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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 14.Information, Censorship, and Gender Relations in Global Capitalism

Shahrzad Mojab

Since their emergence less that two decades ago, the Internet, the Information Superhighway, or cyberspace have been presented to us as the open and borderless world where the powerful and the powerless, states and citizens, and men and women can communicate without any restraint. This technology of communication, it is argued, has made censorship or control obsolete and, even, impossible. If there is a problem, it is "access to technology" or "access to information."

These claims about censorship have proved to be as inadequate as the conventional libertarian view, which reduces it to government control of information and limitations on the expression of opinion. By contrast, critical approaches argue that in developed Western capitalist societies, the market has acted as the main locus of censorship (Jansen, 1988), "thought control" (Chomsky, 1988) or "opinion control" (Qualter, 1985). Focusing on the impact of technologies of communication, Harold Innis argued that the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which illegalized state censorship, was used by the privately owned press to create monopolies of knowledge, and constrain dialogue and critical thinking (Innis, 1949; for a more recent survey, see Herman 1997: for censorship by mainstream press in Britain, see, among others, Hollingsworth, 1986).

While the market and its "mass media," "consciousness industries," or "cultural industries" conduct much of the thought control, the state continues to play its role in maintaining the status quo by, among other things, the control of social movements and, even, their violent repression (for the situation in the U.S., see, among others, Carley, 1997; Chomsky, 1999; Day and Whitehorn, 2001; for Canada, see, e.g., Scher, 1992). The surveillance of citizens occurs in peace (see, e.g., McWilliams, 1950; Borovoy, 1998-99) and war (Linfield, 1990; Human Rights Watch, 1991a); in "normal" conditions and at times of crisis (Human Rights Watch 1991b; Amnesty International 2001). The modern inquisition machinery of the early 1950s in the United States was launched by the highest organ of democracy in the country, the House of Representatives, and its Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). This state inquisition organ targeted, among others, the Hollywood and purged it of "communists." In the wake of this purge, the banks, which financed much of the film production in the U.S., refused to finance any film that included a blacklisted actor, director, or technician. Thus, the market joined HUAC for economic or political considerations (on the press and HUAC, see Tuck 1995).

In the wake of September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, President George W. Bush's Administration and its Western allies have moved to curb civil liberties and constitutional rights. This includes a well financed machinery of surveillance, which allows the government to wiretap telephone calls, read faxed and e-mailed messages, computer files, and every other communication of any and every citizen. Some of the privately owned, mainstream media have joined the state by instilling fear in the citizens, encouraging them to give up their hard-won civil liberties, and exchange them for "security." Much like the extreme right in the McCarthy era, the conservatives and many liberals in the post-September 11 era, compete for the highest patriotic award by demanding more surveillance.

While the market and the state are the main organs of censorship, control is embedded in other institutions, from the church to education to family. Religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, language, age, and certainly gender all act as sources, agents, or perpetrators of censorship. Let us look at the gender dimension. The first major communication revolution, writing, and the second one, printing, were male enterprises. It took women thousands of years after the advent of writing to have access to literate communication (primarily in Western Europe, North America and the former Soviet bloc).

By contrast with much of Asia, Africa and other regions of the developing world, women in the West have had more access to writing, literacy, printing, and education. They have also achieved legal equality with males. As already mentioned, however, "access to information" alone does not eliminate censorship. To give an example, feminist knowledge has seriously challenged the deep-rooted androcentrism of modern knowledge. However, in spite of progress in female literacy and access to higher education, feminist consciousness is still limited, and patriarchy is still intact, and is constantly reproduced in innumerable ways.

It is important to know more about the ties that bind censorship to gender. Even when one barrier is removed, others emerge to ensure the reproduction of the status quo. For instance, after decades of struggle, beginning in late nineteenth century, legal barriers to women's access to parliament and political office were removed in the West and, later, in many non-Western states. This was achieved, not simply through access to information, but rather due to women's determination to create knowledge and consciousness, and engage in mobilizing and organizing (sit-ins, demonstrations, picketing, leafleting, singing, etc.) in schools, homes, streets, churches, and university campuses. However, states and state-centred politics continue to be male-centred. Even when women have a proportionate participation in the parliament, there is no guarantee that they would all advocate feminist alternatives to an androcentric agenda; and this is the case for the simple reason that women can be as patriarchal in their politics as some men are.

A more adequate approach to the understanding of censorship is, I believe, to see it not as an irrational practice, as a mischievous attitude, or a technical problem of obstructing channels of communication. Censorship is an integral part of the exercise of gender power, class power, and the powers of the nation, ethnicity, religion and governance. Not only does it deny women access to information, but also limits their participation in the creation of knowledge, and denies them the power to utilize knowledge.

If in pre-modern times the church was the major player in creating knowledge, today the market produces, disseminates, and utilizes much of the knowledge, which has achieved the status of a commodity. Knowledge is "intellectual property." Even the knowledge created in public and semi-public institutions such as universities is increasingly geared to the agenda of the market, and serves the promotion of market interests. Moreover, Western states primarily entertain the market as the lifeline of economy, culture and society. They increasingly aim at giving all the power to the market. In dictatorial regimes, however, the state still plays a prominent role in censoring the creation and dissemination of knowledge. From Peru to Turkey, to Iran and to China, states suppress activists, journalists, libraries, bookstores, print and broadcast media, satellite dishes and the Internet. They often do so by committing violence against the citizens and the communication systems they use.

