Technology as lingua franca: Interview with Caroline Tagny

Bianca Baldo: Bringing tech- related violence against women and girls to the table, through the Take Back the Tech Campaign, required numerous initiations and collaborations. Please describe how you became involved with the campaign?



Caroline Tagny: In 2007, I was working for the organisation Alternatives in Montreal when a few of us* started the Take Back the Tech campaign. At the time, I was responsible for coordinating the portfolios of the youth internship program and the ICT program. Alternatives, a member of the Association of Progressive Communications (APC), coordinated internships with other members on Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and international solidarity. As an example, we sent participants from the youth internship program to work on communication and internet projects in Cameroon and Bangladesh.



At that point, we had already developed a working relation with APC and its members. As a result of these collaborations, I was contacted to develop the Francophone Take Back the Tech campaign called Tech sans violence and organise a few activities relating to women and ICT in French. Previous to the campaign, my work focused on how marginalised persons and communities access technology. I was active in initiatives that examined policies in the province of Quebec and Canada relating to ICT and how those policies were working for the people. I was also involved in the tech collective Koumbit. This gathering of activists aimed at offering web services to other activist collectives, community based organisations and non-profits. With two other women involved in this predominantly masculine collective, we started having discussions that stemmed from generalised dissatisfaction about the technology industry as being a predominantly masculine environment. Numerous discussions concerning gender stereotypes and inequality were happening informally amongst us.



Personally, The Take Back the Tech campaign came at a time when I was starting to make links between gender inequality and technology.



BB: Would you say that it was the beginning of taking gender inequality and technology to a political zone?



CT: Absolutely. The work at Alternatives was already political inasmuch as we saw technology as means to promote activism for human rights. The whole ICT internship program was based on this concept. Our work in communications was based on the use of technology to promote social change. It examined the use of technology to organise and mobilise people. The politicized aspects of technology promoted at the time did not necessarily make the links between gender equality and ICT. I had not thought of it that way before I got involved in the Take Back the Tech campaign.



BB: How did the Take Back the Tech campaign open up reflection on the political aspects of gender, technology and online interactions of women?



CT: It is not just online interactions of women in the sector. It is an environment which is probably the same for women working in traditional masculine jobs. It is an environment that is hostile and not friendly. As a woman, people often do not take you seriously.

Being a young woman in that space influenced the way people perceived and treated you. Although I understood ICT without writing code, and was surrounded by women who did, our voices were not taken as seriously as men that wrote code. It was as if our intervention in the collective was not taken as seriously as the words of the systems’ administrative guy.


BB: Was the Take Back the Tech campaign a women/girl only space?

CT: There was no policy in the campaign about it being a woman-only-space but we primarily focused on working with women and girls. Some of our partners did specify the need to have women-only-spaces, since ICT can be used to both promote and denounce violence against women. These spaces provided survivors of tech-related violence against women the means to use technology to speak about their experience and share their stories.



Did the Take Back the Tech campaign innovate?



CT: Prior to the campaign, there was not any kind of discourse linking violence against women and technology. The Take Back the Tech campaign examined how technology can be used to promote and fight violence. It was very creative with lots of arts and initiatives that asked participants to be imaginative and develop both online and offline tools that promote gender equality and the internet.

As well, it was instrumental in creating an online space for document sharing and production in French, and reaching out the various francophone communities in Québec and Central and West Africa on the issue of tech-related violence against women.



BB: Please elaborate on the types of activities used to reach out to women and girls, as well as community actors? Please describe the approach adopted by community members and organisations?



CT: The Tech sans violence campaign or Take Back the Tech Campaign ran for three years.



In the first year, we worked on developing a virtual platform in French with participants to facilitate the sharing of information on how tech-related violence applied in their communities. It was about bringing together different community groups already working on violence against women in a multitude of settings. We partnered with activists from Cybersolidaire, CDEACF, and Communautique in order to facilitate information sharing, to categorise knowledge and make information and knowledge accessible both offline and online. Through these partnerships, we developed and used mailing lists to circulate information about the campaign. At the time, we didn’t use social media and Twitter as they were not popular enough to be used as a mobilisation tool.



