Bloomberg BizWeek asks: is Wikipedia woke?

Whose Knowledge? gets featured in the Bloomberg BusinessWeek – and far more importantly, US media begins to see the multiple dimensions of gender, race, language, location… (especially the global South) as part of the ongoing Wikipedian efforts to be more plural and diverse. Shout out to all our friends and allies who are mentioned: you rock!

Dimitra Kessenides did a great job navigating the complex universe that is Wikimedia. And I’m honoured that she used some of my work as the frame for the story. She ends the article with this:

Like many people in the “free knowledge movement,” as some in the Wikipedia world describe themselves, Sengupta has been discouraged by the rise of nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiments in the U.S. and Europe. But they see Wikipedia as a potential bulwark against those tides—if it can live up to its own ideals. “Making Wikipedia more plural and diverse in terms of who edits and what they edit is one of the most effective ways in which we can move beyond the stereotypes that exist all around us,” she says. “There is something very, very meaningful about this moment in time.”

Feministas, African Women’s Development Fund and Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi get mentioned right at the start (courtesy of my first ever Wikipedia article).

A frustrated feminist aside, though: why do media groups find it hard to understand shared leadership models? Whose Knowledge? wouldn’t be what it is without the co-scheming of Siko Bouterse. Our knowledge production and storytelling can go beyond the individualist paradigm, and still be compelling.

Whose Knowledge? at the AWID Forum

We set up a Wikimedia user group! This means we join a set of formal and informal organisations within the broader Wikimedia movement, who are thematically or geographically focused around free knowledge.

We wrote a pretty fun grant report (oxymoronish, hmm?) in which we reported back on what we did. As I wrote in it: “I had many fascinating conversations about Whose Knowledge? and Wikimedia at the AWID Forum. But one of my most delightful (and delighted) stories is of supporting Lebanese activist Nadine Moawad, to learn how to create a well-sourced and written Wikipedia article. We uploaded a stub on Isatou Touray, and then spoke of her first foray into Wikipedia editing in 2010, with a stub on a Lebanese women’s rights advocate. Nadine had felt upset with the way a patroller had treated her then, and thought her article had been deleted. We went looking for it. Not only does the article continue to exist – Laure Moghaizel – but it has since been improved by over 10 other editors, and translated into both Arabic and French. By the time we finished our Wikipedia editing session, Nadine was planning an editathon in Beirut!”

…and here’s the op-ed we wrote for on our mapping.

Aamra bhulbo na, Agniva

This is the form of Wikipedia editing I hate the most, updating an entry to reflect the passing of an inspiring human being. Agniva Lahiri, rest in power, and in amusement at the foibles and ironies of this world. Was it only a month ago that I reached out and you told me about setting up the first Asian transgender home in Kolkata? I hope we can make it happen in your memory.

I’ll miss the adda and the shared cackling at different points in time in our connecting stories. I’m heartsick, once again, at the struggles my trans friends have to go through to be seen and to be, fully. I’m so sorry your body gave out on you, but your spirit will not. Aamra bhulbo na.

Where On the Internet is Your Knowledge?

So Siko Bouterse, Carmen Alcázar, María Sefidari, Sydney Edmonds Poore and I are off to Bahia, Brazil, in a week. We’ll be at the AWID Forum – a gathering of 2000 feminists from over 40 countries – as the Wikimujeres delegation. It’s going to be a powerful opportunity for different avatars of mine to come together – the feminist with the free knowledge advocate – and a wonderful space to meet old friends and new.

More on what we’ll be doing there, in this piece I wrote published by AWID, Where On the Internet is Your Knowledge?

…our knowledge is not yet on the internet as it should be. Whether it is our lives as women, our experiences as feminists, our histories as indigenous peoples, our struggles as trans women, our analyses as black academics, our achievements as disability rights activists… very little of our complex knowledge and wisdom is easily accessible to the rest of the world.

