This article is part of a special GenderIT.org edition to commemorate the life and work of academic, activist, feminist and, for many of us, friend Heike Jensen.
These reflections follow on from a personal recollection of Heike Jensen on the Global Internet Governance Academic Network blog (May 15, 2015). Here I will focus on one of her later publications, a chapter for the 2013 edition of the Global Information Society Watch entitled Whose internet is it anyway? Shaping the internet – feminist voices in governance decision-making (Jensen 2013).
To my mind this piece, with its delicately indignant title encapsulates Jensen’s intellectual and political acuity. It also links with her earlier work on the inner workings of policy outcomes as they end up as they do (2005a), the feminist dimensions to human rights advocacy during this period (2006, 2008), and the ongoing dominance of civil society organizations, governments, and businesses from the internet’s heartlands in the Global North in internet governance agenda-setting and core decision-making (2005b, Gurumurthy 2003).
What sets this particular chapter apart is that it is one of the last pieces she must have written. Hence I am discussing it after her passing away in early 2014, and in a year (2015) when several of the initiatives and institutions she refers to (Jensen 2013: 56) undergo review and revisions (e.g. the World Summit on the Information Society and its successor, the Internet Governance Forum, the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women, and 2000 UN Millennium Goals) or major restructuring (e.g. ICANN). These changes were on the horizon in 2013, and so underscore the prescience of Jensen’s prognosis of the challenges facing feminist internet governance advocacy and action.
First because they relate to the outlook for self-consciously feminist ICT and IG advocacy as internet-governance institutions, the IGF and ICANN in particular, transit into their next iteration, with or without an adequate record in achieving their own gesticulations of support for gender equality, however defined. But also because, second, these reviews engage a plethora of advocacy work that resonates, if not works directly with those promoting gender agendas and women’s rights in the face of entrenched global socioeconomic and accompanying “digital divides. All of which are being thrown into relief as the UN and its member-states continue to wrestle with the human rights fall-out of the Snowden revelations of mass online surveillance and the contentious record of the UN Millennium Goals to eliminate global poverty by deploying ICT as a tool for development (APC 2012, Gurumurthy and Singh 2012).
In this chapter Jensen reflects on feminist interventions in the diverse and complex arenas that make up the internet governance domain at the global level. As she notes, these arenas form a relatively new institutional and political context in which pioneering feminist work at the nexus of the internet, ICT, and society has unfolded in the last decade at least. These efforts date from the WSIS years in the first decade of this century (2003-2005) but also resonate with civil society stretching back to the NWICO period in the 1970’s and 1980’s (Franklin 2013, Frau-Meigs et al 2012, Jørgensen 2013).
She takes a hard look at what has been achieved despite entrenched gender-blindness at the systemic, but also the individual and organizational level. It is a reflexive critique that speaks directly to many of us contributing to this collection of essays honouring Heike’s work. As such it is also a review of paths all too well travelled – if not trampled over by others, albeit with an eye to the crossroads that lie around the corner. These roads ahead and the way in which Heike puts her finger on the specific issues and their wider context will be of interest to those just entering the IG domain with a feminist spirit if not their “gender lens” (Peterson and Runyan 1999, Franklin 2009) firmly in place.
Let’s take a closer look at Jensen’s analysis in this chapter. After outlining the broad context in which internet governance feminism has been developing since the 2005 WSIS Summit and its “Tunis Agenda”, she then addresses the main strategies that feminists have deployed to date in the IG domain, and their limitations. The tone is uncompromising; first that IG feminism is embedded in longstanding and successful “normative feminist legacies at the global level” (Jensen 2013: 55). But that it has had to contend with systemic and individualized dynamics of “male political hegemony” (ibid) and corollary “male hegemonic institutions” (2015: 56) that constitute the IG domain. These dynamics of elision and exclusion entail “homosocial setups” that accompany a generalised “hegemonic framing of issues and agendas” (ibid, Jørgensen 2006, Jensen 2006) that presume to speak on behalf of all, women in particular.
