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Home  > Gender & ICT  > Women in FOSS > Article

The Free Concept : the Gender Law
Joelle Palmieri | 2 March 2005

In the context of liberal communications, how is it possible to provide the means to groups of women who are carrying economic, social, cultural and political alternatives to make visible their practices, their experiences and their know-how? How is it possible to break men and women inequalities? In what way can the Icts arm our resistance? How is it possible to articulate gender concepts and philosophies with free software? How does the “free” concept respond to gender needs? How does gender respond to the needs of the free concept? It is very simple…

We live in an age which is submitted to the impressive development of communication techniques and technologies, which effects spread out to the social, economic, political and cultural fields, and have serious implications on the very future of our democratic life. We observe an over-concentration of resources that reinforce the setting up of monopolies and private oligopolies in the sector of communication. This statement is very close to the fact that technological development is essentially developed like a full part of the globalization process. In addition, information and communication represent an economic sector as such ? with high benefit rates ? which products must be given a price like goods, and tend to cancel any notion of public services with which communication has always been associated.

The role of media

In a time of huge concentrations, channels of weak contents and under-information, it is appropriate to stress that the media are rather in the stage of testing, attempt, unachieved concept and beginning. In order to look at it more clearly, let’s start with the word "media" in the singular form. A "media" is supposed to be in between, a means of communication, a link between transmitting and receiving information. It seems today that it is a vertical and tense line, with a single direction, from the top downwards and has a privatized shape... And these lines, or pipes, are to be filled as quickly as possible! For God sake, where is the "space-time", which gives the opportunity to elaborate one’s thoughts, refine one’s ideas, and express oneself freely... Where does the law of the market give place to the reader, the listener, the audience, named as such, i.e. in the masculine form (in French) by the holders of the informational power? There is henceforth no more space for imagination, innovation, expression and exchange. Anything that needs time. In such a situation, it is difficult to consider a press system in which the "consumer" should not be passive. We are thus in presence of tailor-made information; at some broadcasters’, the programs are set up from the initial "outlay", i.e. if Reebook invests, then a basketball program will be set up. In Southern countries, the situation is much more serious. In Africa or in the emerging countries like Brazil, the worst of television is poured in public or private channels: Northern models and references that have nearly nothing in common with the lives of women and men have increased. Much worse regarding newspapers, one is confronted to news that are not, because they have been truncated, chosen and chopped up.

For new models

It is mainly men who make choices, or rather impose them to their target groups, i.e individuals (females and males) who are considered as consumers and "non-thinkers". The numbers can testify. In her report on the question of women and media, as published in 1995 for the Unesco, Margaret Gallaguer is formal: women are "visible, but vulnerable". As actors (or journalists), or as subjects, women are nearly non-existent. It is necessary to say that the selection among the editorial staff is stern. Men decide on issues, women make the reports but not on any issue. They are nearly excluded from the domains that concern economy, sport and politics. Many studies on this topic, including the studies of the Association of female journalists on general press, know that. From the beginning until they were given the right to exercise on the labour market, female journalists have been confronted to effective work and editorial barriers, decided by their editorial staff. As an unknown phenomenon, it is essentially women who become war reporters or are in the field, and this very precarious situation makes it extremely difficult for an "internal" promotion. Furthermore, the proposed issues, whatever they are, should not present a gender dimension. On the other hand, any issues on women, as victims or sport or show business stars are most welcome. Besides, "the female magazines remain a fief of depreciating pictures".
Any attempts of news handling with a new gender perspective is often doubtful, and submitted to universalistic pressures, when it is not simply rejected to the rank of specialized press. For example, it is now common that even the very issue of feminism is the full subject of a magazine or a TV show. However, it is most often to mock this "rearguard" movement". Or, it is the basis for a discussion with a "feminist-alibi" on topics like cosmetics, love… while looking for a "counterpoint" as if, it was a contradiction from the start. And the same happens in TV shows or in "serious" documentaries on war, in which the geopolitical aspects of such or such part of the world, are full of males signatures and even though there was one female signature, she would have to use the males dialogue codes, i.e. universalistic and not the least sexually differentiated codes.
The logics of exclusion is therefore double; at the level of women’s place within the profession as such and at the level of the news handling, in which the "male" vision is predominant.
However, the proliferation and the diversity of sources ? including Internet networks and not only agencies that prepare and sort out the information sources (like AFP, Reuters, BBC…) ? should allow the setting up of new models of news handling. The widening of the investigation field, the setting up of a medium that is finally streamlined and interactive, in which the "push" ? or what is known today ?should leave room to the "pull", i.e. the endogenous contents carried out by the civil society. A new way to make new contents possible which take into consideration the social relations of sex and the global context of male domination.

For a right to communicate

It has been established like a universal statement that the vitality of democracy depends on the level of citizens’ involvement; this means that the different groups which compose society should be duly informed and able to express their particular points of view in order to contribute to the constitution of social consensus. This aspiration has been often denied notably because of the absence of democracy within the systems of communication. For example, many studies showed that the presence of the audience on TV sets is not an opportunity to give them the floor, but rather gives them the role of the accomplice of what is happening before their eyes without their approval. Another example is the creation of the cell phones’ "Sms"; they are obviously used to communicate little messages between friends, but in fact they have two other goals; spread out advertisement without the receiver’s consent and finance the pipes (10 times more expensive than the normal price), by moving between 0 and 1, which makes them profitable not only financially but also in terms of market, thanks to the collection of personal data for further marketing use.
This situation requires that civil society includes in its agenda the Right to Communication and, at the same time, decides to promote initiatives, which goal is to control the communication tools and to develop responsible, free and complimentary media. Particularly, women and/or mixed organizations that approach gender, must take the opportunity provided for by the Information and Communication Technologies (Icts) to bring to light particular analyses and practices.

Information in a different way

From the analysis of the above mentioned tendencies of "dominant" communication, and while paying particular attention to the women’s place and role ? as victims of a double marginalization; as actors and as subjects of social, economic, cultural and political life ? and to the role of alternative initiatives ? nearly totally invisible ? it seems appropriate to set up totally independent media tools in which information should be, not only to the service of citizens, but especially emerging from them. A type of information that claims diversity, solidarity, equality, horizontality and streamlining.
It is today necessary to think information differently while stressing endogenous contents (or information) in particular. This means concretely that all the civil society actors, women and men, must not only have the opportunity to deliver their own contents. The shape that they use to communicate should also be considered as a full model that is complementary of the more classical professional (journalistic) news handlings. This strategy gives then the opportunity to approach the issues that are undeveloped in traditional media, and provide an open dimension to the circulation of information, and present specific contents according to the regions of the world, to create an exchange and know-how network. It gives mainly the opportunity to focus on gender, and notably the social relations between women and men, the barriers that gender inequalities represent for the development of peoples and societies, the alternatives carried out by women… As many prisms that give the opportunity to cancel sensationalism or news in brief. In order to give back an effective space to a real social, political and economic analysis of issues such as violence, nationalism, fundamentalism, militarism, peace…

Contents of General Utility

Furthermore, in the context of promotion of the contents that are at the public disposal, it is necessary to remain alert on matters of broadcasting control. This is possible if we create or maintain our own broadcasting networks and if we invest the decision-making centres where broadcasting is controlled, be it TV, radio or written press.
This is a question of thinking information differently, according to the following principles:

- the access to information is a fundamental right,

- information is not a good, it must be free,

- the reader, the listener, the viewer is not a consumer,

- the contents must be endogenous. In this context, it seems justified to pay attention to a new way of editorial treatment that is organized in four directions:

- to approach issues that are not developed in traditional media,

- to propose a multimedia, streamlined and horizontal treatment of information (radio, written press, electronic press, TV)

- to conceive nomadic, boundless, mobile media tools,

- to put these tools in the hands of the contents’ "bearers", while breaking with professional corporatism

- to set up relays, in different kinds of tools. These new ways of handling information give us the opportunity to consider a "star-shaped" information, in which each civil society actor/actress is in direct connection with the others. Thus, each interlocutor can bring his/her contents, and echo to the others’ while completing them and enhancing them. This structure helps to bring to light a collective richness at the international level. And the exchange of know-hows and experiences, the gathering of the means around a common content, the confrontation of individual, collective or regional situations, and especially their publication and their broadcasting, make disappear the geographical, economic and political barriers.
In order to concretely implement these media tools, it is important to create a network of models and build up these tools on a different economic model, which will guarantee its continuity, by:

- leaning on the concepts of solidarity economy (previously co-financed by the state and the civil society actresses/actors),

- involving the territories (local elected people, regional administrators...),

- keeping control on broadcasting,

- using the Icts, like a cheap technology,

- giving impulse to the policies of access to the internet network,

- using the philosophy of free software.

Gender: a catalyst

These public service tools must correspond, and not only respond, to the common interest. They must come from the people’s needs, otherwise they would be meaningless, and create public spaces of discussion in which the receivers, the emitters, the prescribers meet or come together in order to bring to light those needs. In this context, gender recovers all its relevance since women and men, according to their social, religious, ethnical, generational, sexually-oriented, etc. origins, will finally have the opportunity to express different needs and interests. First of all, it should reveal practical needs for women and for men, while keeping the statu quo of sexual division in work. Then, it should achieve transformation by initiating strategic needs/interests that are going to completely transform this gender relation into a more equal status.

The free concept: future of gender

Women represent around 80% of the poor and 67% of the illiterate. Most of them are also victims of a triple discrimination; they are women, the majority works in economic sectors that are not valued at the national level ? social or informal ? and most of them are marginalized in their social, geographical or political environment. Very often, they also carry economic, social and political models that are totally different from the most visible system; an unequal, discriminatory, with high financial benefit system. And yet, this paradox remains invisible. How come? For migrant women living in poor suburbs in France, black women whose degree is not recognized in Quebec or Senegalese female fishers coming from the surroundings of Dakar, with no literacy level, publicizing their practices and their analysis of the disparities and inequalities between men and women, corrupts the universalistic uses. It also reconsiders gender social relations such as the domination relations as inherited from patriarchy, colonialism and imperialism. And it defies a major taboo ? women’s access to the public space ? and becomes thus a major stake. Therefore, the use of free software becomes self-evident. Indeed, the word "free" refers here to freedom/liberty, and not to the price; this is a confusing language concept for Anglo-Saxons. More than twenty years ago, Richard M. Stallman, known as the "father" of this concept, set up the Free Software Foundation in order to launch the famous "GNU Project". His ambition was to give everybody the opportunity to use any software that was socially useful, and to facilitate its copying and modification, as easily as possible. He precisely defines four types of freedom/liberty for software users:

- "be free to execute the software, for any uses (liberty 0).

- be free to study the execution of the software, and to adapt it to your needs (liberty 1). To do that, the access to the open code is required.

- be free to share copies, and help therefore your neighbour, (liberty 2).

- be free to improve the software and publish your improvements, in order to provide the whole community with benefit (liberty 3). To do that, the access to the open code is required."
Obviously, these notions sound mainly computing concepts, but they have been transformed since then in tools that are used by the majority to break up with all kinds of fractures (social, ethnical, sexual...). Furthermore, the GNU has become a legal basis entitled GNU/GPL (General Public License) which permits appropriation without any obstacles (for more information, see the GNU site).