In the second year, we mobilised and increased awareness through in person events, including debates and discussions in both virtual and physical spaces. We worked with Stella, a sex worker’s rights organisation, and collaborated with its members on issues of vulnerability versus empowerment. We also collaborated with the National Film Board (NFB) on their platform entitled CITIZENShift or Parole Citoyenne in French. This became a very popular means of expression with activists; a platform where feminists could express their voices, write blog posts and distribute content. A panel was organised to discuss the issue of violence against women with our partners and as a way to strengthen the content, availability of information and resources in French. We filmed this panel and broadcast it through the Parole Citoyenne platform (which is unfortunately not online anymore). The Association mondiale des radiodiffuseurs communautaires also participated in the campaign, leading to increased networks, partnerships and outreach in Western and Central Africa.





DAY 12 | Stories of Sex Workers. Check out video from South Africa.



We organised a conference in French on tech related violence against women and the campaign with the hopes of increasing awareness and mobilisation of French speaking community groups working on the issue of violence against women. During this event, we spoke about women’s representation in the media and video games, using Grand Theft Auto as a case study, as well as online safety tips and tricks. A clip from the presentation, summarising the main concerns of the campaign, can be viewed online.



In the third year, we mostly returned to online activism, as APC also expanded to French and included the campaign in its French website.



Our outreach approach involved working with established organisations and spreading the word about tech-related violence through the existing membership. In that sense, many actors knew each other and it was relatively easy to reach out to the major players, who then reached out to their various members.



BB: The Take Back the Tech campaign in Quebec included an important linguistic component? Please explain its significance and importance when dealing with outreach and awareness?

It’s a no brainer. If you want to do a campaign in Quebec, you have to speak in the language spoken by the most people; it has to be in French. With the Take Back the Tech campaign, it was self-evident that you would have to translate the campaign and make content in French.


CT: It’s not just a question of translation from English to French. It’s about the production of knowledge in French in the first place that is attuned to local contexts. It is not about adjusting yourself to an Anglophone reality but creating your own reality through the production of content in French. The way we experience culture, the way we live our lives is linked to the language we speak. Your chain of thoughts, the way we figure out ideas is related to the language we speak.

BB: What was the response to campaign? Did you experience any negative feedback from traditional sexist, patriarchal and violence segments of the society?



CT: During the campaign, there was little negative feedback. Participating organisations and their members responded with interest. At the time, there was a clear understanding of the need to address tech-related violence against women and to develop a space where French collaboration, information and content sharing would be available.



We did encounter the typical male challenges on how technology relates to gender but they were open-minded debates without threats or violence. We viewed this as the push-back you encounter when challenging male-privilege, specifically on the topic of violence in video games and the stereotypical sexual representation of women. These had been important topics of discussion in the second year of the campaign: the representation of women and the pervasiveness of the masculine ideas in the media.



BB: Did you find that men and women were interested in the issue of the tech-related violence differently? Could you describe the differences along the lines of gender and the challenges?



Most of the men we worked with had limited awareness on the impacts of technology and violence against women. Men come from a different perspective; many men were unaware of the issue of violence against women in general. We experience challenges when explaining to men what it means to be a victim of violence.

Understanding the impacts of sexual violence is sometimes difficult for men as they come from a position of privilege and can’t always put themselves in a position of a person that lives a different reality. They do not live in our bodies. They do not understand what it means to be a woman, a female bodied person, in both a physical and online space.


During my time at Alternatives, we regularly spoke about the impacts of sexual violence with first time interns. My thoughts were that we had to have these discussions on how men and women live online/offline violence differently. Women will take precautions in both the online and offline worlds, as women are trained to be mindful of the danger to our bodies. Men do not think about the impacts of sexual violence and are less likely to feel threatened by physical violence. White men tend to not experience this threat until they find themselves challenged in a foreign country where they physically stick out. Many men in the internship program realised for the first time that they could be a target, which led to interesting discussions about the issue. Whereas for most women, the need to protect ourselves is always in the back of our minds and we deal with it every day.

BB: How does the issue of language relate to French speaking countries in West/Central Africa?



