Probing the Texture of Silence in Communications and Media at B + 10

Probing the texture of silence in communications and
media at B +10

‘Where is Women’s “J” Spot?’ This is the
best title I have come across in addressing the silence surrounding Section J
of the Platform for Action (PFA) at the recent
Beijing +10
proceedings. Written by Maria Suarez (2005) of Feminist International Radio
Endeavour (FIRE), the article speaks of the de-prioritisation of ‘Women and the
Media’ as a crucial issue for the protection of women’s rights in this global
(1). From the
online discussion leading up to the 49th Commission of the Status of Women
(CSW) by the United Nations (UN) Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) to
the provisional agenda of the evaluation process, there is a distinctive hush
about Section J. Suarez surfaces the urgent need to review and uphold Section J
– which calls for actions to be taken in areas of media policy on gender
issues, portrayals of women in the media, as well as women’s increased
participation and access to expression an
d decision-making in this
field – in an era of globalisation underpinned by liberal capitalistic
principles. However, the subsequent muting of Section J at this important
global process compels some unravelling.


I am reminded of the many forms of
silences, some of which are enforced through violence and can only be breached
at great costs, sometimes with loss of life. Some are pregnant with meaning and
the implicit exchange of knowledge, like the idea of women’s mythical ‘G’ spot
that Maria wittily and implicitly referred to in her article. Others are echoed
from the cavernous emptiness of ignorance, the decisive avoidance of knowledge
or the hapless sidestepping of opportunities to understand. The hush in this
instance seems to be none of the above. Or perhaps more accurately, it seems to
be an acrobatic combination of them all. The silence surrounding Section J is
both deliberate and absent-minded, and the power invested in women and the
media is both recognised and unacknowledged – not just by the policy and decision-making
machineries, but also by various women’s movements.

It is not that the relationship between
women and the media has not been elaborated on and stressed as a crucial point
of action for women’s empowerment. For example, the Bangkok Communiqué that
came out of the Asia Pacific Regional Preparatory Meeting for
Beijing +10 clearly
delineates women’s use of media and the representation of women in the
media  as areas in the implementation of
the PFA that need to be addressed
(2). Women’s movements have long recognised the power of the media
to render visible our issues. We have honed our communication skills, learnt
how to give snappy soundbytes, built networks with adroit use of digital
technologies, constructed relationships with sympathetic journalists and some
of us have become news producers by forming feminist media houses. The potency
of media in constructing ideas around race, gender and sexuality in our
everyday lives is deeply understood and appreciated.

Yet when it came to Beijing +10, to echo
Suarez, where is women’s ‘J’ spot? How is it possible for something as
fundamental as women’s right to use and shape the powers of media and
communications to slip off the agenda?

Perhaps it is precisely the ubiquitous
nature of the media that makes it difficult to be politicised as an issue in
itself. Woven into every aspect of women’s struggle for equality, it becomes a
hidden pattern that is easily neglected when various, more ‘mainstream’ women’s
issues shove for primacy in a limited space. Placed next to matters like rape,
human trafficking, women in situations of armed conflict, abortion, severe
poverty and so on, it is easy to imagine media and communications merely as tools to face these challenges. They
hover around the ‘real’ women’s issue at hand and become secondary in
importance, appended as a form of
analysis or strategy. With that, the power dynamics and geopolitical
milieu that affect media and communications as an arena fade into the
relatively depoliticised language of ‘access’ and ‘capacity building’
(3). Although these
perspectives are important, they can effectively augment the understanding of
media and communications as neutral instruments instead of an influential
domain that shapes, and is shaped by discourses of social reality and gender

Further, the increasingly technical lexicon
in which the field of communications and media are conversed, becomes a
significant obstacle for women’s groups’ engagement
(4). Couched in a historically elitist and
predominantly masculine paradigm, there is much to learn before meaningful
interaction in this field can even begin
(5). Development of new digital technologies that
purportedly aim to faciliate communications also means a simultaneous
investment in not only infrastructure, but appropriately skilled staff. Already
pressed for resources, prioritisation is inevitable. When made to choose
between fundraising for a shelter’s upkeep or hiring a web m
anager, the selection can
be remarkably evident in preference for the forme

