Resistance & Connection: an African Feminist Perspective for Decolonizing the Internet

19 أكتوبر 2022

This blog post originally appeared on African Feminism, an online feminist platform and is kindly re-shared on our website.

African feminist activism in digital rights, knowledge justice and language advocacy is thriving despite the colonial legacies, patriarchal African leaders and poor tech infrastructure.
Image: Shutterstock

By Sunshine Fionah Komusana

The internet is a potent instrument and platform for feminists and women’s rights advocates to organize, influence, connect and be in solidarity for social, economic, and political rights and freedoms. From the Feminist Coalition mobilising against police brutality with #EndSARS; to young women matching against femicide and other forms of violence in Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, and South Africa (#WomensMarchZambia #WomensMarchUganda, #TotalShutDownKe, and #TotalShutDownSA), the digital space continues to allow for connection between African feminist movements to do the work of dismantling patriarchy in ways that were previously not possible.  

Online-based African feminist organizing and engagement as an extension of offline work have fundamentally continued to transform political engagement, drive conversations on various social justice issues, and nurture feminist solidarity/community across colonial borders.  Young feminists continue to build on gains hard fought by past generations to cause good trouble in Africa despite the ever-increasing challenges of digital activism, from cyberbullying, and harassment to internet shutdowns and a widening gender digital divide.

Research reveals that most women worldwide—the majority of whom live in the global south nations—do not use the Internet to access and connect online. Furthermore, the public knowledge available on the Internet is still profoundly skewed towards the global north and eurocentric ideals. It does not accurately represent the knowledge of the underserved populations, which is, in fact, the knowledge of the vast majority of people in the world, “Africa contributes 1-2% to global knowledge production and 85% of research is conducted outside the continent”- Whose Knowledge?

African women and girls and gender-diverse persons, in particular, are subjected to targeted forms of oppression, invisibility and harassment in the digital space as they are offline. So what does it mean for radical feminist organising and organizers when the internet does not look like them, is not owned by them or works for the majority of them?  Between September 26-30, at the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica22), the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) in partnership with Whose Knowledge? convened a panel of African Feminists on “Resistance and Connection: an African feminist perspective for decolonizing the internet” 

Speakers expounded on the African Feminist decolonial responses, solutions, opportunities, and ways of resistance against the systemic/structural design, and infrastructure of digital landscapes/spaces spoke to the challenges and opportunities and shared their imagination of a decolonized feminist internet. The panel was moderated by African Feminism editor, Rosebell Kagumire and comprised Carolyne Ekyarisma, founder of Apps and Girls in Tanzania; Sandra Kwikiriza, founder, of HER Internet in Uganda,  Ann Kazhinga Holland,  Co-founder, Sistah Sistah Foundation Zambia and, Helen Nyinakiiza,  from Safe Sisters. 

In speaking to the challenges, Ekyarisima highlighted the limitations of the internet languages in  her work of teaching girls coding in Tanzania, “looking at the internet infrastructures and systems, if I am to narrow it down to languages when I am teaching girls to code in Tanzania where the language of communication and instruction is Swahili, it takes a lot of time because we have to translate each line in Kiswahili first and even that falls short, which means that they cannot fully express themselves and create products that speak to their context”.  

A 2020 report by Whose Knowledge?  on “Decolonizing the Internet’s Languages” indicates that the internet is not multilingual enough to adequately represent the depth and breadth of humanity.  It is estimated that just 500 of the more than 7000 languages spoken worldwide are online, primarily with English and Chinese representation.  

Sandra Kwikiriza and Ann Holland shared their experiences as feminist  organizers in Uganda and Zambia respectively about the ways in which colonial systemic oppressions such as patriarchy, capitalism, classism, ableism, and homophobia, are replicated in online spaces and the struggle to navigate these colonial remnants every day.

“Things about freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and all those things that are tied to the use of the internet and online platforms… there is freedom of speech online, but once you’ve spoken there is no freedom after the speech …we see people who are very vocal about politics around gender around sexuality issues that are always targeted by state-sponsored hatred, or state-sponsored violence.”

Sandra Kwikiriza

Using the context of Zambia under the former president, Ann Holland spoke of the normalized taxation of social media users, driving up the costs of being online and particularly being a woman online. The complicity of big tech and social media companies in the suppression of dissenting voices of women online, with Professor Uju Anya’s experience being placed in “Twitter jail” for “speaking ill” of a monarch who was responsible for a lot of the colonial and post-colonial violence experienced by the majority of African countries and beyond.  

“It is important to remember as black people, as colonised people from the global south, how technology companies use lenses like hate speech to refuse to have conversations about justice and what we seek as a people.

Rosebell Kagumire

The reinforcement of existing structural inequalities was also exemplified further in speaking about the millions of African children left behind when learning migrated to the digital space during the Covid-19 pandemic. Unlike schools and learners in the global north, the lack of accessibility and affordability to the internet stifled learning within the African context leaving many children unable to progress in school, for as far as two years.

Three people sit on a bench looking at their mobile devices, smiling.
Many people found catharsis in Professor Uju Anya’s tweets about Queen Elizabeth II death but Anja was put in “Twitter jail” for speaking out.
Image: Shutterstock

It is not all doom and gloom as the panellists also shared the joys of occupying space online, key among them being the movement building and solidarity with other African Feminists, “if you have been on Twitter there is such a thing as African feminists. Twitter, and all of us here are interconnected, we all know each other, and support each other, we help each other with resources we connect, we teach people how to apply for grants, we share resources, we share money, we give each other tips, and connections on how to protect ourselves, on how to advocate for our communities, because we know we are all we have got, because the rest of the world doesn’t think of us doesn’t care for us,” Ann Holland added.

So what is the imagination of a decolonized internet for these African feminists?

For some, it looks like hope that carving out our own inclusive and safe space within the existing systems is possible.

“There’s something to be said about technology in general and how it can be moulded and moved and changed, I imagine the future to be like, where the feminists are taking and making use of the virtual space and creating your own corners and developing our own websites and applications and places where they feel free.”

Helen Nyinakiiza

It also looks like policies and laws that protect minoritized people; women, girls, queer persons, sex workers on and offline, and continuing the work of creating our own decolonized narratives, because, as  Anasuya Sengupta aptly put it, “knowledge injustice is not accidental – it is a consequence of colonialism and oppression”. In even more radical imagination, our very own alternative internet, for African feminists by African feminists because there is a general exasperation about waiting for inherently colonial, racist, hetero-patriarchal capitalist systems, to think and include African women.

Sunshine Fionah Komusana is an African feminist lawyer and writer from Uganda. She is the #VisibleWikiWomen campaign coordinator at Whose Knowledge?. Find her on Twitter @komusana.

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