[blog] Catching a Glimpse of the Elusive “Feminist Drone”

Author: Erinne Paisley


Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV or “drones”) are increasingly being used for military, governmental, commercial and personal purposes (Feigenbaum 267; Estrada 100). This rapid increase in drone use raises new questions about how this technology reinforces certain social and political inequalities within its own structure, function, and use. Those who work within the growing academic field of feminist internet studies are dedicated to understanding the aspects of society’s inequities that are both present in new technologies and that can be decreased through these mediums. However, a clear picture of what a “feminist drone” can look like is still relatively elusive.

To paint a picture of how this new media form can be used to decrease gendered inequalities, we can look to two previous feminist drone projects: Droncita (Dronette) in Mexico and the “Abortion Drone” in Poland. Each of these UAV projects worked in unique ways to expose the existing inequalities that are strengthened through typical drone use and, instead, counteract these forces by using the technology to fulfill feminist agendas. Droncita worked to address spatial inequalities and the “Abortion Drone” aimed to expose and counteract legal inequalities. These cases show a glimpse into the future of feminist drones and the expanding field of feminist internet studies that support them.

Mexico’s Droncita (Dronette)

Discrimination against women includes the exclusion of women from physical spaces . They are also discriminated against in additional intersecting ways including racially and economically. This exclusion of women ranges from workplaces to specific areas of cities that have high risks of sexual assault and other forms of violence (Spain 137). Operating from the skies, drones are able to use their small aerial cameras to literally offer new opportunities for viewing and recording our political and social world. In this way, they can reimagine some of these spatially exclusionary forms of discrimination – as we can see with Droncita.

Droncita made her debut in Ecatepec – 20km from Mexico City. Ecatepec is the city’s municipality with the highest rate of deaths presumed to be murder. In 2016, Feminist protestors filled the main square in an attempt to draw attention to the state’s inadequate reaction to the increasing number of female deaths in the country. The activists worked together, using white paint, to cover the square’s ground. The message they were creating was only viewable by one activist in particular: Droncita.

The drone was created by the Rexiste collective project, that began out of an opposition to the presidential election of Peña Nieto. Above these feminist activists, the drone now whirred, recording the emerging message. From Droncita’s point of view, the white paint clearly states: “Femicide State”. By recording this message from the sky’s unclaimed public space, Droncita firstly draws attention, in contrast, to the gendered space of Ecatepec below. The drone’s recording highlights that the feminist protestors are still not fully free to create their message safely in this space. As well, Droncita reclaims the space, alongside the activists below, by completing their message and illustrating its take-over of the square.

Femicide is: “The killing of a woman or girl, in particular by a man and on account of her gender.”

Through its actions, Droncita uses “digital ethnography”, the linking of digital space with actual space, to intervene (Estrada 104). Droncita turns aerial space into public space, making violence against women and the reality of the physical more visible – ultimately holding the Mexican government accountable for its role in creating a space where women feel unsafe and face omissions of justice.

Poland’s “Abortion Drone”

Gendered and intersectional discrimination is also upheld globally through law. One of the most significant, and ongoing, ways is through legal boundaries for women’s access to safe and affordable abortions. Women’s rights to make decisions over their own bodies include decisions regarding abortions and yet this form of healthcare is still illegal in many countries. As of 2020, abortion is fully illegal in 27 countries (even if the pregnancy is due to rape or incest). This legal boundary does not mean that women stop getting abortions, but instead that they are forced to receive expensive and unsafe medical attention. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 25 million unsafe abortions occur annually worldwide and over 7 million women are admitted to hospitals in developing countries due to this lack of safe access.

This is where the role of the “Abortion Drone” comes in. In 2015, across the German border from Słubice, Poland, this drone prepared to make its first trip. On one side of the river, a collection of women’s rights organizations and doctors prepared to fly the “quadcopter” to the other side. There a collection of pro-life protestors, journalists, and two women waited to swallow the abortion-inducing pills attached to the drone.

Despite the only 60-second length of the journey, the goal of the “Abortion Drone” was far-reaching. Within Poland, abortion is still illegal unless a woman’s life is categorized as being “in danger” or there is “evidence” of rape, incest or severe fetal abnormalities (O’Neil 2015). Because of these barriers, over 50,000 “underground abortions” are conducted each year – often using out-dated and dangerous tools and for thousands of dollars (limiting the resource to those who can economically afford it). Not only are Poland’s legal barriers for women’s access to healthcare a threat for the safety of those within the country, but they also serve as a wider representation of the legal struggles of millions of women globally.

The collection of activists and doctors called Women on Waves explains: “The medicines used for a medical abortion, mifepristone and misoprostol, have been on the list of essential medicines of the World Health Organization since 2005 and are available in Germany and almost all other European countries.”

As the “Abortion Drone” takes off on its inaugural flight, there is nothing that those on the Polish side can do to legally stop the drone’s journey. The UAV weighs under 5kg and is not used for commercial purposes. Because of these features, the new technology is able to both make visible the legal barriers for women in Poland and counteract them.

The drone lands on the Polish side safely and the women ceremoniously swallow the pills. Soon after, the activists operating the drones on the German side have their technology confiscated but the drone’s work has already been successful. The “Abortion Drone” has illuminated the legal and sexist inequalities that exist with regards to women’s access to healthcare – and temporarily counteracted them.

Feminist Drones in the Future

Droncita and the “Abortion Drone” illustrate the potential of feminist drones to illuminate and counteract spatial and legal inequalities that still exist for women and minorities today. The potential for feminist drones goes much beyond these two cases. As this article is published, feminist internet scholars are working to imagine other creative ways this new media can join the global fight for equality. It is fair to say this new member of the 21st century feminist movement is becoming less elusive; in fact, if you look up you might just catch a glimpse of it.

About the author

Erinne Paisley is a current Research Media Masters student at the University of Amsterdam and completed her BA at the University of Toronto in Peace, Conflict and Justice & Book and Media Studies. She is the author of three books on social media activism for youth with Orca Book Publishing.

Works Cited

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Jones, Sam. “Paint Remover: Mexico Activists Attempt to Drone out Beleaguered President.” The Guardian, 15 Oct. 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/oct/15/mexico-droncita-rexiste-collective-president-enrique-pena-nieto.

O’Neil, Lauren. “‘Abortion Drone’ Delivers Pregnancy-Terminatinng Pills to Women in Poland.” CBC News, 29 June 2015, https://www.cbc.ca/news/trending/abortion-drone-delivers-medication-to-women-in-poland-1.3132284.

Oxford University Dictionary. “Femicide.” Lexico, https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/femicide. Accessed 26 Feb. 2020.

Spain, Daphne. “Gendered Spaces and Women’s Status.” Sociological Theory, vol. 11, no. 2, July 1993, pp. 137–51.

Women on Waves. Abortion Drone; First Flight to Poland. https://www.womenonwaves.org/en/page/5636/abortion-drone–first-flight-to-poland. Accessed 26 Feb. 2020.

World Health Organization. Preventing Unsafe Abortion. 26 June 2019, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/preventing-unsafe-abortion.

World Population Review. Countries Where Abortion Is Illegal 2020. http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/countries-where-abortion-is-illegal/. Accessed 26 Feb. 2020.