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Tuesday, 16 December 2008 03:13

Debian women may leave due to 'sexist' post

At least two Debian women developers are reconsidering their participation in the GNU/Linux project following the posting of what they deem to be a sexist message to one of the mailing lists meant for developers.

The message in question was posted on November 23 by developer Josselin Mouette to the list meant for important announcements for developers.

One of the women in question, Miriam Ruiz, who became a developer in 2004 by joining the Debian Women project, told iTWire she had not resigned and did not plan to do so because it would send the wrong message, "that this kind of behaviour is a winning strategy. I don't want to be sending that message. Secondly, I don't want to flee leaving behind all the people - users and developers- that are somehow depending on my work, some of whom have been supportive."

Sources say a second developer, whose identity is unknown, has mentioned the possibility of resigning.

Ruiz, who looks after 27 packages, said Mouette's post  imitated the style of certain kinds of spam, made a joke meant to offend some people and reduced women to sexual objects.

"The mail was in essence sexist, stereotyping and reducing women to the state of sexual objects ('by leading chicks directly to your home', 'we enable people to claim new sex slaves'). Some other social groups were involved in the joke too, anyway ('If you are goth, transsexual, female or simply metrosexual'). (This is) the kind of joke you probably would expect in an all boys club, and that makes it clear that it's their territory, not ours," she said.

A discussion about the message then began on the Debian-devel mailing list which is meant for general discussion of matters related to development.

Ruiz said some of the other developers, as expected, complained that Mouette's post was in bad taste, an abuse of Debian resources, and sexist. Other developers stepped in to throw the standard accusations of a lack of a sense of humour, censorship, etc.

"Afterwards, Joss posted in his blog and on Debian Planet a confirmation that the post was done with the intention to offend ('I will go on shocking these people. And they won't like it more than in the past'), probably along with some of his friends ('I prefer to
just laugh at them with the help of some fellow developers'), and diminishing those people that take Debian seriously ('Yet a large number of developers are taking this project way too seriously. To say it in other words, they have a carrot up the a***.')," Ruiz said.

"I was involved in a brief discussion in his blog, in which he targeted all his anger towards Debian against me ('The Debian social environment is ignominious, and you are among the people who are making it this way'). The discussion wasn't leading anywhere, so I just let it be."

Ruiz said she had received a number of messages supporting her stance. "I understand that it's quite hard for people to step in into that kind of discussion, when most of just want to have fun and develop something we can feel proud of, and not entering any battle or have to get involved in a war of insults. The effective result, in any case, is that those complains are usually kept in private and are not seen for most of the observers," she said.

But there were some who attacked her for complaining, "for example being accused of not being able to work in a big project because I didn't find that joke appropriate, or that I didn't have the right to complain because I often use a childish nickname in the IRC chatting network."

She says she was surprised by the reaction, "most of all, by the lack of public response complaining against that message and by the attacks I received in private messages from some members from which I didn't expect because of complaining."

Ruiz finally decided that it wasn't worth fighting about. "I tried to briefly explain my point of view in my weblog, but decided not to publish it in Debian Planet, not to keep discussing it, as it was leading nowhere. I also decided to reduce my involvement in the project for some time, and announced that I was taking some vacations from Debian until I can sort out what to do. In any case, I've never talked about leaving Debian or anything like that, and I don't plan to resign from being a developer."

Ruiz said that when she joined the project four years ago, "the atmosphere I perceived was encouraging and friendly, and I felt very comfortable there. After that I started to get involved in different working groups inside Debian and developing stuff. I honestly don't think I would have joined Debian if it wasn't for the Debian Women project."

She added: "Before all this happened, I had the perception that Debian - as an organisation- wasn't really that sexist. I even commented (about) that in some interviews. I wasn't there before the Debian Women project existed, so I cannot compare to that. I'm often told that before it was even worse. In any case, I think there is some kind of regression since when the Debian Women project was started."

Ruiz feels it would be a good idea to have a code of conduct in Debian as Ubuntu does.  "That way, women -and maybe other groups too- wouldn't be de facto censored and pushed down by certain practices that seem to try to keep the current status quo of no more women in the project than those strictly needed. In fact, to be honest, I wouldn't bring any of my female friends to Debian right now, as things are."

She plans to gradually reduce her involvement in Debian and start getting involved in other free software projects which she finds more women-friendly.

This is not the first sexist post made to this mailing list. Andrew Suffield posted a message in January 2006, titled "For those who care about lesbians."

Ruiz says the project reacted much better to that announcement than it has to Mouette's post.

Asked what she thought Debian project leader Steve McIntyre should do in the circumstances, Ruiz responded: "What I would have expected was a public message, probably in d-d-a too, stating clearly that Joss message was wrong and offensive, that the Debian project was against this kind of action. He (Mouette) has sent out a wrong message about the project out there and no counter-message has been sent about it."

Reaction has been sought from McIntyre.

Debian has more than a thousand developers who produce a top-quality GNU/Linux distribution. Begun in 1993, the project is expected to release version 5.0, known as Lenny, soon.
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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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