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

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.

Responses to this post

Agreed. If this starts off a discussion, that would be brilliant.
Posted on 07/24/2006 - 18:58 | Reply
feel free to share this anywhere you feel it might be useful. this site adheres to 'open access' principles :)<br />would be interested to hear more thoughts and feedback about this from diverse perspectives!
Posted on 07/20/2006 - 07:17 | Reply
Interesting! Permite me to share it with the PARTICIPANTS mailing list, so that more people can share your ideas.
Posted on 07/19/2006 - 18:28 | Reply

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