In one of her blog posts, Linda addresses the issue of whose voice is being heard when engaging with social media. She exemplifies this by highlighting the use of English as a language for a hashtag to combat the practice of male guardianship over women in Saudi Arabia. In this post I will also address issues of accessibility, but from a different perspective. Because after all, who is actually able to use and communicate via new media? The use of phones might have spread throughout the world, yet buying units, especially to connect to the internet, may be an obstacle to many.
Morrow et. Al. (2014) discuss the interconnectness of life online and offline moving beyond a binary. So if we are to discuss whose voices is being heard, the material realities of the subaltern, of the marginalized, need to be taken into consideration. Not everyone may be able to share their thoughts and opinions online as often as they would like to simply due to budget and language constraints.
Take Malawi as an example. According to a report by the BBC it is one of the countries where people pay the most for mobile data and units despite a large part of its population living under the poverty line. A monthly 20GB data bundle provided by Airtel Malawi costs me MK34,000, the equivalent of $47. The cheapest daily bundle, 10MB, costs MK65, the equivalent $0.1. Special social media bundles for WhatsApp and Facebook are available as well through Airtel, the main and most popular provider of mobile services in the country. While these amounts may not seem to be too expensive for Westerns, average wages for Malawians have to be taken into consideration. Many people in the country only earn as little as 20,000 a month, the equivalent of $28.
What may help to get people with little income onto social media is Facebook free mode, a watered-down version that excludes photos and previews of news articles. Just how much this can contribute to a true self-expression of its users is up to debate.
How may this potentially affect activism? According to Mandiberg (2012), the boundaries between what constitutes a media consumer and a media producer are no longer clear-cut as new media help to erase these. As a result, many low-income Malawians may be prevented from producing news themselves online.
Consequently, the use and non-use of new media, specifically social media may sadly be reliant on one’s economic status helping to further divide between the privileged and the marginalised.
Mandiberg, M. 2012: The Social Media Reader, New York, NY: NYU Press.
Morrow, O., Hawkins, R. & Kern, L. (2014). Feminist research in online spaces, Gender, Place & Culture. A Journal of Feminist Geography. 22.
Lievrouw (2011) writes that social media sites used for activism are static in that they offer consumers various modules that can be used without people being able to alter them (by coding) according to their preferences. This has advantages and disadvantages. These sites clearly offer a platform for connecting with other people on a big scale. However, only if one abides by their rules.
In the past years, it was Facebook that had come under scrutiny for deleting photos of female nipples, especially those of breastfeeding mums as these apparently violate their community standards. Others have complained about their accounts being shut down for a period of time after other users reported some of their content. The question then is in how far activism of any kind can be carried out effectively on platforms that are guided by their rules and community standards which may not be in line with standards of the activists themselves. It is probably naïve to think that coding new social media sites will immediately have an effect since the likes of Facebook and twitter do have a monopoly in the field. However, creating own sites instead of just using existing ones may be empowering and may help to further the various causes.
Blogging then may offer more options with less censoring that may come with community standards of social media. Still it may be helpful to have basic HTML knowledge in order to create custom sites oneself that look different and stick out from the rest of the crowd.
Emphasis has particularly been put on teaching girl children and women how to code. The Guardian reports that an initiave in rural Kenya trained women how to code and helped them to earn more income by equipping them with these new skills. The article concludes that gender inequality may be furthered by doing so. Hence, equipping women and girls with coding skills may have tangible outcomes in the offline world as well.
Lievrouw, Leah (2011) Alternative and Activist New Media Oxford: Polity Press.
How often have i come across reports where gender was understood as only male and female. Not only does this reduce the term to binary thinking, it also erases the work women of colour have done to highlight the many ways gender inter- and intra-sects with other identities, such as race, class and age.
The Darkmatter Collective is out to change perceptions of gender and gender expressions consisting of Janani Balasubramanianand Alok Vaid-Menon , two American transgender activists with East Asian roots. They are a performative arts collaboration who perform internationally connecting and reaching out to fellow non-binary people. They have a heavy social media presence, especially on Facebook and Instagram as well as YouTube that helps them connect with their audiences.