Neglect of this field then translates into
further alienation, where its socio-economic and political development is
increasingly shaped with a discernable void in women’s presence, perspectives
or experiences. For example, in Phase I of the World Summit on Information
Society (WSIS) in
Geneva in 2004, there was only a handful of women’s groups (albeit
energetic and committed) that actively engaged in the process. Getting gender
formally instituted into the language of the Declaration of Principles and Plan
of Action whilst jostling with powerful stakeholders like
United States transnational corporations was a fatiguing and perilous journey,
with a narrow victory in outcome (see Gurumurthy,

Would greater engagement from a broader
spectrum of actors within the global women’s movements make it harder to muffle
gender in this instance? In all probability, yes. Conversely, would it be more
difficult to sustain an absent-minded hush on Section J at
Beijing +10 if more
women’s groups demanded their right to communicate, and to access and shape the
media? Again, this would be a resounding yes. However, as mentioned above,
there are significant barriers involved in such a demand. Apart from the
particular dynamics of media and communications, the current milieu of global
processes further generates obstacles for us to effectively integrate and
strengthen each other’s concerns.

One problem perhaps lies in the increasing
fragmentation of the global women’s movement. There are many dimensions to the solidifying
boundaries between different women’s groups working on different issues. A
reason could be the maturing of the women’s movement, where since the decades
of effort that led to the first World Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975
until today, feminism has gained sophistication in
analysis and strategy.
Although this means our capacity for engendering transformation is becoming
increasingly focused, it also renders gaining a comprehensive understanding of
issues affecting women near impossible. Expertise can often lead to exclusion,
whether intentional or not.

Further, questions of power differences
between women have gained significance particularly with feminist academic
critique since the 1980s (6). Issues of standpoint, privileged locations,
cultural differences and identity have problematised the notion of a unified
global women’s movement, and crucially so. But this may have left us fumbling
with an ‘archaic’ concept of solidarity. Particularly with the waning energy
and confidence in high-level processes such as the UN world conferences,
available platforms for women’s groups in manifold locations to meet, converse
and intimate ourselves with each other’s realities face-to-face are narrowing.

This can be seen at the Beijing +10 process
– a far cry from its predecessor in 1995 – which was subsumed as a theme within
the annual CSW process. The number of participants from civil society shrank in
tandem with reduced funding, and those who were present had to wrestle between
ourselves for the limited and minimal spaces apportioned to vocalise our
separate priorities. To illustrate, I was in the media and communications
caucus addressing Section J as well as the sexual diversities caucus that
attempted to raise the invisibility this issue at the proceedings. Both put
tremendous amounts of energy to have inclusive and participatory discussions, draft
a statement and lobby for a space within the High Level Plenary sessions to
vocalise these statements. With only
-minute spaces
allocated at each session for civil society – and even then it was not
guaranteed as it depended on how long the session discussions go on for – it
became a real challenge to even seek a space on the reserve list. Both caucus
ended up on the same reserve list.

On a personal level, I was completely torn
by the realisation that with the scarcity of time, there was a very real
possibility that the reading of one would mean encroaching (probably to the
point of deletion) into the time available for the other. This reality of
having to choose surfaces the fact that inter-governmental global arenas
effectively denies diversity of women’s issues. Although it is understandable
that time would limited, each group that registers should be allocated a space,
however minimal, to vocalise our concerns. The fact that this does not happen
demonstrates that civil society priorities and perspectives in their
multiplicity are not considered with due gravity at these platforms.

