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Understanding Gender in a Digitally Transformed World

Understanding Gender in a Digitally Transformed World

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Published by IT for Change
Beyond the widespread economic and access-centred approach to ICTs, this think piece addresses the need to think about ICTs as a social phenomenon which impacts each of use, whether we actively use ICTs or not. ICTs have an important emancipatory potential for marginalised populations, and especially for women, as they allow the breaking traditional gender boundaries. The document argues for a politicisation of the network society in order to build a new feminist framework of resistance to work towards greater gender justice.
Beyond the widespread economic and access-centred approach to ICTs, this think piece addresses the need to think about ICTs as a social phenomenon which impacts each of use, whether we actively use ICTs or not. ICTs have an important emancipatory potential for marginalised populations, and especially for women, as they allow the breaking traditional gender boundaries. The document argues for a politicisation of the network society in order to build a new feminist framework of resistance to work towards greater gender justice.

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Published by: IT for Change on Dec 15, 2010
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02/11/2013

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IT for Change Think Piece
Bringing inormation society into ouranalyses at the court o women
IT or Change and the Centre or Advocacy andResearch
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worked with
Vimochana
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at the Daughterso Fire – India Court o Women on Dowry and RelatedForms o Violence to explore how the questions o genderand violence intertwine in the ‘new media’ context.Indeed, the past decade has seen a metamorphosingmedia reality. We are witness to the changing ace o‘old’ media – print, radio, television – and an emergenceo the new digital media space that has ushered incertain seamlessness across media orms. Indeed,this shit has rendered inadequate our categories orinterpreting media through a eminist lens and the basicquestions around identity, dierence, representation andparticipation.And as we brainstormed together, somewhat bravely,on how to bring the elements o the emerging presenttogether into a session, suspecting that a completecoherence may be a dicult task, we still thought itbetter to lay out the conusions and complexities thannot! The task o identiying and naming the emergentmedia meanings looked a not-so-easy exercise, but theimperative to grasp the predictably elusive analyticalrames (like the vetal in
Vikramaditya
’s legend) oemerging media orms rom a eminist perspectivewas urgent. Thereore, the session on media, we elt,had to explore the terrain o the digital, and locatehow the situated experiences o the everyday could bereinterpreted. We also elt it was necessary to examineinormation society theories – ‘new media’ analyses inparticular – and subject them to an interrogation throughsouthern eminist perspectives.In a discussion on raming the subject o this essay, myriends Madhu and Kalpana, rom
Vimochana
, eloquentlysummarised this need to open up the space or refectionand democratise the debate; ‘unless a more spelt-outunderstanding inorms the theorising about new mediawhich runs the risk o (perpetuating) violence in its own
Understanding gender in adigitally transormed world
1
Anita Gurumurthy2010
Our productive intervention in a worldwhere space and time are redeneddepends also on evolving eministanalyses and perspectives about thevery discourse o the inormationsociety, the nature o the beast thatwe must understand to critique itspatriarchal discontents but also toco-opt its emancipatory content.
context, it could end up urther alienating the invisibleand silenced majority rom a cyberspace that hasenormous potential or appropriation and subversion.However, i at this very inant stage o struggling tounderstand and appropriate this space, a more rootedtheory is not put into place, we will only be helping tocollapse this already inaccessible and alienating spaceinto the very amoral and apolitical void it seems tooccupy’
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.And so the starting point or the deliberations on mediaand violence was the need to problematise the key issueswith respect to changing media trends. Some o ourquestions were – What is the nature o the mainstreammedia space now and how do the highly interactivepossibilities o new Inormation and CommunicationTechnologies (ICTs) shape the narratives otransormation? How do we decode the complexitiesaround representation and new media to develop arigorous and inormed critique o the media? Whatnew concepts and categories will enable us to rerameour strategies to address concerns around identity,representation and violence?Drawing upon the discussions at the Court and our workat IT or Change, this piece attempts to tease out, eveni rather tentatively, the relationship between digitally-reconstructed spaces and the questions at the heart othe Courts o Women – about globalisation and a post-national contemporary context; the dominant ethic o
 