Cammaerts and Carpentier (2007) write in Reclaiming the Media: Communication Rights and Democratic Media Roles that new media opened up new ways for activists to represent themselves. However, they also put emphasis on reaching outside of one’s community to bring about real change. Considering the vulnerable state transgender communities are in in many if not all countries in the world, it may be important to also stress the need for a safe space. A safe space where they can engage with people in similar circumstances who understand and support them when the world seems to harass them.
Even though transgender people internationally have recently been in the spotlight, take for instance Laverne Cox or Caitlyn Jenner, their stories are often times erased. When the Aunty Tiwo case shook Malawi back in 2010 people within as well as outside of the country focused on the engaged people as being homosexual, which is forbidden under Malawian law. However, as it turned out one of them was in fact transgender and later sought refuge in South Africa. This is exactly why self-representation of Darkmatter is so powerful and much needed.
In our header logo we have tried to put emphasis on the fact that gender is not binary. That there is more than male and female to it.
Cammaerts, B. and Carpentier, N. (eds) 2007: Reclaiming the media: communication rights and democratic media roles. Intellect: Bristol, UK. Chapter 9: Activism and the Media, pg. 217-224, Chapter 11: Civil Society Media at the WSIS, pg. 243-264.
Writing differently. Transcending boundaries between writing styles. Being accountable for one’s locatedness in the world. And as a result for one’s writing and research.
These were just a few things I thoroughly enjoyed while doing my masters in gender studies, and it is against this backdrop that I’d like to frame my blog posts.
Blogging may provide a space for expressing difference. Difference of opinion. Difference of style. Difference from privileged groups. And as much as ‘we’ would like to think that it is an individual exercise, I would like to highlight in this post that it is not. That there are ethical issues we need to be aware of and embrace. This post shall then serve as an introduction to the posts that are still to follow as well as to feminist ethics.
And why diffractions, you may ask? It’s a concept employed by Karen Barad and is modelled after Niels Bohr ‘s theories of quantum physics. Instead of using reflections, Barad (2007) advocates for the use of diffractions as the former is dependent on a binary world view and puts emphasis on mi-
Diffraction patterns as a concept modelled after science
rroring. Diffractions on the other hand involves difference, interference and intra-action, the coming together of different forces as something altered (Barad, 2007). What this implies is that the ‘I’, the researcher, the writer etc. not independent of and from forces s/he engages with and will be altered in the process. This is part of the reason why my i’s will not be capitalised as the I conveys and independent and more important subject compared to whatever other forces it engages with. As a concept, this calls for a different writing style, a style that allows for reading through different texts and reading them against each other.
In Feminist Research in Online Spaces, Moorow, Hawkins and Kern (2014) attempt to conceptualise ways of ethically doing research online and encounter several challenges in the process. What they particularly put emphasis on is the need to bring oneself into the research and regard “online spaces as relational places” (Morrow, Hawkinds & Kern, 2014: 538) where neither researcher nor researched are independent of each other.
Both Barad’s and Morrow’s, Hawkins’s and Kern’s views overlap. Throughout the next blog posts, I will try to bring myself in rather than just being a ‘neutral’ researcher, something that hardly exists. My choice of topics for this blog they may vary from discussions had in previous years on this overall topic. I will address the following issues in next posts:
-coding as feminist online activism,
– on privilege when using social media
– queering gender issues online.
Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press Books.
Morrow, O., Hawkins, R. & Kern, L. (2014). Feminist research in online spaces, Gender, Place & Culture. A Journal of Feminist Geography. 22.
Finding a sound cloud last time made me curious about other social media sites (argh- I’m not sure sound cloud is social media- but I associate it with social media- so work with me ….: ) and interestingly when I looked up the top trending twitters in Africa for the last few years a whole bunch of them were women’s online activism!! Woohoo- jackpot!
#MyDressMyChoice, is super interesting because it was initiated by a (not politically defined) Facebook group of Kenyan mothers after widely seen remediated YouTube videos of assaults on women who attackers claimed were inappropriately dressed. Which lends a bit of support to Shirky’s (2010) contention that activist and non-activist online spaces overlap and converge….
The mothers on the Facebook group called for a protest which they publicized on their Facebook page and in traditional media and which then got publicized on other feminist groups pages like Voices for Change Nigeria. Their organizing was covered in traditional media and then they continued agitating and spreading the campaign globally through the hashtag #MyDressMyChoice.
Then among many other re-posting, commenting and re-mediating of their activism, social media theorists in the world bank wrote about their work on another internet page situating it in the context of thoughts on development thinking and reflecting back on the dignity and scope of what the mothers initiated!
