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Cyberfeminism

Sun, Nov 20, 2005

Press

Iran Dokht / By Pari Esfandiari

Dear Friends,

The Internet purportedly marks the millennial world of democracy and equality, where nationality, race, class and gender differences can finally be cast aside. Yet, over the years, it seems as though white, First World men has always had the lion’s share of the global Internet pie. Will this trend continue as the millennium progresses?

In a lecture given at the 13th Annual Pacific Southwest Women’s Studies Association Conference on April 5, 2003, I spoke about this global Internet divide and the emergence of cyberfeminism from this abyss. Considering the attention that last week’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) brought to the subject and heated debate that took place between world leaders, I am presenting this updated version of the lecture.

GLOBAL DIVIDE

Since its conception in a military-industrial complex, the Internet has created a digital divide and is re-enforcing already established power relations.

Access: The key concern of this digital divide is the global disparity that exists between developed and developing nations; it is so drastic that many believe the world is being split into the information-rich and information-poor countries. According to a U.N. report, some 90 percent of the Internet host computers are in high-income countries that hold 16 percent of the world’s population. Similarly statistics from Internet World Stats found that the United States tops the 2005 chart for World Internet Usage, with 67.8 percent of its population having access to the Net. The figure for the Middle East, on the other hand, stands at a mere 7.5 percent of its population. With such a stark contrast, Middle Eastern countries should start to be concerned, because the inability to access technological and scientific information also means an inability to educate the public (Spencer, 2004, online).

Politics: The digital divide is further exacerbated by the local politics in developing countries. Often unpopular governments impose tight controls on the Internet in order to safeguard their own survival and/or the ideologies they subscribe to; consequently, they are also preventing and limiting access to a free flow of information in their countries. Various forms of control are exercised. One effective form is to control the service providers. Another method is to shut down on-line media and publishers within the country, while prosecuting journalists, publishers as well as whistle blowers. Finally, the government may decide to filter and block sources of information from outside the country, sometimes using software provided by Western companies.

Policies: Key Internet players in the past focused their research and development policies on the West. Hand in hand with the trade and sanction policies already in place, they denied many other parts of the world a level playing field and the free transfer of information. Recently, such issues have begun to be addressed, but already the delay has taken its tow.

Language: The focus on the Western hemisphere has made language a serious divisive factor. Another study by Internet World Stats has shown Western languages as having the dominant power in cyberspace. Currently, 32.8 percent of total Net users access the Internet by means of English. Moreover, apart from three East Asian languages (Chinese, Japanese and Korean), the most widely-used Internet languages are European. Despite the rapid growth in Arabic and Persian websites, Middle Eastern languages are not among the top languages used to access the Net. Based on 2004 statistics from Global Reach, Arabic makes up 1.7 percent of total Net users while Persian stands at less than 1 percent. We do not have the data to compare the content provided in English with the content in Persian. Nevertheless it is not difficult to estimate how wide this gap would be, even if comparisons are made in relation to the population that speaks these languages.

Ownership: In addition, control or ownership over communication services is a critical source of power. There are a few global media companies such as Disney, Time Warner, Bertelsmann, Viacom, Sony, News Corporation, General Electric and PolyGram who dominate ownership of the global media market and determine how the public gains access to these information resources and communication experiences (Rifkin, p219, 2000). Since the majority of these companies are based in America, the country has taken on the role of controlling much of the world’s information, communication and cultural landscape.

NATIONAL DIVIDE

Class: Beyond creating a global divide, the Internet is further responsible for dividing nations internally. It appears that while certain parts of society – primarily the rich – are able to move with the ever-increasing pace of technology, other poorer segments are missing out. Thus the already disadvantaged will become even more so (Nicholls, 1999).

Ethnicity: Seeing that several of these low-income groups come from ethnic communities, a vicious cycle is hence formed, with the digital divide re-enforcing not only class but ethnic segregation as well. African-Americans in the United States, for instance, are “underrepresented [in cyberspace as] compared to their numbers in actual population (Runne, 2001, online).”

