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Freedom, Empowerment, and Choice

As one of the paramount values used to define democratic media systems, “freedom”—of expression, the press, the media—is conventionally argued to be at risk in the face of feminist advocacy for equal rights. This tension is regularly expressed in debates about the media and social justice, whether at the local, national, or international level. For example, the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA), adopted unanimously by 189 member states of the United Nations at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, acknowledged the media as one of twelve “critical areas of concern” that must be addressed if equality between women and men is to become a reality. The BPfA identified two overall strategic objectives: (1) to “increase the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication”; and (2) to “promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media.”26 Yet negotiations during the Beijing conference led to the introduction of the phrase “consistent with freedom of expression” in relation to many of the media proposals in the BPfA—a reminder of the highly contested nature of this particular “critical area of concern.” Resistance to actions perceived as threatening media freedoms intensified in the years after Beijing, with the widespread adoption of a neoliberal economic model and market-driven policies propelled by the World Trade Organization (WTO), which was formally established in the same year as the Beijing conference. For instance, in 2000, during the Beijing +5 review and appraisal, the US delegation stipulated in its reservation statement that nothing in the outcome documents could be considered binding on the media.27

The apparent impregnability of “freedom of expression” discourse in the domain of media and social justice gives rise to an inevitable question: whose freedom, defined by whom? Clearly, rights and freedoms are not gender-neutral. To illustrate this, feminists have focused on the concept of freedom to highlight gender inequities and to argue that women’s right to freedom of expression and information is severely limited by layers of structural, economic, and cultural constraints. This means shifting conventional understanding of freedom of expression away from “freedom from government control” toward a conception that acknowledges the right of women, as well as men, to be informed and to have their voices heard. For example, starting with the question, “Can free media be only a male domain?” Patricia Made has pointed to the shortcomings of the influential 1991 Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press. By ignoring internal gender biases within media systems—biases which mean that “the media do not provide access to expression to more than half of the region’s population: women”—policies like this, she argues, have failed to link “democracy, freedom of expression, governance and issues of gender justice to the editorial content of the media.”28

Such arguments have yet to find much resonance within either media organizations or media policy-making institutions. For instance, in its 2010 review of implementation of the BPfA in the European Union, the European Women’s Lobby concluded that “women and the media remains one of the objectives of the BPfA which is most neglected by the EU and its Member States.”29 Nevertheless, the BPfA is still considered by many to be the comprehensive blueprint for women’s human rights and social justice in relation to media and communication. The Beijing conference was indeed a breakthrough in that it moved beyond the concept of women’s “advancement” (within taken-for-granted, existing structures) to that of women’s “empowerment” (implying the potential to transform those structures). The empowerment of women, as advocated in the BPfA itself, is a radical demand. It depends on “the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of all women.”30 Yet in the years since Beijing, the concept has been emptied of its radical essence. Empowerment has become “the word of the moment” not just for development actors but also for the media.

In the field of development communication, Susanna George argues that allusion to “women’s empowerment” has become indispensable to a vocabulary that has been institutionalized so as “to accessorise and make ‘nice’ documents that are essentially treatises to the neoliberal, market-based globalisation agenda of the world’s elite.”31 The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), held in Geneva in 2003 and Tunis in 2005, is a case in point. The final outcome document affirms a “commitment to women’s empowerment” in the Information Society.32 In reality, the overarching technology-driven and market-led paradigm that framed the WSIS debate provided no space for substantive discussion of gender inequality or women’s human rights. The empty rhetoric of the WSIS “commitment to women’s empowerment” is demonstrated by its main follow-up mechanism, the Internet Governance Forum, which has consistently and conspicuously failed to engage with women’s rights issues.

Women’s access to new information and communication technologies (ICTs) is obviously a matter of social justice. However, the supposition that this will “empower” women often fails to acknowledge the contexts of gender inequality in which most women live. As Ineke Buskens and Ann Webb have pointed out in their review of women’s use of ICTs in 12 African countries, for there to be “real” empowerment, “women have to be the agents of their own processes, in charge of and in control of their environment.”33 This is far from being the material reality of many women—perhaps the majority—in today’s world. The review by Busens and Webb shows how very slim is the margin for empowerment among all but a tiny minority of women. Yet the empowerment mantra is seductive. Stripped of its association with a radical, transformative agenda, it has been reduced to “empowerment-lite”34—perceived as a simple act of personal advancement that can occur through a specific circumstance, such as access to information or income. In this conceptualization, transformation of the social norms, institutions, and relationships that are part of gendered realities are not understood as fundamental to women’s empowerment.

It is this stripped-out, neutered version of “women’s empowerment” that we find in a great deal of modern media discourse, which explicitly equates empowerment with sexual assertiveness, buying power, and individual control. Thus, for instance, later stages of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty involved online contests that promised women “empowerment” and “creative control” by contributing their own advertisements to promote the Dove Supreme Cream Oil Body Wash.35 In this highly conservative version of empowerment, which chimes fully with the neoliberal economic model, gender equality becomes confused with individual “lifestyle” choices. Told that “you have the power to be what you want to be,” the woman of the commercial media world responds logically: “Today, I decided to stop being fat. My decision. My weight loss.”36 The false-feminist rhetoric in these exhortations to exercise “choice” gives the illusion of progress, while merely recreating age-old anxieties. Choice, in this lexicon, functions as a new form of constraint.

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