Over some months last year, I had the privilege of being a part of a Working Group that helped develop this resource – a Digital Citizenship Toolkit, focusing on areas I have been working on such as cyber exploitation and violence & the intersection of gender and technology. The Toolkit covers several areas, and as Minor Matters (the publishers) describes:
“We are in the midst of a digital transformation – that is, the integration of digital technology into many areas of personal lives, work, leisure, business and government. Our personal and public activities are increasingly channeled through digital devices and the web. This opens up new opportunities, but it also brings up new challenges – for example violations of privacy, electronic surveillance and online harassment. Digital citizenship is an approach to cope with this new reality to minimise negative impacts and derive optimum benefits for everyone.
This Digital Citizenship Toolkit (DCT) is an attempt to introduce key concepts of related to digital citizenship while taking into account the local socio-economic realities, technology adoption patterns, societal actions and other considerations”
This piece will attempt to elaborate on some of the aspects of gender, digital rights, and digital safety that are brought up in varying contexts across the Toolkit.
Feminism and Digital Rights
Feminists and women’s rights activists have long considered digital rights and responsibilities from a feminist lens, both as a cross cutting aspect of activism and rights as well as specifically in the digital domain. They have strongly advocated for a holistic approach that recognizes the blurring of the online and offline worlds, understanding that one does not exist without the other and do not remain separate or exclusive.
Part of this work is applying a gendered and intersectional lens to the work we do in digital spaces and understanding how structural and systematic aspects of oppression re-manifest and exist in digital spaces as they do offline.
Semanur Karaman writes about this looking at in particular women who are politically active as an example and says,
“The gendered aspects of online harassment have been brought to the attention of intergovernmental bodies through research and documentation. Both the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders affirmed that online harassment strives to intimidate and silence women who use online platforms to advocate for fundamental rights. Even women who are not necessarily politically active face disproportionate harassment online. A 2014 report by the PEW Research Center found that women are much more likely to be exposed to online harassment, while adding that “young women,” are especially vulnerable and “experience particularly severe forms of online harassment.” Their findings are in line with a 2014 report by the Association for Progressive Communications, which identified that “women 18-30 years old and younger are the most vulnerable online.”
The first step to addressing online violence against women is to recognize that it is a legitimate and harmful manifestation of gender-based violence. Women are regularly subject to online rape threats, online harassment, cyberstalking, blackmail, and more – in specific gendered ways that are not the same as general cyber bullying and harassment that occurs. They are sexualized, face attacks on their gender, editing of pictures and threats that stem from patriarchal and misogynistic ideals.
Global Work on Digital Feminism
A key example of this work is The Feminist Principles of the Internet which are a set of statements that together provide a framework for women's movements to articulate and explore issues related to technology. They offer a gender and sexual rights lens on critical internet-related rights. Currently there are 17 Principles in total, organized in 5 clusters: Access, Movements, Economy, Expression, and Embodiment. Together, they aim to provide a framework for women's movements to articulate and explore issues related to technology.
This framework is used widely by various advocacy groups, especially those with a feminist lens, within which the concepts of digital rights and responsibilities are placed and analyzed. It helps us holistically understand the layers that we need to consider when discussions and materials around digital rights and responsibilities are being developed. Issues online are standalone, they are connected to and derived from what takes place offline, and it is this overlap that we need to consider. Who has access to the digital realm? Of those who have access, are they able to express themselves freely? What are the repercussions for doing so? Who creates and shares content and how inclusive is this content? What are the consequences and opportunities available in the digital world, and what do we need to do in order to ensure everyone has equal access to the opportunities?
Another player in this space is The Association for Progressive Communications Women’s Rights Programme (WRP) which works to strengthen the capacity of diverse women’s movements to have confidence, skills and resources to influence the usage and development of, and decision-making regarding the internet. This is so that they are able to engage with it as a political space to challenge discriminatory norms, structures and practices, amplify their work for women’s rights and gender justice and respond to the barriers, that prevent them from benefiting from information and communication technologies (ICTs). Their work stems from recognition of the enormous potential of ICTs to strengthen social, political, cultural and economic development, and to advance the human rights of women and girls. WRP is uniquely located within both the internet rights and women's rights movements, and works through four inter-related strategies: knowledge building, capacity building, policy advocacy and movement building.
An incredibly effective tool that has been developed in the context of championing digital rights from a gender perspective is the Gendersec Curricula - a resource that introduces a holistic, feminist perspective to privacy and digital security trainings. Informed by years of working with women and trans activists around the world, this free resource covers over 20 topics such as Hacking Hate Speech, Strategies of Resistance, Creative Uses of Social Media, Technological Sovereignty, Handling Anxiety, Releasing Physical Stress, Information Mapping and Identifying Risks. Trainers can access the workshops and adapt them to their communities to help women, activists and Human Rights Defenders to protect themselves from online and offline threats. The Engine Room - also has a list of resources that aim to help women and trans* persons use the internet more safely.
Anonymity and Digital Rights & Responsibilities
When we discuss digital rights and responsibilities it is also vital that we keep in mind the debate around anonymity. Anonymity is a key principle under the Feminist Principles of the Internet, stating:
“Virginia Woolf once said "For most of history, Anonymous was a woman." Anonymity has always supported women and queers in telling the difficult stories that could get them into trouble. But so crucial were those story-tellers to break the taboos around gender, sex, and sexuality! Today, the right to be anonymous is under threat. Governments don't like it. Corporations hate it. And so a discourse is promoted around linking anonymity to crime and criminalizing anonymity in order to make the internet safer from trolls (especially for women!). But as feminists, we know that we cannot give up our right to be anonymous for an illusion of safety. We must fight for the policies and tools that protect anonymity and pseudonymity!”
