Challenges of the new means for feminist ethics: Experiences from Cuba

Still with limitations, Cuban feminists are gaining ground in cyberspace, a “virtual world” from which they have started having an influence on the local reality with concrete demands.

Foto: Jorge Luis Baños

A symbolic revolution has gotten to our lives in the last decade with the appearance of the social networks and the new Internet media, where the news hierarchies are being diversified and the notions of the intimate, the ethical and the private are beginning to change.

Between 2000 and 2015, the penetration of Internet has increased almost sevenfold in the world, going from 6.5 per cent to 43 percentof the connected world population. Every minute, one out of 13 persons is on Facebook and 11 new accounts are created on Twitter to join the more than 500 million that exist today. Who we are as persons is no longer just defined by our concrete reality: physical, emotional and intellectual, but also from that other alternative space that forms our digital identities. That emerging need to be on the networks in order to be has started imposing itself in the contemporary world and, consequently, to pour into that space the ideological battles of our era.

The cybernetic social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and others have become, in less than a decade, an extension of reality, in an alternative ego where the private and the intimate are re-established, another space for social interaction in which ideological causes and social movements alternative to the norm have been poured. From that point of view they are a new scenario for activism.

The feminists knew how to use, from early on, those notions of democracy and freedom of information advocated by the Internet, and many of them inserted in it part of the battle for the gender equality rights. With its overabundance of contents, the Internet is for the feminism of the 21st century a space of democracy to position their proposals, absent in the traditional media’s agendas.

Thus, new agencies have emerged with a gender perspective that takes advantage of the virtual presence and the use of the social networks to defend equity. A precursor of that tendency is the Latin American and Caribbean Women’s News Service (SEMlac), whose origin dates back to 1978 and has varied until it has become extensively inserted in digital formats.

Other portals like the Women’s Communication and Information –CIMAC, theRed Internacional de Periodistas con Visión de Género, Mujeres en Red,ArtemisaNoticias, AMECO – Spanish Association of Media Women Professionals -,ComunicarIgualdadandPikara Magazinehave been founded since the 1990s until now, with the idea of showing information that is an alternative to the patriarchal media tendency.

Based on the analysis of some of these platforms, Argentinean researcher and activist Lila Pagolaaffirmed five years ago that “the challenges of the feminist communication practices on the web are concentrated in two priorities: the urgent appropriation of the resources of the web 2.0, that boost the collective intelligence of women, and the active participation in the discussions that the web 3.0 is modelling, to balance the priorities, visions and decisions today made about the future of communication, the management of information, privacy and security on the Internet. The incorporation on the feminist agenda of positions on the political dimension of technology, accompanied by coherent actions is urgent.”[1]

Though in recent yearsprogress in that sense can be perceived, the challenges that the conscientious and effective use of the ITC’s resources involves for activism are similar, the same as for other social movements like those of the indigenous people, the antiracists and the LGBTI (lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals and intersexuals). The use of the new means to mobilise continue being incalculable.cel_MG_4892-copy

In this sense some examples can be cited, seen in terms of mobilisation from the social networks, like the call to meetings of feminists during the protests of the 15-M or Spain’s “indignant”protest movement from 2011 to 2015, convened through Twitter.The campaign of protests that was able to stop the Gallardón Law to regulate abortions in Spain in 2012 was also accompanied by the Internet social media, and from that same space a march against sexist violence was convened this June 3, 2015 by the #NiUnaMenoscampaign, which covered around 100 cities of Buenos Aires.

Initiatives like the Dominemos la tecnología(Let’s Dominate Technology) campaign made up byLatin American communicators from different countriesalso promote the use of the cybernetic tools for the emancipation of women and they denounce the small presence of women on the networks and the Internet.

 

Citizen mobilisation from the Internet, a possibility for Cuba?

The aforementioned context is still uncertain for Cuba, where less than 20 per cent of the population has Internet, the wide band does not exist and the digital gap remains, with great differences between the academic professional sector and the main body of the population that, in their majority, has barely interacted with the World Wide Web.

Compared to other countries of the continent, Cuba is one where an Internet connection costs the most, is slow and restricted, among the worst of all of Latin America. In 2014, the country of almost 11.2 million inhabitants had more than 1.67 million computers, with half of them connected to the Internet, according to the 2015 Statistical Yearbook published by the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI). Meanwhile, the number of users on the web reached 3.48 million, an almost five per cent increase with respect to 2013. This situation places the island in the proportion of 271 Internet users per 1,000 inhabitants.

A great many of these persons use the Internet from their workplaces because they are health professionals, especially academicians, intellectuals, artists and journalists. There are also 118 navigation centres throughout the countryopened in 2014, whose service costs 4.50 CUC (one CUC is equivalent to close to a USD) for one hour, and since a few months now the possibility of connecting to areas with WiFi located in public places at 2.50 CUC per hour was opened with the Nauta system of the Telecommunications Company of Cuba. In short, almost two decades after the appearance of the Internet, mass access from Cuba continues being scarce, slow and filtered by political criteria.