CT: Language is an important consideration in Western and Central Africa. Even though French is a colonial language in numerous countries in the region, it is still the common denominator in a country that may have numerous languages. French can help make links between national struggles with others from another country and region.



This reality becomes difficult when working in Western and Central Africa. As an example, I am Cameroonian and Canadian, the language that my Cameroonian family speaks is one family of languages. So if you go from one village to another, people speak the same family of language but still may have difficulties understanding each other. This is because of the different local slang that is basically used from one town to the other. Many countries in the region have more than ten local languages, so French basically become the common denominator for people to understand each other.



BB: What is the significance of using a language appropriate and inclusive approach in the campaign?



The production of knowledge in specific local languages is a recurring issue in many African countries. As an example, a campaign in Mali should include content in Bambara. When we are campaigning and working locally, it is important to speak in a local language that people you work with speak every day, and isn’t necessarily French or English.



It’s all about wanting to be understood. Your second language is never going to be the language you are the most at ease with to construct ideas and abstract concepts, unless you are extremely gifted. In most people in the continent, their second language is not even French or English – these are the fourth or fifth language you learn as a child.

In general, the use of local language allows participants to self-identify with the issue and the campaign. When we are communicating in our first language, the links become quick and more relevant. It is a question of producing knowledge by the people for the people, in local language. It can stimulate and encourage participation rather than intimidate participants by using a language they understand less and that they don’t master.


This is especially important for African women, many of whom have not been able to stay in school for long. Many of the women we worked with on the campaign did not have the chance to finish high school. They have not necessarily been able to master the language enough to feel confident to speak. It is also a question of vocabulary. If you don’t know enough words, how can you say things with precision?



BB: Please describe other initiatives in the French speaking countries in Western and Central Africa relating to the Take Back the Tech campaign?

CT: In the Republic of Congo and the DRC, organisations already members of APC have been active in the Take Back the Tech campaign for numerous years. In the Republic of Congo, women activists who were already working on technology and gender issues uploaded content in French to our website as much as they could. There was a focus on offline activities based on their national context. In the DRC, organisations that were already partners with Alternatives joined the campaign later. Si Jeunesse Savait, a young woman organisation, was active and a strong advocate against tech-related violence against women. In partnership with APC, they published a report entitled To End violence: Women’s rights and safety online; Democratic Republic of Congo country report. It denounces the ongoing gender-based violence experienced by women in the DRC online.



BB: In your opinion, what are the key barriers to empowering women and girls in ICTs?



CT: a) Access is an important factor when examining how women and girls from the global North and global South negotiate ICT. In 2007, most activists in Quebec had access to the internet at work, whereas in the south, activists were not able to access networks and the internet at work or at home.



b) The use of technology was also an important issue. Particularly in West and Central Africa, organisations mobilise through the use of cell phones, as the technology was more affordable, comparatively to internet connections. Women in Quebec used the internet to collaborate through articles and sharing blogs, as the use of cellphones was not pervasive in 2007-2008; whereas in Africa, women commonly use emails and SMS to encourage mobilisation.



c) Violence against women rights activists was also a concern. At the time, most women who used the internet for political spaces, in both Quebec and West and Central African countries, could become targets of violence and intimidation. These acts of violence were often linked to patriarchal norms and values relating to women that pushed back against changes in gender equality.



At the time, we were already beginning to see cases of tech-related violence against women. In Quebec, there was a case of harassment and violence online against activists. The organisation Communautique, involved in the Take Back the Tech campaign, experienced harassment from men’s rights activists called Fathers for Justice, that published an online list of feminists that they did not like. They would physically show up at selected events to intimidate both men and women that were there to discuss ICT policy. They published a list of male activists that were supporting feminist causes and called them ‘men without balls’. We were already seeing how patriarchy crept into violence in online spaces.



d) The everyday presence of ICT on your person; and frequency and use of social media, including Facebook, chat rooms and Twitter, can have perverse effects on women’s online empowerment.

Everybody uses Facebook especially in Africa. The use of Facebook and other social media platforms as a means to communicate with your peers is on the way to superseding email communications. Being harassed and facing violent threats against your person is linked to the device that you have on you at all times. If you are the target of harassment and violence, you are basically reachable at all times as well.