The silence surrounding Section J is indicative
of a larger climate of political estrangement that is ultimately a grievous
stumbling block to our efforts at transformation. Without a conscious endeavour
to forge connections and become relevant to and grounded on each other’s
activism, more hard-won areas of recognition will be lost in the background of
our scramble. As we are forced to compete for the right to audience, power
differences between us will further serve to widen the gap between who can be
heard and who will be silenced. We cannot afford to wear our issues like fixed
identities and be inattentively oblivious to the parallel and intersecting
concerns that are being struggled for beside us.

The cost of this carelessness is high, as
can be seen through the missing ‘J’ spot. Without formal inclusion of media and
communications as a crucial area that demands specific State action to ensure
women’s equal participation, we risk losing our capacity and right to shape
this arena. This de-prioritisation would render advocating for women’s inclusion
in affecting the development information and communications policy harder to
sustain, even as discussions and negotiations toward Phase II of WSIS are
currently underway. Particularly in light of diminishing physical spaces for us
to both form relationships with each other and vocalise our concerns, access
and control of media and communications becomes marked in importance. They play
a crucial role in every aspect of our struggles as freedom from discrimination,
exclusion and oppression, and control of the mediascape simultaneously means
the power to mould narratives, histories and realities. We need to protect our
ability to connect with each other, have access to information and assert our
right to tell our diverse and multiple stories.

To begin, advocacy has to look inward, as
well as outward. Conversations and dialogues need to happen between us to
shatter the various qualities of silences that have sedimented within and
amongst women’s movements. Perhaps it is the distinctive qualities of media and
communications as being both pervasively pragmatic and specifically political
that can help us in this process. By locating and affirming our ‘J’ spot, we
could start to re-construct a notion of solidarity that embodies the intricate
patterns of our diversity, and amplifies our voices in seeking for substantive




3. For example, out of the 2 strategic objectives outlined under the Beijing
PFA, strategic objective J.1.
focuses on the need to increase the participation and access of women to
expression and decision-making in and through the
media and new technologies of communication. Organisations that work on gender
and ICTs, such as Women in Information Technology Transfer (WITT) and
Association of Progressive Communications, Women’s Networking Support Programme
(APC WNSP, of which I am a member of) have focussed on capacity building and
trainings as one of the primary strategy in their/our work.

4. The technical language engaged within the discourse of ICTs is evident
through the WSIS Discussion on Governance mailing list
[]. For example, the current
discussion on pornography sites and Internet governance is framed within a
debate in support for or against the incorporation of .XXX as a specific domain
name for these sites. Although the political issue of whether content on the
Internet was a mere technical matter, or one that deeply impacts violence
against women is raised, it is conversed through an assumption of familiarity
with terms such as domain, zone roots etc., their processes and impact upon the
issue at hand

5. Specific collectives and networks
have been formed for technical persons who are women in order to overcome the
masculinist culture existing in the field. Linux-chix, “a community for women who
like Linux, and for supporting women in computing [and whose] membership ranges
from novices to experienced users, and includes professional and amateur
programmers, system administrators and technical writers” is one such example
in the Free and Open Source Software movement [].

6. For example, Chandra Mohanty’s seminal
article in 1986
many feminist scholars to re-examine issues of privilege and appropriation in


Gurumurthy A (2004) ‘Gender and ICTs:
Overview Report’, Brighton: BRIDGE, Institute of Development Studies.

Maria (2005) 'Where is Women's 'J' Spot?', available at,
site accessed 25
April 2005.

Mohanty C (1986) ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist
Scholarship and Colonial Discourse’, in C Talpade Mohanty, A Russo and L Torres
(eds) (1991) Third World Women and
the Politics Of Feminism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Jac sm Kee is a feminist activist based
in Malaysia, working on issues of violence against women, women’s
rights, media and ICTs, and sexualities. She is a member of the Association of
Progressive Communications, Women’s Networking Support Programme (APC WNSP) Knowledge
and Rights with Young People through Safer Spaces (KRYSS) and Women’s Aid
Organisation, Malaysia (WAO), and
Asia-Pacific regional editor of GenderIT,org, a gender and ICT policy portal by



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