Ann H Kay: Oral Histories of Surveillance

And so we see this, and then we have our period apps giving off information to companies like Facebook who send it to different companies and governments. [They] are able to use all this information without our consent to regulate our bodies, how much contraceptives we should have, etc. Instead of actually protecting us considering how many Black women, specifically African women, die during pregnancy and such, instead of using this information to improve our medical health, it’s actually used to control our bodies and to surveil our lives, and it’s really dangerous.
—Ann H Kay


Our Data Bodies (ODB) is excited to present a series of oral histories from organizers, writers, and cultural workers whose work has been steeped in resisting discriminatory surveillance technology and racialized surveillance capitalism, and has illuminated strategies for abolition and abolitionist reform. This oral history features Ann H Kay (she/her), a feminist activist based in Lusaka, Zambia. The transcript, which has been slightly edited for clarity, follows below.



Kim M Reynolds: Can you introduce yourself, who you are, where you’re from, and your politics, your ethic, how you walk through the world?


Ann H Kay: My name is Ann. It’s actually short for Anita, but I prefer using Ann. I am Zambian feminist. I’ve been a feminist for over, I think, seven years. And it’s a little bit embarrassing, but I became a feminist because of “Flawless”—okay, no, not really because of “Flawless” the song, but that was the first time I actually had a word to describe what I was. The moment I heard it, I was like, “Oh, so that’s what I am.” And so that’s how this feminist was born. In the beginning, it was all cool when I became a feminist in the sense of, like, you know when you finally discover what you are, and you find this whole community of different feminists around on social media and in person?


A lot of my work [on social media] started six years ago was on how it was so heavy that you have to deal with rape culture in person, then you go online and there are men talking about how they went to rape you because of how you dress, there are men sharing rape videos, there are men degrading women, and just being patriarchal shitbags. And it became too much, and in becoming too much I realized I wanted to do more than just speak out against the patriarchy on social media.


I wanted to change the lives of different young girls. I could see stories of young girls who are like—there’s a story that broke out, one that really defined my work, about this 13-year-old girl who was found in a car with a man who was 33 years old, and he had paid her to have sex with him, which is basically rape. So, she was 13 and this man was 33, and instead of people actually being upset that this man was with a child, everyone kept blaming her about how “fast” young girls are, about how young girls are going after married men, about how she has no mercy for this man and his wife. And it was so strange to see that coming from women who claim to work with underprivileged girls seeing society turn on this 13 year-old girl, and the story actually came out that she was trying to raise money for school. She needed to write her grade nine exams. (We have three major exams in high school and that’s one of them.) So she was trying to raise funds for that and that’s how everyone kind of turned on her.


So I wanted to start a program that kind of mentored girls and help them find money for school, help end period poverty, rape culture. And then it kind of blew up from there.


Kim M Reynolds: Can you tell me a bit more about your, about your work, how long you’ve been in this line of work? And then also kind of the point around data discrimination and feminist politics? How you got there, what, what, what that process was, what that journey has been?


Ann H Kay: There are 54 countries in Africa, and we’re all very different. And even in our 54 countries, there are some countries that have over 1,000 tribes. I come from a country that has 74 tribes. And so we’re very different in the language that we speak, how we act, and even in the inequalities that we face. So people have to calm down and actually understand that we are very different and even the issues that we face a very different and so just grouping our issues and saying Africa needs this Africa needs that without actually understanding the kind of needs that African people have. You go to Malawi, you find that Malawi has a problem of sexual cleansing, where the moment young girls turn a certain age or when they start their periods, families look for a male sex worker and rape their daughters as a way to clean them. And you go to, like, certain places in the western side of Africa, and you find there’s a huge purity culture, which is very different from Southern Africa. You find that we have FGM [Female Genital Mutilation], one of the biggest issues we’ve had. And FGM has different types.


Recently, I think a couple of years ago, there was a big distinction because there is a difference between female genital mutilation and female genital modification, and so because of not truly understanding the kind of issues that African women face, the UN decided to stamp it all out and say FGM involves cutting women’s genitals, and the other one involves holding women’s genitals with different kinds of instruments. With that kind of distorted data that people really don’t understand, you’ve given the solution to our problems and how they bring aid and how these organizations come in with their help is so out of touch and almost very insulting in how they come to help.


