Miriam Ruiz
random thoughts on technology and life

{November 25, 2008}   I was wrong: sexism in Debian

I have said a few times lately, even in some interviews, that I felt that the level of sexism and misogynia in Debian was below the average in the Free Software world, and that I was proud of it. Sadly I have to rectract myself from those words. I was wrong, totally mistaken. A recent sexist joke in debian-devel-announce and especially its echoes in debian-devel from other developers (“I prefer to just laugh at them with the help of some fellow developers”) has showed me the real face of the project. It’s not really the original message that bothers me, especially when it comes from a well known troll, but the attacks (yes, not only criticism but also personal attacks) I’ve been receiving both in public and private for complaining against it have been unproportionally hard, some of them quite cruel and definitely unfair, unjustified and undeserved.

Debian is behaving like any other boys club: as long as you behave and willingly accept their sexism it’s OK, but whenever you stand up against it, it’s all at once against you. I’m vulnerable, so what? I don’t need nor want to develop a thick skin, and as things are now it obviously needed. If you’re planing to join Debian don’t forget to turn off your trusty mode and turn on the wary one. Would I recommend any of my female friends to enter Debian as things are now? certainly not, sorry.

I’m not adding this entry to Debian Planet, it’s not worth it. We should have a Code of Conduct, as Ubuntu does. Maybe it’s those kind of things what makes it the most popular distro at the moment.

Mohammed Sameer says:

Sorry for that.

I actually thought that email was SPAM and erased it without reading!

Miry says:

Just to clarify the situation a bit: The problem is not when something like this happens, that’s totally predictable in such a big project. It’s all about how the rest of the project behaves in that situation.

If the group starts dismissing the importance of what has happened, justifying their sexism/racism/ageism/homophobia/whatever by appealing to freedom of speech, accusing those who complain of being hypersensitive, irrational, etc, laughing at those who might feel offended instead of trying to understand the situation, putting pressure on people in private communications to make them be silent, trying to quietly turn that page by asking everyone to shut up about what has happened instead of trying to solve the situation, not even publishing a note feeling sorry for the incident, etc. Typical pattern in every project with a high level of sexism, if you already know about that. That is what this is all about.

John Talbut says:

Hi Miri

I have been really pleased to see your contributions to Debian. I am saddened that you should be the recipient of such abuse.

Keep up the good work.

Best wishes


Matt says:

This is well said. Thank you for speaking up about this issue here and on the list.

This really is a frustrating and embarrassing thread. It is amazing to me how persistent sexism (and racism) can be. It’s as if sexism, though seemingly buried, lurks and resurfaces at times, reinvented, disguised, and empowered (such as through humor). The task then of educating people to recognize its new guise begins all over again.

One particularly sad thing is the positive response to his “apology”. Notice the authoritative-sounding response describing how any punitive action will be taken in private (i.e., nothing will happen). Boys clubs don’t punish boys for being boys.

If anything encouraging could be said here, perhaps it would be that people are defensive at first. I hope for some on the list, your words are echoing in their heads and will resurface (just as sexism appears to, ironically) and transform their thinking.

Veli Huilu says:


I’m a long-time debian user and although I occasionally check out debian-devel-announce, I don’t follow debian-devel or other mailing lists. I found this blog post via http://www.debian-news.net. I don’t think these flame wars on mailing lists and blogs are doing debian or its reputation any good.

I saw the “SmellyWerewolf.com perfume & make-up discount” post on d-d-a and, honestly, it didn’t strike me as a sexist joke. Of course, it could be read as a sexist joke, but I rather think it was a parody piece instead. Parody, by definition, is a critical or polemic imitation of some other text. A typical strategy of critique in parody is to exaggerate the imitated text to the extent that it starts to look ridiculous and absurd.

To find out the original intention of the d-d-a post, you need to read the post in its proper context. The obvious primary target of the “SmellyWerewolf.com” post’s parody was another post on d-d-a, where another debian developer advertized some commercial service. A possible secondary target of its parody (or so it appears to me) might have been sexist advertisements, like the AXE deodorant commercials. Now, parody typically has multiple layers of meanings and the ultimate targets of parody are often difficult to pinpoint. Still, if the “SmellyWerewolf.com” post actually parodied sexist commercials, then its intention was clearly not sexist at all. On the contrary, I’m inclined to think that the original intention of the “SmellyWerewolf.com” post’s parody was actually anti-sexist and that it intended to criticize sexist commercials (like the AXE deodorant ads) that represent women as objects and men as idiots.

I can understand that hearing sexist jokes can feel like someone slapped your face. But calling someone sexist or racist or homophobic can also feel like getting slapped in the face, especially if they don’t think they’ve deserved that kind of treatment. You can’t really expect people to discuss anything calmly and rationally after such an insult.