Age: The Internet has been proudly branded as an ageist, a youthful medium created for the young. Its coded language, “cool” content, young culture and technologic style have certainly been intimidating to older generations. A 2005 report compiled by the European Travel Commission indicates that 72% of all 18 to 34 year-olds are online – the highest percentage for any age group. While the study misses out on the very active “15 to 17-year-olds” segment, it is still very revealing and can well represent a global pattern. For the most part, cyberspace remains a space for and by youths.

Gender: The Internet has empowered women by providing them access to a deluge of information from their homes and an ability to be anonymous. More importantly, it has taken away, at least in cyberspace, the emphasis on looks and gender. Even so, the notion of gender inequality remains a central issue of the digital divide. There exists a gap between male and female Internet users, the level of Internet literacy for each sex, the type of Internet content and attitudes surrounding Internet usage. NUA Internet Surveys from 1999 states that 35.8 percent of American Net users are female. Meanwhile, Reshmi Sarkar ( “Building Information Societies: Grappling with Gendered fault-lines”) has found that “women are 22 percent of all Internet users in Asia, 38 percent of those in Latin America, and 6 percent of Middle Eastern users.”

WEB OF POWER RELATIONS

Recent statistics indicates that digital technology is rapidly bridging gaps within the national boundries of developed West, while their gap with the developing East is also closing albeit slowly. It is no surprise then that one of the great visionaries of our time, Jürgen Habermas, predicted a future with an “equal access to communication” for all. While such a view seems overly optimistic for the near future, it is not unrealistic to think that it may well be a reality of life for our future generations.

Increasingly, however, several opposing voices are gaining momentum in pointing out that the mere incidence of information exchange does not automatically remove existing hierarchies. One of these voices belongs to Michel Foucault, who argues that the new medium is already governed by a social framework – one that has long established its practices and has been embedded in deeply sexist and racist environments of politics, economics and culture:

The idea that there could exist a state of communication that would allow games of truth to circulate freely, without any constrains or coercive effects, seems utopian to me. This is precisely a failure to see that power relations are not something that is bad in itself that we have to break free of. I do not think that a society can exist without power relations, if by that, one means strategies by which individuals try to direct and control the conduct of others. The problem, then, is not to try to dissolve them in the utopia of completely transparent communication, but to acquire the rules of law, the management techniques, and also the morality, the ethos, the practice of the self, that will allow us to play these games of power with as little domination as possible.

WOMEN IN CYBERSPACE

If the digital medium is a political space, and if it is impossible for one to be free of the power relations that guide this space, the central issue is then: How could women learn the rules of the game and play it to their advantage?

Regrettably, a glance at the current web activities of women shows they do not play the power game to their advantage. Most women approach the Web to research, obtain information, send emails or conduct other similar activities. The more Net-savvy women seem to follow a path that is termed by some as cybergrrl-ism, which embodies a fair amount of net utopianism. Described by Wilding as women with an “anything you wanna be and do in cyberspace is cool” attitude, cybergrrl-ism and cybergrrls follow an anti-theory, “just do it” stance that often distances itself from feminism. Through their creations of more complex and positive images of women in cyberspace and their celebration of the new feminine subjective, these women are certainly contributing to women’s quest for equality.

There are also an increasing number of women publishers in cyberspace. Their presence not only helps to balance the gender bias on cyber content, but also brings a new style of publishing.
In the United States, the number of women publishers is very close to that of men. In addition women civil society groups have begun to use cyber platforms to empower others as well as to reach out to an international community.

But feminist argue that while beneficial, such actions are not enough to challenge the established forms of male domination which is rapidly being transferred to the Web.

In “A Sketch for a Politics of Pleasure”, Irina Aristarkhova points out that because cyberspace is new, there is an opportunity to establish it effectively for feminist politics. Stressing the importance of cyberfeminism, she said that the:

politicization of cyberspace can benefit from already existing spaces of established relations by women and among women – arts and feminist political activity, for example. Now we must politicize cyberspace by creating possibilities for new relations of force, that change the face of power.