So when I started to truly understand that and started to learn how we are so different and how data is taken out of Africa and not really understood—they come in with all these solutions that don’t help us, that end up discriminating us. And they end up bringing all these investors and different people that come into Africa that actually end up stealing from us, destroying our lives, and leaving our economies worse off than they did before they left.


…My focus and my goal with my feminism has been to educate women to kind of understand who we are, what we are, the kind of the issues that we face, and to liberate ourselves in the sense that our governments can do better, the world can do better by us and we are deserving of better things.


A couple of years ago, I think about two or three years ago, I started this initiative with my friends called the Feminist Coven where we basically work together with different NGOs and different feminists from around Africa to create these spaces where we come in and educate women and talk about all the things that are wrong with society, including data discrimination. How we’re discriminated against just from something as simple as an interview or an online application. And something as major as period apps in how they get all this information without our authority and pass it off to companies like Facebook and different institutions and then use that information to discriminate against us, seeing how we’re having sex, if we’re having unprotected sex, and all those other things.


When we started doing these things, we said the focus was not only on educating women but also coming up with solutions and how we could change this and hold people to account and work on different programs. And that’s how we said we would march for rights on stopping data discrimination, on stopping rape culture, and stopping literally anything that’s trying to stop us from living in a free and equal world as men. And we started creating all these fundraising programs that kind of help women in tech and help young girls basically understand society and that so-called as schools, marketing companies, almost every other company that uses these systems discriminate against women. And [we created] all these campaigns that show them that what they’re doing is wrong. We know it, and we are going to speak out against it until they completely change their entire systems on how they run and how they should focus on working on data that doesn’t discriminate against women but [with] something that is concise, precise, and actually has our consent before they use this information.


Kim M Reynolds: How did you get to data discrimination and starting to think about like these kinds of online applications like period tracking?


Ann H Kay: It started from very simple conversations. I remember a couple of years ago, I think a woman put up a post complaining about how she didn’t understand why a company would have to ask her if she’s married when she goes into an interview or she’s writing an application. And of course, men will try and gaslight us into believing we are just overreacting. And they kept saying there’s nothing wrong with that and it’s okay when people ask if you’re married. And it’s okay when they ask a man because in such a patriarchal society when a man is married, he’s seen as more responsible. While women in society, so many women started coming out with different stories of how they will go to an interview and during the interview process they are asked if they are married. If they say they are not, companies will calculate how much they would actually want to pay you. So if you’re not married, they’ll pay you less because they feel you don’t have the same amount of responsibilities. They will even calculate where you live to see how much they want to pay you to see if you’ll be able to afford transportation and stuff like that. These are questions they don’t ask men, but they specifically ask women.


I remember one question in an interview that I actually experienced myself which was for a night DJ position, and the interviewer asked me if I was married. I was like, “I’m not married,” and they were like, “We just want to be sure if your husband would be okay with you working nights.” And, like, even if I was married, and I had to come into this place and ask for a job. I’m here interviewing on my merit, not on the fact that I’m married. And even if I’m married, why should my marriage come between me and my job?


So we had this conversation with different women, and I know this woman who’s an engineer, brilliant engineer, who will tell you how she’s been passed on for three or four promotions, how her male colleagues have been able to travel the world because of work. They kept making excuses for her until she found out that because she was a mother, and she was a wife. They refuse to give her these opportunities. They say, “Who is going to cook for your husband? Who is going to take care of your kids? You have to stay home.” She actually got mad and threatened to sue them, and that’s how they were able to let her go for certain job opportunities. And she said still they haven’t done it. But that’s just her. She understands her rights.


How about so many other women who are just glad to be in the door? With how bad the economy is… in Zambia about 60% of our population is poor. Seventy percent of that are women. So most women are just glad to have a job. It doesn’t matter if they’re being paid less. It doesn’t matter if they are being passed off opportunities, because they are women. As long as they have a job, they’re okay with it. They don’t understand that the law actually protects them, and that they can fight against this, and they can fight against the system.


