21 September 2005 – Sex[ism] in the Afternoon (1:00pm – 3:00pm)


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HUMPH!
I am so pissed off I could punch someone (if I didn’t believe in random acts of
violence, I would have by now!! Grr..) To start from the beginning, a civil
society side event was organised on “Internet Governance Forum Function” with
plenary presentations by members of WGIG. This was to have a space for
discussion on how a global forum or interface on internet governance might look
like, with what kinds of priorities, membership, roles, responsibilities,
powers and functions, if any. It is one of the mechanisms for internet
governance that have been forwarded by the WGIG report and will constitute one
of the main agendas for discussion at sub-committee A plenary sessions.






This
is kinda a big deal. According to the WGIG report, the forum is to fill an
identified “vacuum within the context of existing structures, [where] no global
multi-stakeholder forum to address Internet-related public policy issue” (para
40 of the WGIG report). It’s also envisioned to be an interface where where
“effective and meaningful participation of all stakeholders”, especially from
currently excluded, marginalised or vulnerable groups (such as developing
countries, indigenous peoples and people with disabilities; para 43), can
happen through dialogue.






So
here we are, talking about the various dimensions of the forum, how it could
possibly look like, what sorts of considerations need to be taken into account
(for example, capacity building), why might there be interest for
participation, what kinds of powers might it have or need to have or shouldn’t
have (oversight, recommendations, proposals?) and so on.








Then
Ang Peng Hwa
from
Nan Yang University, one of the plenary speakers
and member of WGIG, came up with his presentation. He spoke of the ‘rural
house’ network community as a metaphor where what is done by one person will
affect another, which necessitates some form of cooperation by all involved in
the internet and then went on to discuss about the various models suggested by
the WGIG Report. These are his exact words:








“Looking
at some potential models but I, I ah, appreciate what
Milton
has said about the models. I
think we are talking about light-weight, no policy making decisions. This
sounds like somebody light-weight
and no-brains








Then
promptly pulled up on his powerpoint slide, a caricature of a woman’s sillhouette lying on her side.
WHAT A SEXIST BASTARD!








Who
is this guy? Immediately I googled him and found out that he is Associate
Professor of a distinguished university in Singapore, one of the most developed
and economically rich countries in the world, wrote reams and reams of
publications on communication, media, the internet, privacy, censorship, laws
and regulations in relation to these issues. Most disturbingly, he is a member of the Working Group on Internet
Governance and an “expert” that we (have limited choice I am starting to
think!) trust to help shape what internet governence means.








I
mean he helped write the WGIG report
for crying out loud! Did he not realise that paragraph 43, which talks about
the forum, specifically spells out that “gender balance should be considered a
fundamental principle with the aim of achieving an equal representation of women
and men at all levels”? Was he asleep or day-dreaming when that paragraph was
drafted? Or more likely, was he paying the proverbial lip-service to ‘gender
issue’ without actually considering the importance of gender relations on
internet governance?








This
slippage really made me wonder, what kind of an environment, culture, context,
enables a person who is obviously highly regarded in his field of expertise
come into a global space, display his sexism on a screen as large as a the
wall, and expect to get away with it?
Almost all members of the WSIS gender caucus were there. His fellow panelists
included Karen Banks and Avri Doria, both of whom are women of immense
knowledge and are well-known and respected in the field of ICTs. The audience
are made up of both men and women. The government delegates sitting in the
plenary sessions are made up of multiple genders.








How
is it that Mr. Ang Peng Hwa feels safe and assured enough to pull such a stunt
and not realise that it would be a deeply affronting and offensive act?








Not
to mention that it completely makes a farce out of the commitment to
“inclusivity” in internet governance that have been spouted like a mantra
throughout the WSIS process?








I
think we need to check our complicity in creating this safe haven for
unthinking, gender-blind ‘experts’ like Mr Ang. Be assured, he is not alone.
How did the rest of us react? The chair of the panel did not deem it
significant enough to intervene or make a comment at the end of his
presentation about the blatant sexism displayed. There was a rising wave of
murmurs from the audience, accompanied by some laughter. I said “Boo! Sexist!”,
but really, not loud enough to make him skip more than one beat before
continuing in his presentation. Karen, who spoke after him chided his choice of
‘models’. And then life carried on as normal while I seethed silently in anger.








Have
we become so weary of gender-blind experts in the field of ICTs and information
society that this has failed to cause an uproar? Are there so few radical
feminists amongst us who would forget about good manners an
d disrupt the process to make a
point? Have we been stunned to silence? Do we believe that there is a hierarchy
of priorities, and that in this instance, it is okay to shunt the gender issue
aside to talk about other, more important issues? Are there simply not enough
participants in this space, in the process of WSIS, in the shaping of
information society and internet governance, that are conscious of gendered
power-relations?








This
just reinforces the urgent need to stamp gender at
the heart of the process. To bring more gender-rights advocates into the field,
and to increase the participation of people who are deeply aware that laughing
about unequal gender relations turns talk about “inclusivity”,
“multi-stakeholder participation”, “transparency”, and all other mantras at
this WSIS process, a very cheap joke.


jac smk

Responses to this post

Perhaps he is not so bad -- what are the criteria though? It's one thing to support gender inclusive (redistributive) language and another to "live" it. That's why the post-WSIS phase (whew!) is going to be interesting - when the language is (hopefully) turned into *real* action. (Apologies for the brackets! Like a UN document - ha ha - at least they are not square.
Posted on 09/22/2005 - 14:03 | Reply
The thing with scenarios you just described is that if you speak against something as "trivial" as images in a presentation, you're often seen as someone who (1) nitpicks and (2) has no sense of humour. That's how de-sensitised people have become, I think, that they can brush aside glaring sexist behaviour / display because they have "bigger" issues to discuss. But I think it's great that you are able to chronicle these things, because I would like to believe that at some point in future, instances such as these would make an effective case for gender issues.<br />I'm sure Ang Peng Hwa is not consciously sexist. It's politically-incorrect to be a sexist these days, and no "enlightened" and educated person would ever admit to being one (maybe even want to be one). But the careless and unconscious way he chose to do his presentation probably means that he needs to explore his unconscious assumptions and sexism.
Posted on 09/22/2005 - 13:38 | Reply
Really? Then his action during the session was really surprising. I am coming from a complete vacuum in terms of knowing about him, his work or his positions, so I can assess only from this one point of contact, which I have to say, is utterly unacceptable. <br />But the point isn't really just about Ang Peng Hwa though, it's more about what questions it raised on spaces that we create in dialogue. If he put a picture of a universally recognised ethnic minority for example, I think the reaction probably would have been a lot stronger. Which makes me wonder, what is it about gender that makes relegation acceptable?
Posted on 09/22/2005 - 12:30 | Reply
Actually, Ang Peng Hwa was one of the people in the WGIG who was very supportive of gender issues and was solidly behind the para 43. Dunno what happened to him in this presentation, but it isn't how he usually is. He's usually very gender-supportive.
Posted on 09/22/2005 - 10:59 | Reply

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