Women, Citizenship and Participation

This post was a response by Anita on the discussion, Women, Citizenship and Participation: Beyond the Politics of Exclusion in the Gender Community e-mail list of Solution Exchange, India  It brings in some elements that pertain to the structural changes effected by digital technologies and the emergent information society, based on our work at IT for Change. We work on the interfaces between the current techno-social architecture of society and development, focusing broadly on the thematic areas of gender, governance and education. Of deep significance to the changing politics of state-citizen relations is the impact of digital technologies on society.  The emerging public sphere complicates governance structures, claims-making processes, representation and participation as well as the very nature of deliberative democracy. These changes are gendered, and require a rethinking of women's citizenship and rights. IT for Change, through its Centre for Community Informatics and Development (CCID), have been working with the sangha women of Mahila Samakhya Karnataka (MSK),  to enable them to use Information and Communications Technology (ICTs) in their endeavours. The idea has been to embed ICTs within the heart of their struggles for citizenship, so that the agenda is not to have some stand-alone experiment with technology but to explore what kinds of processes can bring about a quantum change in the way they anyway make their claims and chart their struggles for gender justice. The results of a 5 year long engagement with MSK and MSK sanghas has been a phenomenal journey for us - demonstrating why digital technologies need to be ascribed a certain meaning and deployed with a certain vision if our goal is to enable women to assert their rights. Women have been running community telecentres; gone on air discussing the gram sabha and the elections; they have demanded that CCID work with them on garage production videos. This helps them talk to their communities about how to get a bank loan; why adult literacy camps are life changing; and how young girls can be part of the process of social transformation (and not just wait to be married off). The informational culture of questioning and of transacting power through knowledge brokerage (that is not the usual commercial model but based on equity and social justice considerations), have led to cascading changes - a new legitimacy for women, who were rather peripheral to the everyday life of the community.  It makes for a new local socio-economic reality as well as a new political status for these women. We have learnt much about how there is empowerment and there is empowerment; one version that challenges status quo and brings into local discourse the disturbing question of power and the other that builds upon local elite structures to enable just as much trickle-down as will keep the dominant structures happy. Our model has taught us that ICTs are the harbingers of citizenship. They are the ‘summum bonum’ of social inclusion in the information society, so long as the emerging local informational democracy - with women's radio programs, women-run telecentres and women's appropriation of video as a meaning-making tool - can be nurtured through an ethical digital system that wants democracy and social justice. What do we mean by this? IT for Change in its global and local work has come to realise that the propensity of new technologies within dominant frameworks seems to promote a version of short-term empowerment that in fact consolidates the social power of the elite. I want to bring to the table two strands of thought that can add contemporariness to the upcoming PRIA seminar on 08 September 2010. The Informational State: We need to deconstruct and understand better, the nature of the neo-liberal state, which is also the informational state.  State power is consolidated through informational systems that promote techno-managerialism in governance, rather than an increased transparency that may seem apparent.  E governance is less about transparency and institutional reform, and more about Management Information System (MIS) that is deemed gender neutral. Which is why, the telecentres run by MSK women is qualitatively different - it is about institutionalising a culture of information that can privilege the marginalised. Despite efforts to promote women's participation in implementing e-governance schemes, the cooption of women in such strategies is built more or less on the idea of the neo-liberal state, which would like to see women as consumers of information and as economic agents at the fringes of public private partnerships (PPPs) as telecentre operators. Any empowerment that occurs is purely incidental in many mainstream ICT efforts. While the rhetoric of inclusion through the digitisation processes in governance seems to suggest potentially easier and greater access of the marginalised to entitlements, the centralised managerialism in these projects leaves out any possibility for a localised institutional design. Where is the room in these efforts for a simple video that talks about what schemes the local social welfare department has for the dalits or a simple radio broadcast on the meaning of a gramsabha. Marginalised women's access to public resources and participation in the public sphere needs to be enhanced for their active citizenship and can be enhanced through ICTs, but not if the design is a top-down make-what-you-will kind of model that pushes for information commoditisation through a pay-for-your-rights approach. Flagship information and digitisation projects seem to ignore cultural issues around identity and privacy. The information state repositions freedom, rights and regulation from the vantage of macroeconomics and value-chains, which undermines rights of rural and tribal communities while privileging corporate "rights".  