Report on visit to Asia Pacific Feminist Forum, Chiang Mai (Thailand)

As researchers in the CITIGEN network, our relationship with technology is deeply personal. While we may try to theorise, we do also experience it in intensely subjective ways. Sometimes, these personal experiences also shape and intersect with our political views; and sometimes, we easily lose track of how the political is omnipresent in the personal (sounding like an echo from the past??).  I was at the Asia Pacific Feminist Forum last week and it was good to connect with the many feminists from many walks of life. Kate, Philippa and I also did a CITIGEN workshop there. We had a room of about 15 people - women and men :) - and began with introductions and statements of our personal hunches around technology that i felt brought me great research insights through personal articulations of the workshop participants.

I shared stories from CITIGEN - and a big thanks to Kiko, Margarita, Binitha and Oiwan - for the wonderful resources shared with me.. that enabled me to make a presentation that was much more than just a string of stories.. or a set of 'findings'. We managed to get beyond as a group, to think of techno-social processes and if and how they can and do politicise gender and enable women's empowerment.

So here goes the report of the two and a half hours of workshopping!!

There was an expression of the downsides but many times intertwined with the upside. ..Worded as they were in personal terms, they also suggested new spaces and relationship structures mediated by digital technologies as contested  - "Wealth of information but difficult to verify, it is hard to know what is credible", "Governments can watch you", "It is scary how my identity can be stolen", "It disturbs me that work, knowledge and identities are commercialised as they become information in the hands of corporates, so how can we use it for democratic purposes but not get coopted?" , "In a consumerist society, technology is yet another product to be thrown away, but i am very excited that as they become accessible, people will have them. Digital radio will mean migrant workers in Hong Kong can have cheap access through smart phones.",  "As a columnist writing at 2 in the night, i can verify facts and dates and such; it is fantastic!" These were the many articulations of the essential ambivalences experienced in digital spaces.

The relevance for the movements was expressed in the "boundarylessness of technology" making connections to personal, intimate spaces as well as to allies (not always replacing the actual physical, face to face power of connection) possible - "It is a strategy for movement building. One female sex worker said that having a computer made her feel as smart as a man ! The power to negotiate inclusion means a lot!" ; "We use digital technologies for campaigns and advocacy. While Face Book and mobiles have been a source of instant information from Burma (for me because i live here in Thailand), many times you are overwhelmed and you dont know how to act. And again, inside Burma, it is very difficult."; "For marriage migrants from the Philippines in Korea, the internet allows greater autonomy to manage their geographically segmented private spheres and to participate in decisions of the household they have left behind. Would this be a Hobson's choice in a sense or true citizenship is perhaps a question that arises."

There was unanimity that while digital spaces can provide the scaffolding for political action, "texting is not the same as mobilising people into action".  We were also reminded by a few in the room that "even now access to infrastructure is still a very urban phenomenon"

We discussed the nature of democratisation of knowledge and power and the way network society needs to be grasped for feminist agenda setting.

1. Democratisation of knowledge and power - It was felt that the wonderful thing about technology is that "you dont have to be conferred with authority to have your voice heard since technology bypasses traditional structures."  What seemed interesting to me was that the insights about the personal were juxtaposed with observations of the social which in turn suggested more than just a set of contradictions. They pointed to deeper structural issues requiring feminist critiques. As was expressed rather astutely, "I get angry that the arab revolution is called the Twitter revolution. Why should it have a corporate name to it? How can feminist successes be possibly ascribed to Face Book?"  I did think this was a brilliant connection made to the fact that open spaces for free expression may be coopted into worlds that commodify non-commercial, public, political action where the architecture of these spaces is controlled by corporates.

Possibilities for greater democratisation of information also mean power may indeed flow along the gendered trails of the immediate social environment, as was elucidated in the case of the woman actress from the Philippines whose story of abortion has made its rounds on You tube, with the risk that it will lend grist to patriarchal right wing forces.

2. Network society and feminist agenda / intervention
I thought one remark - at a rather personal level - gave a critical insight into the nature of the public sphere as we see it transform. One participant said, "but I am not converted to the idea that i should be on Face Book or Twitter. How can you listen and tweet at the same time as many people seem to?" This one i felt was not just about one's own attention span - the fragments of oneself that one creates in switching between spaces and time seamlessly, but about the very seamlessness of the public space, that while offering avenues for publicity may ironically undermine the political / objectify it.

It brought back to me this thing that we have read - women are talking, who is listening? The current wave of democratisation of the public sphere does seem to have some obvious contradictions - it may allow for new citizen voices, but it may also devalue the political if the nodes within networked space for action to cohere don't exist and a clear institutional counterpart for listening to these voices is absent in trans-global cyber space.

Yet, as reminded by one participant, ' positionalities' should be the starting point to analyse the nature of autonomy and choices in network society just as any other context. And so, for the migrant women domestic workers in Hong Kong, even a basic mobile phone can be great for connecting public services and ngos to women. As also, for the invisible, the  space for visibilising their stories is indeed real. The continuities then with spaces that make change, where we can hold hands - beyond a 'i like' icon online - would be the clincher. How these will allow new positionalities to be negotiated is what is then critical for feminist agenda. A great example of how 'the network' can be put to the service of feminist solidarities (with the coherence that is often missing in the flows of cyber space) was offered through the example of Musawah - the global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family, that has been able to build consultative democracy within its movement / institution building through the internet. Through digital stories, the myth that men are the providers and protectors has been sought to be demolished, thus exposing the disconnect between Islamic legal frameworks and the realities of Muslim women. The public space has thus been politicised through gendered accounts that were hitherto invisible. An important ethical issue that feminism alerts us to was also highlighted - "How you grab the space is important; the net gives you anonymity, but then it could become a space for intellectual masturbation. Are we exercising agency or enjoying anonymous self expression is the issue."

Towards the end of the session, one participant said so very aptly - we often think we can throw technology into the mix. We forget the 'for what' question. In feminist intervention, this is most important. In an initiative with Afghan women, a safe space with women only Internet cafes was created, a holistic approach was adopted that helped them understand security concerns"

We ended with the need to recommit ourselves to history; as one participant said - "don't forget the good things about traditional ways."

- Anita Gurumurthy