Drone Feminism: When Feminists Get a Drone

What if we were able to harness technology independent of military and carceral dictation of the movement? How can we think about technologies in ways that would be helpful to women, not used as violence against us?

by Lauren Chief Elk-Young Bear on July 27th, 2016

In the age of the Military Industrial Complex, covert operations, mass surveillance and incarceration, the term “drone” elicits strong and polarizing feelings. In October 2015, The Intercept published newly released documents about the United States’ drone program under the Obama Administration, which detailed atrocities including an assassination program that has killed more civilians and innocent people than intended targets. As the government has tried to keep most of the information on the usage of drones elusive, the conversation and movement against their use in occupation and interventions has grown continuously over the past decade.

A small drone with four sets of propellers flying against a sunset.

Photo CC-BY arbitragery.

The use of drones in conflict has still enjoyed an overwhelming majority of support from American people. However, in 2013 Pew Research conducted a study demonstrating the wide gender gap in opinion; women, across the globe (including in the United States) disapprove of this league of warfare in far greater numbers. This coincides with women [and children] being notable casualties and unintended collateral damage of drone strikes.

As women continue to be mass casualties and the main challengers to drone programs, western nations contrarily persist in using gender as a pretext to invade foreign soil. Since September 11th, violence against women has been cited as a national security and humanitarian concern, and used as justification for war, particularly under a legal argument that drone attacks are liberating oppressed women in terror-stricken regions of the world. As I wrote in June 2014:

“As gender violence is indeed of great concern both nationally and overseas, it’s important to take a critical look at U.S. intervention strategies, especially when they’re reconfigured as humanitarian or diplomatic efforts. The failures of humanitarian undertakings are well-documented, but they continue to be framed as charitable and philanthropic. They are often not significantly different than other combat strategies, but use language to assuage the public’s opposition to war and provide a more palatable framework under which to send soldiers. Instead of detailing how the military is going to flat-out obliterate people, “humanitarian” occupations are justified because they are framed as benevolent western nations stringently (rather, inhumanely) solving problems for the good of the people. With humanitarian effort and the IVAWA [International Violence Against Women Act], we see a continuation of the ‘liberating women’ rhetoric used to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ongoing use of women’s rights as justification to organize troops and engage in warfare.”

— Model View Culture, “No IVAWA”

In mid-October we yet again witnessed this ideology in action. President Obama reversed a position on military intervention in Afghanistan and declared that troops will be present until 2017. Not only has gender been used a justification for war, but the feminist movement has been usurped by state powers for use as a trojan horse: this decision received an endorsement from the Feminist Majority Foundation, printed in Ms. Magazine as “NEWSFLASH: U.S. Troops to Remain in Afghanistan” — supporting military intervention in the name of rescuing women.

During the same month, at the first Democratic Presidential Debate, Hillary Clinton made gender and her stance on women’s issues key to her campaign to distinguish herself from other candidates. Clinton, who has a history of using violence against women to craft imperial policy and negotiate military force, re-articulated explicit support of her votes for invasion and the Patriot Act. Through the Patriot Act, and other anti-terror legislation, national security measures have been used to bang the drum of war and develop the Department of Homeland Security.

The links between White corporate feminism and the military are even further reflected in the tech industry itself. The Anita Borg Institute’s annual Grace Hopper Conference for Women in Computing took place again this October, with sponsors that included the superlative of the military and prison industrial complexes. Everyone from Oracle [which originated as a CIA project], to Lockheed Martin, Palantir, Raytheon, and Northrup Grumman were in attendance/support, representing weapons manufacturers, private contractors and intelligence agencies, not to mention Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and a line-up of private prison beneficiaries.

In regards to state violence, technology companies aren’t just getting multi-million dollar contracts to build invasion materials for our military, but also for local policing agencies. This includes a full list of some of the most gigantic military-industrial companies in the world located directly in the Bay Area (Raytheon, Bechtel, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, AECOM, Lawrence Livermore Labs, etc.); which “coincidently” are the same entities appearing over and over as feminist tech funding sources. Since the development of the Department of Homeland Security (in conjunction with other defense agencies), local police forces have been fortified by technology companies with new mechanisms for the takedown of protest, surveillance and data, vehicles, and in service to the legal system and mass incarceration.

Silicon Valley tech feminism, in relation to the larger anti-violence movement, is connected with these same major military and weapons manufacturers. We are looking at a new frontier of the state, technology industry, military, and police intersecting and using feminism as a conduit to further the prison and military apparatuses. Lean In, which has dominated a framing of feminism in tech and increasingly in the mainstream, enjoys military and carceral ties both as partners and donors. Sandberg, author of the popular book and founder of the Lean In organization, was even tapped by the Marines as a consultant and advisor on gender issues.

This reflects an apolitical stance which uses feminism as the logic to justify expansion of empire. The accelerating of the carceral state as tied to the feminist movement continues to take an approach to gender-based violence issues that is about more policing and stricter laws, revolving around more prisons, harsher sentences, and more invasions. Yet somehow, there is no advocacy around getting emerging technologies in the direct hands of women; only advocacy for multi-nationals and the government to militarize and weaponize technologies that can be employed by white-male dominated complexes to further colonialism and imperialism under the guise of “saving” women.

