The 17th of September is Software Freedom Day. Some local groups including HacMan, Manchester Free Software and FSFE had stalls / tables at MadLab to engage non-users. I organised a mini OpenStreetMap mapping weekend at MadLab to celebrate it. When going out mapping around Northern Quarter, I was also asked to distribute some flyers for the Software Freedom Day event at MadLab.
It was difficult to do mapping and marketing at the same time, but I made an effort to try to do both (as many things in life). Such multitasking seemed to bring disappointing results only (again, as many things in life – stretching oneself too far is never a good idea). Handing out such kind of advocacy flyers to passers-by on streets is not as easy as handing out those promotional vouchers. One needed to estsablish eye contact with passers-by, and see if they have a minute to listen to you telling them what “free software” is about (because few people actually read, and let alone understand the jargon written on the flyers.
I gave a flyer to a group of three early-twenty men on High Street. Here’s how the conversation went.
Y: Hello. Today we are celebrating Software Freedom Day. [I gave them a flyer.]
A: What’s that?
Y: Have you heard of these software applications – like Mozilla Firefox browser, OpenOffice.org? [me pointing the words on the flyer.] You can download these software applications for free from the Internet, but more importantly, these software give you freedom to re-distribute them. It’s legal for you and your friends to download and use them.
A: You meant it’s illegal? We don’t do illegal things. [He pretended he didn’t understand what I was saying.]
Y: No. I meant it’s legal.
B: Why are you selling software anyway? We only do *Hardware*.
Y: [I’m losing my patient with them.] Right. If you’re not interested, you can give the flyer back.
A: Oh wow, she’s upset. [As usual, men blamed women being emotional / irrational.]
B: How much do they pay you to hand the flyers out?
Y: Right. That’s it. I haven’t got time to waste with you.
So I walked away quickly, feeling humiliated, unsafe, and upset. I thought that I should not have picked these three men (blaming myself, like some rape victims blaming themselves / or being blamed for wearing too little or going out with the wrong men); I should have just talked to those serious looking people; but, why did I only give the flyers to men? why not women?
So, then I made an effort to identify women who did not look too preoccupied by something else on streets. In front of the Co-op supermarket on Church Street, I found a beautiful black lady (perhaps in her twenties) who just finished a phone call. I approached her, handing a flyer to her.
Y: Hello. Today we are celebrating Software Freedom Day. Have you heard of these software applications – like Mozilla Firefox browser, OpenOffice.org?
S: Oh yes. [She was reading the flyer.] I’m a web designer.
Y: Oh great. Would you be so kind to keep this flyer so that at least I gave it to a woman.
S: Of course [she smiled].
I could not do more mapping after such dramatic encounters (speaking of failed multi-tasking).
At my return to MadLab, I shared this unpleasant experience with one of my male comrades. And the response I received was:
H: Oh yes – it’ difficult to engage with non-users.
Y: Yes, it is. But since you are a man, you don’t get those kind of sexist jokes from people.
H: Oh. Yeah – I supposed it’s more difficult for you.
It’s sad that still quite a large group of people in society have not evolved over time (mistreating / verbally abused women), but it is even sadder to see these highly literate male free software advocates unable to relate themselves to such situations and the first response from this comrade had said it all. I don’t mean to blame men in free software communities – but I have to say that being unable to relate themselves and provide emotional support in those kind of situations has made them indifferent to the abusers. Women are usually encouraged to do free software advocacy (because few of us can code) – however, it appears to be difficult not only because those unevolved sexist people/views still exist in society, but also the little emotional support we receive from the dominant male peers. Yes – it is hard to reach out to non free software users, but it is even harder (in some cases) for women to do outreaching job for free software given our sex and the current state.
Sexism is still everywhere, and such kind of obsolete thoughts sadly re-produce themselves in free software communities. The obvious and explicit ones are easier to identify and tackle, and it is those implicit, hidden and invisible ones that are the most poisonous. Unfortunately, I feel men who cannot see and cannot hear somehow become one of those abusers.