Impact for what and for whom? Digital technologies and feminist movement building

6 Noviembre 2017

How does technology impact in our feminist movements? from APC on Vimeo.

A dialogue between Srilatha Batliwala and “Primavera Violeta”.

When larger groups of women come together and talk to each other, they can start challenging their individual experiences of violence that maybe once they thought were their fault, bad luck or even the karma of a past life. When they realize their individual experiences were not “unique” but in fact enabled by a system that allows violence to happen not just to one woman but massively, that is “feminist consciousness raising”. This is what Srilatha Batliwala says - she is a passionate academic who has worked for more than thirty years in creating knowledge to help understand and build stronger feminist movements for social change. We met to speak about feminist movements in the digital age during the “Making a Feminist Internet” meeting in Malaysia.

Srilata says - It is true that digital technologies have impacted our feminist movements in definitive ways: the way we organize, the strategies we use, breaking the limitations of borders, diminishing the power of State, creating knowledge and building solidarity networks beyond imaginable. Immediately I thought of three recent Mexican examples:

  • Women having access to abortion, by knowledge shared through the web and organized groups supporting them emotionally during the process, providing information but also solidarity in order to allow them to continue the life they wish for themselves.
  • Large groups of women tweeting against misogynist declarations by State institutions about the personal life of Lesvy Berlín, a young women victim of femicide in Mexico City.
  • The greatest protest against violence against women in our history was held across twenty cities throughout the country in April 24th 2016 (#24A), and this was supported largely by a powerful combination of online and on-ground organizing.
  • Yes, greater tools to exercise our sexual and reproductive rights, with joy and safety and pleasure - redefining the way we interrogate State institutions in the public eye, boosting our networking like never before, bringing peoples and groups together that makes us expand the way we define our communities of solidarity, and makes our movements to grow more powerful… right?

Why do I question? Because that is what we feminists do - we question.. I ask Srilata a challenging question - Is it possible that technologies are creating an illusion of movement building? Are we really achieving change, how can we measure that impact?

There is a seductive power of technologies, Srilatha says. Aren't social networks engineering a sense of impact themselves? How are we feminists interpreting our shares and likes? What do these measuring tools really tell us? What other power dynamics exist within our movements, between personalities? Does that contribute to build our collective power?

Stop. Step back. Let’s abstract ourselves from the frantic dynamic of publishing in real time, of being a “key player” in the conversation, an “influencer”, the Tweet that just ran by, the Facebook Live just streamed, the numbers of notifications rising in red balloons at the screen of your smartphone, the beep and the vibration. Let go of your FOMO. Fear of Missing Out. Detox. Breath. Let’s place again the lives of women at the center and ask ourselves what does change mean for us now. Has anything changed in the life of a single women on the ground in their reality? That for Srilatha, will always be the core question when we think about impact: “Impact for what and impact for whom?”.

Stop. Step back. Let’s abstract ourselves from the frantic dynamic of publishing in real time, of being a “key player” in the conversation, an “influencer”, the Tweet that just ran by, the Facebook Live just streamed, the numbers of notifications rising in red balloons at the screen of your smartphone, the beep and the vibration.

In March 2016 in Mexico, a series of attacks against women on the streets sparked outrage in social networks. Andrea Noel, a journalist working for Vice, was humiliated by a man that pulled down her underwear while she was walking in her neighborhood. Gabriela, a University student riding by the subway realized a man was recording a video below her skirt. Gerardo Ortiz, a popular singer released a video in which he sets a car on fire while a women is trapped in the truck. A feminist activist calls for a public mobilization. Momentum is built. Feminist groups pick up the call and start organizing themselves online and on ground and set a date and take back the streets: April 24th 2016, the Purple Spring, #24A, “Primavera Violeta”. A movement arose strongly against street harassment.

A feminist activist calls for a public mobilization. Momentum is built. Feminist groups pick up the call and start organizing themselves online and on ground and set a date and take back the streets: April 24th 2016, the Purple Spring, #24A, “Primavera Violeta”. A movement arose strongly against street harassment.

How do you define a movement? I ask Srilatha. “A movement starts with a set of people who have a shared experience about an injustice, discrimination or a stigma, something that makes them feel excluded. Or maybe they have a shared interest, they want to change something, they want to work together for a goal. Then they come together to break the isolation of the experience of injustice as something singular, they build together their collective power, their collective agency for change”.

Has anything changed in the life of a single women after the #24A protests? Yes, I respond immediately, I have no doubt. Was this the change we expected? Probably not. Our weekly gatherings in assemblies didn’t foresee such an overwhelming response. After the protest many young women changed their stereotyped vision of feminism as something which is not for them. They embraced themselves as feminists openly. Younger generations of non-institutionalized feminist activists met and strengthened their communities; new feminist activists and media groups emerged and took public action.

Has anything changed in the life of a single women after the #24A protests? Yes, I respond immediately, I have no doubt. Was this the change we expected? Probably not.

The night before taking to the streets, more than 100,000 women overtook Twitter under the hashtag #MiPrimerAcoso (My First Harassment), inspired by the Brazilian action #PrimeiroAssédio months before. The stories began to flow and the discoveries were striking: the vast majority of women were first harassed when they were children, at the young age of eight. This massive conversation created a powerful moment that functioned as a safe space to allow the disclosure of painful experiences that for many were buried for a lifetime. Fear and shame changed sides.

This massive conversation created a powerful moment that functioned as a safe space to allow the disclosure of painful experiences that for many were buried for a lifetime. Fear and shame changed sides.

Two sisters tweeted their stories of harassment that night, that’s how they realized for the first time that both were victims of the same sibling when they were children. They got together, they hugged and they cried, they took the decision of letting know their family know and went to their harasser’s house to face him live. Five women, all young actresses tweeted also using the hashtag. That’s how they discovered they all were victims of the same predator, a theatre director that taught them once. They decided to break in during one of his plays being performed and accuse him for his acts.

Five women, all young actresses tweeted also using the hashtag. That’s how they discovered they all were victims of the same predator, a theatre director that taught them once. They decided to break in during one of his plays being performed and accuse him for his acts.

Srilata suggests that we also question our movements by asking about the negatives and the unknowns. I feel this can only help us to celebrate them and also be very aware of the challenges and limitations that the struggles and movements we build might have.

A blunt first negative was clearly burn-out and that discourages us from long lasting or long term organizing. As well as the striking differences among our political positions that were temporarily pushed down for the purpose of the protest, but that further on became impossible to manage. There were no conditions to agree on a common political agenda.

The most surprising were the unknowns, and most probably the ones that taught us very crucial questions about the upside downs of the online-on ground action.

  • Visibility we gained in the digital space such as social networks was also used as means for surveillance against activists that participated very actively in the protests, they were attacked online and offline. Many of them reported experiencing a backlash.
  • Disagreements and divisions amongst feminist groups started to spread online. A twisted dynamic of “being celebrities” in Facebook played against us internally, intermediated by the social capital created by social networks and the politics of shares and likes.

How are technologies impacting our feminist movements online and on ground? That is what we need to problematise, and just like Srilatha Batliwala suggests, we need to do this by questioning. The answers won't be linear, absolute nor simple, but in exploring the complexities we will find the most challenging and yet the most enlightening reflections.

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