Newsletter Sep 2011 - Apr 2012

Many campaigns taken up by the feminist movement in India, especially those in the context of women’s health, have focussed on criticising the newer technologies being introduced without looking at how the technologies would affect ordinary women in the country on a short- and long-term basis. Classic examples are sex determination using ultrasonography and use of hormonal injectable contraceptives. On the other hand, there have been attempts (especially more recently) to ‘empower’ women with technological skills. However, women encounter and use many other technologies as part of their lives and yet are not factors of equal concern with regard to the development of technologies, even when they may be beneficial for them.

Feminist Approach to Technology, (or FAT, as they delightfully call themselves) are a Delhi-based group that has been engaging with the issues of technology with a feminist perspective of addressing existing structures of technology and seeks to incorporate women as equal partners within it. They say, ‘Equal participation of women in all aspects of technology (including decision-making) is desirable to ensure that development and growth of the field is better balanced, to promote gender equality and women’s rights, as well as to see to it that any kind of technology does not affect women adversely.’ Like Alice discovered an alternate world through her looking glass, FAT, in collaboration with other feminist voices in the country, hopes to evolve a perspective solidly grounded in feminism to look at the technological developments in this rapidly moving world.

On October 14 and 15, 2011 Gayatri, Nandini, Hassath and other members of FAT organised a national consultation on the Women’s Movement & Technology in New Delhi. About 40 participants from 25 women’s groups from different parts of the country had gathered to draw up a collective road-map for future action plans. Many Saheli’s participated in this meeting. Here is a brief overview of the proceedings, discussions and action-plans emerging at the end of two days, based on our impressions and a summary report prepared by the organisers. [For more information check: http://www.fat-net.org/]

Scope and Contents of the Meeting

Since this was the first meeting in feminist circles which primarily focussed on technologies, the meeting covered areas which provided basic clarity about the theme. Thus, conceptual clarity on Women and Science and Technology (S&T), current situation of women and girls, the women’s movement and S&T were discussed as three major themes on the first day. Technology and capitalism and understanding science with a feminist lens were the themes for the second day followed by the discussion on action plan.

Chayanika from Forum Against Oppression of Women and LABIA (Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action), Mumbai, provided the conceptual framework for the consultation with her keynote address on the ‘Feminist Interrogations of Science and Technology’. She highlighted that technology is socially embedded and connects to our social, political, cultural and economic contexts. Feminists look at the issues in two ways - one that discusses how to increase women’s access to science, technology, engineering & mathematics; and the second stream that actually critiques the processes of science by bringing the lens of gender and patriarchy to bear on scientific knowledge and scientific enterprises.

Chayanika discussed the work of the ‘triad’ of feminist science philosophers -Evelyn Fox Keller, Sandra Harding and Donna Haraway -and how they changed the way we look at science today. She herself believes that knowledge and production of knowledge are different from each other. Chayanika concluded by saying that in the process of trying to get more women into science, we as feminists should change the nature of science education, evolve a feminist critique of science, and look forward to a different kind of science.

Other speakers at the consultation spoke on a wide range of subjects: how women practitioners of technology do not have an equal status with men in different professions and circumstances, eg. assessing the roles played by male and female technical staff in a governmental telephone department; the politics of gender-sensitive science education; the positive outcome of technical training of women; and even analyses of the effective use of social media internet governance and why feminists should care about it!

Making Sense of Technology: Re-visiting Some Feminist journeys

With this as the focus, Vani’s talk centred around certain kinds of knowledge systems and joint campaigns that the women’s movement (and Saheli in particular) have engaged with over the years through its advocacy and campaigns. She took the example of the health campaigns that gave us feminist activists the courage to question the authority of knowledge and the ability to make sense of specialised technical information. She traced health activism from its early campaigns against estrogen-progesterone (EP) drugs and the unethical trials on women from marginalised communities in Andhra Pradesh, to injectable contraceptives and implants. In order to demand government accountability, activists had to liberate themselves from hierarchies of knowledge of what we could and could not know, understand chemistry and bio-chemistry, short-and long-term impact on women’s bodies, the difference between major and minor side effects, and learn to roll off words like ‘thromboembolism’ without twisting our tongues!

In fact, these campaigns set the template for how activists fought health campaigns: at a social level, the implications on women’s health; at a technical level, understanding what the drug was doing; and at an intellectual level, demystification and dissemination of the information. In order to illustrate the texture of the campaigns, Vani played two clips from an iconic film made by Deepa Dhanraj in 1991, “Something like a war”. It showed how women’s bodies were abused in the name of family planning through sterilisation and the use of different kinds of invasive hormonal contraceptives, without informed consent of the women or any care for what these procedures were doing to the women, their bodies and lives.

The relationship of the women movement with technology has been contentious, especially where it concerned interventions in women’s bodies – be it for health or even reasons of ‘beauty’ that fit the norms set by the market and the patriarchal world around us. At the same time, we were not anti-technology, but rather have worked and have been made to navigate these “murky waters”. Debates have become much more complex with our growing awareness of how different the relationship is between technology and bodies when it comes to addressing issues related to disability or gender/ sex as well as reassignment surgeries.