This problem is exacerbated by social media because people that you don’t know can contact you and say things about you. It has become increasingly easier to find activists online and participate in anonymous acts of violence. In the African continent and based on the findings of the APC research paper To End violence: Women’s rights and safety online; Democratic Republic of Congo country report, we can see numerous cases where social violence extends to online platforms. Even a country like the DRC, which has limited internet access, sees a high level of online violence that mirrors the surrounding physical violence, which was particularly brutal during the recently ended civil war. In general, gender based violence that is experienced offline in periods of civil war and post-conflict tensions continues to occur in the online world. As an example in South Africa, 10 years after apartheid, society continues to experience many forms of violence, including increased violence against women. In that respect, there is an increased use of the internet to upload sexual violence and rape videos.



Patriarchal norms, that limit gender roles of women to finding a husband and having children, can affect how women themselves see the use of technology and how they can empower themselves through technology.



BB: Please describe any highlights from the campaign that have had a lasting effect on you and on the empowerment of women and girls in technology?



CT: Personally, I think that there were so many highlights. It was amazing to be able to work with such inspiring women; I have learnt so much from the women I worked with on the campaign. Prior to my experience, I had no theoretical feminist background. The campaign was my introduction to the issue and gave me the foundations for feminist critique.

Too often, these issues are things that you think about but do not necessarily have the tools to verbalise. It has changed the way I see the work I do as relating to ICT and social change. A few years later, I ended up working with APC on the women’s rights campaign. It increased my ability to understand the intersectional way that anti-globalisation and feminist struggles are connected. It has allowed me to not compartmentalise each of the issues or place them into different silos. Instead, it is important to see that the struggles are linked to each other. It has affirmed that the quest for social justice and change cannot be fought without promoting gender equality.


BB: What were the main challenges experienced throughout the campaign? What was, if any, the solution proposed to rectify these barriers?

CT: Throughout the campaign, one of the main challenges was mobilisation. It was about getting people that were extremely busy and overworked to collaborate together. We asked them to come onto the campaign even through tech-related violence against women may not have been the priority in their work. It was about seeing the links between their work against violence and the use of technology to promote gender equality. In the last four years, I have continued to work on the campaign with APC and it has become increasingly easier to make those links between the participating organisation’s work and the campaign message.



Our solution was not to give up. It was about getting strategic actors that work in a particular field involved in the campaign. It was the beginning of the campaign and the links of technology to other development sectors was relatively new. There was little information out there concerning tech-related violence and people were not exposed to cases of online violence against women in the mainstream media.

We had to talk to people; we could not just rely on our website to get people involved in the campaign. We had to reach out to partners and explain the issue, organise conversations and make links between gender equality and technology. It was a labour intensive process but resulted in a successful campaign.


BB: What are the key strengths of the campaign?

CT: As someone trained in graphic design, I always loved the visual material. This was one the biggest strengths of the campaign. It used multiple tactics that were creative to share the message. We integrated different ways to communicate the message other than talking and writing to tell a story. It allowed people to express themselves in a way that was accessible for those that are unable to read. It’s an important discussion on how to reach people who have limited literacy and how to promote the use of technology with this group. Sometimes the subject matter that the campaign touches is sensitive and personal; something you feel but you cannot express, sometimes you don’t have the words. The different tactics used by the campaign allowed for the expression of different emotions that cannot be expressed by written or spoken words.

This was one the biggest strengths of the campaign. It used multiple tactics that were creative to share the message. We integrated different ways to communicate the message other than talking and writing to tell a story. It allowed people to express themselves in a way that was accessible for those that are unable to read.


As well, the campaign was successful as it opened up a conversation on tech-related violence against women. I think that this is particularly relevant in the case of Quebec’s media. At the time, the issues of gender based violence and ICT were not considered relevant. The Take Back the Tech campaign contributed enormously to the knowledge base and to the promotion of conversations and theory around this issue. Mainstream media has become interested and open to discussing the impacts of tech-related violence against women.

  • Including Nicole Nepton, Katherine Macnaughton-Osler and Valérie Fournier L’Heureux