Why is this a problem? Because the internet is becoming the default reference and library of the world, especially for young people and powerful decision-makers. And the less we are seen, the less we are heard, the less we are known… the more difficult it is for us to inspire, to challenge, to change the world.

For those who’ll be at the AWID Forum, come find us! For those who won’t be there, join us virtually! @WhoseKnowledge will be launching its mapping process, and all the #WikiMujeres will be working on improving Wikimedia content on feminists and women’s human right issues. We’re excited!

Seeing each other fully: IRL, on Wikipedia

This has been an extraordinarily complex 24 hours. On the one hand, in the Wikimedia free knowledge world, I am celebrating Christophe Henner and Maria Sefidari being made Chair and Vice-Chair of the WMF Board (there’s power for you). And then the new Board’s bold and brilliant decision of making Katherine Maher WMF Executive Director, removing months of possible uncertainty and waste in a fell swoop (there’s leadership for you). And the Wikimedians of the Year being declared as Emily Temple-Wood and Rosie Stephenson-Knight (there’s almost redundant affirmation for you; Emily has been my Wikipedian of the decade for a while now).

On the other hand, there’s the world beyond, the expanse of the ‘real world’ these past few days: the awfulness of the Brexit vote, the portents for the November election in the US, and the overall environment of hate, racism, xenophobia, and ‘othering’ of multiple kinds. And yet, these two worlds are connected. In multiple ways.

Take as an example, the two English Wikipedia articles on the Orlando shootings and Jo Cox’s assassination in the UK, both awful, gut-wrenching acts of violence and hate in the past weeks, occurring days of each other. The descriptions of the perpetrators in the lede paragraphs are currently this, respectively: “The assailant was Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old American” and “A 52-year-old man was charged with her murder and will stand trial under terrorism protocols”. In the Orlando article, the lede goes on to describe Mateen’s alleged (and disproved) links with ISIL. The Cox article has nothing further in the lede, not even the name of the proven neo-Nazi Thomas Mair, who shot her; you have to scroll down to the end of the article to find a single paragraph on the man. Omar Mateen has a long, separate, article on him. Thomas Mair doesn’t. In previous versions of the articles that I remember seeing just a couple of days ago, Omar Mateen was described as ‘being of Afghan descent’, while the unnamed (from the start of the article) Mair was believed to have ‘a history of mental illness’ and links to ‘right-wing extremism’.

These two articles demonstrate both what is extraordinarily brilliant and amazing about the Wikimedia community – and what is deeply, deeply troubling, and needs shared, collective, reflexivity and leadership. The fact that they exist, that 608 distinct humans have worked so far on the Orlando article and 243 on the Cox article, that each iteration is meant to improve in all good faith, the substance and quality of the article… all this matters, is meaningful, and worthy of celebration. At the same time, the fact that these brilliant, passionate, committed authors have their own systemic – possibly unconscious – biases of how they describe the perpetrators of these crimes, while possibly lacking the self-reflexive thought on how that impacts countless innocent people tarred unfairly with the same biases… that is the critical challenge for the future of knowledge on the internet, and far more broadly, the critical challenge for the future of our world as we live it today.

What does each of us take away from reading these articles as ‘fact’, as ‘information’, as ‘knowledge’? What ways of seeing the world, of seeing *each other* do we imbibe?

I deeply miss being at Wikimania right now, celebrating the joys of moving on from mayhem with some sense of balance and thoughtfulness. Yet I urge everyone who is lucky enough to be at Wikimania to look at each other today and over this weekend, and ask yourself this question (as I asked it of senior leadership at the WMF a few years ago, to uncomfortable silence): ‘Do we in this room even begin to represent the swathes of humanity that exist in the real world, that are on the internet today, that will be on the internet tomorrow? How can we possibly begin to design with, create with (*with* _not *for*), and amplify the knowledge of, those who do not look like most of us in this room, and who have had very different life experiences?’.

