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The shape of our feminisms

The shape of our feminisms

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Full text also available in the ACM Digital Library as PDF | HTML | Digital Edition

Tags: Cultural characteristics, Human computer interaction (HCI), Women

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Pakistan has a literacy rate around 59 percent. More than 71 percent of men are literate; less than 47 percent of women are. Pakistan ranks 151st out of 153 countries on the 2020 Global Gender Gap Index published by the World Economic Forum, being the lowest ranked in South Asia. According to the Mobile Gender Gap Report, Pakistani women are 38 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone and 49 percent less likely to use mobile internet. A patriarchal country, women in Pakistan are restricted in their use of physical spaces; a country where the simple act of "loitering" becomes a form of resistance. It is a country that has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in South Asia—186 deaths per 100,000 live births compared to 17 in the U.S. [1]. A 2009 study carried out by the Human Rights Watch estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of women suffer some form of abuse. In reality this number is much higher—abuse in Pakistan is typically not reported. According to one estimate, approximately 5,000 women are killed every year as a result of domestic violence [2]. A study by the United Nations found half of married women have experienced sexual violence, and 90 percent have been psychologically abused.

How does one begin to understand the design of technologies for women in this context? What do enabling technologies look like? In designing for women in non-Western contexts, the goal is to expand the understanding of what agency and empowerment might mean, and asking how can design be more inclusive of the different forms of womanhood outside the Global North.

I began exploring the different aspects of the lives of women in my country a few years ago. I came into this research—I must ashamedly admit—with an implicit bias, assuming I knew what they needed and what kind of technological solutions would "save" them. Instead I have been deeply humbled by the women I have met. The women I have designed with. They do not need anyone to design for them. I am honored that they allow me to work with them.

My work focuses on assisting low-income, low-literate women understand their financial needs, the potential for digital financial services (DFS) in their lives, their maternal and mental health challenges, and the use of social media platforms like Facebook. These women are usually fully aware of their constraints, their choices, the technologies available to them, and the limited utility of most of these technologies in their lives. And they have developed their own unique solutions to navigate their constraints. For instance, while studying the financial life cycles of women micro-entrepreneurs, one participant—an older woman who ran a small home-based business—informed us she was aware of the use of DFS for money management. However, such services were of little use to her as she never had enough disposable income to save in the sense of depositing and forgetting about it. Putting money into a digital account did not enable her to pay her vendors, contribute to her rotating credit association (her primary method of saving), help save for her daughter's dowry, or pay her child's school fee. And so her question was, what did we think DFS could possibly do for her? We did not have a good answer.


In designing for women in non-Western contexts, the goal is to expand the understanding of what agency and empowerment might mean.


While DFS is often pushed as a one-stop solution for women's economic empowerment and financial inclusion, the women who are the intended beneficiaries of these technologies are disdainful of the one-dimensional nature of such applications. In contrast, almost all women we have worked with are prolific YouTube users—mostly because it allows them to use voice search to find the things they are looking for. One woman we met relied on her daughter to search for the dramas she liked to watch. In our second meeting with her three months later, she had learnt to use the voice search function of YouTube and become self-sufficient in its use.

When it came to terms like agency, autonomy, and empowerment my understanding was based on a western-centric education and over a decade living in Europe. My work with the women of Pakistan has challenged many of these notions. For instance, before my research, I had no understanding of one subtle form of resistance by South Asian women that Kirmani and Phadke et al. [3] discuss: Loitering or hanging out with no purpose in order to claim public space and defy a male-dominated society. Given the restriction on women's movement and mobility in South Asia, this becomes a particularly important form of resistance, and one that is largely alien to the experience of Western feminism. Similarly, women in South Asia have leveraged the internet to resist patriarchy, navigate their constraints, and to empower themselves in novel ways. It is important, then, to think about how technologies might be designed with this particular brand of agency, autonomy, and empowerment in mind so as to enable women in diverse contexts to become a part of public and online spaces.

One empowering way in which Pakistani women have leveraged the web is by using closed Facebook groups. These are safe, women-only spaces run by volunteers who dedicate countless hours to moderating and maintaining the content. They provide a forum free of harassment where individuals can share their narratives of abuse, find support on running online businesses, and collectively think about what it means to be a Muslim feminist and challenge patriarchal norms. These safe havens have allowed many women to form collectives—something traditionally hindered by a lack of mobility and taboos about the presence of women in public spaces. In other cases, women-only online marketplaces have emerged as a powerful alternate to the male-dominated physical market places that exist in much of the Global South, providing a path to financial independence.

Such spaces are, however, limited in their reach and membership. Only so many women in the Global South are literate, have a personal device, have access to an internet connection, or have the knowledge to join such groups. The vast majority are still deprived of access to safe digital spaces that allow them to connect to a larger collective of like-minded women. It is up to us as designers and technologists to think about how best to create such an internet for/with the vast majority of women in diverse contexts around the world enabling them to transcend their physical constraints and leverage opportunities afforded in online spaces. Like South Asian feminist Kamla Bhasin, I like to think of feminism as water: "It's everywhere but it takes the shape of the container into which it is poured" [4]. And so my feminism is different perhaps from that of women in the Global North, and my technology usage and needs, constraints, and aspirations are also different. It is then important to understand the shape that different feminisms take to be able to create a truly free and accessible web.

back to top  References

[1] Mustafa, M. et al. Patriarchy, maternal health and spiritual healing: Designing maternal health interventions in Pakistan. In Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2020.

[2] Ali, P. A., and Gavino, M. I. B. Violence against women in Pakistan: A framework for analysis. Journal-Pakistan Medical Association 58, 4 (2008).

[3] Phadke, S., Khan, S., and Ranade, S. Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. Penguin Books, New York, 2011.

[4] Pool, H. Women on the edge of time. New Internationalist 474, (2014); https://newint.org/features/2014/07/01/feminism-women-edge-of-time

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Maryam Mustafa is an assistant professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan. A Fulbright Scholar, she holds a Ph.D. in computers from the Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany, and a master's from Cornell University (USA). Her research focuses on designing, building, and evaluating novel interactive systems with underserved populations in the Global South with a specific focus on the gendered design of technologies in patriarchal contexts. Her work has been funded by the Gates Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, and the International Development Research Centre.

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