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consumerism; normative and ethical rameworks in theevolving public and the eternal question o collectiveaction.
Violence against women – theemerging reality o the virtual
As we encounter technology in what is oten called thepost-human paradigm, interpreting the complexity osocial interactions and imagining eminist alternativesencounters a unique challenge. We are ensconced sodeeply within experiences o a transorming worldovertaking us with a never-beore rapidity that standingback and grasping the concepts and categoriesexplicating our existential coordinates seems likean unending catch-up game. Times o paradigmatictransormation are destabilising. Old categories ail towork and yet we seek comort in nostalgia reusing torevisit basic precepts connected to power and change,necessary to claim a new politics o resistance.The imperative to trace the narratives o gender andexploitation in the digitally coded contemporary cannotbe overstated. However, we also need to move morethan a step beyond identication o new phenomena oviolence and exploitation. Our productive interventionin a world where space and time are redened dependsalso on evolving eminist analyses and perspectivesabout the very discourse o the inormation society, thenature o the beast that we must understand, no doubtto critique its patriarchal discontents but to also co-optits emancipatory content. Our task thereore is twoold:rstly, to identiy patterns o violence against womenin and through digital spaces – spaces that are not justonline, but also comprising the new, hybrid zones thatarise as humanity becomes more and more imbued intechnology; and secondly, to then examine inormationsociety theory and discourse or the emerging meaningso media, identity and representation or articulatingappropriate rameworks o resistance.The inormation or ‘network’ society reers to thehistorical present being transormed unequivocallyby the Internet and other digital technologies. TheInternet can no longer be seen as just a technology– it is a platorm or most global inormation andcommunication exchanges underpinning a new socialparadigm. Telephony, TV, radio, and even ‘print’ media,are converging onto this one platorm. Google is theworld’s new library, Facebook, the world’s meeting place,Youtube, the nal media rontier. The Internet is also not just the backbone o global communications today: it isthe alchemist giving new orms to social relationships.The very architecture o social institutions and systemsis undergoing a quantum shit because o the Internet.These changes pertain to interpersonal and socialrelationships (like the ramications we see with respectto the institution o marriage in trends such as onlinematrimonial sites, the phenomenon o ‘mail order brides’,etc.) as much as to production systems, work fowsand business. Access to the Internet is being seen as abasic right in many countries, refecting the ar-reachingimplications it has had on social organisation.Indeed, as social order seems to mutate through thealmost sel-propelling pervasion o new ICTs, thecontext o violence against women has changed andpresents a conounding complexity. But o course,even as new maniestations and patterns emerge, theunderlying issues are the same – the substrate o powerand inequality, as research on violence against womenand new technologies reveals:- Mobile phones and the Internet are used tocontact and ‘promote’ girls and women involvedin sex tourism and prostitution in general. Thesetechnologies are used to speciy preerences,conditions, dates, times, etc., with women and girlsbeing bought and sold like merchandise. ICTs arealso used to contact intermediaries or ‘pimps’ whouse social networking sites (e.g. Facebook) to postand sometimes sell photographs. With regard tohuman tracking, women and girls are usuallylured with alse oers made directly or throughcommunication tools like the Internet. These oersinclude opportunities to work or study in oreignlands, and even romantic personal relationships
5
.- In Asia, despite the high prevalence o mobile phoneuse, in some countries, women do not have accessand men retain control over the phone. Across theregion, mobile phones are used to harass and stalkwomen and to distribute videos taken or privatepurposes
6
.Privacy invasion through SMS stalking,monitoring and control by spouses is also noted asbeing on the rise. Men control women’s use o mobilephones and give or withhold permission to theirwives to use them, when and how. The link betweenmobile phones and killing o women are not incidentsin isolation
7
.- The ease o access, relatively low cost and goodtechnical quality o online digital content, as wellas the privacy it arguably acilitates or users,makes the Internet an attractive vehicle ormarketing pornography. Peer-to-peer networks,
IT or Change Think Piece, Understanding gender in a digitally transormed world
 
