How GeDIA has impacted my feminist practice
Written by GeDIA member Chisenga Muyoya // Co-founder of the Asikana Network in Zambia — a social enterprise that increases the participation of women and girls in technology.
Being involved in GeDIA has had a positive impact on my feminist practice, both as an individual and in my capacity as a feminist activist and a leader. I was excited about this project from the very beginning, as it has to do with three things that I care very deeply about – women, technology and Africanness! What I did not expect was how much I have grown and been challenged to be even more reflective and intentional about what it means to be an African feminist.
There are many definitions of feminism and pluralities of African feminism(s) (see this excellent run down by Rama Dieng). At its core, feminism is about equality of the sexes, about identifying power differentials, and reclaiming and redistributing that power.
Kimberlé Crenshaw popularised related theories by coining the term intersectionality and this further highlights intersections with race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, education, etc., and how they affect an individual’s power and voice. My personal praxis is informed by principles of care, community, and critical reflexivity. I try to apply intersectional feminist thought in my PhD research, in my work with Asikana Network, women and technology in Zambia, and in just being an individual navigating what it means to exist in all the spaces I occupy — rarely a straightforward process!
In GeDIA, we established early on that we care about women and about equality and agreed to apply feminist principles and values within the network. As part of the GeDIA leadership, I am honoured to work together with four amazing women: Dorothea Kleine (the principal investigator), Fiona Ssozi, Amy O’Donnell, and Ulrike Rivett. I have been able to learn many valuable lessons from these women and other network members, from planned and unplanned side conversations, through our workshops, and all the wonders of online collaborative work! Below are the most important.
Context is Queen
We set out with an intention to situate gender within context, something that is usually fairly obvious when doing any kind of gender work. However, after a few conversations, we quickly realised that our understanding of gender varied across our different operating contexts. It was necessary to take a step back for additional conceptualisation. We held a panel discussion as a way to unpack the concepts. Network members shared their understandings of gender and the key issues unique to their contexts (Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, and comments from Tanzania and South Africa). Each operating context will be explored in further depth in the future; however, this was an essential first step. It was especially important for us to avoid falling into the trap of generalising the ‘African’ experience.
In this vein, I was also challenged when working with Brenda Wambui on the literature review for our project work stream, focused on digital advocacy. Her work set a strong foundation for the development of the research agenda. This was not only because of the intentional focus on African authors and on capturing African voices and narratives from different country contexts, but her careful attention towards non-binary definitions of gender.
Brenda worked hard to avoid strictly man/woman categories. This is something that is especially difficult to do given the limitations in the existing literature and a particular trap in the measurement of technology and data use. She was able to draw on writings of authors such as Ugandan activist Professor Sylvia Tamale, who discusses the elasticity of sexuality and gender in some pre-colonial African contexts. Brenda augmented such literature with sources from the vibrant online dialogue where feminist ideals are contextualised and articulated within daily African experiences in direct contrast to a common perception that they are simply reactions to Western feminisms.
All of this forced me to ask difficult questions about my own work and practice. After running a women-in-tech organisation and participating in gender advocacy for the last 8 years – what definitions do I use? Why do I use them? Where do they come from? How have they changed over the years? While I write and talk about not treating African and Zambian women as a monolithic group, am I guilty, in my actions, of replicating some of these practices in the name of efficiency? It also forced me to truly consider what it means to think of gender as fluid and non-binary in my own country context. This is something I have grappled with (to a limited extent) through exploratory reading, but it still seemed like an abstract occurrence in other parts of the world. I have never attempted to situate it in the religious and legally conservative context that I grew up in, where ideas of what it means to be ‘Zambian’ and ‘un-Zambian’ are regularly repeated through music, media and political platforms.
Actively seek out different voices
In line with that, I realised that I needed to actively seek out new and different voices within my own and similar contexts. Feminist activism is about standing up against unequal power. To stand up for equality or to do anything against the grain of social norms inevitably leads to some degree of conflict. Anyone working in these spaces over time will accumulate friends, acquaintances and allies who think in a similar way (which is still vital! But I talk about that in the next section). However, there should always be room to hear from the lived experiences of others who have different views. We must always be careful that we are not complicit in censoring and silencing other voices. If everyone around you is saying the exact same thing with no room for rebuttal, then you might have found yourself in an echo chamber!
