No matter how many times I sit in a space that is reflecting on, learning from or critiquing issues around gender, I am always both pleased and flummoxed by the range in the room—with some people gasping at the idea that gender is and has always been a spectrum and not a binary, to people affirming that it remains necessary that LGBTIQA people be allowed into all spaces of society, and in this space in particular, on the internet.
I am always both pleased and flummoxed by the range of responses in the room when the issue of gender is raised.
APC invited me to participate in this year’s African School on Internet Governance (AfriSIG), which took place in Zanzibar, less than 100 metres from the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. From the first day to the last, it became evident that the AfriSIG place is one for deep learning about both the infrastructure and mechanics behind the internet, but also policy and governance conversations ranging from how domains are structured and registered, to the geopolitical dynamics within national, regional and international Internet Governance (IG) spaces.
I spent the first three days frantically swimming in acronym soup—ccTLDs and DNSSECs, ICANN and DDoSes. Words that I had never heard before. As it turns out, the internet is not simply this magical thing that some people have access to and others don’t, and the politics and mechanics behind access for people in Africa are a complex maze of histories and varied realities. By the third day of AfriSIG, and learning how to paddle head-above-water in the very technical conversations, I could finally agree with Avri Doria who expressed that the internet indeed is an entity all onto itself, or as she put it sui generis. Seeing the behind-the-scenes and moving parts of the internet in many ways made it a more human space, with many women and men from across Africa working to make the internet in their countries and communities faster, easier to access and more affordable.
The internet is not simply this magical thing that some people have access to and others don’t, and the politics and mechanics behind access for people in Africa are a complex maze of histories and varied realities.
For nearly twelve years, I have busied myself with the politics of spaces (including the internet) and how or if women, girls and LGBTIQA people are allowed into and represented on them. I immediately count the number of women and men in any room I walk into and listen carefully to who speaks and what they say. I come armed into spaces with ideas, facts and words that position me clearly as a feminist, a social justice champion and someone that blatantly takes the side of women and LGBTIQA people in discussions or debates. But here, at least for the first few days, I was a fish out of water. Very early into the school, I was advised to allow myself to think and experience the space outside my comfort zone, and more than anything allow learning to happen. While I tried my best to do this, I often struggled with questions of class, race, gender and sexuality, and tried to understand where these issues intersect when it came to internet governance spaces and conversations about who gets to decide where fibre cable is laid or whether it’s okay for a company or country to own a domain name.
I immediately count the number of women and men in any room I walk into and listen carefully to who speaks and what they say.
For two days before the beginning of AfriSIG, I attended a workshop hosted by the Internet Society's Collaborative Governance Project which built skills in conflict resolution and negotiation theory and practice in the context of multi-party/stakeholder processes. This was an interesting (and sometimes shocking) exercise in trust. Trying to trust that other people have your best interests at heart was not always easy, and this lack of trust became more evident as we participated in the AfriSIG practicum. The issue of trust, when coming together with people that hold very different kinds of power and influence became something that needed time to build in order to come to a consensus in a multistakeholder process.
The issue of trust emerged once again when Chenai Chair and myself facilitated a conversation about gender and internet governance. The first cat among the pigeons was creating room for the idea that gender is a spectrum and not a binary. This was not easy, because such a revelation brings with it a very personal confrontation of a singular and lifelong idea of what gender is. That gender is a social construct and that we are taught to be either girls or boys, that the reinforcing of a static idea of culture keeps the power scales consistently tilted in favour of men, and that all this very personal idea of gender directly influences internet governance was a lot to share in one space. I imagine that it was also a lot to take in. In addition to this, it was important to name LGBTIQA people as a consistently underrepresented and many places entirely invisible as an important part of the gender and sexuality spectrum. Central to the conversation about gender was the issue of power—who has it and who does not, and the ways in which power influenced how especially women and LGBTIQA people were represented on the internet, but also how and if they have access to the internet, and how involved they are in its governance and structuring. This was the second cat among the pigeons. The third cat was the mention of the Feminist Principles of the Internet, which pricked the rapidly inflating balloon of mistrust in the room. ‘Feminist is a dirty word’, ‘It immediately alienates men’, ‘We need a softer approach if we want to encourage men to participate.’ All the things that I have heard many times, but in this space, provided an opportunity to try and trust that people ask questions because they wish to learn.
Central to the conversation about gender was the issue of power—who has it and who does not, and the ways in which power influenced how especially women and LGBTIQA people were represented on the internet, but also how and if they have access to the internet, and how involved they are in its governance and structuring.
Often, when women speak about the need for equal access and opportunities in every space, from our bedrooms to our, yes our(!), internet, people don’t trust that this call for equal access will benefit everyone. This is especially present in many African countries that are still surviving economic and social colonialism, now disguised as neoliberalism and capitalism. We never have enough, and we grow up being taught that we must scramble and fight for very limited resources, and power, in the many ways that it manifests in our lives, communities and countries is a limited resource. The premise that power cannot be shared is prevalent, and more so when women seek to occupy as much space and power as men do in the world.
Where both traditional and popular culture has time and again positioned women and LGBTIQA people as an ‘other’, the internet offers a powerful opportunity to shift this. Time and again, after the session on gender and internet governance, some AfriSIG fellows would ask me ‘But seriously, what does gender really have to do with the Internet?’. Everything. And not just gender in terms of representation, where minimum effort is made to ensure that women are present in a way that does not disrupt a power structure. In the rush to show that women are taking up space, we have ended up creating room for women as tokens, present but not presenting, listening but not speaking. This is still evident on the internet, with comparatively very little content created, shared and owned by women in Africa. Even online, African women are at the tail end of one of the most powerful and transformative spaces at the moment. What this means is that power structures that benefit one particular group over another remain unchallenged, which has implications for many if not all social justice concerns such as race, class and sexuality and gender. The internet has become intertwined with our daily lives in every way, and for as long as we don’t insist, request and demand, then for us – people living in the margins of a capitalist, heterosexist norm – the same kind of oppressions that are felt outside the internet will manifest within it.
In the rush to show that women are taking up space, we have ended up creating room for women as tokens, present but not presenting, listening but not speaking.
Despite the polarising nature of the conversation, there were moments, much later, after the discomfort of some of the fellows had settled, that people said to me, ‘I didn’t know that gender was a spectrum. I have never seen or heard that before. Or that gender is taught to us as children. That’s something I have never heard before.’ This was affirming, and exciting, that people continue to sit with the conversation and a confrontation of power and hopefully start to be more aware of their own power in spaces, but also who is in the room, or the office or the multistakeholder space and what this means for internet governance.
I have been spoiled and very privileged to interact in queer and feminist spaces where I did not have to again and again explain why it is important for women and LGBTIQA people to take up room and space. Facilitating this session at AfriSIG taught me not to take for granted that there are still many people who have never been confronted with ideas that challenge and contradict lifelong beliefs about how the world is or how the world should be. Thankfully, because of the thousands of African feminists who claim space online and create content that disrupts such normative narratives that forever seek to keep women and men in stereotyped boxes, I no longer have to do the emotional labour of explaining and validating my presence as a queer woman in an internet governance space or anywhere else in the world. I can share links to articles, I can find videos, I can allow other women and LGBTIQA people that are fortunate enough to access and contribute to the internet to do this work for me. I have the internet to thank for this, and this is another reason why gender–all kinds of genders and sexualities have everything to do with the internet.
Facilitating this session at AfriSIG taught me not to take for granted that there are still many people who have never been confronted with ideas that challenge and contradict lifelong beliefs about how the world is or how the world should be.