Women in Africa and expression on the internet

15 September 2015

We all have an interesting relationship with the internet. In many ways, our current relationships with the internet are indicators of the socio-cultural, economic and political contexts that we live and work in. For many women in the east and southern parts of Africa, our relations with the internet are deeply classed, with women living in urban and semi-urban areas having easier and more access to the internet, either via cybercafés or through WAP-enabled phones. Younger women too are more tech savvy and have more access to the internet than older women, and other women living in rural parts of the continent. These layers of access and engagement with the internet are very visible online. A quick Google search for anything will turn up mostly white, mostly male and mostly non-African content, which makes it very visible that black women are not contributing content to the internet, and the few who do present classed and niche issues that don’t display the variety of lives and experiences of women offline.

On the first day of Imagine a Feminist Internet II, our amazing facilitator Susanna carried out a mapping exercise that presented these differences and inconsistencies. The 40-something participants were requested to get into groups of geographic location, meaning either where we were from or where we worked and felt a strong relational connection with. Africa and the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, it could be argued, were the most under-represented groups, when compared to Asia and Europe. Even within the group of participants from Africa, an interesting discussion was held, around where our work and alliances lie. For the most part, North Africa is rarely seen as part of the whole continent, and Sub-Saharan Africa is often representative of the African continent. In the small group discussion, language – which is representative of our colonial pasts, with countries on the continent being considered either Anglophone, Francophone or Lusophone – also emerged as a key dividing and uniting factor for work and activism on the continent. These fissures emerge clearly online, with content from Anglophone Sub-Saharan Africa considerably different and more present than content from Francophone and Lusophone Africa. But then again, because little effort is done to bridge these divides, for all we know, there might be majority representation of Francophone Africa online, but because I don’t read French or Portuguese, then I can’t be sure. These small gaps and cracks, especially on the continent, should be worrying.

But there’s something interesting happening on the internet, and especially for women, and more so for women in African countries. Because I live, love, lust and work in an African context, I have to write from that point of view and with that voice. We, women in Africa, are finally finding and creating spaces online where we get to be atypical of what the West and the rest of the world have come to assume makes up women in Africa. A quick Google search will not reflect this; a lot of content uploaded is still reflective of a white, global North perspective, with most content on women in Africa made up of online pieces from tourists visiting the continent. Some will have rural women, and of course, all the animals that Africa is famous for. But if we dig deeper, and poke around in unpopular and non-trending spaces online, we will find that African women are taking up space online. If we look at what African women are doing online, an assumption will be that we start blogs, or tweet or have Facebook pages to advance social justice work that many women in Africa are concerned and involved with. But more than anything else, women in Africa are creating space to express themselves.

In our day-to-day lives, freedom of expression remains an abstract and hard to understand right. Many countries have a bill of rights enshrined within their constitution that allows for freedom of expression, but this freedom is limited in its implementation, as there is a lot of censorship and harassment of women’s voices that takes place both online and offline. Offline, and with increased surveillance of states on citizens, women are limited in the spaces in which they can honestly and openly express themselves without fear of retribution from members of their immediate communities and society as a whole. Online, the option to remain anonymous tremendously helps women have a voice and a space to express themselves, in non-conforming and non-mainstream voices and on a variety of subjects.

Women in Africa online are sexy, they are bold and they are confrontational. While African women online might not have the biggest presence, they do have impact in terms of topics covered and issues raised. Fungai Machirori, author at the feminist blog Her Zimbabwe, said that via the blog platform young women in Zimbabwe are writing and expressing their frustrations, their passions, and trending topics happening in Zimbabwe and around Africa and the diaspora. Ever wondered about labia elongation in a post-colonial context and in the voice of a young woman in Zimbabwe? Her Zimbabwe is that space where women can speak out and add their voices to conversations that have too long been dominated by Western anthropologists and scientists obsessing with how we have sex in Africa.

Queer young women in Kenya are also showing a lot of presence online, with the formation of groups on social media as well as blogs that are such a breath of fresh air online. Queer has a face is a space that provides me with such a lovely breathing space online – the stories of lesbian women in Nairobi, written with references to places I know and using language that I can relate to as a woman that was born in Kenya. This changes the way I see the lives of queer women in Africa, away from the “most homophobic place on earth” rhetoric, and into alternative perspectives of who we are online and on the continent. There’s also the blog Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women, curated and run by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah and Malaka Grant, who have created a super-sexy space for women of colour online, with honest, titillating and mind blowing (pun fully intended) writing that has left no room for doubt around who we are as women in Africa. Our variety of sex, sexuality, sensuality and all things sex and sexy are represented on this website, in the voices and contexts of women living in Africa and in the diaspora.

Of the many important freedoms and rights that the internet affords us, expression, I believe, is the one aspect that can tremendously help change the presence and amplify the voices of women in Africa online. The Feminist Principles of the Internet, I strongly feel, seek to keep women safe in online spaces, because the same misogyny and attacks that women experience for expressing themselves offline are acted out online. But by and large there is little legislation or recourse for women who continue to be silenced and victimised for speaking their minds on various issues. This has seen many women’s social media pages, websites and blogs vandalised and women withdrawing from social media spaces, in order to avoid this abuse. The FPIs speak to the whole lives of women online, in fully understanding that our offline and online lives are closely woven, with implications for all our expressions in both spaces.

Image from ICTs for Feminist Movement Building: Activist Toolkit by Just Associates (JASS), the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and Women’sNet.

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