'Gender and Citizenship in the Information Society' Programme

With about 10 days left for the deadline on pre-proposals for the Gender and Citizenship in the Information Society Program, we are rather hopeful that there will be in the next few days, a steady email flow of applications. Indeed, the past month after the launch of the Program has been exciting. We have had discussions with many organisations and scholars and feel rather affirmed by their interest in the Program. Having the Project advisors come on board was the first pat on the back; the issue of gender and citizenship in its indisputably organic link with the digital space that we all inhabit is an area that southern feminist scholarship needs to immediately look at.

We know that the global south is indeed a highly contested concept, but it certainly is a metaphor that fills much of the conceptual vacuum when we discuss the standpoint of women from developing countries whose social locations make them vulnerable and exploited even as we move on the space ships of post-modern global existence that are post-human in their digital avatars. For many women, the context of the emerging world may be far removed from the information society, in the lack of their personal access to gizmos and the Internet. But ignoring the more pervasive, rapid and complex developments of the social reality of our times that are created through technology and its intermixing with social processes, would amount to the proverbial head in the sand, as social change overtakes development vision and the strategic response necessary in defining social justice and gender equality agenda commensurate with our times. The women in Mysore district we work with may be illiterate, but their lives are embedded in the wider process of institutional changes that new information and communication architectures are crafting. It is not only the heavily romanticised mobile phone that seems to create new excitement in their lives. The changing contours of state transactions through e-governance, the changes to work organisation patterns and employment trends a few miles outside of their villages, their affair with peer to peer video related processes that we were responsible for engineering and its insidious impact on their identity and solidarity as poor women and the shot in the arm that these videos have given their creatively wicked tactics to educate men about gender equality.. are all part of what has been an evolutionary space of the digital world that they belong to.. whether or not they have even seen the computer or surfed the Internet. So coming back to the proverbial ostrich, why do some of us feminists want to deny this domain of study - of the information society - as relevant to deeper feminist quests? Why is there a rather widespread trend to see technology as tools that enable or interfere with daily life and not as a semantic transformation that alters society and relationships? And if indeed some others among us do acknowledge that there is something here that is deep, why dont we see the obvious - the desperate need there is for theory building across many arenas of gender and development and perhaps, (and on this i have had some insightful conversation with Lisa McLaughlin, one of our advisors), for a grand theory of development, social change and the gender equality question.Not that without development intervention we don't see autonomous sparks of action catalysed by technology. Only today i saw an email about a book called SMS Uprising that documents how mobiles are alchemists of social protest . But the heart of the matter is that as they are, technological super-systems tend to consolidate power. Today, the flows of domination and of resistance are different - like the Himalayan tributaries that change course once in a while signalling something deeply disturbing. The smaller sub-systems, at our local levels are constantly having to respond to the whims and ways of the 'network' (if you have not read Castells, please do), which in its essence has seen a capitalist surge that is unprecedented and the birth of a surveillance and highly paranoid patriarchal state. This means, the spunky and inspiring women in Mysore who we work with are perhaps doing what they will with their mobiles and their limited access to computers through their NGO, but how they will be able to turn the tide - or as it is in this case, reign in the propensities of the network so that it works for them is the BIG question. Can the smaller sub-system and its members survive and how will they subvert the network's tendencies to totalise? This is therefore a moment of reckoning for southern feminist scholarship. How are we reinterpreting the categories that we so passionately employ in our analyses – democracy, livelihoods, sexuality, citizen rights, entitlements, subversion, institutional accountability, global governance, solidarity, voice, agency, participatory development etc.- to be alive to the change under our noses that is so profound ? Are we willing to look at the emerging public sphere, the idea of space, the notion of the collective, the meaning of autonomy and choice - in relation to the information society? Well, this Program seems to create a space for this kind of exploration. I have learnt a lot form the conversations I have had with women friends in the past month from across Asia. From the cooption of citizenship in the version of citizen-journalism promoted by TV channels, the fanciful preoccupation of Gen X politicians with e-development and its mutants, the structured ignorance of male policy makers in many of our countries who are busy with discussions on broadband (as if it is about wires and not about communication); the convenient conversion of many a public good into private goods through the doors that markets in the digital space are adept at opening, the confounding contradictions in our societies that arises with the strategic use of digital spaces for coopting women into retrograde and fundamentalist action to the ballooning spaces controlled private interests that paradoxically concern the arena of 'public' interaction like Face Book and Google, and the active censorship of anything remotely concerning the word 'sex' by some governments, the issues ready to be explored from the standpoint of gender and development are innumerable. This Program hopes to be able to attract committed scholar activists who believe there is in this Program some potential for influencing feminist practice and social policy.