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Wikipedia is wonderful, but there just aren't enough Indian women present on it. That's going to change, says this team of editors.
Socks have been pulled up, shoes laced tightened - but this isn't your regular marathon. Instead of feet, fingers do the running - as they fly nimbly over keyboards to enter new data. In an edit-a-thon for Wikipedia, the open-to-edit, free online encyclopedia, a group of Wikipedians (contributors and editors for Wikipedia) has taken it upon itself to expand the presence of women and women's issues on the site. The project began on Women's Day with a workshop in Goa. March is now "Women's History Month" for these cyber crusaders.
There's an oft-quoted story about how if a tiger painted a picture of a hunt, it wouldn't be the one shot dead and bloodied under a gun-toting hunter's foot. When it came to women's representation, women Wikipedians in India found themselves confronted with a canvas that was largely blank.
Netha Hussain, a medical student in her early 20s and an active wikipedian from Kozhikode, says that when she went through the editor demographics of Wikipedia, she found that only nine per cent were women. "Women-centric articles were few in number and those that existed, did not often carry women's perspective, " adds Rohini Lakshane, one of the participants of the edit-a-thon. She also helped organise an offline workshop for people interested in editing Wikipedia articles. "The idea is to create more articles about women and improve the quality of those that existed as stubs, " says Hussain.
This edit-a-thon is one of many running internationally this month under the "WikiProject Women's History". Sweden hosted an edit-a-thon on the history of the women's movement, Spain had one where they wrote and expanded articles on "pioneer women librarians". Besides the March edit-a-thons, the running "WikiProject Women's History" has a strong focus on women in technology and World War I, among other things.
Hussain says that as a part of this month's edit-athon in India, they have about 11 contributors for English-language posts and 25 have signed up for Malayalam. "Not all are active, though, " she says. At the time of writing, close to 20 new articles in English had been created and 22 listed for expansion and copyediting. Over 50 articles have been created in Malayalam and close to 10 in Telegu. "We are still waiting for someone to contribute in Hindi, " says Hussain.
Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia is open for anyone to edit and contribute to. The articles go through a whetting process and edit discussions before students across the world can leech it for their project reports as legitimate "research" and curious laypersons can look for a no-fuss 101 on anything under the sun.
Bishakha Datta, journalist, filmmaker and social worker, is the first Indian to be on the board of trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation. Post her appointment in 2010, she actively took up the issue of under-representation of Indian women on the online encyclopedia, both as editors and as article topics. It started with expanding articles on feminism and creation of articles on Bilkis Bano and Bhanwari Devi - which did not exist until then. "Even today, there is no Wikipedia page on Flavia Agnes, who contributed so much in the activism against domestic violence, " says Datta, adding under her breath that she might as well create one.
If the open nature of the website makes it vulnerable to a majoritarian viewpoint, it also makes it conducive for the "other" side to present its story. Wikipedia pranks, where articles are edited to spoof a personality, abound. For example, the Wikipedia entry on Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit was edited with snarky comments in her work description when the Commonwealth Games scam first came to light in 2010. The website itself hosts an entry dedicated to Wikipedia hoaxes. On the plus side, biographies are regularly reviewed and updated. It has often been noted how when a famous personality passes away, the Wikipedia article on him or her has all the "is" changed to "was" with the date of death duly updated - all within minutes of a formal announcement.
This is done with 1, 00, 000 editors collaborating worldwide to make it available to over 365 million readers. As a knowledge source in this heavily internetdependent century, it can be a strong tool of discoursecreation. Datta points out that there are some 50 court judgments in which Wikipedia has been cited as a source of information.
"The aim is to create free knowledge, which in turn cre ates discourse. Sections that are stronger on Wikipedia have more influence on the discourse. People come to it as a first point of reference. The section on Indian feminism right now is not as strong as, say, that on computer science, " says Datta, who runs nonprofit in Bombay called Point of View.
Though the articles for the edit-a-thon have been selected at random according to contributor interest, there is a clear focus within the India chapter on women members of parliament. "I am a medical student, so I end up writing a lot about women's health. But one of our important concerns was that there were very few articles on women parliamentarians, " says Hussain. Articles created so far include those on Abha Mahato, Chellamalla Suguna Kumari, Kamal Rani and Jayanti Patnaik. On other links, other categories - there's also an entry on Amrita Sher-Gil's painting Three Girls and scientist Indira Nath who has worked in the fields of immunology and leprosy.
Another aim of the exercise was to get more women to participate in the exercise. And indeed, women did turn up for the offline workshops. The Goa workshop had nearly 100 participants, mostly beginners, over 90 of them female. "We wanted to have the women's movement contribute to the knowledge-base on this platform. The model is such you can't pay people to go out to research and edit. So we hold workshops with professors of women's studies - we held one in Calcutta recently, for example - so that they can start contributing, " says Datta.
As for the online activities, it is difficult to tell who is who. "We only know people by their usernames. Unless in the discussions they happen to make a reference to their gender or have a display picture against their names, there is no way to find out. But men too are a part of the project, " says Lakshane, a former technology journalist. If there is anything else one needs to find out, one can simply look it up.
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