However, this does not prevent ideological battles to be waged from there, indispensable for the current and future nation, and for them to start being present in citizen participation spaces that, from the virtual, aim to have an influence on the social and political changes for the island.

According to researcher Elaine Díaz, in a recent article published inUnivisiónNoticias, “the use of the Internet in Cuba is marked by the consolidation of a wide variety of spaces on the web for the debate and discussion of matters of public interest, despite the service’s scarcity and slowness.”

For Cuban feminism this has been a fundamental means of impact in the last ten years, and has been able to be more consistent than other experiences of activism in concrete reality. In fact, it we wanted to characterise the split course of this movement in the country, the will to express from the new means is one of the significant features. Cuban feminists have created blogs, but have also been using the comments on articles published on the web, publishing through the social networks and the email chains as fighting tools.

 

Cyber-feminism in context

There has not been a lack of references to cyber-feminism to name those who use the Internet to spread the objectives of the gender liberating thinking. But in the Cuban case, few experiences reach the levels of awareness related to this concept.

The term was coined by the Australian group VNS Matrixin their 1991 manifesto, where they propose exploring identities and sexualities in cyberspace. With time, cyber-feminism has become one of the most important currents in the struggle and movement of women[2]in contemporary times. Those women who defend gender equality from that space are generally digital natives linked to cultures like cyber-punk or the cyber-girls (cyber-guerrillas).

That ideological perspective recognises a patriarchal slant in the design and industrial production of technologies, in addition to the sexism in the hegemonic representations and contents in these means. It also accentuates the potentials of a communication zone characterised for being open, free and non-hierarchical.

The cyber-feminist theories and practices challenge unequal relations of power between men and women in the ITCs, explore the relations between women and digital technologies, research how they affect and point to the creation of networks and the conquest of territories like the cyberspace based on the development of new forms of participation.

The emblem of Cuban cyber-feminism is the blogNegracubanateníaqueser, created a decade ago by Afro-feminist Sandra Abd’Allah-Alvarez Ramírez, and until now the only one that has remained with systematic updates, spreading and questioning Cuban reality, its history and its culture based on a markedly feminist ideology.

There are also other examples of feminist cybernetic participation in Cuba, like the blog “En 2310 y 8225” byYasmín Silvia Portales, that of theAfrocubanas project, of the ArcoírisLGBTI activism project, and, more recently, the virtual collaboration initiative AsambleaFeminista, created as a blog in 2014 byZaida Capote Cruz, LiriansGordillo Piña and Helen Hernández Hormilla.

All these spaces are characterised for maintaining a collaborative profile and critical view of social reality, similar to observatories that denounce the strategies to reproduce patriarchy on the island.

For lack of means in which to express themselves within the Cuban official and institutional channels, it is frequent to find that the feminists have started using the Internet to defend their agenda.

The subjects most debated in these spaces include making visible and combatting violence against women, the public treatment of the demographic situation, the interrelation between discriminations, the sexist cultural representations and institutional male chauvinism, among others.

Just like in other areas of public life in Cuba, the social networks and the Internet media are becoming alternatives to achieve the feminist citizen expression and certain paths of social participation not guaranteed by the daily political structure.

If we ask ourselves why this space has been chosen by many Cuban feminists to extend their criteria and demands, the argument appears of the lack of regulation characteristic of the web. That supposed ideological democracy of digital information makes it possible for the criteria placed on digital platforms to escape the regulations of control over the information flow of the traditional media in Cuba. Thus, in blogs and social networks it is possible to insert issues and news absent in the official Cuban press, specifically that of the inequalities caused by the gender differences.cel_MG_4950-copy

On the other hand, the deficient penetration of the Internet on the Caribbean islandmakes it difficult for what is reported there to have an impact on the wide majorities of the nation. Looking at it this way, activism on the social networks and blogs could be in the process of being “tolerated” by the government information control mechanisms due to the improbability that it turn into concrete actions to demand public policies.

Even with their limits, the terrain won over by the Cuban feminists in cyberspace, a “virtual world” from which they are starting to have an influence on the local reality with concrete demands, is unquestionable.

This participation above all focuses on the discourse, and it doesn’t have a frequent impacton the wide majority of Cuban women, most of them disconnected and alien to these alternative debates. The closed circle that characterises feminism on the island is reproduced here, since the cyber-feminists also belong, fundamentally, to the professional and academic sectors, with resources and capacities to interact with the new means.