Rather than continue with the old style of 70’s feminism, which Wilding claims to be “constricting, guilt-inducing, essentialist, anti-technology, anti-sex, and not relevant to women’s circumstances in the new technologies”, Wilding urges us to instead embrace this newer and more contemporary cyberfeminism.

Regardless of their position on the feminist movement, it is apparent that cyberfeminists would benefit from critically studying the history of feminism, along with the histories of imperialist and colonist domination and resistance – only then would they be able to identify and revolutionize the masculinity structure, content and effects of the Internet and other new technologies.

IRANIAN WOMEN:

NET-SAVVY or NET-HANDICAPPED?

Diaspora Iranian communities have long embraced this unique – and fairly simple – avenue to maintain ties and publicize Iranian culture. In fact, through on-line publications, newsgroups, student groups, as well as through human rights, health and academic organizations, Iranians have created for themselves an Iranian global village.

For Iranians inside the country cyberspace is not unfamiliar territory either. Today, according to Internet World Stats Iran has 4,800,000 Net users – an estimated 1,820 percent jump from the number in 2000. Moreover, a 2004-2005 study by OpenNet Initiative found that there are more than 650 Internet Service Providers in Iran – 12 of them being major certified ISPs and 18 being Internet content providers.

The Internet provides Iranians with a sense of connectivity to the rest of the world, while providing an avenue to escape the tight control and harsh limits imposed on real lives. Inevitably, the Web has became extremely popular among educated, Iranian youths who turn to it for information and research, and to exchange ideas, express opinions, or simply write about their lives.

Web communities and web logs (blogs) are particularly popular. Farsi has become an increasingly popular language for writing online diaries. In her book entitled We Are Iran: The Persian Blog”, Nasrin Alavi cited a survey that found around 64,000 web logs in Farsi – more than the number for Chinese, Spanish, German or Italian.

The escalating popularity of the Internet was not unaided by the government’s go-ahead and its somewhat moderate regulations regarding its use in 1990s. Nevertheless, with Iran’s population being one of the youngest in the world, it would have been difficult not to foresee the Net’s growing role in challenging government tolerance. According to the study by OpenNet Initiative, the Iranian government has “effectively blocked access of its citizens to many pornographic online sites, most anonymizer tools, a large number of sites with gay and lesbian content, some politically sensitive sites, women’s rights sites, and certain targeted Web logs, among other types of sites.”

For most women in developing countries who are commonly labeled as “anti-tech”, limited mobility and access to technological resources add on to the obstructions that cultural norms have already imposed upon them:

The masculine image attributed to science and technology in curriculum and media is a universal phenomenon. Few women are producers of information technology, whether as Internet content providers, programmers, designers, inventors, or fixers of computers. In addition, women are also conspicuously absent from decision-making structures in information technology in developing countries.

(Sarkar, “Building Information Societies: Grappling with Gendered fault-lines”)

In spite of these disadvantages, there are women in the developing world and especially in Iran who are utilizing the Net, and their numbers are rising rapidly. Like their western counterparts, these women use the Internet to connect to the rest of the world and ensure their voices get heard. In addition, they use the Internet to write dairies, express opinions, create communities, construct national identities and generate feminist activities.

Iran certainly has its share of cybergrrl-ism in its vibrant and lively web-communities and web logs. While her actions and opinions may been heavily limited in her real life, the Iranian woman who goes by the online moniker of Lady Sun writes freely – and anonymously – about her personal life in her blog, while voicing her concerns on certain taboo issues in Iran.

Meanwhile, CDs by the mysterious DJ Maryam are changing hands via the Internet. Yet no one really knows the identity of this female rapper who combines western hip-hop culture with an Isfany accent and an Islamic dress code.

Civil society groups are also very active. Women of all age groups are jumping in to take advantage of what cyberspace could offer, and their activities are vast and diverse. Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, for example, uses the Internet to express her views; Mahdokht Sanati, to defend the rights of children in Iran; Parvin Ardalan, to create a cyber library for women; Mahnaz Afkhami, to emphasize e-learning for women; and Marjan Hezareh and Leila Langston, to educate Iranians on Aids.

