“But is she lesbian or is she queer?”
The room is quiet, except during moments of pressing urgency like this one – should Betu Singh, who set up the Sangini Trust, a counselling services for LBT individuals, be identified as a queer or lesbian activist?
Lesbian, everyone agrees, and returns to their keyboards.
The Wikipedia Edit-a-thon is underway at the office of Breakthrough, a not-for-profit working against violence towards women and girls, in a lane in Delhi’s Kailash Colony. Supported by feminist organisations like Feminism In India and Nazariya, the Edit-a-thon invites women and men (if accompanied by at least one woman) to work towards increasing women’s representation on the web encyclopaedia that has become the primary source world over for first-hand information on a variety of subjects.
According to a study conducted in 2011, nine out of 10 Wikipedia editors are men, and in India, women make up 3% of that number. According to the organisers of the Edit-a-thon, the low representation of women has an impact on the coverage of women-centric topics and perspectives.
“November is recognised as Pride month in Delhi,” said Japleen Pasricha, founder, Feminism in India. “We decided to focus on the LGBTQ community, more specifically lesbian, bisexual and transgender women for that month. We had someone from Nazariya, an NGO that works with LBT women, to help us with the research and links to begin creating pages.”
Armed with a list of names, which included Pramada Menon, Chayanika Shah and Ketki Ranade, among others, the volunteers, mostly beginners, had their work cut out for the day.
“This is not a glamorous event,” said Shobha SV of Breakthrough. “You have to sit and actually work. While it sounds really nice and cool, it requires one to read hundreds of things and write up entries. You have to have a certain kind of aptitude for this, which not everybody has.”
The pages curated by the group of people assembled at Breakthrough are not the long-winding Wikipedia entries of internet wormholes. They range between 300 and 700 words, thin profiles of significant women that the encyclopaedia has ignored – poets, authors, lawyers, activists.
While personal blogs are not otherwise a legitimate source for news or information, when it comes to marginalised groups like Dalit writers, they are often the only source of any information at all.
“When we did an Edit-a-thon on Dalit activists and authors, we got Dalit activist Rajni Tilak to lend her expertise for that session,” said Shobha. “Tilak has written exclusively in Hindi on her personal blog, but we were not able to include any of the information we got off the site. Most marginalised groups lack representation online because they can’t afford their own website.”
Lack of documentation and free sources also means that most of these entries carry no pictures.
The tone of the text in a Wikipedia entry needs to be objective and cannot be coloured by personal perspective, but Shobha disagrees with this premise of neutrality.
According to her, nothing is neutral. “We were once told by someone that a women’s rights organisation writing Wikipedia entries on gender issues, is like Lashkar-e-Taiba writing about Kashmir,” said Shobha. “Wikipedia requires you to have a balanced approach when you’re writing, but, however much we try, the larger structural inequalities are reflected in terms of who we choose to write about or whether it is a Dalit person writing about her community or someone from an upper caste writing about issues faced by Dalit women.”
To ensure that these events are handled responsibly, the organisers try to invite representatives from other organisations knowledgeable about the chosen topic. For the session on the courtesans of India and their contribution in shaping India’s history, the Edit-a-thon was held in collaboration with Darwesh, a Delhi-based cultural organisation.
The participants edited the Wikipedia pages associated with prominent tawaifs (courtesans) from Delhi, Lucknow and Varanasi, as well as pages related to performing arts like thumri and Dadra, like Rasoolan Bai, Mubarak Shah Begum and Husna Bai.
“There were a few articles that existed already on them, but they were stubs with just two lines about the women,” said Shobha. “It is as good as not being there.” That particular session was kicked off with the screening of The Other Song, a 2009 documentary on the lost traditions of the courtesans of North India. An interaction with the film-maker, Saba Dewan, followed.
“There is a lot of stigma associated with the word tawaif, so we needed people to handle it sensitively,” said Shobha. “The interaction with Dewan and her film provided context to what they were about to begin researching and writing about.”
“We barely ever find wrong information,” said Pasricha. “It’s more that we see that there is very little information. So sometimes we update an existing page with more facts about a person, but we more often find ourselves creating a new page from scratch.”
These series of gender-based Edit-a-thons are slowly and steadily working their way towards making Wikipedia a more balanced platform of information by introducing women behind the scenes, as well as in.
The next Edit-a-thon, on Human Rights Day on December 10, will focus on female human rights activists.