By Shobha SV
Ever felt annoyed that there isn’t enough information about your favourite Indian women writers online? You can do something about it today.
You know that Wikipedia is one of the largest encyclopedias in the world. You probably also know that Wikipedia also has a huge ‘gender’ problem. According to a study conducted by Wikipedia in 2011, only 9% of the editors at Wikipedia were women. India fares even worse. Only 3% of the editors in India are women.
Wikipedia reflects the same gender inequalities that one finds all around us. According to a report in The Atlantic In 2014, a woman Wikipedia editor who goes by the name ‘Lightbreather made a request to the Wikipedia administrators: a space on the site to discuss ways to enforce Wikipedia’s civility policy, one of the site’s “five pillars” which says editors should always “treat each other with respect and civility.” In a page set up to discuss Lightbreather’s request, the user Eric Corbett, who has at times been blocked from editing the site, told her, “The easiest way to avoid being called a cunt is not to act like one.”
Rohini Lakshane, one of India’s prolific Wikipedia volunteers and also was the chairperson of the gender gap initiative in India, feels that Wikipedia’s protocols can often discourage existing women from being an active volunteer in the space. As Livescience reports, Sue Gardner, former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, once researched the causes for women not editing Wikipedia. Her reasons ran from “discomfort with the interface to dislike of Wikipedia’s conflict-heavy culture”.
While I always knew that anybody could edit Wikipedia, it never piqued my interest before. I became interested only when I interviewed some female Wikipedia volunteers as a part of a research study by Internet Democracy project that looked into studying harassment faced by women for being publicly online. I was alarmed to learn how harassment was widely prevalent on the platform. In hindsight, it isn’t surprising at all. Like Laurie Penny says, “A woman’s opinion is the mini-skirt of the Internet.” And by that extension, Wikipedia as well.
Fewer women editors on Wikipedia definitely translate to one thing — less information about women and women-related issues. And invisibility of information related to women is akin to erasure. Another fall out is the general lack of gender sensitivity that can be found in the Wikipedia articles. A case in point is the Wikipedia entry of the 2012 Delhi gang rape. The page was apparently closed down for edits because it experienced rampant vandalism. The details of it all can be found here.
This is not an isolated incident. Noopur Raval, an active Wikipedia volunteer, in this article, shares her experience of editing an article on the Guwahati molestation case in 2012. While she was working on it, she felt that editors saw this article as the publication of a shameful incident and a misrepresentation of Indians. She says: “To write responsibly and acknowledge women’s expression is not a universally obvious and accepted notion and runs into obstacles given the stakes of people involved in women’s projects.”
Globally, Wikipedia editathons have been a regular phenomenon. Femtechnet, a global community of academics, artists, students, technologists etc. have been regular with their feminist interventions to combat the gender imbalance on Wikipedia.
In India, since the beginning of 2016, every month, a small group of people consisting of journalists, software engineers, lawyers, development professionals etc meet in Kailash Colony in Delhi and edit articles on Wikipedia. It’s a small but a committed group that feels strongly about matters related to gender and open knowledge. I am a member of the group too. I facilitate these meetings as a part of my work with Breakthrough, a human rights organisation and in partnership with Centre for Internet and Society. We plan on conducting a series of Wikipedia editathons around varying gender-specific themes throughout this year. This year, we have conducted editathons on the topics of gender and law, tawaifs of Northern India and Dalit women’s voices, among others.
Participating in a Wikipedia editathon is not exactly glamorous. We sit and read and then edit articles on Wikipedia following the many rules that govern the process. While editing articles pertaining to Indian women scientists, we found out we cannot use information on a scientists’ personal blog or a LinkedIN page as a reference. This meant trawling the interwebz to find out information from an acceptable information source.
More on what is considered an acceptable source. I was assisting Rajni Tilak, a well-known Dalit women’s rights activist, in sourcing some references to update articles about Dalit women writers. Rajni, who is also a writer, had written profiles of other Dalit women writers on her blog. But, we couldn’t use it as a source, because Wikipedia doesn’t allow personal blogs as references. She also edits a small journal, where her pieces about Dalit women writers have been published. But as it hasn’t been digitised, and is only available in physical form, it was not immediately available to us as a reference. The other references were some academic papers that are behind a paywall, and in English. Most of these academic pieces are by savarna women. It was frustrating to note that we couldn’t use the easily available resources (uploaded on a free blog) by a Dalit woman, but were allowed to use the academic paper written by savarna women, which was behind a paywall. It was frustrating because we were determined to use references primarily authored by members of the Dalit community.
Around two years ago, a male Wikipedia volunteer had remarked, “Allowing a woman’s rights organisation to write about gender related issues is like allowing Lashkar-e-Tayyaba to write about Kashmir!” I don’t know where to start about the number of things that are wrong about this comment. Thanks to Wikipedia’s neutrality principle, I am assuming that he felt there was a strong conflict of interest on the part of a women’s rights organisation to hold a Wikipedia editathon around the issue of gender. We wish to encourage more and more women to be a part of knowledge creation. It’s our belief that more women working to edit articles on Wikipedia will mean more knowledge and information about women on Wikipedia.
The events are open to all. We’re a very small but an active community in Delhi. This Saturday we plan to have an editathon on Indian women writers . If you’re in Delhi, do come! If you want to participate remotely, please leave behind a comment on the Facebook event page. What would also be wonderful is if interested feminist groups can start an editathon in their respective cities. All one needs is a laptop and an internet connection coupled with a lot of interest in the topic. If this interests you and you wish to know more, please don’t hesitate to tweet me @Shobha_SV.
If you want to participate remotely then leave a comment on our Facebook page.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons