Networking Women

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
19 December, 2017
Editorial: 159
Fecha de publicación original: 16 marzo, 1999

You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs

If you are invited to a meeting of women where you are the only man, you might get the feeling that they know something about you that they’ve never told you or, something that they will, almost certainly, never tell you. At least that was how I felt when I took part in the international congress – “Las mujeres construyen el Mediterráneo del Siglo XXI” (“Women Constructing the Mediterranean of the XXIst Century”) which was held in Valencia on the 8, 9, 10 March. It was attended by women from all over the region, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey, Croatia, Italy, France and Spain amongst others. The subjects dealt with were highly topical. From “The socio-cultural aspects of Mediterranean diversity conditioning the participation of women as protagonists in development. Reconciling tradition and modernity.”, to “Access to information and the use of information and communications technology as a means to the participation and promotion of women in the Mediterranean area”. All the spe@kers during the three days that the congress lasted, were women. Except, that is, on the latter topic on which I participated in the round table discussion as a freak male.

The experience was, it goes without saying, a most enlightening one. I learnt a lot, an enormous amount, from the colourful debate, which had its own unique tones and an enormous importance as its title had implied. And, although the organisers, the Dirección General de la Mujer de la Generalitat de Valencia’s dynamic team, headed by Ester Fonfría, never told me exactly why I had been invited, I am very grateful to them for the opportunity they gave me to take part in this debate and, in so doing, open up the possibility of working with one of the most dynamic sectors in our society. For, if there was one thing that this meeting made clear, it was, that if women do not take the frying pan by the handle (the bull by the horns) – if you’ll forgive the expression – politicians will be drowned in their own verbosity as far as the Mediterranean area goes. And what happens in this area has all the signs of becoming a kind of testing ground for relationships between rich and poor in the Information Age and, particularly, the role that women are destined to play in this process. It is not just a cliché to say that education, health, procreation, the environment, inter-cultural relationships and employment for women, will become increasingly important over the years to come, and that the way these problems are dealt with will dictate the kind of societies that will coexist in the Mediterranean area.

As far as this is concerned, the role that women play in political events in the Mediterranean area, will depend to a large extent on their capacity for creating their own means of communication. A lot of the discussions that came up at the congress, despite the importance they may have for individuals or groups and the seriousness of the problems to be faced, contained certain ingrained weaknesses which, if platforms are not proposed on which all sectors involved can participate, both on a local and global level, will seriously undermine them. And information technology has a crucial role to play in this.

These technologies, which convert us into both emitters and receivers of information in the context of interconnected computers thus making it possible to access information simultaneously from anywhere in the world, open up a field of hitherto undreamed of opportunities for women. The present communications model has up until now excluded women or, rather, it included them only to the extent in which they were not masters (or mistresses) of their own voice. The world of communications has been made up to a large extent of intermediaries of all types who have taken it upon themselves to represent the specific problems of women. When women have wanted to build their own channels of communication, it has meant investing an enormous amount of energy with generally poor results because they have had to compete on foreign ground.

The crisis that hit this old model, with the bipolar world typical of the Cold War era and the rise of soft power based on technologies that expanded the area of human interaction, has definitely acted in women’s favour. Nevertheless, attempts to transfer human networks, generally characterised by geographical location, religious, ethnic and a wide variety of other identifying factors, into new telematic networks in which there is a high degree of interrelationship with other networks thus allowing for action that is not limited by local conditions, is not going to be an easy task. To get there, they will have to overcome not only the lack of basic telecommunications infrastructures but above all the question of perceptions regarding the far-reaching consequences of these new networks and how to work in and with them from a woman’s perspective.

As far as this is concerned, I would like to highlight just two points from an agenda which was obviously much more extensive than this. Over recent years we have got tired of reading study after study which put women at the tail end of all social groups when it came to the use of new technologies (all this really meant was the computer). We have heard all sorts of things from the idea that the computer is not suited to women, to the idea that its design follows a masculine logic. Those women who overcame what was apparently a congenital pathological technophobia represented just a minute fraction of the whole. This analysis is being applied quite frivolously to the Internet. It is taken for granted that if women were so slow at getting into word processors, they will be just as slow at using TCP/IP. What is not taken into account is that this was, in a way, hard power, in other words, a relationship with technology that was firmly structured from the exterior and whose working was closely related to complying strictly with “intuition” according to the engineers. All of us, not only women, have suffered from this irritating relationship with computer technology.

The Internet on the other hand is soft power, in other words, it is communication exercised on the basis of the design of the space itself where the communication is to take place. The technological aspects are to a large extent less important than how the technology works. What we are doing — and achieving — with it is more important than the way it works. To put it another way, women are innately good at creating human networks. Human networks that are cemented by their capacity for communication. And, the Internet allows these networks to move simply and efficiently to the powerful platform of interconnected computers that make up the Net. I would go so far as to say that if networks belong to anyone by some kind of ancient birthright, it would be to women. But, as it would probably be considered a mortal sin to do so, let’s pretend that I didn’t say it, even though it might be true.

In the second place, in the light of the aims of the meeting in Valencia, women will have to learn to use this technology to design their own communications spaces where there is an easy exchange between emitters and receivers. As far as relationships between industrialised and developing countries are concerned, only too frequently we are presented with a vision of the rights of the rich over the culture of the poor. On the one hand we have the rich who have an opulent amount of machinery and infrastructure and they must do something for the poor with their chronic lack of means. This deeply-rooted conception is due to, in the first place, the difficulties the former have with listening to the problems of the latter from the latter themselves. That is how we have reached a point where in the present model we are always told what is happening in the rest of the world without letting the rest of the world explain things to us in their own words. In the Information Society “they” will be coming right into our own living rooms and will tell us not only what they think is happening to them but also what we are doing to them which is why what is happening to them is happening.

The traditional autism that exists amongst women in a multinational and multicultural context when it comes to talking about specific problems and how to deal with them, seriously affects perception of these problems and any attempts to solve them. The social change that a networked world would imply would change the way this world is constructed. If relationships are different, if communication is different, if the way knowledge itself is transmitted is different then there is reason to believe that the problems and their solutions are going to be different as well. For example, the idea that the only way out of poverty is education has almost become a religious belief. And what is needed for that are teachers and schools. This supposes certain basic infrastructures. Nevertheless, achieving these simple objectives under present circumstances in many countries has meant an enormous effort with little to show for it: a few schools lost in the midst of very adverse circumstances of oceanic proportions.

The Internet should be used to break down this scheme of things and try to really make it possible to globalise education through different kinds of networks, whether they be collective apparatus that receive multimedia signals via satellite (as is the case in Mexico), from mobile telephones in collective telephone booths (Bangladesh) or any other tool that makes these technologies cheap and within everyone’s reach. The Internet should also be used to prevent women’s congresses beginning and ending with a physical encounter in a particular place. Just as important as the meeting in Valencia, or even more so, is the continuing communication amongst all the participants from now on, either through mailing lists distributed electronically or any other cheap mechanism of this kind. If women want their voice and actions to be determining factors in the construction of the Mediterranean region in the XXIst century, they must build up the communications channels which mean their voices and actions can be transmitted all around this area. If they manage to do this they will have made a giant step in the direction of overcoming many of the fears they expressed at the congress, such as exclusion, marginalisation and the certain risk of becoming isolated and not being able to take advantage of the fruits of the solidarity emerging from the human networks that they themselves are building.

Translation: Bridget King.