In their poem, Gil Scott-Heron wrote, “The revolution will not be televised.” A lot has happened since the ’70s. In this technological era, will the revolution be digitized? Does the digitization of feminism provide a strengthening of the revolution? What does this mean for South Sudanese feminists?
Feminism consists of social, economic, and political movements and theories that are concerned with gender inequalities and gaining equal rights for women and LGBTQIA+ members. The evolution of the feminist struggle is often referred to as ‘waves’ of change, reflecting peaks and troughs of the movement. Feminists are no strangers to using media as an avenue to respond to the sociocultural environment and according to relevant issues of the patriarchal structures of their time. As feminist values have grown, shifted, expanded, and otherwise been re-shaped, so has the use and relevance of specific feminist media outlets. Accordingly, as new avenues have emerged for activists to engage, a more diverse demographic of feminists has gained access to a platform in which to share their contributions to feminist activism and the larger political environment.
The merging of technology with the physical world has revolutionized the global economic, social, and political landscape. In theory, technology—as embodied by the digital revolution—provides an opportunity to policymakers to create a more inclusive future. Tools like blogging and social media have led to the democratization of the feminist movement by providing accessibility, encouraging diversity, and inspiring leadership in a movement that has historically been lacking these elements. Online or hyper feminists make use of blogging and social media as a measure of political mobilization and community building. Social media allows for the swift dissemination of knowledge and information across borders, and thus enables transnational feminist networks. Using digital tools, feminists have appropriated the internet culture with the use of humor and other creative satirical formats as a mode of communication.
Feminism has persisted and evolved for centuries, and technology has also had a hand in its development. The digitalization of feminism has arguably become one of the defining factors of contemporary feminist movements worldwide. “Connectivity widens the audience and contributes to the building of virtual communities.” (Jouët, 2018).
Agency is a key pillar within feminism and the digitization of feminism has provided new outlets for feminists to express and employ their agency. They can take up action on their terms and in their creative ways. It has been noted that some marginalized members of society such as members of the LGBTQIA+ community & persons living with disabilities can partake in feminism in its digitized form because of its more inclusive nature. However, they still face challenges that render digitation, not a full-proof method but just another avenue of activism.
For many, the technological advancement of society has yielded great opportunities for the global feminist movement and networking to take place. The digital realm helps to create inclusion amongst people in a society. It has facilitated ways in which people can access information, share stories, and collectively act. However, this is not to say that the digital realm is without its limitations. There is a sexist notion that man invented the internet. This has prompted digital feminism to seek to give a critical analysis of power structures and patriarchal practices that encompass technologies, information systems, and the digital era. This just goes to show that humans can transfer their biases in things that are ideally viewed as having neutral grounds, like technology.
The advent of digital feminist resistance has become a powerful outlet for social movements to take place and gain momentum. The very architecture of social media is embedded in the sharing and acquisition of information. Digital platforms have provided new sources of feminist action to take place, and, at the same time, it has revived the feminist movement by providing fresh and new ways for marginalized people to share information, connect and organize. Digitization has helped to mobilize people faster, easier, and in larger numbers thus improving the reach of global feminist discourses. Shruti Jain (2020) expresses that, “Social media allows for the swift dissemination of knowledge and information across borders, and thus enables transnational feminist networks. Moreover, Jain (2020) adds that “It also helps weave local stories with global narratives to highlight common structural inequalities.”
Technology has given a space for the democratization of feminism by ensuring accessibility, inclusion, freedom of speech, and strengthening of agency amongst online users. One example is when Dr. Sylvia Tamale who is a feminist, Sociologist, and Professor of Law at Makerere University in Uganda distributed their book Decolonization and Afro-Feminism to audiences. Instead of making people pay for the book, Dr. Sylvia Tamale had people give their email addresses for the book to be sent for free. This has ensured accessibility. The digitization of the book has given a wider reach of global Afro feminist discourses
Some key objectives of digital feminism include sharing information, archiving stories, showcasing solidarity, organizing, and strategizing events, funds, and community outreach and network between feminists. One key aspect of digital platforms is that they withstand time and space restrictions. Time here refers to period “the continued progress of existence as affecting people and things” (Oxford) and space refer to geographical or physical locations. This means that the digital realm can transcend period and spatial locations. This is because it is a thing that can connect people from different places in the world, as well as the digital space, have some sense of archival nature to it.
The online world provides both opportunities and obstacles to girls, women, and LGBTQIA+ members. Yet, while millions of people gather online to share information and connect in good faith, far too many people have abandoned their social media accounts due to overwhelming amounts of trolling, bullying, and hate. New forms of violence against women and LGBTQIA+ members have emerged due to technology coupled, especially for feminists: revenge porn, cyberbullying, harassment, and, doxing, amongst others, have all terrorized women and gender/sexual minorities worldwide.
While the evidence is scant of whether more women than men are chased off social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook due to hate, anecdotal evidence indicates that women and girls, along with LGBTQIA+ people, people of color, and members of immigrant communities have more trouble with trolls than white cis-hetero men in online spaces.