I was talking about the period apps, right? You tell women that this is going on, and they’re like, “It’s fine. It doesn’t matter.” It seems very simple right now. But then when you completely come to understand how it affects our sexual reproductive health rights, and how they use most of the data collected to defund programs, to see who’s having abortions and try and push Christian or religious agendas, and basically try and change laws.


In Africa, specifically, only four countries allow abortion, while the rest will either have you arrested for over 13 to 14 years or they will only—very few of them allow abortions on medical terms. Others just recently said allowing abortion for rape victims who end up pregnant. Countries like Zambia allows abortion for socio-economic rights, but the law is very tricky. You need about three or four doctors to sign off on your document just before they allow you to have an abortion, and the doctor can deny you based on religious rights. Then we have South Africa, Tunisia, and Mozambique who allow women to have abortions for any reason.


So, out of 54 countries, we only have four countries, and even though these four countries do allow, it’s such a taboo, and it’s so dangerous for women that they fear going to a hospital where this could be free. They end up going to back-end abortion clinics where they end up dying. It’s still one of the biggest reasons why women die in Africa. We lose about 15 million women in Africa due to unsafe abortions.


And so we see this, and then we have our period apps giving off information to companies like Facebook who send it to different companies and governments. [They] are able to use all this information without our consent to regulate our bodies, how much contraceptives we should have, etc. Instead of actually protecting us considering how many Black women, specifically African women, die during pregnancy and such, instead of using this information to improve our medical health, it’s actually used to control our bodies and to surveil our lives, and it’s really dangerous.


And if no one works on it now, god knows what’s going to happen in the next decade. It’s almost going to be the same thing with how the patriarchy is: it could have been stopped a long time ago, but it’s hundreds of years later, and things are worse. It doesn’t matter how far we’ve come in the movement. We still have so many women who are being killed for simply having a child or simply having sex. So until we actually try to understand what’s happening, what they’re using this data for, how data is being used to discriminate against us, it’s important that we stand up.


I was reading an article recently about how certain companies actually encourage their employees to use certain apps. And they use this information to know which people are trying to get pregnant and who is pregnant, and when they get this information. They’re able to know which woman not to give a promotion to, because she’s pregnant; which woman not to give an opportunity to give a certain job to, because they already know she’s trying to get pregnant or if she’s pregnant, meaning she’s going to go on maternity leave at some point. And there’s going to be the school runs, the childcare emergencies. And these women are not given opportunities, because companies know private information about their sex lives without their consent. We see it and think, “Oh, it’s not happening in my company. It’s not happening.” So until we find a way to control all this information and try and end data discrimination, it’s going to continue, and it’s going to get worse. Before we know it, you don’t even know you’re pregnant, but your period app knows you’re pregnant, and your company finds out tomorrow, and you’re fired for no reason.


Kim M Reynolds: I’m really interested if you can speak a bit more about how this information is actually being actively used against us to defund certain programs. It’s not just like, Facebook sells our data, it’s actually being weaponized in a very particular way. Can you speak a bit more about those things? And then also anything you want to talk about in terms of like, also discrimination around LGBTQ persons?


Ann H Kay: A recent report came out that just in 2020, a majority of African countries spent over $80 million paying surveillance companies to basically spy on citizens through text messages, conversations, and stuff like that. I think the main point of the article was to kind of criticize how millions of people are dying. People are dying of starvation, and yet countries talk about how they don’t have money and how they keep borrowing. But they have over $80 million to spy on their citizens. Zambia came up in this report as one of the countries that are spying on its citizens. And in a country where LGBTQI people are—I don’t know how to explain it, our law doesn’t necessarily say that it’s illegal to be gay, it’s just illegal for someone to be caught in that act. But in a very homophobic country, someone who’s gay walking in a very crowded street, and someone pointing them out could be beaten up or could be arrested just for simply being gay. And the law doesn’t protect LGBTQI people, so you can imagine spaces like social media and forums are their safe spaces. That’s where they go to basically talk about their lives and to feel free because they feel “This is my space.”