It is a succinct yet subtle argument, drawing on a rich literature of feminist debates in social and political theory that consider gender as both a multifaceted category and an axis for sociopolitical action (Peterson and Runyan 1999, Butler 1987, Franklin 2005: 43-51, True 2001); a selection of this literature is in the reference list below. Jensen’s main point is that assuming that gender applies only to (all) women, all the time and in all places is conceptually as well as politically flawed (Carver 1998, Chowdhry and Nair 2002). Deploying gender as a universalising rather than a problematizing category works to perpetuate an “outlook… [that] far from being universal, is informed by quite specific standpoints and habits of perception…indebted to privileged positions in the hierarchy between men and women as well as the hierarchy among different groups of men” (2015: 55). It is implicit in the last point that Jensen is also referring to how such hierarchies of privilege and power play out between and within different groups of women on the one hand and, on the other, different sociocultural geographies of analysis and activism (Narayan 1997, Jaggar 1983).
The middle section (Jensen 2013: 57) then turns to how internet governance feminists have worked to advance the UN’s own undertakings since the 1995 Beijing conference on a “normative framework of non-discrimination” (2015: 55). Jensen sums these up as four key nodes for feminist action; The first two, “demands for normative commitments” and for the “erasure of bad language” (2013: 57) relate to the micro, even microscopic level of analysis and advocacy looking to change the official record as it is written. This entails tireless lobbying for affirmative action in official transcripts, and devoting (extraordinary amounts of) time and energy to the written word during the drafting and editing processes of official outputs: e.g. ensuring references to gender and/or women remain in place, and moreover in a suitable position and context in the final document (2005a).
Looking back over the last decade she affirms that these two strategies have had an effect as constant assertion, reiteration, and textually intricate levels of intervention have indeed rendered the gender-women nexus visible, at least in keyword terms in a policy domain increasingly defined by, and destined for online reference and use (Franklin 2007). However, the need to constantly have to repeat the same demand for gender-inclusive language at every turn is not lost on Jensen. Even when successful at the level of textual production, measuring success in terms of the official record only overlooks how long-term change often occurs in the unofficial record, between the lines.
Moreover, success at one point (e.g. the WSIS Tunis Agenda in 2005) can quickly be overtaken by retroactive outcomes in the fast changing and increasingly diversified domain of IG-related declarations, resolutions, and policy instruments. Even as human rights online, and as integral to internet governance processes gain public and policy traction since the Snowden revelations in 2013 (IRP Coalition (2011) 2015), the political reality for internet governance feminism is that “we seem to engage in the same kinds of lobbying and advocacy for each new setting and process” (Jensen 2013: 57).
The next two strategies that Jensen considers concern those agenda items that do not immediately lend themselves to an explicitly gender or “woman-friendly” spin. For instance, technically complex issues such as free and open source software, changes in the Domain Name System, or intellectual property rights (Jensen 2013: 57) demand a different sort of approach. This also means that to make sustainable inroads feminist interventions in these areas require appropriate technical expertise and certain lead-in time to forge cooperation and support across sectors, e.g. from hackers (mostly male but not exclusively) or legal experts who can render feminist issues that tend to be expressed as general aspirations in more strictly technical and legal terms.
Here too, Jensen notes that the wider context in which only lip service is paid to policy priorities such as gender mainstreaming in the full sense of the term is one that “leaves little room for strategic considerations, bargaining and coalition building” (2013: 58); between feminist and women’s rights advocates as well as with other advocacy platforms. There continues to be neither enough time nor enough financial or human resources to carry out more research and analysis that can provide more gender-disaggregated data (Jensen 2013: 57). This paper continues to refute well-worn arguments that gender considerations, and with that feminist concerns more broadly, are somehow a side-issue to the hot techno-legal topics of the day; as construed in dominant governmental and corporate internet governance discourses.