Solly Benjamin wrote about Bhoomi (land), and pointed how all the information out there about land holding in the public domain is rather useful for land sharks. The informational state needs to be grasped for the complexity it unleashes into a hyper-politicised society like ours. Framed within a political system whose nexus with media and local elite structures transforms governance into a murky terrain that is impossible for the marginalised to negotiate, the informational state can fossilise older power structures and create new exclusions. The MSK women have had to deal with vested interests in the panchayat and in the local infomediary structures who have tried many tricks to silence them. It is the power of the sangha and the backing of the Kelu Sakhi radio program that the sangha women run that allows for a counter-power for the women to deal with the cultures of patriarchal and casteist repression. The main conclusions of Sandra Braman's book on the informational state may be relevant and even revealing - power seems to get more centralised in the informational state, which  “increasingly knows more about individual citizens but, on the other hand, the individuals know less and less about the state”.  The use of digital technologies can limit, instead of broadening, the possibilities for significant participative democracy, where the conceptual focus is more on what has been critiqued by other researchers as the shift from deliberation to push-button- and point-and-click- decision systems that give legitimacy to authoritarian leadership that manipulates public opinion. The citizenship of women and their relationship with institutions of the state in the emerging governance systems are predicated upon various preconditions - at the least it depends on how the information design treats public interest, women's accessibility and capability. Such a design must be open to enable citizen rights and freedoms, invest in the literacy women need to read and decipher the grammar of new informational cultures. Women do decode the digital with great ease but to be citizens of the informational statę,  they need time and resources to understand how also to evolve corresponding digital cultures. Therefore, even with the promise of e-governance for inclusion and transparency and access to public information, the logic of the informational state needs to be seen as embedding risks that are hidden and historically unprecedented. The changing nature of democracy The active citizen cannot get more active today; welcome, the information society. Especially for women, the ability to storm into the public sphere and be part of public discourse does open up the possibility of new everyday practices in citizenship. Through access to local media spaces, creating media that brings into the public realm perspectives and practices and rationalities that challenge the mainstream, women are able to redefine social action. Voice, agency and assertion are transformed through digital space and certain pluralism arises in the nature of gendered discourse. This can be enormously liberating for marginalised women and a step towards inclusive citizenship, but we need again to be alert to the changes to the very institution of democracy in the era of e-voting, face book-citizenship and public hearings of social issues on TRP-obsessed, corporate-owned media channels. Each episode of social discrimination appears and disappears from the digitally mediated public sphere with a routine that is deeply disturbing. Participation acquires a new meaning in spaces that are wide open, unmediated and ostensibly egalitarian; you can be a citizen journalist and tell your story now, in fact you need not even be that! Authenticity counts most, plurality is possible now, and it does not matter that in most public platforms - from e-lists to online consultations to seductive appeals on FM to send your vote by SMS, - every private rationale is equally valid.  Digital openness enhances participation no doubt, but with a logic that is not necessarily based on representative or deliberative democracy but rather, on self-interest and corporate profit in the absence of governance mechanisms that can intercede to support active deliberation and a consensus based on ethical frames.  'Public' platforms online are controlled by corporates that arrogate to themselves the right to perform adjudicatory functions. First, in such 'democracies’, the marginalised are not represented. Secondly, current legal, policy and institutional arrangements do not extend to online spaces to mediate power and communicative asymmetries. Even if it seems like the discussion here is not so pertinent to the women about whose rights most of us may be concerned, the horizon of social change directly and indirectly incorporates the digital in a deep and meshed way. In most developing country contexts, informationalism and digitisation are at the forefront of governance reform. What may be feudal and dysfunctional is at the risk of being replaced by a new age system that renders redundant all our studies and researches by complicating reality in profound ways. Democracy is not only the mess we are used to; it is reshaped by the new geographies shaped by the digital that are transnational, trans-local and hence as exciting for the tyrannical structures they bypass as they are perilous for the post-democratic influences they bring in the form of undecipherable and ungraspable practices of the new digital elite.