Now, if governments are using money—taxpayers’ money—to start spying on their citizens, imagine how many LGBTQI citizens in this country are endangered just from simply spying. Already they have to hide who they are in their workplaces, in their homes. I specifically work with trans women, so whenever we have an event, we try to focus on ensuring that they are very safe with people in the community, that they can come in just as they want. So they’ll literally have to text and ask, “Is it safe? Can I come in a skirt? Is it safe for me to come just as I want?” So you can imagine we’re trying to create these safe spaces and our governments are spying on us, and I assure my trans friend that, “Yes, it’s safe. You can surely come dressed as you like.” And she comes in her dress, and there are the cops coming in, because they intercepted my texts and calls, and they’re able to come and arrest them and make it unsafe for queer and trans people. It’s such a scary thing. As a cis-hetero person, I can only just give second-hand information on what’s going on in the lives of queer and trans folks. But it’s actually really dangerous for them. They can’t live with their partners. They can’t live their lives, because already, there are the physical eyes.


And now we have the eyes on social media and using all this data to kind of intercept on who’s where, what are they doing, who are they dating. And the funny part about it is that society likes to pretend as though there are very few gay people in this country, that there are probably one or two. They throw off these religious beliefs that it’s a demonic thing and ‘these people’ need to be prayed for. They take queer and trans people to conversion therapy—and it never changes, because you really can’t change your sexuality. And so you can imagine how scary it is for them. And then anyone who works with people in that community is also endangered in the system. So people would rather not associate with the LGBTQI community, and people would like to pretend they don’t exist for their safety and also for very homophobic reasons.


When you look at the gender boxes that we have, for example, we’re registering to vote—we’re going to have elections in August next year and so we’re registering to vote right now—and when you go online on our registration process, it has only two genders which are female and male. But we have trans people. We have intersex people in this country. We have non-binary people in this country. And so what do they pick?


So imagine if governments actually—because of how they’re surveilling us—bring up this list of different types of genders, right? And let’s say they [look at] the box of “Other.” They’re able to intercept who put in “Other.” They’re able to basically follow this person through their social media or follow this person through their lives and understand that, okay, so this is a non-binary person. And non-binary people, trans people, intersex people are not even recognized in our Constitution. They are not considered as people. If someone puts this on a job application or on any other form for things to try and better their lives, and someone sees that you’re part of the LGBTQI community, you are discriminated against.


There are these little things where—just from all this data that is collected, from physical data, online data—the country specifically is continuing to go in this very homophobic route, where a huge part of our community, the LGBTQI community, is excluded from everything.


Kim M Reynolds: Could you speak a bit more about this in terms of, there’s a serious form of erasure via data, but then also if there was if there was the opportunity to be able to mark in these governmental records that “I am trans, I am this,” that the data would then be used against you.


Ann H Kay: I’ve been to a few LGBTQI events in Zambia, and they’re so underground. You do not know the location until five minutes before the event is supposed to start, and even the people they send it to—it’s such a dangerous process. I remember I was in a meeting with a few LGBTQ organizations. And we were talking about ways on how to kind of spread awareness. And so because I specifically work with children. How do we work with young children who are in the community who have questions? And my work focuses on underprivileged children who come from areas where they don’t have access to social media. They don’t have phones. How do we work with them? And they are scared. There are funded organizations that are afraid to work with children because according to the law if you’re seen promoting LGBTQI rights, you will be arrested for five to 14 years. So you can imagine how much of their work is affected, how many young LGBTQIA young children are excluded from the movement. Because the communities that could actually help them are even in danger of being arrested or imprisoned for years if they are seen in this position of trying to educate children. Until we vote in better governments, until we change people’s minds, until we create different systems and basically educate people on the importance of letting everyone live their lives and not discriminate against people regardless of their gender and sexuality, it’s going to take a long time.


Kim M Reynolds: Could you speak a bit more about concrete examples of what surveillance looks like in Zambia and your understanding of that? And then the second question is just to maybe name a couple more of these concrete ways that data is used against people.


