FeaturesDialogues: Feminisms in design

XXVII.6 November - December 2020
Page: 46
Digital Citation

Encountering feminisms across borders

Neha Kumar

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According to South Asian feminist activist Kamla Bhasin, our feminisms are unique, like water—fluid, clear, essential—taking the shape, form, color of the "container into which they are poured" [1]. And as waters mix and become impossible to separate, so too is the case with feminisms. Encounters are seldom forgotten, leaving us and our feminisms forever changed.


Here I pay tribute to a few recent encounters that have been uniquely memorable in this regard. A few weeks ago, I found myself in the same (virtual) room as five incredible speakers who bring feminist perspectives to key debates around technology design. The speakers were Catherine D'Ignazio, Nassim Parvin, Shaowen Bardzell, and Pragya Saboo and Navya Nanda. D'Ignazio, Parvin, and Bardzell are leading academics at this intersection, and Saboo and Nanda are entrepreneurs who recently co-founded a women's health and wellbeing startup in India. The speakers presented back to back in an action-packed session, where the audience consisted of an interdisciplinary and global group of researchers and practitioners. As I listened to one excellent talk after another, I was struck by the scholarly and activistic commitments of each of these remarkable women, as they described their sites of intervention in the world and spoke passionately about what it meant to them to design for social change.

D'Ignazio recently co-authored a widely acclaimed book with Lauren Klein titled Data Feminism [2]. In her talk, she laid out the seven principles of data feminism and discussed how feminist thinking might be operationalized to imagine more ethical and equitable data practices. She then presented challenges around building technologies to support counterdata collection by activists and civil society organizations who are working to fight gender-based violence against women and femicide in Latin America and the Caribbean. The courage to examine and challenge power is to ask the hard questions of design, and of the worlds that exist.

Parvin picked up where D'Ignazio left off. Her talk was about exactly this simple act—asking the hard questions that might help us to change course. Drawing from her recent work with Anne Pollock on the political uses of the term unintended consequences [3], Parvin discussed the uses and misuses of the term, a seemingly mundane phrase popular in science and technology discourses, demonstrating its power in advancing techno-utopic interventions and visions. Here feminism took on the courageous act of challenging long-accepted, dominant modes of knowledge-making that perpetuate oppressions, so that we might explore a shift in course.


Shaowen Bardzell's talk took us from Parvin's discussion of unanticipated consequences to "anticipatory design" and ways of imagining not only an incrementally better world, but a radically better one. Presenting the case of the Formoonsa cup, a menstrual cup design project in Taiwan, Bardzell discussed how design can engage in emancipatory politics in the domain of women's health [4,5]. The product development of this particular cup was noteworthy not only in its design but also in changing the legal status of menstrual cups in Taiwan, as it challenged the value ascribed to hymen maintenance as an expression of purity and morally upright womanhood. Here we saw feminism take on the courage to imagine aspirational futures for the women in the country.

The glimpses of preferred and possible futures that the designers of the Formoonsa cup wished to realize were also visible in the final talk of the day, where Saboo and Nanda displayed their entrepreneurial courage and resolve to destigmatize women's health in India. In a country where women's health topics are taboo even in circles of the highest socioeconomic privilege, Aara Health aims to provide avenues for learning and support. The feminisms of the four cofounders instill in them the courage to pursue aspirational futures and a better, more equal world.

Listening to these talks, I found myself rejuvenated and filled with hope. The feminisms of these speakers left me with a little more courage—to reexamine the pasts I take for granted, reorient the presents that are in the making, reimagine the futures that might be within reach, and revitalize the pathways for getting there. To me, then, feminism imbues design with courage—the courage to believe that change is possible, as with the Formoonsa cup, and to work toward it with persistence and resolve. Moreover, these talks served as a reminder that the journeys through this change need not take place in isolation from one another.

Our speakers included researchers and practitioners from a range of disciplinary backgrounds—urban planning, design, human-computer interaction, healthcare, and others. What brought them to this shared venue was the desire for more just and equitable futures. Never mind that the struggles to which I am committed were not represented in quite so many words through these talks; I found myself drawing parallels to countless stories of agency and resistance that I have witnessed through my research regardless. It is in these stories that our struggles come together—theirs, mine, and many others'—and that we find a common ground on which to stand and fight. Our feminisms, even when they originate and evolve differently, afford us this common ground—what one might call friendship and a sense that we belong. Such a friendship I have found in Maryam Mustafa as well, whose work on women's health and well-being in Pakistan—across the border—inspires and connects deeply with mine in India [6,7].

Note: The talks described above were organized as part of the X4D virtual speaker series (https://sites.google.com/view/x4d/home) that I have had the pleasure to help organize in recent months. Bringing together individuals with a smorgasbord of "4D" interests (e.g., HCI4D, ML4D, etc.), or interests in bringing about technologically mediated social change more generally, this series aims to pack an hour every month with four 15-minute talks on topics that cross disciplines and epistemic boundaries. The audience represents a range of interests and commitments, including those who are drawn to or repelled by the idea of technological interventions for driving social change, and others in between.

back to top  References

1. Pool, H. Women on the edge of time. New Internationalist 474 (Jul.– Aug. 2014); https://newint.org/features/2014/07/01/feminism-women-edge-of-time

2. D'Ignazio, C. and Klein, L.F. Data Feminism. MIT Press, 2020.

3. Parvin, N. and Pollock, A. Unintended by design: On the political uses of 'unintended consequences.' Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 6 (2020), 320–327.

4. Ng, S., Bardzell, S., and Bardzell, J. The menstruating entrepreneur: Kickstarting a new politics of women's health. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 27, 4 (Sep. 2020) Article 21; https://doi.org/10.1145/3397158

5. Bardzell, J. and Bardzell, S. 'My peaceful vagina revolution': A theory of a design. In Funology 2. M. Blythe and A. Monk, eds. Springer, 2018.

6. Kumar, N., Karusala, N., Ismail, A., and Tuli, A. Taking the long, holistic, and intersectional view to women's wellbeing. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 27, 4 (Sep. 2020), Article 23; https://doi.org/10.1145/3397159

7. Mustafa, M., Batool, A., Fatima, B., Nawaz, F., Toyama, K., and Raza, A.A. Patriarchy, maternal health and spiritual healing: Designing maternal health interventions in Pakistan. Proc. of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2020, 1–13; https://doi.org/10.1145/3313831.3376294

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Neha Kumar is an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, where she conducts research at the intersection of human-centered computing and global development. neha.kumar@gatech.edu

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