A common interest

Besides, this philosophy gives the opportunity to develop transcontinental projects of new endogenous media, based on Icts, in order to give value to economic, social, political and cultural alternatives ? as carried by women in the world ? and to analyze gender disparities on a global scale. Indeed, free software are, most of the time, free. No need to spend money, no more "robbery" is possible, no more violations of the intellectual property law, because there is no patentability system. Their setting up is a common interest. They allow local adaptations, particularly in the language field. If only one individual shows a need, that is supported financially or not by a specific body, and immediately the software are translated into a language, a dialect. The opportunity that is given to very restricted, retired or isolated groups, and particularly women, to have access to information and publication is therefore unique. Furthermore, this brings up a new way to look at the relations among the developers of free software. Some are therefore collaborative, participative, simple, in constant evolution in order to satisfy these criteria and demand which are in increase. No other software owner is able to perform this work, because of the underlying philosophy of benefit that governs them. There are free software which give the opportunity to publicize any contents without any computer knowledge, ability or technique. Therefore, there are word processing or computer-assisted software, tabloids, image processing, sound… and Web publication software, as well as read/write mails, or Web surfing software. These software don’t require any financial investment. To use them, it is enough to possess or download an operating system on your computer, which will carry them; it is the case of Linux ? free as well ? and many others. Then, it is enough to download them from the Web to use them out line.
The technical dependence on Microsoft is then reduced to a few weak elements; the corporate sector, NGOs, or any body of the civil society which "subcontracts" its computing works and… the internet servers. The latter often don’t authorize the download for instance of free Web publication software. However, a few "non-ownership" solutions already exist for the civil society actors or internet servers, and are made available for the whole public. Then, like the four Stallman rules, the access to the users’ guides of these software are a full part of the freedom/liberty that these software authorize. Like documentation, training can be permanent. There are electronic users or developers lists ? according to the level ? that give not only the opportunity to get new information of major improvements but also to get involved in them! And even though the internet connexion is not necessary, there are bridges between users and all those who have no access to the network. Concretely, if anybody downloads a word processing via the Web, he/she can copy it on an electronic support and send it to a neighbour, who will use it to publish a document, that he/she will print or orally re-transcript... So everything is planned within this "community" to go along with change.

Multiply the related effects towards equality

Therefore, these free software present the double advantage of demystifying the tools and developing the free access, included the multiplication of contents, without any restriction or obstacle, for a very low cost, and safely, in any language. This is very useful to break up the geographical, cultural, social and educational barriers. Bringing together knowledge, innovation, invention, success, good practices, becomes hence a commitment; it is a way to "understand each other" without imposing any model. The contents on gender reports and issues find particularly their meaning in this process. This participative philosophy gives the concerned people the opportunity to exchange experiences and know-how, as well as the existing obstacles and "structural brakes" in order to elaborate solutions and common strategies. As a collaborative philosophy, it multiplies the "leverage" effects, it sets up new dynamics, it encourages multiplication, diversity, as well as complementarity. As an interactive philosophy, it permits unlimited reactivity and accelerates the process of development and changes. Conceived in total complementarity with the Net, it ensures international visibility. Since less than five years, we have observed the development of websites, the setting up of oral ways of communicating ? for example, for diasporas and particularly women Iranians. It looks like a kind of virtual "room" in which internet users converge regularly at fixed hours to chat, and exchange their points of view thanks to operations of "sharing" contents - i.e. link up through automated ways ?, the multiplication of know hows such as research and iconographic expression, and broadcasting interviews in an audio shape…
Besides, all the contents that are set up and put together can be "reconditioned" or "re-packaged" under more classical forms; paper, radio, television, or even plays. In this way, it multiplies the means of dissemination and opens new strategies that can go faster than traditional medias. So why do we still hide? What are all the groups of women waiting for to appropriate these new tools, especially those who are working on gender and feminists issues? The convergence of intentions and strategies of expression between the "free" concept and the different movements for equality between men and women do not need to be demonstrated anymore. Now it is up to us to act!.

May 2004

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