I thought I might set up a debian system for my parents during the Christmas holidays to show them the shiny wonders of the new KDE4 desktop. But now I’m really getting tired of reading about these endless debian flame wars and I’m starting to think my parents might like a kubuntu desktop better. And if it seems that kubuntu is not much worse than debian, I might just migrate my own desktop from debian to kubuntu. At least those ubuntu developers seem to get releases out every now and then, maybe that’s because they don’t spend so much time feeding flame wars.

Jason L. Froebe: Ramblings of a Geek » Blog Archive » Something for all of us to think about says:

[...] Miriam Ruiz raises concerns of sexism on the Debian Linux project.  Is she overreacting or is she right?  Personally I can see both sides. I have said a few times lately, even in some interviews, that I felt that the level of sexism and misogynia in Debian was below the average in the Free Software world, and that I was proud of it. Sadly I have to rectract myself from those words. I was wrong, totally mistaken. A recent sexist joke in debian-devel-announce and especially…. read more on her blog [...]

Miry says:

Veli, thanks a lot for your reply.

I have to clarify a few things, though:
1) Joss never explained his post in the same terms that you did. In fact, as he clearly states in his blog, he did in on purpose to troll, and in fact to have some laugh at our expenses, knowing that some of us would find that offensive. I can think if different things I could say that would offend many people for sure, do you think that if everyone did that we would have a better project?
2) Even though I have nothing at all to say to Joss from now on, this is not about his joke but about how the rest of the project handled it. We’re doing a lot of work to try to get more women into Debian, and then something like this spoils it all. How would you like that happening to something you’re interested in, if someone did it “just for fun”, as Joss said in his blog?
3) So, he has the right to make a sexist joke in d-d-a, which is more or less one of the public faces of the project, and I’m not allowed to get offended by it, but then when I say the plain truth, that it is indeed sexist, you all get offended?
4) If you prefer to use Ubuntu just go for it, but please don’t use that as an argument for telling me to shut up. You might not perceive it, but that’s quite close to emotional blackmail.
5) I didn’t put this answer in Planet Debian just to avoid a flame, but this is my personal weblog, so please don’t tell me what I can say or not. If I think that this situation is unfair and not acceptable, I will say it just as it is. Or you’re recommending me to shut up and accept whatever may come without answering back just to avoid flames?

Miry says:

John and Matt, thanks a lot for your support :)

I guess you’re sadly right, Matt: “Boys clubs don’t punish boys for being boys”. Even though I think that being a boy, or a man, is something different than behaving like that :)

Roy Schestowitz says:

It’s important that you communicate about the issue as it can resolve it.

Jordi Gutiérrez Hermoso says:

I saw that too… And I was rather annoyed by the whole thing. I get really angry with the boys too. They defend their rights to be assholes entirely too much and over any other right.

I’m sorry Debian has been this hostile to you.

Jordi Gutiérrez Hermoso says:

… and to everyone.

Sometimes I wonder if the accusations of Debian being generally unfriendly are warranted. There does seem to be a higher level of flaming here than what I perceive in other communities, but I still feel most comfortable with the technical expertise of Debian users and developers are compared to our giant kid sibling, Ubuntu.

Irene says:

Hola Miry,

Tremendo el artículo de las escobas, otro tio encantado de haberse conocido.

En fin, solo escribo para darte ánimos y fuerza.


Tonnerre Lombard says:

Salut, Miriam,

I can follow your argumentation very well, and I think you’re very right in this. Of course, the so-called joke (ha-ha.) doesn’t strike a lot of males as sexist or harmful; after all, like Florian Weimer said, they’ve been doing this for many centuries. Of course that justifies it, doesn’t it? (In case someone didn’t get this: irony.)

What men don’t understand is that these “nullities” are a big part of why there are so few females in the Open Source communities. They make direct communication with the project communities hardly possible for women, or at least very awkward, driving women to “passive participation” in these projects through media in which they are anonymous, such as web sites. This of course makes it very difficult to interact.

In short, the communities are shooting themselves in the foot here, and have been for ages, and why do they do this? Because the men (Ok, men like me) don’t want to admit that what they’re doing here is wrong. Instead they’re digging themselves deeper into the ground with such stupid arguments as “We’ve been murdering and molesting for the past millennia, why stop now?”

During the last 30 years I’ve seen a significant drop in the share of women in IT and other technical jobs, and it makes me very sad just as it makes you very sad. I really hope we can do better in the future.

