FeaturesDialogues: Feminisms in design

XXVII.6 November - December 2020
Page: 49
Digital Citation

Negotiating borders through feminisms

Maryam Mustafa

back to top 

Feminist HCI and feminist approaches to design have been celebrated and widely adopted for their potential to have lasting impact on issues of agency, fulfillment, identity, equity, empowerment, and social justice [1]. And in recent years, researchers and practitioners have sought ways to incorporate the feminist design qualities of pluralism, participation, advocacy, and embodiment in their research and technologies [2,3]. However, the impact this academic body of work has on the design and deployment of real-world technologies remains unclear. Particularly in the Global South, there is little evidence to suggest that the most widely adopted applications or newly deployed technologies have incorporated the learnings from this body of work. In contrast to this academic work, it is interesting how existing technologies have been co-opted by women in patriarchal contexts like India and Pakistan to subversively navigate their constraints and push back against and challenge patriarchal boundaries. This implicit challenging of roles is generally not thought of as resistance or empowerment within academic discourse. Nevertheless, it is vital to understanding women's leveraging of existing technologies, and in shifting attention away from seeing women in this context as subservient victims of patriarchy [4].

Most technologies that users in the Global South mass-adopt do not necessarily embody the noble attributes of feminist HCI. And yet these technologies have had a profound impact distinctly on the women of the Global South and have been repurposed for uses unique to their situations and contexts [5]. I would argue that despite the potential impact that feminisms can have on interaction design, within the context of the Global South, technologies have had a far greater impact on feminisms and the related issues of agency, identity, empowerment, and equity.

Within the context of the Global South, women are singularly marginalized with restricted movement and little access to support structures or to mechanisms for redress or justice [6]. Their voices are silenced in public spaces, and sexual violence, abuse, and harassment are commonly used to further suppress and sideline them. But women in the Global South have also found ways and means to circumnavigate the patriarchal and misogynistic structures that constrain them. This complexity in how women in this context see their own agency and autonomy is not always reflected in HCI studies emerging from the Global South. This body of work often flattens and simplifies women's lives, robs them of their agency, and tells only a small part of a much richer and complex story, instead mostly focusing on their victim status and oppression. The everyday acts of resistance that these women enact to challenge patriarchal boundaries in the context of their daily lives is often missing from studies and conversations within HCI. For example, Phadke et al. in their book Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets [3] talk about the significance of loitering as an act of resistance by women to assert their right to public spaces. These acts of resistance found a new space with the introduction and ubiquitous use of mobile phones. Women in this context had a new way to leverage the platforms that were now available to them to carve out financial independence, seek social justice, explore their identities, form collectives to empower each other, and to have fun (the ways and mechanisms that women in patriarchal contexts employ to have fun and find pleasure is also a rare conversation in HCI4D). Technologies like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and TikTok allow them to negotiate within and around social restrictions without openly challenging them and to carve out more autonomy and agency for themselves—as they have always done. Despite the fact that these technologies do not necessarily embody feminist ideals, they have had a lasting impact on the feminisms of the Global South.


For example, women of the Global South have leveraged Facebook and Instagram to navigate around restrictions on work and mobility outside the home; in setting up thriving businesses that run from home and operate entirely on Facebook and Instagram, they can find financial independence. Facebook Marketplaces are a subculture within Facebook where women in India and Pakistan run successful businesses from home, market their products in these groups, and have access to large numbers of customers. Case in point: the group Sheops operating in Pakistan with 132,351 members that caters to home-grown, home-run female businesses. Similar groups exist in India, Bangladesh, and the Arab World.

Similarly, women have also co-opted closed Facebook groups, Twitter, and Instagram to share narratives of abuse—not only to seek social justice and find support but also to have conversations on what it means to be a South Asian woman and to live within the constraints of a patriarchal context, and as a feminist [5]. These groups and spaces are used not just to collectively navigate ways to push back on patriarchal boundaries within their own lives but also as forms of subversive resistance and spaces for empowerment. Women sidestep the shame and taboos associated with their sexuality and sexual bodies in their physical spaces by creating spaces for themselves online where the rules and constraints of patriarchy are suspended. These spaces facilitate conversations on female sexuality, sexual pleasures, and reproductive health, and enable the exploration of women's own bodies and pleasures.

While Facebook was not designed for these purposes, nor does it embody values of feminist design (it is not reflective of or intended to facilitate egalitarian and inclusive social relationships), it has been leveraged as a vital tool in the process of empowerment for women who have access in patriarchal contexts. Empowerment in itself is a complex concept often associated with multiple understandings and particularly challenging to implement in the field [7], especially in the Global South, where although evidently men wield the most power (a crucial element to any understanding of empowerment), women, as we have discussed, have employed implicit ways to also wield power and carve out agency for themselves. This agency looks and exerts itself very differently from Western notions of agency and autonomy [8].

Women have leveraged technologies like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to shift long-established power structures in their favor. Power as a construct can be unpacked as power over, which involves a relationship of dominance, power to, which relates to having the agency to make decisions, power with, which involves people organizing with a common purpose to achieve a collective goal, and power within, which relates to self-confidence, self-awareness, and assertiveness [9]. Women in the Global South have leveraged the affordances provided by technologies like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to navigate financial independence, resulting in a shift in decision-making powers, creating online safe spaces to organize and form collectives aimed at empowering one another and navigating ways to redefine their roles in society, and exploring their identities with respect to their feminist ideologies within their specific context and boundaries.

back to top  References

1. Bardzell, S. Feminist HCI: Taking stock and outlining an agenda for design. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2010, 1301–1310.

2. Kumar, N. K.-V. Engaging feminist solidarity for comparative research, design, and practice. Proc. of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 3, CSCW (2019), 1–24.

3. Phadke, S.S. Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. Penguin Books, India, 2011.

4. Kirmani, N. Can fun be feminist? Gender, space and mobility in Lyari, Karachi. Journal of South Asian Studies 43, 2 (2020), 319–331.

5. Fouzia Younas, M.N. Patriarchy and social media: Women only Facebook groups as safe spaces for support seeking in Pakistan. Proc. of the 2020 International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development. ACM, New York, 2020, 1–11.

6. Farah, A., Riaz, S., Barata, P., and Stewart, D. Patriarchal beliefs and perceptions of abuse among South Asian immigrant women. Violence Against Women 10, 3 (2004), 262–282.

7. Bebbington, A., Lewis, D., Batterbury, S., Olson, E., and Siddiqi, M.S. Of texts and practices: Empowerment and organisational cultures in world bank-funded rural development programmes. The Journal of Development Studies 43, 4 (2007), 597–621.

8. Mamood, S. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton Univ. Press, 2011.

9. Oxaal, Z., and Baden, S. Gender and empowerment: Definitions, approaches and implications for policy. Bridge Briefings on Development and Gender, Report No. 40. Institute of Development Studies, 1997.

back to top  Author

Maryam Mustafa is an assistant professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan, working at the intersection of human-centered computing and development. Her work engages feminist perspectives toward designing technologies that improve the lives of underserved populations, particularly in the Global South. maryam_mustafa@lums.edu.pk

back to top 

©2020 ACM  1072-5520/20/11  $15.00

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2020 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

No Comments Found