Instead, why don’t we think about what women on the ground — both domestically and internationally — could do with these technologies? As much as the word “drone” invokes a particular context and, often, political/moral crisis, the technology, intrinsically, is not the problem. Instead, we must examine the larger system and structure deploying the technology, and specifically the application of feminism and tech as an excuse for imperialism.

It is important to locate technologies in a different framework, which gives women tools to direct their own lives, and reframes the logical systems justifying brutality in our name. The reality is that women typically don’t have tangible access to the underlying technologies and innovations that are weaponized and used to “rescue” us; in fact, there is much trepidation around women having access to tools under a paternalistic structure. For example, T.I. made headlines in October when he said that he feared a woman president because she might get emotional and drop a nuke. As demonstrated, it is an accurate assessment that women, especially in the name of feminism, have furthered imperialism. But it has been men in charge who have already dropped atomics/nuclear weapons on people as well as deployed Agent Orange, cruise missiles, cluster bombs, napalm, depleted uranium, predator drone strikes, and a variety of weapons of mass destruction in radiological, chemical, and biological forms. His statements follow an extensive list of men in institutional and powerful positions who reject the idea that women should be state leaders. This fear is not about emotional irrationality, but a projection about women having access to this technology and arsenal in relation to men. The fear here is based in a feeling of loss of power, vulnerability, and personally being nuked.

In part due to this paternalism, projection and fear, women continue to be raped, killed and destroyed while almost nothing is done for them to define their own safety, consent, and security, and to employ revolutionary technologies towards those goals. In fact, the tech, tools, and organizing that women are designing independently and that is pertinent to our lives are the things that don’t get funded. And if they do, it’s with a variety of stipulations that often water down, de-radicalize, or alter the original content and purpose of what is being built.

Women are not supposed to have access to this type of technology or know how to develop it. Much of the technology created in order to “help” women is created by men, based in rape myths, and has attachments to law enforcement — or is otherwise used in aggressive and warlike manners, causing more destruction and violence. What if we were able to harness technology independent of military and carceral dictation of the movement? How can we think about technologies in ways that would be helpful to women, not used as violence against us? How would feminism and our relationship with new technologies look independent of the state? In the spirit of using technology and data gathering to counter-surveil threats of violence and preventing terrorism, what if women could harness these technologies to address our biggest safety and home security threats: men? Enter: drones. The developing of basic skill sets in mechanics, engineering, maneuvering, flying and surveillance would enable us to collect our own counterintelligence and build our own responses. We could have an infrastructure outside of the state.

A small, robotic-looking drone equipped with a video camera is pictured against some grass and a concrete wall.

Photo CC-BY Bold Content.

A new report by researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia shows that sexually assaulted teens are not receiving the recommended care they should, especially medication that helps prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. There are a number of reasons this could be happening including: Not wanting the police to be called [especially if drugs and/or underage drinking was involved], charges showing up on insurance statements, and disclosing dating that might have been prohibited for cultural or religious reasons — all falling under the umbrella of fear that is parents and guardians finding out. Concerning violence, there are a constant number of barriers and hurdles to acquiring the medical attention and support one needs. Drones could be delivery devices for all ages when there is lack of assistance and resources, and distress in regards to situations around sexual health and violence. They could deliver birth control, especially if it’s difficult to obtain for young women because of parental or legislative restrictions. Or in the cases of birth control sabotage and sexual assault, more can be transported along with Plan B/emergency contraceptives, and prophylactics. If communication is being restricted and monitored, burner and pay-as-you-go phones can also be something easily transported; additionally cash, along with gift cards, to pay for transportation, emergency motels, shelter, food, and childcare. Other needed supplies such as syringes and needles, sanitary products for menstruation, alternate hygiene needs, HIV, drug, and pregnancy tests could all be carried by drones operated by feminist collectives or cooperatives.

For victims of domestic violence, leaving abusive relationships and households is when tension often escalates and peak violence is reached, especially when abusive partners decide to further stalk and retaliate against their victims for leaving, reporting, getting a restraining order, and otherwise setting boundaries. Homes and workplaces can continue to be battlegrounds, and safety is continually jeopardized. With camera-equipped drones, these potentially dangerous areas can be monitored. Collectives can fly drones over homes, workplaces, schools, and locations where women need to go in order to monitor and ensure abusers aren’t following or waiting for them, communicating safety risks and ensuring victims can make the best decisions for themselves.

These are only a few of the many possible applications of drone technology for women’s safety and empowerment outside of a violent, weapons-oriented or militaristic context. This is not a philosophy of violence and technology based in “arming women with guns to prevent rape”; this is about building a new infrastructure and re-imagining safety: Women being able to develop and use tools and technology that are advantageous to us. It is reinterpreting security with a new vision of tech feminism that includes collecting, reading, and analyzing data, crowd mapping, gauging and measuring our safety risks, creating safety plans, and implementing emergency response.

Following this vision, feminist tech success would not be defined by more women as leaders of companies designing the mechanisms to blow up and incarcerate the world. The contingency of feminist tech would be less about over policing and under protecting, but a rearrangement of how we design safety and build victim-centered mechanisms to ensure it.

This article originally appeared in Model View Culture Quarterly #4, 2015.