Global Resources

Technologies and power dynamics in women's public and private spaces

Author: F. Machirori
Publisher: Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa
Publication Date: Jan 2014

In 2012, trained journalist and blogger Fungai Machirori established Her Zimbabwe, the country’s first web-based platform for women. Machirori is also a contributor to other platforms, such as the Mail and Guardian’s ‘Voices of Africa’, the UK Guardian’s ‘Guardian African Network’, and Worldplus. In this article, she explores the use of technology and the power dynamics in women’s public and private spheres. In the paper, Machirori seeks to answer questions such as where are all the women in Zimbabwe’s social media? Have modern technological innovations silenced us? And is social media really challenging patriarchy, or simply aiding its perpetration?

Machirori begins by defining the term ‘cyberfeminism’ as relating to the intersection of social media and feminism, and explaining its idealistic premise; that modern technology would facilitate full expression of the fluidity of women’s identities. She then goes on to discuss how this dream failed, as it became clear that a new wave of male led industry was offering little space for women to claim full use and control over the new technology’s potential. In essence, it appears that a limited range of interests and pursuits have been packaged and marketed to women, by men, so much so that the while dominant use and consumption of social media lies with women, ownership and innovation remains the preserve of men.

The paper goes on to discuss internet usage among poorer and more remote women, and the potential that smart-phones have for increasing access to internet services. Currently, a woman is 24% less likely to own a phone than a man in Africa, and across the global south there are 300 million fewer female mobile phone subscribers than male. Machirori writes about the topic in the Zimbabwean context, referring to studies that provide evidence for the gendered nature of computer use at the University of Zimbabwe. Other topics covered include the hope resting on the urban, tech-savy generation emerging across the continent, and the preference for the more active sounding term ‘clicktivism’ (rather than ‘slacktivism’) to describe this new wave of digital activism.

Machirori concludes that we need to unpack the various issues associated with modern technologies, not just from the viewpoint of women’s consumption, but also their production and innovation. This kind of holistic approach is necessary to effectively evaluate the technologies real promise and shortcomings. We need to maintain awareness that these technologies represent a means, not an end, and that as tools, they can be used for both good and ill. While online spaces can provide a platform for women’s voices and stories to be shared, they can also open women to harm and new forms of marginalisation through cyber-violence, and a widening digital divide between urban and rural women. Although the utopian vision of cyberfeminism has by now been cast aside, there is still much hope for the capacity of cyberfeminism to thrive so long as African women use the tools for their own good, and marry the online space with work begun in the offline world.