Imagine a feminist internet: Participation and political movements

This is a space for reflection, for putting ideas into action and questioning every step of our way on the internet. In order to build and strengthen an intersecting movement of feminists and internet rights activists, activists from women’s groups, LGBTI groups and feminist media activists critically addressed women’s current techno-political experience. The question, How can we debate a field as diverse in its knowledge and struggles as feminism? was combined with other questions such as, How can we create public policies from the standpoint of women and sexual diversity in a field as vast and complex as information and communications technology (ICT)?

Imagining a feminist internet has to do with making our online activism consistent with our offline actions. It also has to do with sharing a cyber feminist agenda, set out in 2014 in the Feminist Principles of the Internet. They are to be conceived of as flexible, evolving and in continuous transformation, and used by women’s movements as levers, provocations and drivers for social change.

Political challenges on the networks

The internet was born as a decentralised network and this original spirit is the key to understanding its political potential. “In the absence of a controlling centre, communications are more horizontal and democratic, making it fertile ground for the development of rights such as freedom of expression and association, and ultimately a tool of resistance,” said Paz Peña, advocacy director for Derechos Digitales in Chile.

It would be impossible to try to summarise the development of the internet in a single paragraph, an article or an infographic. But it is worth pointing out that in becoming a sounding board for different political voices, it gave rise to an explosion of identities and political debates that would have been unimaginable in the pre-internet era. However, there has been a parallel process of growing participation by governments intent on controlling, or even censoring and surveilling, digital citizens.

The commercial development of the internet has followed company policies that made the most of sophisticated databases and gained privileged access (often unauthorised) to users’ data and consumer preferences. This needs to be combated in pursuit of greater transparency of the terms of use. We who surf the internet tend to be distanced from the forces at play, including government institutions, private and public interests. Most of the time the intricacies of understanding how we participate and contribute to the complex architecture of the net are beyond us.

Available nowadays for non-professional users, unequal, patriarchal and neoliberal power relations have established continuity with the violent realities we experience in the flesh-and-blood world. In Peña’s words: “That free, open and decentralised internet is dangerously threatened, by corporativism which centralises services, and governments that seek to control people’s online communications on different pretexts.”

Our place on the internet

We use the internet to create dialogues in our fields, make distance working possible and debate our agendas with their ever-elusive historical rights. Decriminalisation of abortion, an end to sexist violence, and autonomy over our bodies and sexual identities are some of the goals pursued both online and offline. Mexican journalist and cyber activist Lulú Barrera has said that, although the digital divide still persists, “the internet has made possible the existence of spaces for the production and distribution of different discourses, the unauthorised, rebellious ones, which are interconnected on the global scale and originate from citizens.”

The internet has facilitated the expression of our opinions and demands. “We cannot think that the global echo of EZLN, the green revolution in Iran, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, 15M, Bring Back Our Girls, the Global Day of Action for Ayotzinapa or the Argentine campaign #NiUnaMenos (Not One Less) are not interrelated,” said Barreras, who hosts Luchadoras TV, emphasising the internet’s enormous mobilising power. Citizen movements that combine cyber activism with street presence undoubtedly acquire great strength.

Yasmin Bathamanathan, a Malaysian writer, journalist and blogger, considers that to think about political participation it is first necessary to raise the issue of access: “You pay for your broadband, you pay for your data or you have to pay to go to an internet café. You may even have to travel to some place for a connection. This requires effort on your part. At other times we are part of a hierarchical system in which we are mostly users. You have to go there, it doesn’t come to you. It is still not a right: if I want it, I have to pay for it one way or another. I understand patriarchy in much the same way.”

On the other hand, the access levels and platforms on which we interact, and the language we share on the internet, have a completely masculine bias. According to Bathamanathan, “We see this generation of innovators represented by start-ups or by those kids inventing stuff in their basements, and suddenly they create Oh! Facebook! and make billions of dollars. This environment is still very masculine and these are the people who appear to be controlling the internet and deciding what is going to happen and how we are going to use it.”

Maha Jouini, a Tunisian writer and blogger who defends human rights in the Greater Maghreb area of northern Africa, says that violence and challenges to feminism are focused on events that happen to her every day. “I am an activist for indigenous rights. Sometimes I publish photos with our traditional clothing to indicate we are people with our own civilisation, who must fight for our identity to build our nation, a strong nation. But what happens? I find the same photo posted on another site with a message saying: ‘Look at this beautiful woman and her beautiful costume.’ I am stereotyped as a ‘lady’ and not as a woman who defends human rights. I am a native woman who defends the rights of indigenous women. But that is how it happens on the internet. We might go to protests and demonstrations, and then our photos are posted with legends like ‘beautiful women take to the streets’…”

Jouini stresses the importance of being especially careful about how images are used, as well as the challenge of adapting feminist content to “get closer to youth movements and reach a wider audience. I dream of a feminist internet – but we are still publishing and posting under a patriarchal system,” she says.

Multifacetic resistance

Key questions arise from the analysis of the political participation of different movements at the hashtag #imagineafeministinternet. What kind of power can be brought to account from our place as users, activists, researchers, militants? This network that allows us to continue our offline resistance and gain greater support, also confronts us with the risk of falling into armchair activism, in which a click on our screens can keep us warm at home. This kind of activism, in accordance with the logic of commercial social networks, values the leadership of individuals over collective constructions.

Paz Peña emphasises the need to promote critical reflection on how the digital environment has changed our lives and activisms, “for better or worse, and on how we should be involved with the defence of our rights, from our immediate, local, gender, age, ethnic and class specific experiences.” It is essential to imagine a feminist internet with a different shape and way of navigating and accessing knowledge. According to Peña, we must “stop assuming that the internet is something that happens outside, in a place apart from us or something whose rules are chosen by a group of white heterosexual men from developed countries.”

Lulú Barrera also points to the importance of recognising the limitations of web activism: “It is important not to idealise action on the web. It can contribute to generating ideas, putting social pressure on the authorities, showing popular discontent that is not reflected in the dominant media, but it cannot replace the grassroots social organisation that is necessary at critical moments.” We have to be capable of organising on the ground, developing discussion strategies, common agendas, influence, organisation, delegation of tasks. “If we do not turn back to the communities that live ‘offline’, we can keep supporting our ideological positions by discourse that does not translate into action. That can be the great mirage of social networks: satisfying our need for change by clicking ‘Like’ and then thinking that we have done enough, when really everything has yet to be done,” said the Mexican journalist.

“It’s time to take our internet reflections about out rights out into our own different fields. Given the level of intervention in our communications by governments and other authorities, those of us who work on these issues must take thought to make our online activism a safe and anonymous space,” said Paz Peña finally.

The internet is the place where power relations, including class, gender and racial distinctions, come into focus. That is why it is urgent and essential to search for what kind of powers can be deconstructed and questioned from a feminist perspective.

We can no longer draw a line between what is real and what is virtual. We need to make decisions about the internet in which we circulate, live and build political participation. If the architecture of the internet continues to be decided by small circles of white Anglophone men, the programmes, codes and languages available for our information will continue to be dangerously alien. Because we want to be free at every level, let us imagine a feminist internet and build it together.