If you've kept up with events in the Middle East via Twitter, you've no doubt seen several different versions of a headless Lilith Sternin Crane-looking avatar floating around. If you've followed any of their feeds, you also may have found that the women sharing this image, and more who don't, are some of the best sources for information about the events happening in that region. They are all heavily involved with sharing breaking news coming from those countries, in helping to enable communications when internet service is cut, and they provide activists with "care packages" to maintain their privacy and security when authorities hunt down and arrest bloggers. These women are often a first choice for activists on the scene when it comes to cries for help, whether it's to relay a message or to get information.
On International Women's Day, this group of women from the notorious hacktivist group, Anonymous,launched their own initiative, called Anonymiss. I chatted with one or two members of Anonymiss - can't say for sure, since anyone using any combination of the words Anonymiss and PR could be one of hundreds or thousands. The message seemed to come from a similar if not the same voice in two conversations, though, and similar to that in Boing Boing's article about Anonymiss. So, as mysterious as the operations and identities are, at least in this beginning phase there appears to be a unifying voice.
Many were inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt, and especially by the women who were taking center stage of the fight. Out of frustration and a feeling of helplessness, these women began to ask what they could do to help. In getting to know each other through their shared concern for the oppressed, they decided that they could best help by banding together and offering skills ranging from hacking to graphic design to blogging and video editing. A lot of these women take to the streets in protest as well.
They've helped to keep alive the story of Iman al-Obeidi, and keep their voices loud against Westboro Baptist Church, anti-choice, and other oppressive and offensive organizations. While some of what they do might remind you of other web based activist organizations, the difference, according to Anonymiss, is that they are able to go beyond what a conventional human rights organization is capable of. They feel that more can be done without the restraints of hierarchy and with total anonymity to their actions.
Considering that women's rights are still under constant attack in western countries as well as in eastern countries, I asked if there were women's issues outside of the Middle East that her group would particularly like to take on. At least one Anonymiss thinks that western women, in general, need to be more proactive: "Where to begin? In western countries, although men do perpetuate a lot of the problems women face, it's a completely different issue from what men do in Middle Eastern countries (take the International Women's Day march in Egypt for example). In the western world, one of the chief issues we see is women who don't value themselves or other women, and act accordingly. The treatment of women in the tech industry was referenced earlier; many women opt to stay out of mistreatment of another woman, or choose to put up with undeserved disrespect. No intention of discounting pay inequities, state control over women's bodies, and other prevalent social issues, but I would say that the larger issue is when women fail to stand up for themselves or each other."
Although there is a question of whether misogyny in the main Anonymous group led them to branch off in the articles written elsewhere about Anonymiss, those I communicated with were diplomatic in answering the question. The hacker and gamer cultures have a strange combination of infuriating sexism and worship of women who can pwn their asses, and so the issue of misogyny seems to depend on the BS limits of any individual woman. In general, those who have joined Anonymiss are a combination of the tough and sassy who proved themselves in an area where everyone is under pressure to over-prove, and those who didn't want to deal with the sexist and immature conversation that takes place in these circles. The unifying factors are love of technology and activism.
Dealing with the sexism that does exist in Anonymous is a bit easier for the Anonymiss' than for women in a corporate tech environment, though, because for them, there isn't an HR department to answer to, no worries about being blacklisted for speaking up against sexism, and no good-old-boy system that can't be dealt with by using their own talents.
That said, there is a mixed reaction to the group. Some Anon women wonder why there is a need for a separate, gender specific group. Some other commenters have made snide remarks about the group really being a bunch of men, or a joke. There is always the usual comment that comes with any mainstream acknowledgment of a once underground organization - that the movement is dead and that women like Anonymiss are part of the problem. No matter how others feel about these women though, there is no doubt that they are already a powerful force and intend to continue with their mission to aid those in need in ways other organizations can't.
Anonymiss might seem to be a gentler version of Anonymous, but they don't back down from the main mission of the group. Their slogan, "We are Anonymous. We do not forget. We do not forgive. Expect us." is proclaimed loud and clear on their blogs and social media feeds. They aren't giving up the anarchic nature of their group just because the skill base is broadening from being mainly hacker oriented. An Anonymiss explained it in gamer terms, stating that they are "chaotic neutral" in any of their actions.
Because of this reputation of Anonymous, I asked if there is any kind of information that the Anonymiss group would not release to the public, and was told: "This is a difficult one to answer, as morals/ethics/ideals vary widely throughout Anonymous/Anonymiss. As part of Anonymous, many of us hold transparency as a very high ideal, with the other side of that coin being the fact that we also value our own anonymity and safety. I believe that many of us would not release information that would endanger someone's liberty or safety, but it is impossible to state that as a value that all of us would hold to."
It will be interesting to see how Anonymiss evolves, and to see what more they can do to help Middle Eastern protesters maintain communications and information exchange. They're also on top of news from Japan, ready to leap into action should there be any way they can help there. Agree with their tactics and philosophy or not, a group of women with a mission can't be ignored, and if they have their way, it will be impossible to ignore them.
Check out their unofficial blog for more information about this new activist group, and let us know what you think.