You #women, you #arock

There have been one or two people asking why the Mail & Guardian would launch an M&G Women site. The main reason, and the important reason for us, is that we asked our women readers, and they told us they wanted to see more content directed at women, and about women.

Not all of them, of course, just as not all of us at the M&G were convinced having a women's site was a good idea. We had fears of ghettoising content that could be categorised as "women's content"; we all shuddered at the thought that there could even be such a thing. There's no issue I can think of that could ever be exclusively of interest to women, just as there is nothing I can think of that would be exclusively of interest to men.

In the world of pure ideology, all content should be equal, and both genders should have the same degree of access to the means of producing and consuming content that interests them. (And here I'm using gender in a crude biological sense: at the beginning of the 21st century, only a fool would imagine we can define the constructs "feminine" and "masculine" in any coherent and conclusive way.)

But, unlike some of our critics, we don't have the luxury of living in a world of simple truths. I could go on pretending that the M&G has the same number of stories about women as we do about men, and we would get away with it, because we're probably one of the better examples of a South African news organisation that's committed to struggling towards a gender equality. But as a news organisation, we have to reflect, and reflect on, the news of the day. Not doing that would be doing a disservice to all our readers, irrespective of gender.

Given that the world, and most certainly South Africa, is still hugely dominated by men and phallocentrically-skewed data, we fight an ongoing battle to try and achieve gender parity in the news. It's not just the basic fact that most of the world is still controlled by men, and more importantly, by patriarchal interests, it's built into the very structure of how news is defined. (Or, to quote Caroline Criado-Perez quoting a Jane Austen character, "Men have had every advantage over us in telling their own story … the pen has been in their hands.") For example, there seems to be a perception that the worth of content is based on how "intellectual" it is (and the word "intellectual" is always defined by the people who claim it as currency). Unless you buy into the old-fashioned and elitist view that there are two types of content, serious and frivolous, and make sure you privilege the former, you are deemed not capable of making your own intellectual and ideological judgments. 

In the world of people who think they know what's best for everyone else, you aren't allowed to think that fashion is as important and interesting as the politics of the day, and you most certainly aren't allowed to think that it might actually be more important. This isn't a gender-specific censure, by the way, and you'd imagine people would take the time to think a little more clearly about why that is. I'm using fashion as a random example, but it could be anything, as long as it's capable of being placed into a hierarchy of power and shown to be wanting. The problem is not that we discuss the way Lindiwe Sisulu dresses, the problem is that we don't discuss the way Malusi Gigaba dresses (he's pretty snappy, actually). Politicians would be a lot better at their jobs if they paid a bit more attention to their haircuts.

And the world, or that massive bit of it whose survival depends on defining certain issues as both "women's" and "lesser", and imputing a false corollary between those two, thrives on this. We can't leapfrog the ugly necessity of fighting this battle, as much as it would be the path of least resistance. That great thinker and philosopher, and yes, great feminist thinker, Luce Irigaray, wrote about this "ugly necessity", in This Sex Which is Not One.

"Would it not involve a new prison, a new cloister, built of their own accord? For women to undertake tactical strikes, to keep themselves apart from men long enough to learn to defend their desire, especially through speech, to discover the love of other women while sheltered from men's imperious choices that put them in the position of rival commodities, to forge for themselves a social status that compels recognition … these are certainly indispensable stages in the escape from their proletarisation on the exchange market. But if their aim was simply to reverse the order of things, even supposing this to be possible, history would repeat itself in the long run, would revert to sameness: to phallocratism."

So we are very aware that launching a site called M&G Women can be construed as building a prison. But this is the digital age. We would never put a section in the newspaper called "Women", but this is because a newspaper is a small, highly curated object. It's easy to find all the content in a newspaper. The internet is different. It allows us a freedom that can become an oppression, where there is so much data that some inevitably gets privileged. And the mechanisms of privilege aren't just editorially imposed any more. Social networks and peer-driven aggregators determine what content moves to the top of the pile.

You have only to look at the recent experiences of Caroline Criado-Perez, the woman attacked on social media for daring to get the Bank of England to put Jane Austen on a banknote, to realise that the internet, and specifically social networking, is not a safe place for women. She was threatened with terrible things, and Twitter appears to be unable to control this. Here's an excerpt from an interview:

"What kind of tweets has she received? 'Gosh.' She looks embarrassed. 'So, for example, someone was talking about giving me a good smashing up the arse. Somebody said: "All aboard the rape train." Some guy tweeted another guy asking if he wanted to join in raping me.' Then there were the death threats. 'One was from a really bright guy who said: "I've just got released from prison".' She shows me her phone: "I'd do a lot worse than rape you. I've just got out of prison and would happily do more time to see you berried [sic]. #10feetunder." The tweet is signed Ayekayesa. There is another one, equally chilling. "I will find you, and you don't want to know what I will do when I do. You're pathetic. Kill yourself. Before I do. #Godie".'

We want M&G Women to be a place where this sort of abhorrent vitriol can be prevented, so all comments and interactions will be moderated before they go live. But this is the bad side of the net. The good side is that we are able to ensure that all top M&G Women stories will appear on almost every page of the M&G website, in the same way that Thought Leader stories do. Rather than being sidelined by the sheer number of general stories we publish a day, they will have a much longer life in front of potential readers. We believe that this will push women's issues to the forefront, where they belong, and with time they will become people issues. Again, critics could insist that they are already people issues, and again, I invite you to inhabit the real world of South Africa rather than the ideal world of your laudable dreams.

Every day, the pick of content on M&G Women will be featured on the M&G website's front page. Much of what the site does will be to curate content, which means that many stories will in fact originate on the main site and be treated as part of the general news agenda. There will be no decrease in the number of stories published on the main site. The beauty of the internet is that we can do two things simultaneously: have a safe, moderated area to discuss issues of women's rights, and ensure that the general mass of content also contains all the relevant stories. How long will the M&G Women site last? For as long as the majority of our readers tell us they want it. The M&G isn't in the business of telling people what's good for them, we're in the business of providing information and platforms that will help us work it out together.

Chris Roper is the editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian. Follow him on Twitter @chrisroper

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Follow Caroline Criado-Perez on Twitter @CCriadoPerez

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Chris Roper
Chris Roper

Chris Roper was editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian from July 2013 - July 2015.

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