This sort of connecting, reconnecting, passing on to other groups and reflecting makes me think that Meikle’s (2016) argument that network theory is a key way to understand social media is really true. Indeed, as Rettberg notes, much of the work on social media builds upon sociological theories of social networks (2014, p66). It is unlikely in the extreme that all the people now connected to this campaign knew each other well before it started. Rettberg mentions Mark Granovetters theory of weak ties from 1973 where he argues that weak ties are what allow ideas to spread beyond one social group. Social media is credited with connecting weak ties par-excelance and while some critique if for this, it can actually be understood as one of it’s fundamental strengths. It is the reason why arguments around internet bubbles tend to burst – cause if you are connected to people you don’t know well, they are more likely to connect you to things you wouldn’t otherwise connect with than the people you know well….:) Networks are so fundamental to the operation of online activism and social media more generally that theorists like Meikle (2016) define social media as networked databased platforms that combine public with personal communication (and I’m still unsure if Soundcloud fits!).
But to get back to what’s trending….Gurkan (2016) included the hashtag #BeingFemaleInNigeria in his list of top trending hashtags for Africa in 2015. He explains that #BeingFemaleInNigeria was initiated after a reading of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ in a small book club in the nation’s capital Abuja. The first tweet sent by book club founder Florence Warmate said: “#Beingfemaleinnigeria someone asked me why you want to get a PhD? You won’t get a husband”.
This use of this hashtag is remarkably similar if contextually different to the Everyday Sexism project featured in this video that gained so much popularity since it’s 2012 launch.
In the promotional material for the book about the Everyday Sexism Project the reviewer contends that Everyday Sexism “is one of the biggest social media success stories on the internet. Since 2012 the twitter handle has gained 90,000 followers and the website receives over 50,000 hits a month.”
To me this seems like a bit of convergence over what some women in the global North and South are doing as online feminist activists. Interesting huh?
But when I was googling what was trending in gender activism in the North- I found out that the hot topic for 2015 was actually Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition´and sexual violence work was not really trending at all.
In Ghana like many African countries homosexuality is still illegal, and I haven’t been able to find anything on transgender activism trending on the continent. Still, queer posts are happening. Check out this video from the Queer Women from Alex Speak Out project.
Super inspiring to see. Let me know if you have found others. For now though I think with my perfunctory research I will conclude that online gender activism in Africa that focuses on sexual violence trends, but social construction of gender or queer issues while still out there and happening doesn’t seem to. Despite that, there is still an enormous variety of activism that is happening online in different parts of Africa, or bridging online and the streets. Of course it’s hard to tell, but I don’t think the majority of activists out there care so much about whether they are (re)presenting, networking or being co-opted into a mega social media corporate capitalist conspiracy. I think they are just using the tools available, as one part of the activism they do. Finding the strengths of these tools and attempting to overcome or get around their weaknesses. And all power to them!
One of the enormous pluses of new media is supposed to be exactly that it allows many more stories to come out. This is also one of the basis of the ‘good for democracy’ side of the fence in the New media- good or bad debate.
The space for multiple voices is actually a key feminist concern, particularly for African women writers who have been at the forefront of fighting for more diverse understandings of women and feminisms. Despite her articles title, Somolu’s (2007) research exemplifies this feminist attention to difference. She reflects that the different women from very different cultural and political settings that she interviews are somehow aggregated in her research into African women- and do not reflect a monolithic homogeneous group as this suggests.
….which reminded me of a YouTube vid I found on the danger of a single story a few years ago…and still so relevant…
I think to some extent new media really has opened up so much space for multiple voices to emerge, but it is also worth noting the ‘power law’ and other theories round how those that are popular get more popular, (Shirky (2010) cited in Rettberg 2017). As well as for example, Meikle’s (2016 p13) analysis of YouTube which argues that while YouTube has made possible new types of activism and advocacy at the same time recognizing the most viewed videos are not produced by ordinary people but are expensive commercial clips of music celebrities. As, Meikle (2016) notes, the enormous increase in telling of our intimate stories is underpinned by turning information about ordinary people into a commodity that can be bought and sold and therefore the extent to which it can be seen as social change work needs to take into account this complexity.
In order to complicate the homogeneity suggested in her title, Somolu (2007) reflects on various groups that were using ICTs in different ways as a tool to improve African women’s circumstances including specific interventions like the Fahuamu initiated UmNyango Project in South Africa where SMSs are used to report incidences of violence and women produce their own radio programs distributed via radio stations and as podcasts on the topic. She also outlines the work of other organisations that seek to overcome the gendered digital divide by doing ICT promotion and training, where she gives examples of the work done by the Women of Uganda Network, Nigerian Fantsuam Foundation’s community based computer centers that target rural women.
Mudavanhu and Radloff (2013) do similar work to highlight other activism in their paper which focuses on a New media campaign run by the Saartjie Baartman Center for women and Children in Cape Flats South Africa. They mention the work of Women’s Net in South Africa and the young feminists Democratic Republic of Congo group Si Jeunesse Savait (Mudavanhu and Radloff, 2013). Their article is super interesting in that they focus on explaining the tensions and difficulties of formulating their campaign so that it could attempt to be both feminist in process and outcome.
This similarly inspired resource by a coalition of African feminist groups is super instructional and similarly broad in scope.
This last resource I found made me think that maybe one of the big differences between women’s activism in the Global South and the Global North is the relative extent to which a part of that activism is about helping other women access and use ICTs. I am not sure. I would need to look into it more.
Finding this resource, combined with all the different groups Somolu (2007) and Mudavanhu and Radloff, (2013) have documented, made me curious about what I could find here in Ghana. I did a basic search for feminist online activism Ghana and women’s online activism Ghana and found a few facebook pages, and this wonderful feminist performance poet Poetra Asantewa’s interview and work on Soundcloud on Black Women Be Like
She says that poetry is more activism than hip-hop- Hip hop is poetry dressed up to be much more attractive. And on that note- I will leave you till next time.
So when African women do manage to connect- who are they and what are they blogging about??
Unsurprisingly, Somolu’s (2007) research in ‘Telling our own stories’: African women blogging for social change found that most of the bloggers were upper middle class, highly educated and relatively rich. She investigate women’s blogging based on the now defunct aggregator reBlog:African Women’s Blogs (www.africanwomenblogs.com/africanwomen.html). She found out a bunch of really interesting stuff about what they blog about and why they blog. The women she connected with by and large didn’t blog specifically about feminism, social change or activism. BUT, many identify as feminist and include women’s empowerment in their motivations for blogging (Somolu 2007). I think lots of Africans women’s posts about that are not explicitly activist qualify. For example, many of the beauty blogs that I’ve come across can be understood as activism. This video talks about this with regard to one particular blog and natural hair styles.
Some of the most relevant theorizing around social media for this sort of thing is focused on representation and presentation. I like Rettbergs (2017 forthcoming) discussion of the selfie in social media- that while self-representation was always social access to technology that allows creation of a lasting self-portrait is relatively new and the newest iteration the selfie is distinct from these previous versions of self-portraits because one sees oneself while taking a photo and thus needs to be understood both as representation and as presentation of a crafted self image.
The literature on online activist is pretty negative about this sort of stuff. Take Denkik and Leister (2015) who argue that social media platforms encourage a situation where “protests start and end with the individual” and that mediated self-expression as a form of self-presentation replaces actual participation (2015 p5). Similarly, Rettberg (2017 forthcoming) argues that social media encourages users to promote themselves as brands. She draws on the work of Ann Burns (2015) to discusses the ways in which selfies are used to discipline young women in particular and how selfies are feminized and thus open to ridicule (cited in Rettberg 2017).
I would argue that the self-presentation of African women on beauty blogs complicates this picture. A lot of their self-expression is explicitly or implicitly resisting the normalized western standards of beauty and is inherently political for me. I wonder if the disjuncture between motivation and topic and the conflict between self-expression and political change is not so big after all. After all, feminist activists have long asserted that the personal is political. And if we take Liverouw’s definition of alternative/ activist new media as media that “employ or modify the communication artifacts, practices, and social arrangements of new information and communication technologies to challenge or alter dominant, expected, or accepted ways of doing society, culture and politics” (2011, p 19) then surely these blogs about beauty qualify.
Until next time xx
Dencik, L., Leistert, O. (eds) (2015): Critical Perspectives on Social Media and Protest: Between Control and Emancipation. London: Rowman & Littlefield.