Sophie Toupin is an activist and researcher who examines how technology has been (or can be) used to promote social justice. Her work has looked at everything from ‘feminist nodes’ in the Occupy movement to the use of cryptography among anti-colonial activists in South Africa, to feminist hackerspaces in North America. In addition to her research, Sophie is also a co-founder of FemHack, a feminist hackerspace based in Montreal, Quebec. Currently, Sophie works at Media @ McGill at McGill University.
I met with Sophie in her cozy corner office in November of 2015.
Cathleen: How do you define hacking? I have seen a range of definitions: some more restrictive and technical, others more broad and theoretical, depending on who you’re talking to. In your view, what does it mean “to hack”?
Sophie: I guess I take a feminist perspective on my understanding of what is a hack, and what is hacking, which means that the concept for me is really an expansive one. Of course, computer hacking is part of it — being able to change and repurpose a technology is part of it. But I think it’s also larger than this. A hack is about repurposing. It’s obviously applied to technology most of the time, but more and more you see in the practice [that] we can hack life. I like the expansiveness of the concept. I think it’s a very feminist perspective as well. It’s not restricted, it’s not narrow. It’s just like…
It’s not just a technical skill…
Exactly, it’s not between this boundary and this boundary, right? It flows. There’s this possibility of creating something with the word, and for me it’s also about creativity. It’s about imagination. It’s about all these possibilities that emerge out of a word. So I guess, in a nutshell that’s what my conception of what [hacking] is.
You identify as both a feminist and a hacker — or hacktivist? Do you have a preference between the two?
Hmm… I usually use hacker. Hacktivist doesn’t resonate any more. It used to. At some point it did. And I think it’s part of the discourse and the communities that I’m embedded with, where we don’t necessarily use the term hacktivist. We mostly use the term hacker. But also, there’s a lot of feminists, particularly in the United States, that refuse to use the term hacker.
Yeah, I was noticing in your writing that you always wrote “hacker, maker and geeks” — allowing for that range of identification.
Exactly. So myself I would definitely identify as a feminist hacker.
What were your experiences with hackerspaces, both online and off, before you decided to start FemHack?
I had visited a few in Europe, and also in the US, but not that many. And of course I had been participating in Indymedia which is a movement of media activists and tech activists. I had been involved with feminist movements for many years and the concept of safe space was always very much present. And so, when we started to talk about all of these, it kind of made sense to create our own space.And then we were kind of mobile for quite a few years. We organized days, like FemHack days, particularly during the Htmlles Festival by Studio XX, which happens every two years. And so usually this was a big, one day FemHack where we would invite a lot of people and there would be a theoretical discussion, and also hands on activities and hacking. And we got a lot of very positive response. People were like: yes, we need this kind of space. And so it pushed us to continue and to also look for a more physical space that we could inhabit.
Does Femhack have a code of ethics, or community guidelines?
We don’t have a guideline that we read, but whenever we have a meeting, we talk about the kind of values we want respected in the space that we create. So that’s something we do every time we organize an activity. And I think, from the start, it gives a good indication of who we are and what we want to create. We talk about safe space, we talk about the importance of hearing different voices, and no domination of one voice. And respect: we can disagree, but we do so with respect. So I guess, right now, it’s more like an oral culture that we have in what we’re doing.
How does one ensure these spaces don’t champion a universal non-male identity and risk silencing those who face other systems of oppression aside from gender (ie. race, ability, etc.)?
Usually, what I’ve noticed, is that in many of these spaces it’s mostly white women. [So] then how do you make sure that if you raise the concept of intersectionality and you want a diversity of people — how do you make sure that they will want to come? I really don’t have the answer. But through my research in feminist hackerspaces in the US, I’ve noticed that many of these spaces, even though they’re saying that they’re intersectional, are mostly focusing on one aspect of it: the gender aspect. Which is important, but what about these other intersections? How do you reconcile some of the tensions that exist? In FemHack we’ve debated the question of whether we want to go back to a women-only, queer, trans-only space, because of past experiences that we had with white-privileged males. At one point we decided that feminism, for us, does not [strictly] identify with a gender. Everyone can be a feminist. But then through this experience, we’re thinking: wait a minute, who should we prioritize now? And how do we reach out to these people? Is it because our networks are not diversified enough? Are we not making enough effort to reach out to people we’d like to have in our space? These are questions that we’re having right now.
In your piece for .dpi, you describe how feminist hackerspaces serve as safer spaces, which put a hacker identity and a feminist identity on an equal footing, allowing for discussions of varying systems of oppression. Why do you think these conversations often aren’t welcome in the ‘hacker mainstream’, as you put it?
It’s really systems of power; having a hard time understanding that one has privileges in life. Because often with hackers, they value the fact that it’s not your gender, not your ethnicity, and not the university that you studied at that will make you a good hacker. A good hacker, for them, is independent of all these characteristics. And while in some ways it’s not completely false, at the same time if you don’t recognize that as a white, heterosexual male you have more privileges in society, then you’re kind of rejecting the experiences of a big part of the population. And it’s hard to acknowledge that you have privileges, especially in a neoliberal time where there’s a lot of young, white males who are disenfranchised and don’t totally know how to react to these things. Even if they are really skilled technologically and even if they might have good employment or have great lives, for them it’s hard to compute that oppression exists and acknowledge that this is the reason why (among others) there are so few women and people of colour in the world of technology. So, I guess that’s one way of explaining it. Is it changing? I know you didn’t ask me this question…
I’d like to know your opinion…
[It] depends on which circles you are in: if you are with political hackers there is this sensitivity there, which is remarkable. But it’s still fairly marginal, and whenever there’s an issue, someone will emerge and say, ‘it’s because of your white privilege that you’re saying this,’ triggering a very defensive reaction. But more and more feminist hackers and queer hackers and trans hackers are investing in these communities and slowly changing the discourse and practice, showing that they have value to add at the practical and discursive level. So, I think things are slowly changing.