This is an on-going debate however. Digital activist and former manager of APC’s Womens Program Jac sm Kee writes “anonymity is central to the internet’s characteristics as a viable public sphere for democratic deliberations. For example, anonymity provides transgender people in South Africa a safe space to find out about medical procedures and to construct their gender identities, and young women in India strategies to push the cultural boundaries of acceptable femininity and to overcome social surveillance by family members and partners”. But then as she goes on to ask, “But what about the issue of accountability? I am reminded at another AWID workshop session that the “public sphere” is not a homogenous space. Issues of gender, class, sexuality etc, shapes its dimensions and dynamics. The session, organized by Nazra Feminist Studies Egypt, spoke about how when working class women decide to participate in the demonstrations at Tahrir square, they do so at great and different personal costs. This includes cost to livelihood, social exclusion and targeted sexual harassment”
As Jac asks, “What does this mean for the majority of internet users, especially women’s rights and sexual rights activists who are still largely absent in internet development and governance spaces, to have engagement and accountability in such a context? So when is it an important political principle and strategy to be anonymous, and when is it important to have a name or an institution to ensure accountability?”
It is vital when we discuss online issues even with a gendered lens that we also consider the intersectional nature of these issues. This is the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.
For example, people of diverse gender identity, expression and sexual orientation have an additional layer of concerns that others may not face. An excellent resource highlighting this is Disrupting the Binary Code: Experiences of LGBT Sri Lankan’s Online, a research study looking at sexuality and ICT’s. The first chapter of the research, (Virtually Queer: Human Rights of LGBTQ Sri Lankans in the online space, by Paba Deshapriya and Michael Mendis) examines the landscape of ICT policy and sexual rights in the country. It provides a broad overview of the socio-political environment in which LGBTQ Sri Lankans live. The second Chapter of the study, Not Traditionally Technical: Lesbian Women in Sri Lanka and their use of the online space, by Dr. Shermal Wijewardena and Subha Wijesiriwardena is an analysis of how Lesbian women engage with the online space. This section brings to light the gendered and sexualized experiences of Lesbian women’s online engagements, against the backdrop of the criminalization of homosexuality in Sri Lanka, which subjects the LGBTQ community to various forms of discrimination by the state and society.
When dealing with issues of hate speech on social media platforms like Facebook, activists have noted that there is a great deal of western centrism. When abuse is in local languages, the sting often doesn't translate into English for example, or they do not have moderators in the local language that are able to understand. In Sri Lanka it was also noticed that Sinhala and Tamil written using English font is not picked up by algorithms and even when it is flagged as hate speech it is not removed. Caste and country specific contexts are also often not recognized.
The case of ‘How Brahmanical Patriarchy Smashed Twitter’ from The Wire is also an example of the manifestation of these issues. The following is taken from the Wire article:
“On Sunday, November 18, Twitter co-founder and CEO, Jack Dorsey held a roundtable discussion with a group of women journalists, activists and organizers to understand their experience on the platform in India. One of the participants shared her experience and gave Dorsey a poster. By Monday, November 19, everyone on Indian Twitter was neck deep in competing interpretations of what was written on the poster – the phrase “Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy”. While some interpreted “smash” as a call to violence, several more took offence at the usage of “Brahmanical”, and then coupled with “patriarchy” which now carries a strong whiff of “man hater”, the general message many Twitter users decided to take from the poster was a call to arms against Brahmin men. Unsurprisingly, they were way off the mark. As has become typical with social media upsets, the conversation slipped out of the original actors’ hands quickly, robbing them of the chance to provide context for the picture – of Twitter CEO holding the poster and posing with participants – and the phrase on that poster. It wasn’t meant to be the statement it has become, she clarified to The Wire, explaining that the photo they’d taken was meant to be a private one. And the poster, made by Thenmozhi (@DalitDiva on Instagram and Twitter), a US-based artist, was given to Dorsey in an effort to drive home the importance of addressing caste-based discrimination on the platform. While you can report threats and offensive tweets under categories like “gender” and “race”, there is no button or redressal mechanism that identifies a tweet to be threatening or offensive because of caste”
How do we build digital resilience, in response to the new forms of digital trauma that we’re seeing within activist movements? Acknowledging that trauma can happen in person but also be transmitted online – what safeguards or precautions can we take in recognizing that digital technologies flatten our identities: what can we do to bring back nuance in building our online identities and understanding each other?
We can do so much – from acknowledging mistakes, sharing information and understanding who our ally is now, who wasn’t before, who learned and who got better. The internet is a tool – we are its users. The offline and the online are not two separate worlds which function independently of each other – the blurring of this is necessary and needed, for, those who are most marginalized and vulnerable in one space face the same in the other.
(Sharanya identifies as a feminist writer, researcher and activist, in Sri Lanka working with The Grassrooted Trust as their Program Manager. Grassrooted is also a part of the partnership that runs bakamoono.lk of which Sharanya is the English Editor. Sharanya is also an independent consultant who currently works with the Coalition of Feminists for Social Change, (COFEM) as their Advocacy Consultant. COFEM is an advocacy collective of thought leaders, activists, practitioners and academics working globally to end violence against women and girls. You can find Sharanya on Twitter @sharasekaram and on her blog “Writing from That Sekaram Girl”)