Iran certainly has its share of cyberfeminism, with websites like Feminist Tribune by Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani and Women In Iran by Shadi Sadr. These women’s efforts have not escaped the attention of feminists organisations such as E-News and Feminist Majority outside the country, who have in turn contributed with their experiences and support. These women have turned the Web into a forum for transnational feminist discussions as well as to build a global community of sisterhood.

In short, women are using the Internet to support national and global policies aimed at helping disadvantaged individuals and communities, and thus bring extraordinary improvements in human life. On top of that, they have disrupted the stereotypes of “Third World women”, while simultaneously presenting the world with their political and personal struggles.

Iranian women have become part of the global movement of women in cyberspace, and ranging from their sheer presence online to hardcore feminist activities, they are making their mark and are challenging the power relations within cyberspace.

IRANDOKHT

Launched in 2002, IranDokht was one of the first Iranian websites to focus on issues related to women. It is part of a network of on line communities focused on gender and ethnicity that aims at global solidarity. The idea was initiated during my doctoral study in business ethics. However, it has been modified to its existing form in later date. It is a reading of globalization as a celebration of identity and diversity, and an exercise to prevent the pitfalls of cultural relativism that undermines human rights and women rights. The specificity of women struggle in spite of their collective history and shared experience was the reason for creating the network, so issues could be dealt with on its local merits.

IranDokht is a media outlet. With the help of more than 83 mainly leading female writers as well as students and women from all walks of life, it provides articles featuring topics on all aspects of a woman life from Art and culture to personal and motherhood, to women rights in Islamic communities, global feminism, identity, globalization; and much more demonstrate the site’s aspiration to inform as well as to build bridges to a global debate.

In addition, the extensive use of interactive strategies has helped to amplify the public space and to inspire the confidence in citizens’ power to make a peaceful difference. Hoping that in time, this may dilute the government-focused media culture.

IranDokht also make every attempt to connect to civil society organisations to provide them with visibility and also to be a cheerleader for their efforts and achievements. At the same time to reach out to the international level, invoking a sense of community bigger than one’s national, dominant government.

IranDokht is a community of women by and for women. The guiding principles are inclusiveness, it encourage participation of all women even those who may not be interested, or may distance themselves from feminist movement yet are educated, professional, concerned and demand to be treated as equal human beings. The core idea is empowering by connecting, it is an attempt to connect communities and individuals in a deeper level. IranDokht connects women to themselves, one another, their culture and the global community, and creates a platform for dialogue, a network for support and a space for growth. All this is achieved by increasing Iranian Women’s visibility and by developing their perspective as a marginalized group within the global community. By sharing their thoughts, perceptions, concerns, joys and frustrations, a realistic picture and deep understanding from within is formed. This in turn is creating an environment of tolerance and understanding within the global community, which is facilitating dialogue, communication and cooperation, and hence results in solidarity.

So far the respond has been tremendous and IranDokht has established itself as a credible and popular source of information, service and support for communities both in and outside of Iran. Today, IranDokht receives daily visitors of up to 4,500; has over 2000 members in her interactive community; and the newsletter reaches approximately 450,000 people. IranDokht has succeeded to attract women from all walks of life, and all communities, and to encourage activities in all levels, including cybergrrl-ism and cyberfeminism.

Currently, there may remain a credibility gap between the promises of cyberspace and what it has delivered so far, but I am optimistic that these promises could and would still be delivered. Let the 21st century be commemorated as a turning point for a global democratic movement, and with women as champions of this movement.

Regards,
Pari Esfandiari
Editor in Chief

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

Quotables – Technology

"[Modern information technology] has the potential to empower women in ways unprecedented in the social and cultural evolution of human history" - Making IT Our Own: Introduction

"The new information technology, indifferent to human suffering, does not accommodate humane needs unless we harness it and make it do so." Leading To Choices

"We must be bold and creative, our feet firmly grounded in the realities that surround us, but our gaze aimed at the lofty possibilities that our advancements in science and technology promise and that our growth as a global society is only beginning to comprehend." - Toward A Compassionate Society

“International movement building in the 21st century and involvement of youth in advocacy will be made possible largely through technology" - Engendering IT Tools