Curated by Sharanya Sekaram, an independent consultant in the gender space passionate about the democratization of information and resources. She is also the co-founder of Everystory Sri Lanka. A short bio of Sharanya can be found after the reading list.
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 and 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 does not remain separate or exclusive.
As technology has grown and evolved, so have our perspectives, and we hope this reading list will give you a starting point to some of these questions, conversations, and debates in this space.
Lets begin with some introductory pieces that will give us an overall perspective on the subject before we deep dive into specific subjections. “Understanding the Gender Gap in the Global South” looks at the digital gender gap in South Asia, in particular “the barriers to coming online and the limitations of optimal use.”
Cyberfeminism and the Design of Technology
We begin with the term cyberfeminism coined in the 1990s and is a feminist approach that looks at cyberspace, the internet, and technology. The foundation of this thought comes from A Cyborg Manifesto — an essay written by Donna Haraway and published in 1985 in the Socialist Review (if the original is too daunting, you can read a summary here). In it, the concept of the cyborg is a rejection of rigid boundaries, notably those separating “human” from “animal” and “human” from “machine.” This article by Shivani Gupta helps us answer the question “Is There Such A Thing As Feminist Technology?”, and this piece by HackFeminiso spurs a reflection on ‘The challenge of a feminist technology: a necessary reconfiguration”. Finally in honour of International Women’s Day 2021, DFF presents a mini-series to highlight the importance of intersectional feminism for digital rights. This collection of blogs illustrates why we must embrace intersectional perspectives if we want to defend the digital rights of all. You can read the full series here.
This idea has grown and evolved as our understanding has done so — and we have come to understand that cyberspace is not the utopia it is sometimes portrayed to be. As Katie Szymanski reflects, “So much of what we consider technological is simultaneously and fundamentally, hegemonically masculine. That itself speaks volumes. When does feminism come into all of this? How can we use feminism as a lens to critique and analyze our technology consumption, distribution, and interactions?”. The article “Technology and Feminism: A Strange Couple” by Joan Pujol and Marisela Montenegro reflects on the need for us to begin focusing on the design of technology as much as we consider access — and of course we must apply an intersectional lens to explore the nuances fully.
Joy Buolamwini’s spoken word poem brilliantly exemplifies this, “AI Ain’t I a Woman?”. The video depicts Buolamwini’s findings on facial recondition software, where she ran more than 1,200 images through numerous large tech companies’ facial recognition software, including IBM Watson, Google, Microsoft, Face++, and Amazon. Often, these types of software cannot identify dark-skinned people because dark complexions are underrepresented in the dataset used to test the technology. This brings up pertinent questions around who the default is when technology is designed, who is left out, and what the impact can be.
Get into the fun side of the internet with Sachini Perera and Minoli Wijetunga’s article “Sexy, and they know it: Sri Lankan women on TikTok”, how online activism looks through this reflection on “How Social Media Has Reshaped Feminism” by Catherine Powell Maiya Moncino and looking at feminism online in this article by Stephanie Ricker Schulte entitled “Review: Surfing Feminism’s Online Wave: The Internet and the Future of Feminism”.
The Feminist Principles of the Internet
To help us understand the vast scope of issues and aspects we consider as feminists when looking at technology, there is no better place to start than The Feminist Principles of the Internet. First drafted at the first Imagine a Feminist Internet meeting in Malaysia in April 2014, organised by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and brought together 50 activists and advocates working in sexual rights, women’s rights, violence against women, and internet rights. They 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. The FPI has been organized into 5 clusters, with 17 Principles in total.
Online Gender-Based Violence
Part of this work applies a gendered and intersectional lens to 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. This includes understanding what online gender-based violence (also called cyber exploitation and violence) is and looks like. This Graphic showing various forms from the “World trends in freedom of expression and media development: global report 2017/2018” was published by UNESCO and offers a good starting point alongside the 13 Manifestations of Online Gender-Based Violence from the Take Back the Tech! campaign.
