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Communications of the ACM

Global computing

Online Social Networks and Global Women's Empowerment

Online Social Networks and Global Women's Empowerment, illustration

Credit: Alicia Kubista / Andrij Borys Associates

Social networks like Facebook hold promise for women regarding personal growth and social emancipation that physical spaces do not offer, yet virtual and physical spaces are intertwined in intricate ways. Explorations into new forms of selfhood and social life that emerge in and through social networks will be inevitably brought into relationship with traditional dispositions and practices that may be hostile to that change. When online discourses represent a challenge to `traditional' gender relations, the way in which Facebook management mediates online disputes can have profound offline consequences for sexual and social emancipation.

In this regard, the story Kiss Brian Abraham tells about Zambian women creating Facebook groups to initiate conversations about sex is pertinent.1 Zambia's culture of male hegemony is defined by the supremacy of Cisgender heterosexual masculinity; Christian principles of women's chastity have merged with traditional understandings of women's submissiveness to men to frame female sexuality as a means to satisfying husbands' needs and not as a woman's human right. Furthermore, in the time that these Facebook pages in Zambia were created (2010–2013), women were attacked and stripped naked in the streets by mobs of male assailants who were citing Christian and cultural principles whilst claiming that the women were wearing sexually provocative clothing.1

In their Facebook groups the Zambian moderators laid down their own cyberspace rules: persons who solicited sex or posted pornography would be deleted, the use of foul and insulting language was forbidden, mindfulness of each other and respect for others' opinions was encouraged and discriminatory gender norms that aimed to subordinate women were explicitly critiqued.1 In creating spaces for women to experience and express their sexuality in ways that would not be possible in the traditional private and public sphere, these Facebook pages were therefore nothing short of revolutionary. Abraham asserts that these Facebook pages, apart from being pertinent to gender equality and women empowerment, have done something revolutionary for Zambian society as a whole: "engaging with each other on the basis of shared interests instead of traditional identity is an act of critiquing the traditional status quo and opens pathways for others to follow."

Inevitably these pages evoked a strong response and Facebook itself was among those to respond. Linda Waleka Manda, the moderator of Real Adults Talk with Waleka, shared her experiences: "I started a page in 2010 and I would openly talk about sex, but then certain people found it offensive for a woman openly discussing sexual issues in public on the Internet, so they reported me to Facebook and my first account was closed."1 Because several of her pages were reported to Facebook and she feared them to be closed again, despite the fact that these pages did not violate Facebook's community standards, Linda started to create secret groups.

It can be argued that Facebook, in giving in to the objectors' demands, sided with Zambia's male hegemonic social order and implicitly supported that order's perspective that women should not have sexual agency. This would make Facebook complicit in the real-world crimes that happened in the aftermath of the pages' closures. In one case, a male involved the police, found out where the owner of the site in question worked, and attempted to scandalize her at her workplace. In another case, a student at the National Institute for Public Administration had her Facebook identity taken over, and naked pictures were posted. Lewd behavior is a crime under Zambian law, so she could have been physically arrested. There is evidence that this attack was orchestrated by a man whose sexual advances she refused. She had to change her real name, losing part of her identity and sense of historical self.

Facebook's response to the Zambian pages is not an isolated event. Other cases have been reported where Facebook took down pages critical of women's sexualization and discrimination, while sustaining pages that normalize gender-based violence.4 It is alleged that Facebook only responds to takedown requests that challenge male hegemony if not responding would involve economic risk, for instance when advertisers distance themselves from Facebook—something that happened after a coalition of women's organizations released an open letter in 20137 stating that they did not want to be associated with images depicting violence against women.3 Facebook may have been motivated in the Zambian case by respect for cultural norms and practices, taking the lead as to what postings were acceptable or not from what it considered as community consensus. But many cultural contexts are sexist, so such a stance could also amount to colluding with gender discrimination. Facebook and other social networking sites say they want to contribute to making the "world more open and connected."2,5 If so, they must be sensitive to how deeply male hegemony impacts online spaces, and how online sexism forms and informs offline lived realities.

It is a nice gesture to give a "feminist twist" to friends' icons.6 To be more than `window dressing', social networking managers must appreciate that it is impossible to have a genderneutral stance in a gender-imbalanced world and that commitment to social justice requires commitment to becoming gender aware. It might not be the goal but it can be the outcome of social networking sites to exacerbate gender discrimination. A gender-aware stance requires changes in design of moderation policies and systems. Facebook and other social media platforms should align their actions and systems to support the empowerment of women, and not to support the patriarchal social order. To do this they must distinguish postings in terms of intent. Sexual content posted for emancipatory purposes is not comparable to sexual content posted for soliciting or selling sex that is often degrading of women and female bodies, even when it seems similar. Intent is underdetermined by words and images. The meaning and purpose of postings should be informed by the values that drive the posting and the context in which it happens. Such design might require an upgrade of the systems that screen postings and reporting to involve human, social and computing elements and their interrelationships. Designing for social change is more challenging than designing for social harmony. Why should that hold computer scientists back?

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1. Abraham, K.B. Sex, respect and freedom from shame: Zambian women create space for social change through social networking. In I. Buskens and A. Webb, Eds., Women and ICT in Africa and the Middle East: Changing Selves, Changing Societies. Zed Books, London, 2014, 195–207.

2. Best, M.L. The Internet that Facebook built. Commun. ACM 57, 12 (Dec. 2014), 21–23.

3. Chemaly, S. Facebook's big misogyny problem. The Guardian (2013);

4. Dent, G. The day Facebook banned Clementine Ford.' Women's Agenda (June 22, 2015);

5. Facebook. Facebook Community Standards (2015);

6. Hern, A. Facebook gets a feminist twist with new friends icons, (July 8, 2015);

7. Women, Action, and the Media. `Open Letter to Facebook' (May 21, 2013);

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Ineke Buskens ( is an independent research, evaluation and gender consultant working internationally with emphasis on Africa and the Middle East. She has been the main editor of the two books published by the Gender Research into ICT for Women Empowerment in Africa and the Middle East (GRACE) Network. Kiss Brian Abraham is the GRACE Zambia team lead.

Copyright held by owner/author.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2017 ACM, Inc.


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