To address this, late last year I joined ‘Feministing While African’, a platform for feminists, LGBTQ+ and other gender minority activists from across the continent to have a safe space to critically discuss their experiences as well as to unpack topical issues as they unfold in their countries.
Opening up my world in this way has helped me be bolder in my practice by dealing with things that may be uncomfortable, and unpacking my own internalised patriarchal, heteronormative, and binary social norms. It is so much easier to go along the path of least resistance and tidy discomfort away in an “address one fine day… maybe never… not unless I absolutely have to…” box. But doing so robs us of the opportunity to learn and grow. It does not mean that you have to agree 100% with every new thing you come across, but that you should at least critically engage with it and be able to sift through and articulate why you land wherever you do. This means not just seeking out different voices, but really hearing what they are saying and trying to see things from their point of view.
Find networks of self-care
It is also helpful to find people you trust who are on a similar journey and are willing to puzzle things out with you. These are people who can provide a space for private and unfiltered conversations where there are no awkward questions. Any form of activism is hard work because it often does not stop when you shut off your laptop at night. This means that there is a need to be intentional about emotional recovery, including having people to decompress with. It not only serves as a means for mutual learning but also enables co-reflection and processing. I find it quite re-energising to know I am not alone and have been very grateful for a lot of the conversations with GeDIA network members. I have especially enjoyed talking through how our different positionalities affect the lenses through which we see life with Amy O’Donnell with whom I co-lead one of the workstreams.
Having these spaces within the GeDIA network is especially critical with the rise of cancel culture – a phenomenon that started out as a way of calling out celebrities on social media for aspects of their lives that are deemed problematic. This has since morphed into ostracising even regular people for things that might be said or done in error. Whether or not cancel culture itself should be cancelled remains a highly controversial debate (see, for example, these articles by Brooke Kato, Nicole Dudenhoefer, and Chi Luu).
I believe there have been some positive outcomes especially in raising awareness about everyday and institutional racism in instances where other approaches have failed. In this way, cancel culture is a form of mob justice that stands in the gap where privilege and power impede forms of justice that should ideally work but do not. However, it sometimes confuses judgement and self-righteousness with activism and veers into the dangerous territory of bullying.
For example, some women exploring Zambian expressions of feminisms have confessed to self-censoring on Twitter and being unable to openly engage in discussions for fear of being publicly called out for asking the wrong question in ways that could negatively impact their reputation. ‘Cancel culture’ at its extreme does not take growth into account and makes it difficult for people who are trying to learn to genuinely have online conversations with people outside of their circles who are different from them. These attitudes have contributed to a recent re-emphasis on the feminist act of ‘calling in’ — addressing someone privately about their oppressive behaviour and attitudes. This is for other people who are already within the feminist movement but are imperfect just like the rest of us and are willing to learn and grow. In the GeDIA network, we have endeavoured to be accepting of the diversity of positions and positionality, while encouraging cross-learning and insisting on respectful dialogue.
Keep learning and be kind to yourself
I acknowledge that my feminist practice is constantly evolving and this requires regular and iterative reflection. Growth comes in many different forms — sometimes it’s knowing more; sometimes it’s reacting differently to similar situations; sometimes the growth is as simple as being able to better articulate your thoughts and experiences; sometimes it is being kinder to others who are at a point in their journey that you were at in yours yesterday; and sometimes it is being kind to yourself and knowing you will not be where you are now tomorrow.
It is remembering that it’s not always possible to apply your values 110% in every single situation and in every single area of life. Sometimes there are unavoidable tensions and concessions. But the important thing is to have individually, and sometimes as a group, the intellectual and interpersonal humility to accept imperfection, to keep trying and to keep learning even in the uncertainty and moments in-between!