Although we may find much gender-based subtlety in the techniques of limiting women's access to information, I believe that the subtlest censorship is denying feminist knowledge a visible role in the exercise of power. The state, Western and non-Western, rules through privileging androcentric knowledge as the basis for governance. The conduct of national censuses, for instance, continues to be based on androcentric worldviews in spite of devastating feminist critique. To give another example, women are now recruited into Western armies in combat functions, but states continue to ignore feminist and pacifist knowledge that challenges the very phenomenon of war and violence (Cynthia Enloe, 2000).

Women themselves can be and, often, are part of the problem. In the absence of feminist consciousness, they generally act as participants in the reproduction of patriarchal gender relations. In Islamic societies, when men engage in the "honour" killing of their wives, daughters or sisters, sometimes mothers participate in or tolerate the horrendous crime (Mojab, 2002).

The democratisation of gender relations is a conscious intervention in a power structure that is closely interlocked with the powers of the state, class, race, ethnicity, religion and tradition. For both women and men, challenging patriarchy means defying one's own values, worldviews, emotions, and traditions. At the same time, it involves risk taking including, in some situations, loss of life.

Women's full access to androcentric knowledge will not disturb the status quo. I argue that, in the absence of feminist consciousness, women may even act as ministers of propaganda and censorship. They will not be in a position to exercise the democratic right to revolt against oppressive rule.

In the West, feminist knowledge cannot be suppressed through book-burning, jailing, torture, and assassination. Censorship is conducted, much more effectively, by stigmatizing and marginalising feminist knowledge as "special interest," while androcentrism is promoted as the norm, the canon, and "human nature." That is why, I contend, that if we fill all the media institutions with female managers and staff, if we give all educational institutions to women, or hand over all high-rank military positions to women, the androcentric world order with its violence, war, poverty, and degenerating environment will continue to function.

Globalization, as it is understood in mainstream media and in state discourses, is nothing new; it emerged with the rise of capitalism; the main engine of globalization is the capitalist market, and it is promoted and planned by capitalist states through various organs such as the G8, World Bank, European Union, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, etc. The impact of this globalization on women has been largely negative, especially in the developing world. Millions of girls aged 5 to 15 are recruited into the global prostitution market. Millions more leave their families and countries to raise some income as maids. However, other forms of globalization or, rather, internationalization have been in the making. For instance, feminism has evolved as an international movement in spite of the opposition of conservatives in many parts of the world. It has been able to put women's demands on the agenda of states and international organs such as the United Nations.

Media are also important actors in globalisation. Women have had more presence in the media both as producers and as targets or sources of entertainment and information programming. There is considerable progress, for instance, in the production of women and feminist press in many developing countries. The Internet and desktop publishing present new opportunities for more media activism. Egypt has a women's television channel. Focusing on the question of censorship, the crucial issue is freedom of speech not only for women but also more significantly, for feminists and feminist knowledge. Feminist knowledge and consciousness is the primary target of censorship. Do the globalizing media allow women of the developing countries to learn about the achievements of Western women in fighting patriarchy? Do women of the West learn from the struggles of women in India, Jamaica or Saudi Arabia? Do the global media allow women everywhere to know about the Beijing Conference and its aftermath? Do they disseminate adequate and accurate information about the World March of Women? My answers are rather in the negative. The cyberspace is much like the realspace that creates it. The fact that many individual women or groups can set up their websites does not change power relations in the realspace. The negative stereotyping of women, for instance, cannot change without the dissemination of feminist consciousness among both men and women. Even if stereotyping is eliminated, gender inequality will persist.

"Gender-based censorship" cannot be overcome as long as gender relations remain unequal and oppressive. It can, however, be reduced or made less effective. While the concept "gender-based censorship" is useful, it should be broadened to include "censorship of feminist knowledge." The following are just a few ideas about what we may do:

A) Creating theoretical and empirical knowledge about gender-based censorship, and especially the censorship of feminist knowledge and feminist movements.

B) Disseminating this knowledge and awareness among citizens. Using this knowledge for the purpose of dismantling patriarchal power. Knowledge makes a difference when it is put into practice.

C) Making this knowledge available to policy makers and integrating it into policy making in the institutions of the market, the state, and non-state and non-market forces.

These goals will not be achieved in the absence of feminist and women's movements. If censorship is not a mistake, but rather it is an organ for exercising gender and class power, resistance to it, too, should be a part of the struggle for a democratic regime.


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Mojab, Shahrzad (2002) "No "Safe Haven" for women: Violence against women in Iraqi Kurdistan," in W. Giles and J. Hyndman (eds.) Women in Conflict Zones. Berkeley: University of California Press (in press).

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Shahrzad Mojab, Associate Professor, teaches at the Department of Adult Education, Community Development, and Counselling Psychology, the Ontario Institute for Studies of Education at the University of Toronto. Her areas of research and teaching include minority women's access to education, anti-racism education, social justice and equality, academic freedom and diversity, Islamic fundamentalism and women's rights, and gender, ethnicity, and nationalism. Her publications include, among others, articles and book chapters on 'Islamic Feminism', diversity and academic freedom in Canadian and Iranian universities, minority women in academe, feminism and nationalism, the construction of civil society in the Middle East, and women's access to higher education. She is the editor of Women of A Non-State Nation: The Kurds (Mazda Press: California) and co-editor Property and Propriety: The Role of Gender and Class in Imperialism and Nationalism (University of Toronto Press). Her recent publications on gender and technology include an article entitled "The feminist project in cyberspace and civil society," Convergence, Vol. 33, Nos. 12, 2000, pp. 106-119 and "The politics of "cyberfeminism" in the middle east: The case of Kurdish women," which will appear in a special issue of Race, Gender, and Class on media.


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