This brings Jensen to one of the most contentious strategies she wants to both support but also reconsider, namely “advocating special measures for girls and women” (2013: 57) in policy agendas around internet design, access, and use. She notes that such measures have been promoted in good faith and with merit to address some of the world’s most alarming indicators of gender inequality that ICT are supposed to address: such as access to education – girls around the world still do not enjoy equal educational opportunities, access to information online if not the internet itself, or the chance to pursue a technical career such as engineering or computer programming. But such measures are to Jensen’s mind limited at best. Whilst useful for grand gestures, her point is that these sorts of “special” undertakings can only achieve so much given the intransigence of the “gender-blind political process” (2013: 57) and institutional cultures that have come to define how the internet is governed, behind the scenes and in the media spotlight.
At stake for Jensen in her overview of feminist strategies in the IG domain, substantive achievements notwithstanding, is a deeper political concern. This is the tension between the short-term and the long-term. In all of Jensen’s published work and conference papers we can see a concern with confining analysis or measurements of success within the current terms of debate. For instance showcasing net gains as an end in themselves, such those achieved by improving the gender headcount (of women’s, non-western, non-expert for instance) on key committees, commissions, or boards of governors.
This resort to a more “compensatory” approach, for scholar and activist alike, falls short of the long-term goal for Jensen, namely working towards substantive and sustainable, that is fundamental, change. Here Jensen is drawing on a rich literature of debates around the role gender plays when used as an empirical or a transformative category: i.e. whether evoking the “G Word” is sufficient anyway, let alone when narrowly applied in quantitative terms alone. As Jensen argues, gender is a term that can be deployed to make visible the workings of “an abstract system of power and representation” (Jensen 2013: 55) at both the front-end – “user interface” – and back end of internet media and communications. Only then can gender-speak imply, rather than obscure the need for transformative changes in internet design, access, and use and, with that, the practices by which decisions around its ownership and control take place.
This more radical position is where Jensen is taking us as she runs down four main reasons as to why it is prudent to “curb your enthusiasm” around feminist achievements in changing the “DNA” of internet governance (Jensen 2013: 58). Her first critical point is the political and intellectual problems that arise from the ongoing conflation of gender with women, terms that do overlap but which are not synonymous. This is because, put simply, gender is also a male concern. Like women, not all men are alike and the machinations of hegemonic masculinity (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005) serve to privilege certain groups – and individual men and women – to the detriment of others in multiplex ways (Jensen 2008). Jensen’s point is that this fudging of terms, and insistence that debating them is purely “academic” and beside the point (see Franklin 2005, Jensen 2005, a, b, 2006) actually supports all those incumbents “who profit from the gender hierarchies that work to their advantage [to] remain invisible, as do the gender hierarchies themselves” (2013: 58).
Second, she notes the perils of the “hijacking of feminist positions” (ibid) in specific issue-areas (e.g. on cyber-bullying, the rights of children, or hate speech) by groups with other agendas such as control of internet access or censorship in the name of “child protection”, “social cohesion”, or “national security”.
Third, Jensen argues – somewhat à contre-coeur I would suggest – that the selective uptake of such issues with a legitimate claim to be on IG agendas, along with the tradition of feminist support for special measures for women and girls, do little to change the basic rules of the game. Stronger still, she argues, the bundling of women as a group with persons with disability, children, and disadvantaged communities in general has a pernicious rather than an empowering effect on all parties.
Finally, she notes that as a policy objective, mobilization strategy, and over-used term of reference, gender mainstreaming has become a hollow placeholder. This outcome, in the written record but also institutional terms, is “untenable for a global feminist position” that should aim to mobilize for social transformation rather than compensation for a deeply flawed and unjust system of global governance (Jensen 2013: 58). No punches pulled here.
Jensen’s verdict is indeed a sombre one in this chapter. Despite a promising start, and in an historical context in which global social justice advocacy (within which feminists have been prominent), feminist priorities for ICT and Development as well as internet governance have been, at best, a “marginal add-on” (2013: 58) to the official – online – legacy at the global and local level. For all the success booked in upping the gender and/or women keyword hits for an online search of the official record, internet governance arenas appear to be wedded to business as usual.