It is no surprise that in our image-saturated, media-driven culture, activists have turned to social media to raise awareness for their cause. Although social media is often erupting with political dialogue, the power this platform has for creating lasting change is not exactly known. Social media activist campaigns that are circulated using a hashtag, which allows users to easily see what is being posted with the corresponding phrase, such as the recent campaigns of #MeToo, or #TimesUp, have gained traction and popularity. One contributing and critical factor of digital feminism is the aspect of Hashtag Activism that helps to gain traction and spread awareness of gendered, social, political, and economic issues.
Hashtag Activism is a form of activism that occurs online (especially on Twitter) with the use of a hashtag, a type of metadata tag that allows users to easily find user-generated tagging that carries certain themes of information. Often hashtag feminist scholarship investigates movements. Further, hashtag activism allows activists to gather personal experiences to negotiate and redefine values and norms. Earlier hashtag feminist scholarship established personal narratives as important to digital protest. Personal narratives as a feminist rhetorical strategy bring visibility to a multiplicity of experiences, facilitate resistance to dominant narratives, and demonstrate strength and confidence
Some popular digital feminist movements (past and present) include: #SouthSudanSurvivor, #ShutItAllDownNamibia/#ShutItAllDown, #QueerLivesMatterNigeria, #BringBackOurGirls, #MeToo, #SayHerName, and #MosqueMeToo.
The question around hashtag activism is whether it yields results and creates changes. We can argue that it does for the simple fact that it creates awareness and traction. With that, people can push for change within their communities such as demanding policy changes. The hashtag alone doesn’t create the change, but the awareness and traction propel the process of change to occur. Moreover, there are chances of misinformation being spread because people are not able to fact-check some information shared (either on time or at).
Scholars have noted that while hashtag feminism allows for widespread collectivity, which helps call attention to issues, it also easily allows for issues to be oversimplified, or even for capitalist or colonialist ideas to be reinforced (Khoja-Moolji, 2015). This critique echoes a critique of the intersectional feminist movement put forward by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a foundational feminist activist, and theorist who coined the concept of intersectionality. Crenshaw celebrates the implementation of intersectionality for building coalitions across identity groups but warns that attention needs to be given to the nuances of intersectionality and group identity politics overall (Crenshaw, 1989.
Although hashtag feminism may seem like an attractive way to promote our social justice activism in an age where we are so connected to social media, we must approach it with the same care and consideration as any other social justice campaign. It is empowering to be able to reach thousands, across the globe, with our messages, by simply using the hashtag. However, this international reach must not simply reinforce the current power systems in place by replicating them. We must actively remain engaged in the practice of questioning our feminisms: Who is benefitting? Who is being silenced? How does hashtag activism translate into enacting political change? Is it commodifying important concepts and theories, such as feminism, or is it promoting understanding, and awareness of complicated issues?
Digital Feminism for South Sudanese
#SouthSudanSurvivors is the first hashtag created by South Sudanese women, especially, in the diaspora in June 2020 to highlight their experiences with sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault, especially ones perpetuated by South Sudanese men. While sexual harassment, abuse, and assault have encompassed and destroyed our communities and societies, speaking out against such violent acts has always been deemed taboo.
Digital feminism faces two challenges in the South Sudanese context. The first has to do with the long history of the war in the country. During the liberation struggles in which South Sudan fought long and hard to become a sovereign nation, there was a hierarchy of oppression created. It was viewed that the fight for gender rights was not an imminent threat, and that people should focus first and foremost on liberating the country for all before we could think about the struggle for gender and sexual rights. This created a hierarchy of oppressions. This is problematic because we know all forms of oppression are intertwined and we could never weigh and compare one form of oppression to another. The aftermath of this is that now that the country has been politically liberated from Sudan, the feminist fight is now viewed as a foreign concept, especially when those who are practicing come from the diaspora. Had feminism been incorporated into the blueprint of our liberation struggle, we would be in a different place currently: socially, emotionally, and politically.
Next, as a new country with high poverty rates, digital feminism may be viewed as a form of luxury activism because technology itself in the country is a luxury. The high rates of internet costs coupled with expensive prices of smartphones, laptops, cameras, and other forms of technologies build a strong barrier to access. It further means that a portion of the population is excluded when technology, should ideally be accessible to everyone.
The fight for feminism digitally for South Sudanese has ushered in a new wave of young and new activists and planforms to highlight the specific and unique ways in which South Sudanese encounter and combat patriarchy in their everyday lives. This setback only reaffirms the need for a stronger and multifaceted approach to be employed. It also ushers in the idea that digital feminism needs to be coupled with other forms of feminism to yield successful results. One solution would be to go to legislators and members of parliament to draft bills that instruct telecommunication companies to ensure access to technology is affordable. Moreover, it means that feminists need to further interrogate structural and material conditions that inhibit access to technology for all.
All of this goes to say that digital feminism has its place and its value, but just as we are aware of its benefits, we must also remain acutely aware of its potential consequences.