Ann H Kay: I don’t know how to explain it. But Zambia is…a lot of Zambians are illiterate. Right? You’d find them on Facebook. People understand how to use Facebook, even when you go on Facebook, and you check the Zambian Facebook community, most of them can barely spell. They don’t really understand English…but they would use phones. They would use WhatsApp. They would use this mobile community on Twitter, they would use Instagram and stuff like that. But they don’t really understand how surveillance works, how it works on social media, that… we have OP—the Office of the President, which basically is our version of maybe a mixture of FBI and whichever surveillance companies work there. So basically, this company, what they do is they’re like spies. They come into our spaces as maybe a drunk guy passing, and you’re having a conversation, and they’re basically intercepting information. They can come in as your taxi driver. It could be your boss. It could be your neighbor. It could be your guide. We know they’re spying on us. But there’s just this very powerless attitude of “What can we do?” People don’t understand their power. It’s just like, “Okay, they have all of this. What is it that I can do? Can I go and stand and shout at the president?” They don’t understand that it’s coming together collectively and calling out of governments. It’s coming in and demanding accountability. It’s coming in in voting for different people.


A lot of surveillance in Zambia is being surveilled on social media. Our roads are not very tech-savvy in the sense that we have cameras everywhere. Like, there’s this super dangerous place in Zambia, but there are no cameras. You’ll find a few policemen there, but it’s such a dangerous place where people know they can do anything. As long as there are no white people living in that area, as long as there are no ministers living in that area, you will not find any of these high-tech kinds of surveillance systems like the cameras, the microphones, the high-tech guards. You’ll probably find just the little spies like the ones I was talking about, like the drunk guy, your neighbor, and stuff like that. That’s what it looks like.


The one that the article talks about, where they are paying this system to spy on Zambian people’s phone calls, that’s the largest form of surveillance that we have. And very few Zambians know about it. And even if they knew, it would just end in complaints because of that powerlessness feeling. They don’t know what they could do about it. They could just be like, “This is how all governments are.” And the worst part about it is that it’s been happening since independence. Our first president was a dictator, a tyrant who wouldn’t allow anyone to say anything bad about him. He ruled for over 27 years, and he would spy on people. You couldn’t say anything bad in the classroom. You couldn’t say anything bad on social media. Even today, it’s just the same. You say something bad about the president, and you’re arrested tomorrow. You put up a tweet complaining about how bad the government is… you have to be extremely creative in how you say something about how bad the government or you are arrested, and even our judicial system isn’t independent enough to actually help people. The people that are in these positions are there to serve whichever government is there.


So we’re surveilled in almost every sector but there’s literally nothing being done about it, and even when you educate people, they’ll be like, “If someone in America is being surveilled, then it’s okay for it to happen to me.” And people don’t understand that this goes against your human rights, and there’s a way we could stop it.


Another way that I’ve seen women being discriminated against is with marketing companies. And this is something that we’ve been working on and calling out these mobile companies and how they

advertize a lot of their products. Their campaigns are so sexist. They’re so patriarchal. It’s like they come in, and then they get all this data like, “Okay, what works in Zambia? Alright, let’s body shame women, that’s what works. Gender roles work in Zambia.” And so they push these marketing schemes that are very insulting and that are really rapey. There are so many companies that we’ve called out for how they pushed for an advert that didn’t understand the lines of consent, or that basically pushed women back to “Go back to the kitchen”—that kind of narrative. They use this information and instead of trying to be better and understanding that, “Okay, Zambia is a very patriarchal country. So how can we be better as people? Okay, let’s create this form of marketing strategy that pushes for the liberation of women, teaching how to treat women better, and treating society better.” Instead of using this data that they collect as a tool to help women, they use it as a way to now take advantage of the system and continue oppressing women.