Sandra Álvarez, the most constant and visible of the Cuban cyber-feminists, believes that “the social networks in Cuba offer the same possibilities as in other countries: to take the struggle for equality to the digital scenario. But it also allows for establishing alliances to make visible certain contents, establish collaboration networks, etc.”[3]

This supportive union of the feminists in the virtual sphere is becoming one of the most interesting discoveries when reviewing the activism for gender equality in the social networks and blogs in the last five years.

Team work became the strategy of some informal feminist networks that played a role in the web platforms with unprecedented actions for the dynamics of citizens in the country with a socialist government.

Following I will present three relevant examples in which the Internet and the social networks have become means of expansion for positioning the agenda of gender rights in the Cuban public debate. In all the cases, the participants were able to intensify the feminist demands thanks to the collective support and in some there was an attempt to go beyond the virtual, seeking the authorities’ interlocution to obtain public policies to benefit women.

– On March 8, 2013, feminist intellectualsDanae C. Diéguez, LiriansGordillo Piña, Marilyn Bobes, Luisa Campuzano, LaidiFernández de Juan, Sandra Álvarez, Helen Hernández HormillaandZaida Capote Cruz signed the document called“Todas contra la violencia”as a reaction to a public letter by writer Rafael Alcides, in which he defends his colleagueÁngelSantiesteban, imprisoned for causing serious physical injuriesto his ex-wife. Santiesteban’s condition as a political opponent unleashed a strong campaign of international solidarityby activists and organisations in favour of freedom of expression, which reached the point of denying the attacked woman’s condition as a victim.

The feminists’ call denounced the re-victimisation of that woman, the silence of the Cuban authorities regarding this and asked for zero tolerance for the mistreatment of women, no matter the origin of the mistreatment. They called for intensifying, multiplying and permanently making visible a public campaign against all types of violence, especially the one against women. “Those laws that prevent or penalize it and the debates that have taken place in academic spaces and on the occasion of specific campaigns must be made public,” they wrote.

The text, which first circulated through email and later on blogs and social networks, gained hundreds of signatures of important intellectuals from the island and from more than eight countries. Another two declarationswhich were made public were signed that month by the group, which concluded by demanding a lawon gender violence for Cuba and meeting for this with the authorities in charge of dealing with this type of norms. The demands of the feminists were published, but did not receive a concrete reply from the official entities. The objective of generating debates on the need for a law against gender violence in the country was not met. However, the action in the media served as support and protection for the victim of the mentioned case, and placed before public opinion the need to create mechanisms to see to cases of gender violence in the country.

Afrocubanas, foundedin 2012 by a group of Afro-descendent women to make visible the double and triple discrimination suffered by black and mixed-race women because of their skin colour and gender in Cuba, began as a blog managed by the late Inés MaríaMartiatu, with the assistance of Sandra Álvarez. The conception of the virtual space rapidly migrated to concrete reality and became a platform for exchanges, training, research and collaboration between black and mixed-race professional women, which resulted in a published book (Afrocubanas, 2013), debates and trimonthly gatherings, researches, among other projects..

– Less than a year ago, feminist blogger Sandra Álvarezcreated from Germany a new Facebook group called “Cuban Feminists,” with the idea of sharing from that virtual space information, knowledge, debates and, in perspective, struggle causes. Women from different parts of the planet who identified with that ideology, from diverse disciplines, but all of them university graduates and in their majority social sciences graduates started linking with that group. The community currently has 116 members who maintain a systematic feedback about what they produce and even what worries them. What is paradoxical about this process is that that cybernetic initiative has become the only group inclusively conceived to gather women who recognise they are part of this ideology on the island. Though there exist and have existed feminist groups and institutional organisations or programmes working the gender subject in the country in the last two decades, the will to create a network that would join the feminists from a different perspective is to date a non-resolved desire, despite having been a recurrent presentation in all the debates about gender and feminism held on the island in the last five years. The virtual this time makes up for the lack of the real space, like an illusion of unity that at times is fictitious and at others paradoxical. It seems that amount of “Cuban feminists” has been able to group together on the web, but their necessary unity in concrete reality to solidify common agendas is still a chimera.

 

The new digital means’ challenges for feminism in Cuba

To think that the presence of Cuban feminists on the social networks and cyberspace will lead to a real change in the inequalities between women and men in Cuba would be too naive. For this to happen it is necessary to accompany the cyber-activism with an activism present in the day-to-day of the population, and with the concrete exigency from the authorities, with the possibility of transforming into positive the rights of Cuban women.

The new digital means involve unprecedented challenges for Cuban feminism, which still does not represent a common political movement or project in the style of other Latin American nations, but barely the incipient desire to struggle for common rights, in a desire that many times is presented as individualised and excessively unionised.