3
even as they are spaces or subversion and socialmobilisation allowing users to circumvent thecontrols characteristic o the centralised systemso network societies, are also very attractive toperpetrators o sexual exploitation o women
8
.The immensely popular video games culture alsoperpetuates the overwhelming dominance o thehegemonic masculine discourse o mainstreammedia which normalises the representation owomen as passive, sexual objects. Markedly, hugecorporations with strong nancial backing own mosto the pornographic sites
9
.The new maniestations we see in the cartographieso exploitation and violence signal a troubling impasse:the inecacy o ‘older’ eminist analyses to inormcounter-hegemonic eminist action. At the same time,the policy context in many developing countries is arbehind techno-social innovation, and even where policiesdo exist, they are extremely inadequate in ensuring theprotection o women’s rights and enabling women’sclaims to the new social paradigm and its liberatorypotential.One o the greatest contradictions o virtual reality isthat it promises the marvels and wonders o a gender-ree world while simultaneously reproducing some othe most banal, fat images o gender identity, as alsoclass and race relations, typical o the pornographicregime o representation
10
. These trends pose almostirreconcilable dilemmas or eminism. Unortunately,women’s organisations and movements have not beenactively engaged in articulating progressive directions orlaw and policy in the digital environment. Appealing to thestate to regulate private interests and their control overdigital spaces is also not unproblematic, given that statesurveillance and censorship through digital technologiesis in itsel a real threat to women’s rights.And yet, in the absence o appropriate regulation andgender-responsive policies as well as the inability owomen’s movements and organisations to ormulaterecommendations, any action or progressive changeseems to be rather
ad hoc
. Invariably, any suchaction looks diminutive against the huge challenge ocorporatist consolidation o digital spaces and statecollusion with corporate power, as well as the blatantgender-blindness o largely technocratic state policy inthe inormation society context. In ocial policy, thecasting o digital technologies as vehicles o economicgrowth prooundly implicates state imaginaries o powerand nation-building and gender justice gets convenientlyrelegated to pave the way or private global capital
11
.It is not accidental that despite governmental andlaw enorcement responses to the distribution o childpornography, and child stalking in some countries,the sexual exploitation o adult women through newtechnologies is an issue that governments avoid.What we see as the emerging patterns o violence indigital spaces requires to be explored more closely orthe power relations underpinning the inormation societylogic. Delving into the content o inormation societycategories is the rst step to be able to discern thepatterns emerging as we join the dots marking the globaleveryday against the digital backdrop.
New congurations o power in thespace o fows
The undamental recongurations o society throughdigital technologies and changing trends in media – thetransition rom ‘traditional’ media to a new compositemedia architecture – that underline virtuality as adominant ingredient, in act denote new discoursesaround identity and representation. In the new mediaarchitecture that is convergent, there is a shit in thevery nature o media – rom a tool that mediates andrepresents to the virtual space that ractures truththrough multiple representations o the truth narrative(that traditional print media or instance did not allow).Multiplicity now is thus part o our shared new digital-age ‘reality’.The Internet and other digital media not only transmitcultures, they denote spaces conguring new and hybridcultures that blend the virtual and the real. Inormationsociety ontologies enable oppressed and marginalisedgroups to disrupt and challenge the tyrannies o socialstructures; equally, the digital environment urtherentrenches dominant ideologies o power. ManuelCastells in his work on the ‘network society’
12
talks aboutthe ‘space o fows’
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, the new geographies shaped bydigital technologies, that restructure power relations
IT or Change Think Piece, Understanding gender in a digitally transormed world
The architecture o an equitable andgender just digital arena cannot buildonly on the promise o an open, bottom-up and participatory global Internet. Itdemands appropriate positive globalpolicy action or creating, nurturing andpreserving a global public inormationand communication inrastructure.

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