Dismantling Patriarchy Alone? Online Spaces and Serving Feminist Collective Good

I am constantly seeking to build on my feminist knowledge and I spend most of my free time trawling through social media, blogs and any source readily available for black and/or African feminist content. In the last weeks, two interesting articles on feminism in the age of social media became a point of debate in my friends circle.

First was  Jessica Horn’s piece in Africa Is A Country where she bemoaned  the misuse of social media by feminist “online influencers” to the detriment of the feminist movement and feminists who may not be comfortable using online fora to air their views. A recurrent argument in the piece and among friends was around intentions behind these influencers’ pages and that many posts were not a reflection of feminism per se but more a strategy to advance their individual goals/notoriety. 

Horn’s piece was then critiqued by SistaSeeker who pointed out the value of these spaces in providing a space for younger feminists with limited access to networks and feminist organizations to be active. She also highlighted that being an influencer did not require having organizational clout or being necessarily connected to a wider group, and rather that this displayed a different way of movement building. In her words, “Social media feminist influencers play an important role in reminding us offline and institutionalised feminists that the ‘who’ in feminist movement building matters less than the ‘how’.”

Friends and I went back and forth between who was right, the challenges with connecting younger feminists with older feminists, access to feminist networks, whether social media was a useful tool or a dangerous tool, and how this all affects the collective. These conversations were extremely rich for our collective learning, and I’ve tried to summarize some of the lessons and additional questions which we continue to grapple with. The focus is on African feminist spaces, and the intent is to generate further discussion on some of these issues as we stumble along on this enriching, and extremely challenging feminist journey. 

 1 – You’ve got to do the work

Feminism is complex and intersectional and cannot be understood or engaged with in a vacuum that’s removed from other complex issues. Social media feminist influencers, whose feminist militancy is only determined through social media, do very little of the knowledge building that needs to frame feminist engagement in public spaces. Often, it is unclear whether tweets or similar online posts are opinions expressed as facts, or arguments grounded in something beyond one’s individual experience. There’s no excuse for this in a world where so much information is available freely online. One really no longer needs to belong to an institution or have access to paid journal subscriptions to access feminist literature, Google and countless feminists have done all the work for us already. Read, share, write and build your advocacy on the foundation that already exists, it can only make your voice that much stronger and louder.

2 – The movement is key

Many feminists, especially online, are driven by personal experiences and are often disconnected from the collective movement. Can we truly have a movement without connecting with past and current feminisms and feminists? The answer is a resounding no. One cannot dismantle patriarchy alone. The hard question we have to ask ourselves is whether our thinking is truly original, or if someone else out there already shares it. How do we engage this person? Are the forms of engagement we’re proposing different? How are we getting this information out to an audience that’s not just hungry for information from an individual influencer, but also to others active in these public spaces?

3 – The generational gap is a concern 

African feminism has a large presence in the development space and tends to be monopolized by the sector. Unfortunately, most feminists who are leaders in these spaces are older, and  are often criticized for being gatekeepers; few are deliberate about youth-led and youth focused engagements. Are they doing enough to connect with younger feminists who exist in different spaces and are engaging differently? How do we move from a point where younger feminists are being invited into spaces by older feminists to one where young feminists are doing the inviting AND have their own space? Overall we need to focus on shared learning, and this hardly happens in silos or vertical institutional hierarchies – neither of these are feminist. How do we get people from across the generational divide together to foster collective learning, collective care, and embrace all the diverse ways of engagement that social media offers today? We often get lost in the subjective when really what we should value is the collective.

4 – Feminism is growth

Becoming a feminist requires you to deconstruct and reconstruct your many selves as you unlearn and learn new ways of being. You cannot do this on your own and especially not without connecting with other feminists. In addition, especially online, there is this underlying assumption that anybody posting or having an opinion must be an expert and always be right. The ease with which judgement is delivered and receipts are kept to shame people for changing their minds at one point or another is honestly quite scary. As feminists, we believe in growth, but we don’t give people the space to grow online, especially those we call influencers. There is value in recognizing that feminists online, and elsewhere are on the same journey of growth, both those who we assume know it all and get our knowledge from, and those who are just beginning.

A key question that came up for us was how does one use social media and one’s networks online to critically engage and respond to questions we are grappling with? Are influencers clearly delineating between those issues which they’re seeking clarity on, and those arguments which they’re asserting? How can the online space serve our collective feminist growth, without scaring people away for fear of being attacked for learning something new, changing their minds, or just simply asking questions? There needs to be a space for goodwill/empathy on the readers side of these online exchanges, and humility on the writer’s side. 

5 – Feminism is accountability

A growing concern is that social media influencers speak ‘authoritatively’ about complex and intersectional issues, without checking facts or connecting to existing conversations. We’ve got to be accountable in all the spaces in which we engage, if not for ourselves but also for those who dedicate their lives to the cause. These very feminists who we read about, admire, follow, learn from and critique. How do we collectively channel the power of social media in more constructive ways given various feminisms and the different ways in which movements can be built and strengthened? 

We can be loud on social media without hindering a collective movement that has been built on decades of knowledge generation and driven by strong African voices.  Yes, we have to be aware that often we crowd out voices in these spaces, especially in a world where we’re all increasingly obsessed with getting all our information in 120 characters or less.

In a world where we increasingly care less about knowledge and more about speaking and influencing irrespective of framing and accountability, we need more reflection.

The lingering questions that I still have are: how can we truly do the work? Especially for those of us who are disconnected from great academic work, or who don’t work in the development world, or do not have the time to delve into feminist theory?

How do we connect with others to learn and grow, as we figure out how to use this beast that social media is to strengthen the movement? Do we connect online/offline, stay in our small circle of friends or reach out to a professional network? What if we don’t like social media, or understand it, or have no time to engage on it? Which is the best tool at any given time really to channel individual experiences into the collective movement? 

At the end of the day, it has to be about our collective futures. We don’t need to all agree or do things the same way, because feminism already recognizes our varied background and experiences, but beyond not drowning each other’s voices, we need to listen, learn, engage and amplify each other. 

Nadia Ahidjo-Iya is a feminist, currently living in Senegal. Find her on Twitter @Asmaaouu