through shared political commitment, there is a discernible lacuna. Much of this is being taken up online, by individuals and collectives, that brings with it both possibilities and challenges.
One instance is on addressing sexual harassment in the movement – a conversation that is currently alive and having the potency of upturning the quiet toxic culture of sexualised power in our everyday engagement.
How do we think through accountability in a movement where there is a diversity in terms of constellation of actors and how we relate to each other? Who do we see as leaders and custodians of the principles that matter to us in our work for change? And is it possible to reframe the question of intergenerational leadership to one that is perhaps more about intersection of actors, spaces and ways of organising?
Documentation of MFI meeting 2017, Malaysia. Museum of Movements, photograph by Fungai Machirori
Pace, sustainability and ways of organising
Another cluster of issues discussed at the convening was on the pace and sustainability of our organising. This is relevant not just in terms of resource mobilisation – although facets for consideration of that are many, ranging from supporting actors who are involved in informal ways of organising, to greater restrictions placed by the state to funds that can be received by NGOs – but also in terms of the rhythms of our movement. There appears to be campaigns, protests and threats in rapid succession, creating a hectic cadence that result in several things. One is burn out and an increasing sense of fatigue that requires serious consideration as we reflect on what it means to practice the politics of self and collective care. Another is rendering moments of abeyances invisible. The everyday labour of organising that happens in the in-between times. What do we see, and not, in our activism? In an age where internet technologies run on the logic capital of visibility and eyeballs, how are we resisting this by reclaiming our pace, and privileging the everyday work, and the people who do them? How does the everyday work look like in the evolving and nebulous ecosystem of our movements in a digital age?
One is burn out and an increasing sense of fatigue that requires serious consideration as we reflect on what it means to practice the politics of self and collective care.
It was also recognised that the steps in which we understood movement building to happen is no longer as clear and linear (perception of injustice > leadership > critical analysis > building shared political agenda > organising & building constituency > identify actions, strategies & priorities > act for change > visibility/backlash > gains > analysis > expansion of membership base). While this may have always been true to an extent, the distribution of leadership, actors and ways of organising enabled through digitally networked relationships and sites of organising have troubled this in significant ways. In particular, the building of a shared political agenda and the development of strategies and actions. This is happening at multiple sites, through the leadership of multiple nodes, that may or may not be in relationship with each other. A visible conversation online could be the start, rather than an outcome, of taking action for change and the building of a constituency. Perhaps what is more important than consideration of which steps come first, is the shifting terrain of each component.
Documentation of MFI meeting 2017, Malaysia. Museum of Movements, photograph by Fungai Machirori
One is the notion of constituency in a digital age. This was discussed in terms of the more familiar question of who is representing whom, particularly in unstructured formats that lie outside of institutional structures, as well as the critical question of access to the internet. Access to what kind of internet was a key issue at the MFI. Recognising that access is not just about connectivity and devices, but also skills, online communications culture and dominant languages played a role in terms of who can be seen, heard and included in particular moments in the movement. This conversation had many complex layers – from thinking about current disparity in internet access between and within geographical locations and people; to the commodification of our narratives and political actions as we rely on privatised online spaces for our organising; to the need to think about feminist digital infrastructures not just as technical responses, but a response that subverts the current logic capital of technology and access; to the ability of multiple connections and the forging of global political solidarities; as well as enabling muted voices within feminist movements as well as in the larger public to find kin and amplify their realities.
We discussed in terms of the more familiar question of who is representing whom, particularly in unstructured formats that lie outside of institutional structures, as well as the critical question of access to the internet.
What became evident to me throughout the four days, is also the need for an exchange of movement building skills, capacities and strategies that can integrate lessons and questions from onground and online organising. On how we understand leadership, accountability, constituency building, representation, issues, ways of organising, sites of activism, pace, change and impact.
Breaking the binary: Feminist Principles of the Internet
Perhaps the most important point of conversation at the MFI was the urgent need to break the binary between what is perceived as online and onground. Rather than see them as distinct, to understand the flow and impact between one and the other, and where embodiment lies as a site of this intersection. This is not just in terms of the ways in which we recognise and understand the shape and form of our movements, but also the intersection of issues that we need to take into account as we continue in our work to critically analyse power structures towards imagining transformative futures.
The collectively developed Feminist Principle of the Internet can act as a seed and a framework for the conversation. To recognise that first, feminists and women's movements have always been part of the history of the internet for social justice and change, and have played a pivotal role in its development. And that we need to apply a feminist lens of deconstructing power in understanding and engaging with an increasingly digitally networked world. From issues of access, to expression, the economy, governance, embodiment and public participation. And when we begin the conversation with our political framework, and grounded through the diverse realities of our contexts, then we locate ourselves as critical stakeholders, articulators, shapers, dreamers and political actors of our unfolding past, present and future.
When we begin the conversation with our political framework of feminism, and grounded through the diverse realities of our contexts, then we locate ourselves as critical stakeholders, articulators, shapers, dreamers and political actors of our unfolding past, present and future.