But at this point, we do need to look more closely at her closing remarks. Despite this trenchant critique, from someone closely engaged in both the research and activism to which she is referring, Jensen notes the following gains. First, she notes that precisely because this legacy is as much a written as it is a hyperlinked document-set, erasure or elision of gender distinctions in the official record are no longer acceptable. Second, that the burgeoning area of socially engaged critical IG research, including gender-sensitive and feminist inspired analyses of generalised processes such as multistakeholder participation, or specific issues areas such as human rights online (IRP Coalition  2015), hate speech, or sexual health, have provided a solid foundation for the next generation. Feminists have indeed developed a repertoire of new skills, affiliations, knowledge and capacities during at least a decade of concerted engagement in the “new global political field” (Jensen 2013: 58) of internet governance.
At the end of the day, Jensen advocates that feminists working in the IG domain, and those who are organizing around this nascent hub of internet governance feminism, to keep getting smarter, keep getting to grips with what she astutely calls the “shifting power grid of internet governance forums” (2013: 58). This means to take urgent steps to link in more “systematically with other concerns for social justice” (2013: 59) in the IG domain but also those that dovetail with day-to-day decisions that affect internet design, access, and use. Heike was in for the long game. As she notes, all not just some “opportunities need to be seized at all levels, because only ‘constant dripping wears away the stone’” (2013: 59).
Some personal reflections by way of summing up
Heike’s work at the gender advocacy and ICT policy-making nexus was as both a feminist scholar and women’s rights activist, somewhat of a minority interest in the broader historical context of feminist politics and scholarship. ICT research and policymaking in general, and internet governance deliberations in particular, have been by-and-large framed as a “gender neutral” if not experienced as a male-dominated and techno-centric domain for both academic and political work. This image remains despite the historical role played by women computer experts in the formative years of computing and software design and increasing visibility and influence of women in both high-level consultations and technically savvy forms of social mobilization. Women are increasingly visible and outspoken; be it in IT corporate boardrooms or in leadership positions at UN-brokered governance consultations. As hackers, media and social justice activists, legal experts, and internet governance scholars, recent years have also underscored the longstanding role of women as a formative, not just a marginal constituency, across the ICT and internet policymaking spectrum, online and offline.
However, rising to prominence as a woman in a male-dominated domain is not synonymous with being – or wanting to be labelled as – a feminist. Nor does it mean to be an advocate for an explicitly feminist agenda when supporting a gender-based “normative framework of non-discrimination, women’s human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment that is meant to be applied in all spheres of policy making” (Jensen 2013: 55, emphasis added). Like women, and men, feminists are not all alike. Feminists’ political affiliations and worldviews differ – enormously. And sometimes, being a woman is just that, being a member of the “female category” (ibid).
It is a great credit to Heike Heike – as a person, scholar and activist – that she was able in her work to walk this fine line between her direct contribution to women’s rights activism as the touchstone of internet governance feminism on the one hand and, on the other, her scholarly contribution to feminist internet governance theory and research. The two domains and forms of engagement overlap even if their idioms, financial obligations, timeframes and target audiences may differ.
Combining the increasingly sophisticated field of feminist scholarship, now replete with a rich and diverse range of disciplinary approaches to feminist theory and research, with women’s rights advocacy outside the academe has always been a fine balancing act at the individual level. It means navigating the longstanding and intense debates that mark off different schools of feminist thought across the academic disciplinary spectrum. It also requires sensitivity to how these – at times arcane – debates play out in those that mark off the different political priorities and terms of reference between successive generations of 20th century women’s and civil rights activism. And it also means taking on board how the predominance of western, predominately liberal feminist worldviews plays a role in the sociocultural and political geographies that separate feminist policymaking and activist priorities from the Global North and the Global South.
Navigating and contributing to this complex political and scholarly terrain in order to make a contribution to both feminist thought and politics is not for the faint-hearted. Nor is it a recipe for instant success in academic terms; tenure-track research and teaching positions for feminists are often the first to be cut when austerity measures target higher education and research institutions.
