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  • “Passive Combatants”Online Discourses of the “Tamil Woman” and the 2009 Gardiner Expressway Occupation
  • Daphne Jeyapal (bio)

Triggered by a particularly gory day in Sri Lanka’s conflict, around five thousand protesters in Toronto made their way onto the Gardiner Expressway and shut down six lanes of traffic for approximately six hours on Sunday, May 10, 2009—Mother’s Day.1 The Gardiner occupation was one part of the large-scale mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Tamils around the world in response to the culmination of decades of political repression, subjugation, and structural genocide. While some celebrated the Gardiner occupation as an innovative transnational protest practice, justified as an understandable response after months of protesters being ignored, most commentators condemned the act as “dangerous,” “unlawful,” and “the wrong way to protest.” Online discussions critiqued women’s presence at the protest’s frontlines as “human shields,” initiating debates on the agency of racialized women in activism.

Within broader feminist debates about online communication’s potential to transform women’s social and cultural experiences, in this paper I explore how the virtual organizes, alters, confronts, and is shaped by gender and race relations. Discourses of the Gardiner protest that highlight the racial divide constructing women’s resistance in “real” space parallel representations of women’s resistance in virtual space. The sociopolitical space of activism within “real” and virtual realities are still grounded in race politics that are mediated by the nation-state. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan’s insightful definition of transnational feminism helps to highlight that it is through social practices of border crossing—in this case, through places, platforms, and realities—that power relations between and within feminisms are uncovered.2 Feminists who continue to struggle with issues of privilege and difference [End Page 152] in online spaces must emphasize a critique of the dominant “gaze” that has “whitened our technological stories.”3 With such a critique in mind, I examine a combination of online and offline discourse to explore what happens when an act of transnational protest by racialized women moves from offline-and-local to online-and-(trans) nationally networked.

Information and communication technologies (ICT) were central in this social movement. Through ICTs the Tamil diaspora came to know, engage with, challenge, and organize against their oppression across borders. As media reports and key informants from my research echoed, the incredible global mobilization of 2009 would not have been possible without the digitization of the unfolding conflict in Sri Lanka, or the virtual connection of a transnational network of activists and community members. In Canada, Twitter and texts were used to organize impromptu protests, including the mass occupation on the Gardiner Expressway. Mainstream media reported police discomfort over the community’s use of ICTs to mobilize. Journalists spoke of needing to be engaged with Tamil online networks and news sources because they provided comprehensive reports from around the globe. These narratives suggest that as the movement unfolded in “real” space, it was simultaneously constructed and negotiated in cyberspace. However, the promise of technology resides within a paradox: technologies can enable marginalized groups, but they can also exacerbate marginalization. In the digital age, when racialized women digitize their resistance across borders of lived and virtual realities, examining the conditions underlying representations of their activism is critical: our revolutions are tweeted, battled on Facebook, and borne witness to on YouTube. The politics of gender and race underscore them all.

Building upon growing scholarship on the agency and resistance of racialized women around the world,4 and drawing upon the contributions of critical race and postcolonial scholars,5 this essay highlights the representational politics of the racialized woman activist—the composite “Third World woman” in the West6—who engages in radical, transnational protest practices against national conflicts. Since “womanhood” is constructed through gender, ethnic, and racial divisions within the nation, protest provides a powerful site to unpack how the essentialized role of women frames them not only as a nation’s biological and symbolic reproducers but also as its ideological reproducers.7 Women’s function as an assemblage of ethnic and racial collectivities and difference is amplified through the antagonism of protest across “real” and cyber space. Online spaces...