What is denounced and demanded from the Internet seems to be ignored by the authorities with the ability to legislate and cannel the feminist concerns, if we take into account that only in very few cases have official statements been achieved. The political participation of cyber-feminism on the island would seem to be complicated due to the inability to have a social reach in concrete reality, as if it were going through an illusion when “saying” when the “doing” is tangled in a context still without effective mechanisms for the spontaneous mobilisationof citizens. However, little by little a public and massive debate is being forced in Cuba about the issues being promoted by feminism.

From that paradox and based on my own experience as a feminist focused on the web scenarios and the social networks, I conclude by including here opportunities and challenges toachieve greater effects when using the new means based on that feminist ethics.

Opportunities:

Denunciation of stereotypes: The networks are still flooded with images and information that ends up strengthening the sexist and patriarchal stereotypes, and the presence of cyber-feminists with a sharp eye to denounce these contents is fundamental. The blog NegraCubanateníaqueserhas echoed a great many cases of denunciations of posters, publicity campaigns or sexist articles. The comments on works published on the Internet also allow for directly replying to the male chauvinist criteria of certain authors and, if they are in the official media, a formal denunciation of the discriminatory discourses can be made.

Principal space for the feminist denunciation and the presentation of demands. The blogs, alternative media and social networks are almost the only alternative means for the militant feminism in Cuba to express itself, since the official media generally do not represent this type of focus.

The growingdiasporaof persons studying gender and who recognise themselves as feminists in Cuba makes the process of unity to not consolidate much. Especially, many of the young women formed in these subjects and with a feminist awareness have opted for emigration or for studying abroad, which is why their space and influence on national reality ends up being limited. The Internet is a space to maintain this group updated and to mobilise it according to the common demands from different regions of the world.

The contents of the digital means and the social networks are not regulated by the State, editorial policies or institutions.This has made it possibleto discuss from blogs and Facebook or Twitter accounts pressing problems for Cuban women, like the double work shift, cultural sexism, racism, male chauvinist violence, occupational segregation, among others.

 

Latent vulnerabilities:

But let us not believe that the social networks are neutral and absolutely democratic spaces, less so for a country where we are barely literate in their use.

New forms of male chauvinism and gender violence appear with the intensive use of the social networks and platforms of the web 2.0, like an amplification of symbolic aggressiveness, cybernetic harassment, offenses, defamation, jokes and the delegitimisation of groups traditionally excluded by the patriarchal culture. It is not by chance that the principal victims of the invasion of privacy from the social networks and blogs are women and LGBTI persons, and the cyber-feminists have to be prepared for this type of debates.

In fact, even though we are not totally penetrated by the Internet, Cuban youth is reproducing bullying and harassment through technology and feminism has still not inserted itself in this debate.

Women theoreticians of cyber-feminism are beginning to criticise the existence of digital gaps that mark the access to technology, according to the differences and inequalities of power that define the social class, the country or region of origin, race and, of course, gender. On the other hand, several researches point out that the same discriminatory values, identities and stereotypes of society in general are voiced on the web.

Moreover, the masculinisation of the hacker culture and the scarce participation of women in the ITC community are being questioned from feminism.

While the social networks and the new means that characterise the web 2.0 redefine the spaces of intimacy and privacy, their critical view is linked to feminist ethics, which centres a great deal of its visions on the personal as expression of the public or the political.

According to Spanish researcherVerónicaSanz: “The feminist movement has boosted a new ethics, an ethical transformation of society for the wishes and needs of women to be taken into account, with the necessary changes in routines, lifestyles and social habits.”[4]

The social networks and the new Internet means are efficient tools of contemporary Cuban feminism, but their presence must be assessed from an always critical perspective, with suspicion.

For the Cuba of today, the challenge continues being how to connect the virtual debate with the concrete transformation of our lives, in favour of greatergender equity.

How to insert the majority of Cuban women, or the different groups that define them, into the debates on the web?

How to be really participatory and be united from these new means to articulate a possible feminist movement in Cuba?

In what way to face sexism and the growing vulnerability of women exposed to cybernetic violence?

Can we become literate to gain a more participatory access of Cuban women on the Internet?

Transcending the apocalyptic visions, appropriating the tools the ITCs present, but with a constant critical eye on the demobilisation that they could also represent continues being for us a horizon and a challenge. (2015).

 

[1]             Lila Pagola. “Sensibilización tecnológica: mujeres construyendo la sociedad del conocimiento”. In Las palabras tienen sexo II. Artemisa Comunicación, 2010.

 

[2]                      “Las tecnologías de la información desde el punto de vista de género: posturas y propuestas desde el feminismo” VERÓNICA SANZ GONZÁLEZ* Instituteof Philosophy, CSIC

[3]                     Interview with the author of this work.

[4]                     In Sanz, Verónica. “Las tecnologías de la información desde el punto de vista de género: posturas y propuestas desde el feminismo”. Available on http://isegoria.revistas.csic.es/index.php/isegoria/article/viewArticle/10.

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