My hope is in the fact that people like Katherine, like Emily, like Maria, like Christophe – they are brave enough to ask this question of themselves, and of each of us, knowing that the answers are going to be messy, uncomfortable, painful, and yet will lead us in the only direction worthy of free-as-in-‘libre’ knowledge. Towards a world in which we truly see each other fully. Whether on Wikipedia or in the real world.

We Also Made History

Over the years, I’ve learnt how much the histories and voices of marginalised communities can be made invisible, rendered unheard. And in an intersectional world, those who carry multiple invisible/unheard identities are discriminated against the most. The greatest irony, of course, is that in most cases, these identities – privileged or disprivileged – are accidents of birth. Race, sex, caste… did you choose to be born as you are?

What we do choose is how we understand and live with our privilege and power, or its lack. For me, it’s been (almost) a lifelong learning process of understanding the privilege and contradictions of being born into an ‘upper caste’ family in India. And of rejecting that system for myself, and more structurally.

But some of the bravest, most resilient women I have known over the years are Dalit women who have faced multiple forms of oppression, of discrimination, and have fought, challenged, and sometimes triumphed over human-made awfulness. And yet their lives and struggles are rarely marked by the rest of us.

In a tiny contribution to seeing and hearing and marking these lives, my week 4 contribution to the ‪#10wikiweeks‬ challenge is a stub on We Also Made History, the first book ever to pull together a history of Dalit women’s contributions to the anti-caste Ambedkar movement in India. It was unbelievably difficult to find reliable sources, even for such a notable addition to historiography. When was the original published? In 1989, in Marathi, and in 2008, as an English translation. This is not ‘old’ archived material; this is contemporary scholarship that has gone relatively unmarked by Indian scholars and media.

I’m reading the English version now, I’m saying their names.

Musawah and other musings

Three weeks ago, I decided to give myself a #10wikiweeks challenge: write a Wikipedia article every week, for ten weeks. The first two weeks, I wrote about Freedom Nyamubaya and Peggy Antrobus, amazing feminists from Zimbabwe and the Caribbean, respectively. Now I’m into Week 3, and it happens to be the first week of Ramzan/Ramadan this year. So here’s my iftar offering: an article on the incredible network of global feminists working on feminist interpretations of Islam, Musawah. Many of those in the network are personal inspirations, and they delightfully confuse and confound the stereotypes around Muslim women (as though this is a homogenous category). I would love to know how many of you knew Musawah existed, and how many of you are surprised and pleased to know what they do. Ramzan Kareem, everyone!

I also snuck in an article earlier in the week, on Ayize Jama-Everett, the inspiring African-American science fiction writer I heard at the Bay Area Book Festival last weekend. I’m rarely shocked by gaps in the English Wikipedia, but this one did surprise, given that Ayize is a US citizen, and has written a fairly acclaimed trilogy. Wonder why he got left out, despite obvious notability? People do often choose to write about what they know (and whom they look like), including on Wikipedia.

As Siko Bouterse and I have said on Whose Knowledge?: there is a historical process of socio-cultural colonisation and imperialism that has outlasted the territorial. In a sense, the ‘global South’ and the ‘global North’ are political terms of geography, history, as well as ideological and material dis/privilege: there is a ‘global South’ in the global North and vice-versa.


In protest

I’m too sickened by all that’s going on around and about me to write much today. I’m just going to point towards the various online petitions I’m signing and the on-ground protests I’m sympathising with – and hope that somehow, somewhere, something changes for the better… Tomorrow better be another day. Or as Yoda might say: Another day tomorrow better be.

About the siege in Lebanon, a description from within, and anti-siege protests from within Israel (the latter much tougher to find online than the former). And two petitions against it: Justice for Lebanon and Save Lebanese Civilians.

About the Right to Information Act of India and the government’s proposed amendment: to remove file notings from much of the decision-making conveyed to citizens (so what does that leave of the ‘information’ given to us by ‘public servants’ and ‘polity-cians’, hmm?). A petition against the amendment.

Continue reading “In protest”