It is indeed a fine balancing act but on this point Heike was always crystal clear. These two roles are not incompatible with one another even if their uptake in the academy and policy agenda-setting domains appear to move in opposite directions, represented by different temperaments and terms of reference (as the cliché goes; academic feminists teach and research, feminist activists mobilize and lobby). Jensen was conscious of this bifurcation between scholarly pursuits, as part of an increasingly diversified albeit still demographically skewed academe, and “real world” interventions in policy-making that set out to analyse and mobilize to incorporate “women’s and men’s stakes in all policies and programmes and at all stages, from design to implementation to monitoring and evaluation” (Jensen 2013: 55, 2005a).
What I mean to say here is that whilst gender as an analytical category that informs specialized feminist theory and research is now fully embedded in a range of university curricula, with feminist specialisms an integral part of under-graduate and post-graduate degrees, the “gender mainstreaming” commitments at the UN level are still in their early stages. Since the 1995 Beijing Conference, and the entry in 1981 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) into the body of international human rights treaties and covenants we have seen human rights rise to the top of internet governance agendas at the national, regional and global level albeit in different measures. As Jensen shows in this chapter, this underscores that the real work is only beginning for human rights and women’s human rights advocates alike.
Heike Jensen was all too aware that the next phase requires feminists to fully commit to thinking about “how concerns for gender equality could be linked more systematically with other concerns for social justice, so that strong political alliances between feminists and non-feminists can be formed…”(2013: 59, emphasis added). The loss of Heike to our community at large, and to those groups and networks with whom she worked closely in these years, is also a loss to the project to forge social justice platforms for – and through – the future internet that unite feminists and non-feminists.
I hope we can all live up to the challenge that Heike so eloquently puts on the table by following her example. She was the embodiment of feminist “best praxis” if ever there was one.
This list is a selected compilation of publications by Heike Jensen and others cited above. It also includes some recommended reading to put Heike’s scholarly and advocacy output on ICT policy and internet governance into a wider context.
2005a, “Gender and the WSIS Process: War of the Words” in Visions in Process: World Summit on the Information Society, Geneva 2003 – Tunis 2005, edited by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin: Heinrich Böll Stiftung
2005b, “Women, Media And ICTs In UN Politics: Progress Or Backlash?” presented at Gender Perspectives on the Information Society, South Asia Pre-WSIS Seminar 2005, 18th – 19th April, Bangalore, India;
2006, “Women’s Human Rights in the Information Society” in Human Rights in the Global Information Society, edited by Rikke F. Jørgensen, Cambridge MA: MIT Press: 235-262
2008, “Engendering Internet Governance Research: The Example of Censorship”, presented at the Global Internet Governance Academic Network (GigaNet) 2008 Annual Symposium; http://giga-net.org/page/2008-annual-symposium
2013, “Whose Internet is it Anyway? Shaping the Internet –Feminist voices in governance decision making” in World Global Information Society Watch 2013: Women’s rights, gender and ICTs, GISWatch.org/Association of Progressive Communications; http://www.giswatch.org/institutional-overview/womens-rights-gender/whos…
Other references cited and further reading
Association of Progressive Communications, 2012, Going Visible: Women’s Rights On The Internet, APC-Women’s Rights Programme Report to Addressing Inequalities: The Heart of the Post-2015 Development Agenda and the Future We Want for All, Global Thematic Consultation, UN Women/Unicef, October 2012, http://www.worldwewant2015.org/file/287493/download/311684