Vani also linked these external dilemmas regarding science and technology with the internal dynamics that come into play while trying to work in a collective. Despite all efforts to remain non-hierarchical, there are inevitable hierarchies that crop up between us like class, caste and even the power/language of articulation. To that, one could add the ability to decipher technical knowledge. Activists would have to grapple with the different levels of understanding. We would need to work towards levelling out the inequalities that could crop up within the group. She summed up activists’ complex relationship with technology by saying, “We do want it, but we also want to make sense of it on our terms, make it relevant, move on and fight and deal with its complications.”

Women and Technology: For whose benefit, at whose cost?

Kalpana talked about the time the when socialist vision of the development pattern (as was being followed in the erstwhile USSR) led the growth of the public sector; science, education, industry and heavy industry contributed to national growth. She said that the project failed as it was compromised by domestic and foreign capital, but a well-hidden factor is that the public sector, across all indices, despite being subservient to private capital, performed as well as the private sector. She commented that the situation is very different today and went on to elaborate the differences and consequences. Women and men both are extremely aware of the pressures and dangers of working in an assembly line that has taken away the holistic or the skilled nature of work from them. The latest technology robs them of the essence of working and makes workers into easily replaceable automatons. These workers do not unite together, and thus pose no great threat to the capitalists. Technology is used in a capitalist society as a means to degrade workers, and to get rid of them and their militancy. Once a job is de-skilled, an entire reserve army will be available and workers themselves have very little value. Kalpana emphasised that with S&T in capitalism, whether on a shop floor or an end product, it is purely the profit motive which prevails.

In fact, Kalpana took the argument further to say that the market itself does not just fulfil needs, but rather, is an entire process of creating needs. The dominant thought today is not sustainability, but instead, how to make things obsolete faster so that new markets can be developed. So as people, we are caught in either the “worker” trap or into the “consumer” trap. Marxism talked about growth and capitalist condition as a pre-condition for revolution, but we seem to have reached beyond that point, in terms of environmental degradation and the power to destroy.

In India, the largest spender on S&T is the government. However, 82% is for defence or the armament business and only about 18% is for agriculture and industry. At one level, one is standing on a technological threshold with the possibility of a good and prosperous (not in the material sense) society. It is the political and economic system that hinders this and this is what we need to focus on.

Creating politically and socially neutral women scientists would be self-defeating. They should differentiate themselves from others through political education, awareness about environmental damage, social responsibility, valuing life and sustainability. This is the only way to strategise and plan for the future.

Feminists and Technology: Another perspective is possible!

Vineeta presented her “somewhat different take” on S&T as a feminist, scientist and a health activist. Because of poor engagements with issues concerning natural sciences and technology development, many people think of S&T as being two sides of the same coin. As concerned citizens, activists find many technologies unacceptable; by extrapolation, science also becomes unacceptable. She went on to explain the differences between scientific pursuit and technology development. She underscored that scientific knowledge is only a relative truth, not an absolute truth. Scientific research only explores models of the world and how they work; scientific pursuits and resulting increase in knowledge helps refine them. This pursuit is a chaotic, personal and elitist activity. However, technology is a purposeful activity based on apparently unconnected scientific information discovered over time, where innovative links are sometimes made. Technology consists of making artefacts or objects that can be used by or for the people who are often not involved in its development and are not experts in the field.

Vineeta further said, “As feminist and health activists and environmentalists, we do not have any direct control on the development of technologies. As activists we need to look at all technological development judiciously and function as a pressure group, trying to regulate undesirable spread of technologies and putting regulatory conditions for their use”. She described five categories of technologies, based on their actual and potential impact on human lives (specifically women’s lives) illustrating with specific examples: i. Technologies with implicit anti-woman formulation in conception, development and use (for example, asexual reproduction). ii. Not the original purpose but practice becomes anti-woman (for example, reproductive cloning & emergency contraceptives). iii. Secondary outcomes of technology, even if unintended, turn out anti-woman (mobile phones with camera & the Internet). iv. Very large scale use turns out anti-woman (ultrasonography & genetically modified crops). v. Dominantly acceptable, minimally objectionable technologies (male and female condoms, iodised salt). She further said that the individual ethical concerns inevitably creep in when we think of the acceptability of these technologies. As newer technologies develop, activists have to evolve their understanding about ethics. The analysis would be based on social and technological context. Which category would the emerging technologies be likely to fit? Contingent plans would range from opposition to regulation to acceptance. Solutions may range from legal strategies - working with the government to formulate women-friendly laws or modify old ones - to technological solutions to also finding partners who may not be working for profit-making artefacts.

Three among many thought provoking presentations in what turned out to be an exciting interaction over two short days. FAT is planning to hold regional meetings and consolidate on the discussions which took place in Delhi. There are also plans for capacity building and using the expertise of the group to analyse and critique national and state level S&T policies through a gendered lens. The meeting ended with enthusiasm and optimism for further discussions and plans to work together.