I can’t remember which exact company did this, but it was an advert where I think they were making fun of gender-based violence. There was another one that was making fun of how little women get paid, how companies were taking advantage of the low wages that women face, and also how women are afraid of working late hours because of how bad the rape culture is in Zambia. It’s just all these little things, from the government itself to the smallest institution that you would ever find. They use all this data to kind of push this very patriarchal discriminatory system, instead of trying to create this better society. What they’re trying to do is they’ve found this system, they feel it works, and they’re going to continue without realizing that it doesn’t work. It’s horrible for the economy. It’s horrible for women. It’s horrible for society as a whole. But instead of trying to be better, they just don’t care.


Kim M Reynolds: What are some of the campaigns or moments that have been aimed at resisting data discrimination? So if you have examples of work that you’ve done, and you can speak more about -—but just kind of the things that you’ve done to, to combat data discrimination, we identify, we talk about, we try to raise awareness, but I want to ask what have been some of your strategies to resisting that?


Ann H Kay: As I said, a huge part of our work has been educating women. So, from social media to in person, and our biggest belief is that before we go for the system, we have to make sure that people actually understand what is wrong with the system, why it doesn’t work, and why they need to speak out.


So it’s been part of basically hosting things like the feminist classes I was talking about that range from everything. We create these community groups for women in underprivileged parts of Zambia and young girls in schools. We teach them through questioning, because we don’t want to say, “This is what’s right and you have to follow what’s right.” What we tell them is, “Okay, have you seen how the system works?” And they understand that… through questioning, they’re able to search for more answers and understanding and start to question, “Why am I being paid less? Why am I being passed over for promotions? Why didn’t I get that job? Why should my employer ask me how many children I have? Why does this white intern that’s been working here for two weeks get over $2,000 and I get $500 when I do even more work than him?”


From the classes, what we’ve done is also created campaigns where we host online or in-person marches where women are able to call out different companies and the government on how they are discriminating against us through certain policies. We have created petitions on how the government should hold certain social media platforms and institutions accountable. For example, Facebook will block me for calling a man trash. So we’ve worked towards having all these petitions, all these marches, and we’ve worked towards having in-person meetings with governments and teaching them on how to create safety laws for children, for women, and creating better systems where women are able to be themselves.


We’ve also created campaigns that call out companies. Companies now do this thing where they hire people to start spying on your employees to check their social media and stuff like that, and the funny part about it is that when you look at how this information is used, male employees are allowed the freedom to speak as they want, but should you as a female employee even talk about sex, you will be reprimanded the next day at the office or given a warning and stuff like that. And most people don’t even understand the labor laws in this country, so educating them that there are laws in this country that could protect you. And we have been working with certain NGOs and systems legal offices that basically helped them and so we’ve kind of put ourselves as a middle person. So when a woman feels she’s being discriminated against, and how the police are handling her case etc., we basically show them the ways of understanding the law.


So that’s been part of our work in trying to go deep down in society and not only educating women but also educating men in showing them their biases and how they treat women in how they use information and data to discriminate against us.


Kim M Reynolds: Last question, where you hope to see the work and politics going, and what is your vision for the future?


Ann H Kay: My vision for the future is, I’m hoping for a more feminist government. I feel like when we have a feminist government. I know not every government, not every system, not every movement is right. But for me, the thing that even comes close to perfection is feminism. That is because we’re constantly reassessing where we’re wrong and how we can be better, and constantly working to be better. And our whole aim is to ensure that there’s equality in every form—in how people are treated in the workplace, in how people are treated in society, in every aspect.


What I hope to see is the women we are trying to liberate, everyone that we are educating—the men, the boys, everyone—that they become more accountable people who create systems, who run companies, and who end up as society’s leaders who ensure that no one is discriminated against because of their color, their gender, their race, ethnicity, where people put humanity before monetary gain. That’s the kind of world I’m hoping to see. That’s where I want this work to go; where the word discrimination is something of the past. And I believe we can change these things because I know, like, there are still some forms of slavery out there in the world, but it’s in more of in a very secretive underground way that is not something people proudly talk about. But if slavery could be ended, you know, if colonization could come to an end, if all these very barbaric systems could come to an end, this too can come to an end. We could live in a very equal society, I think it’s possible. We’ve come from a very dark past.