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BANGALORE: With a name like LinuxChix-India, you might think its mission is trivial, but their goal is serious: creating equal access for women to enter the world of technology.
Archana Raghupathy of Chennai started LinuxChix-India in 2005. It is the Indian chapter of the global women techies’ network Linuxchix.org, and "tries to empower Indian women to use, develop and contribute to the world of free and open source software (FOSS)."
Globally, LinuxChix is a community for women who "like Linux and Free Software" and for women and men who want to support women in computing. Its members range from novices to experienced users and include professional and amateur programmers, system administrators and technical writers.
It also works to bring together women around India involved in various FOSS projects, foster participation and share knowledge in a geeky world where males usually dominate.
"Back when I started (being active) online, revealing one’s gender meant the usual picture requests or maybe personal questions after a few mails under the guise of volunteering. But I doubt if it will happen to a woman today," Vidya Ayer, one of those involved in the LinuxChix-India project, said.
Using the online identity of VidAyer, she currently volunteers for a number of global free software projects.
These include the popular GNU/Linux groups like Ubuntu, Ubuntu-Women, Linuxchix, Debian-Women, KDE-Women and the open directory project DMOZ. Some projects like Debian-Women and KDE-Women acknowledge the low participation rates of women in FOSS initiatives and attempt to encourage more of them to join in.
LinuxChix-India takes up geeky topics like "Introduction to Linux Kernel: Basics", showing that women can do anything in this often male-dominated field – if given the chance.
Its members show their abilities and encourage one another. For instance, Aneesha Govil and Barkha Khatri are into "FOSS evangelism" – spreading the word about it.
Ani Peter works on localising software to Indian languages, Ankita Garg is into Linux kernel hacking, Archana is into scripting, Kadambari Devarajan is into theoretical computer science, Priti Patil works on education, and Runa Bhattarjee is into mentoring, apart from other things.
Ayer explained why women find it tough to enter computing, including free software.
"It’s the lack of infrastructure, while the lack of computer access also plays some role. Most men who don’t own computers would use a friend’s machine; women in India would not have the freedom to stay late at a friend’s place to hack away," she explained.
Mentoring can help a lot, members of LinuxChix India feel. FOSS volunteers need to introduce and teach them packaging, translation, bug squashing (correcting errors in software code) and the like.
"At the entry level, volunteering is easy if you know what you want to do. Also most men I’ve met so far appreciate the extra efforts put to cross that GNU/Linux-learning-curve," Ayer said.
"However, today it’s a lot more difficult to be sexist and the existence of FOSS women’s groups makes it tough to get away with negative behaviour," she added.
About herself, Ayer said: "It’s been a self-taught learning experience, thanks to all the online manuals, tutorials and (mailing) lists. I started off volunteering with dmoz.org and Wikipedia communities, then LinuxChix."
Kadambari Devarajan, a Chennai student doing her masters in software engineering and who aims to enter a graduate school in the US and focus on theoretical computer science, feels women have it tough and equal access is still some time away.
"There are few women in technology and fewer still in FOSS. Women still have to straddle other responsibilities especially if they are employed. Women (at least in India) still haven’t broken free completely," she said.
"Knowing a lot of women from rural India, I have had a number of discussions with them. Their parents and later in-laws are the ones who decide for them," Devarajan added.
She feels other factors come in – a lack of awareness and the lack of suitable rewards.
"The reasons for fewer women in FOSS seems comparable to the reasons for fewer women in research. I personally can quote a number of problems faced.
"The problem is not with the guys using FOSS, it’s with the men outside of it. Bureaucracy and a condescending attitude are a few problems that come to mind," Devarajan added.