Butler, Judith, 1987, “Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig and Foucault” in S. Benhabib and D. Cornell (eds.), Feminism as Critique, Cambridge/Oxford UK: Polity Press: 128-142
Carver, Terrell, 1998, “Sexual Citizenship: Gendered and De-Gendered Narratives” in T. Carver and V. Mottier (eds.), Politics of Sexuality: Identity, Gender, Citizenship, London/New York: Routledge: 13-24
Chowdhry, G. and Nair, S. (eds.), 2002, Power, Postcolonialism and International Relations: Reading Race, Gender and Class, London/New York: Routledge
Connell R.W.m and Messerschmidt, James W. 2005, “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept”, in Gender & Society, December 2005 19: 829-859
Enloe, Cynthia, 1989, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, London: Pandora
Franklin M.I., 2013, Digital Dilemmas: Power, Resistance, and the Internet, New York, London: Oxford University Press
- 2009, “Sex, Gender, and Cyberspace,” in Global Gender Matters: A Feminist Introduction to International Relations, Laura Shepherd (ed.). New York, Routledge, 328–349
- “What If? Confessions of a Sceptical Activist” in Making Communications Research Matter: Essay Forum in Social Science Perspectives. New York: Social Science Research Council, December 2008: http://www.ssrc.org/essays/mcrm/?p=27
- “NGO’s and the ‘Information Society’: Grassroots Advocacy at the UN – a cautionary tale”, Review of Policy Research, Vol. 24, No. 4, July 2007: 309-330
- Gender Advocacy at the World Summit on the Information Society: Preliminary Observations, Research Report for the Ford Foundation: http://www.genderit.org/content/gender-advocacy-world-summit-information…
Frau-Meigs, Divina, Nicey. Jérémie, Palmer Michael, Pohle Julia & Tupper Patricio (Eds), 2012, From NWICO to WSIS: 30 Years of Communication Geopolitics, Bristol UK/Chicago USA: Intellect
Frissen, Valerie 1992, “Trapped in electronic cages? Gender and new information technologies in the public and private domain: an overview of research” in Media, Culture & Society, January 1992, 14: 31-49,
Gurumurthy, Anita, 2003, “A Gender Perspective to ICTs and Development: Reflections Toward Tunis,” Heinrich Böll Foundation, http://www.worldsummit2003.de/en/web/701.htm
Gurumurthy, Anita, and Parminder Jeet Singh, 2012, “Reclaiming Development in the Information Society,” In Search of Economic Alternatives for Gender and Social Justice: Voices from India, C. Wichterich (ed.), WIDE/ITforChange, Bangalore: India
Internet Rights and Principles Coalition,  2015, The Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet Booklet. 4th Edition: http://internetrightsandprinciples.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/I…
Jaggar, Alison M., 1983, Feminist Politics and Human Nature; Philosophy and Society, Totowa N.J., Rowman & Allanheld
Jørgensen, Rikke F, 2013, Framing the Net: The Internet and Human Rights, Cheltenham UK: Northampton USA: Edward Elgar Publishing
Jørgensen, Rikke F (ed), 2006, Human Rights in the Global Information Society. Cambridge MA: MIT Press
McDowell, L. & Sharp, J. P. (eds.), 1997, Space, Gender, Knowledge: Feminist Readings, London, New York: Arnold
Mitter, Swasti and Rowbotham, Sheila, (eds.), 1995, Women encounter Technology, London / New York: Routledge and UNU Press
Narayan, U., 1997, “Contesting Cultures: “Westernisation”, Respect for Cultures, and Third-World Feminists” in L. Nicholson (ed), The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, New York / London: Routledge: 396-414
Peterson, V. S., and Runyan, A. S., 1999, Global Gender Issues, 2nd ed., Dilemmas in World Politics Series, Oxford: Westview Press
Plant, Sadie, 1996, “On the Matrix: Cyberfeminist Simulations” in R. Shields (ed) ), Cultures of Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi : SAGE Publications : 170-183
True, Jacqui, 2001, “Feminism” in S. Burchill, R. Devetak, A. Linklater, M. Paterson, C. Resu-Smit and J. True, Theories of International Relations, Second Edition, New York: Palgrave: 231-276
Van Zoonen, Liesbet, 1994, Feminist Media Studies, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: SAGE Publications
Wajcman, Judy, 1991, Feminism Confronts Technology, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press
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