To understand more about how this manifests looks and can be addressed in Sri Lanka, look at Bakamoono.lk’s section on their website. You can also check out Delete Nothing — a trilingual platform that aims to document technology-related violence against girls, women, and trans people in Sri Lanka and provides information on support services.
We also highly recommend these two articles, “Investigating Sri Lanka’s ‘nude’ culture” and “Sri Lanka’s Nude Culture Revisited: Responding to Homemade Porn” — by Hans Billimoria, which shares stories and reflections from the ground in Sri Lanka. This toolkit from Fix the Glitch in the UK is a great resource as well as this one from UNESCO.
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 Lankans Online, a research study looking at sexuality and ICTs. In particular, 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 engage with the online space. This section highlights 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.
This article on ‘How Brahmanical Patriarchy Smashed Twitter’ from The Wire is also an example of the manifestation of these issues in light of caste and gender and how large corporate platforms fail to take these issues seriously. Somewhere Only We Know: Gender, sexualities, and sexual behavior on the internet in Sri Lanka by Sachini Perera and Zainab Ibrahim is also a comprehensive work available in English, Tamil, and Sinhala.
Feminist Digital Security
A critical aspect of this intersection between feminism and technology is feminist digital security. As Meerim Ilyas and Jennifer Radloff in their article for Urgent Action Fund, “Why Should Human Rights Funders Care About Digital Security?” say. “Digital security entails our whole existence online, our relationship with social media, our presence in these spaces, and implications of our digital footprint. This is a central notion for many human rights defenders because of the increasing importance of their online activism due to heightened limitations in physical spaces. In fact, for many, especially for women and LGBTIQ activists, being present online is the ONLY option.”. Other essential reads on this are Digital Security as Feminist Practice by Jennifer Radloff; Why Digital Security Is Everyone’s Issue? by Anubha Singh in Feminism in India, and Imagining A Digitally Secure, Feminist Internet by Rohini Lakshané Gender IT.
Here is a list of resources that you can use to deepen your understanding of this subject and make sure you think about your digital security in a holistic and feminist way.
• 9 Feminist Digital Security Guides That You Must Read by Feminism in India
• Digital-security Tools & Tactics by Security In A Box
• Cyberwomen (Digital security curriculum with a holistic and gender perspective)
• Take Back the Tech: Be Safe Section
• My Shadow: see your digital traces
• FRIDA: The Young Feminist Fund’s resources on digital security
• Digital Security Resources by Front Line Defenders
• A guide to online security for activists by The Electronic Intifada
- Towards A Safer Internet: Feminist Guides And Resources by The Engine Room
When we discuss digital rights and responsibilities, it is also vital that we keep in mind the debate around anonymity. Anonymity is a fundamental principle under the Feminist Principles of the Internet, stating: “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 ongoing debate, however. Digital activist and former manager of APC’s Womens Program Jac sm Kee write, “anonymity is central to the internet’s characteristics as a viable public sphere for democratic deliberations…But what about the issue of accountability?… What does this mean for most 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?”
An incredibly effective tool that has been developed in the context of championing digital rights from a gender perspective is the Gendersec Curricula. This resource introduces a holistic, feminist perspective to privacy and digital security training. Informed by years of working with women and trans activists worldwide, 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 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.
We also highly recommend reading the blogs (and signing up to the mailing lists!) of the following organizations doing and creating excellent work in this space:
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 that 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.
The Curator: Sharanya Sekaram
Sharanya Sekaram co-founded Everystory Sri Lanka with her best feminist gal pal Widya Kumarasinghe in 2018 at her parent’s dining table. She works primarily as an independent consultant in the gender space and is passionate about the democratization of information and resources, as well as access to networks and spaces. Sharanya holds an LLB (Hons) from Staffordshire University and a Masters in Conflict and Peace Studies from The University of Colombo. She is currently reading for a Post-Graduate Diploma leading to an MA in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Colombo. You can find Sharanya on Twitter @sharasekaram and on her blog “Writing from That Sekaram Girl”