All the best,

Miry says:

Gracias Irene :)

Jordi: Yup, I agree, there’s more technical expertise in Debian, but that is not an excuse for this kind of behaviour (ref: Dr. House)

Miry says:

Sam Varghese has published an article in ITWire about what happened. Thanks, Sam.

Tim says:

… just read the ITWire article. First, I’d like make a witty little comment: I wouldn’t get too carried away with Ubuntu, if you don’t like patriarchal societies.

The desire and ability to motivate, inspire and develop people into the Debian project are attractive characteristics of a Debian project leader. And a willingness to take a stand and be consistently constructive and mature.

Someone who has made themselves close to this issue seems to be showing a lot of those characteristics.

Debian users can only hope that you see enough good in the project to fight to make it better, not to give up on it.

svye says:

Ánimo Miriam, no dejes que esos “seres” te desanimen. Estoy de acuerdo contigo, esto no tiene nada que ver con ser hombre, sólo con su estupidez.

Linda says:

Miry, I applaud you. I’m very sorry it happened, but glad you stood up. I hope once you’re past the hurt you find another rewarding project to work with.

Miry says:

Thanks for your support, really! :)

I’ve finally decided to step out of the Debian Community. I simply cannot stand the situation anymore. I’m no supergirl, you know.

I’ve moved out from almost all of the Debian mailing lists and IRC channels, with the exception of the Debian Games Teasm. I’ll just keep doing stuff inside that development team, because they’ve always been so nice with me.

Apart from that, I’ve decided to try to join Ubuntu as a developer. For what I’ve been told, it’s community is more friendlier. I have to really really thank the Ubuntu Women community for all the support I’ve been receiving from them.

neocalderon says:

It is a radical decision by a simple joke, but very respectable. Good luck. What saddens me is that you go for Ubuntu.

Miry says:

neocalderon: The decision has not been caused by Joss’ joke, but due to the many attacks and accusations I’ve been receiving for having complained about it. Joss’ mail is totally expected in a project like Debian, with more than 1000 developers, especially when he has a history of trolling.

On one hand, Debian’s social contract says “We will not hide problems”, and this is a serious problem for me. So I feel I have the right and duty of complaining. But it seems that right to free speech does not go in both directions. For some people it is totally right to post off-topic offensive crap, but complaining about it seems to be totally wrong.

Due to the fact of having complained I have been accused of poisoning the project, of taking away all the fun out of it, of making Debian social environment ignominous, of being unable to work with other people. I wish that all those accusations would have been public, because I could point to them, but most of the time are throug private messages, exactly the same as the support ones.

You can object to my conclussions, we can perfectly agree to disagree, but if freedom is so important, it is important for all of us. For me too. I chould be free to complain, and that is what’s being negated to me. I have made all my point of view public both in this thread and in Sam Varghese’s interview. That interview reflects my point of view on what happened.

I seriously and sincerely believe I don’t deserve the attacks I’ve been receiving, and that they’re totally out of order of whatever crime I might have commited. And it especially hurts when they come from people you used to trust. I don’t feel I can trust Debian as a community anymore, out of some certain projects I’ll keep working in. I don’t think I should keep investing a lot of my time (and most of the people that know me, know that I devote a lot of time an effort to Debian) in such a project.

I’m hurt, This is not a rational decision but an emotional one. Humans do have an emotional dimension too, you know, especially when all the work you do is volunteer. That’s why I’m thinking about Ubuntu. In my opinion they might not be as technically proficient as Debian, but for some time they have been the best source of support, and that weights too. I’m also considering switching to Fedora o Gentoo communities, but they’re technically farther from Debian and thus it will be a bit more difficult for me. But I’m considering them too.

I’ll probably post an article sometime about my point of view on what the community of a distro is, and how Debian for some time has had the monopoly of the community and that makes them believe they will always have it however they behave. For me, the community itself is one of the most important values that a distro might have, because even if it might be technically superior, the future is what will define the future. All the rest of the distros have learnt that, and as recently I’ve been having a more fluent contact with them, I’ve discovered that they’re communities not only are quite big and healthy, but also taken care of. One of the things that the Debian community should learn from Ubuntu is that taking care of it pays well. You only have to look at the risen of Ubuntu and the drowning of Debian. Ubuntu might not be technically superior to Debian right now, but if they are able to keep an important community around, that community will become more technically proficient with time (that’s what experience gives), and that’s a winning strategy in the end. Debian can only count with old very-experienced already-burnt-out developers. That’s just a strategy for the very low term.

Thanks to all of you for your support. I really appreciate and need it right now.

Miry says:

Update: http://www.itwire.com/content/view/22371/1154/

ITWire: “Debian developer loses privileges due to offensive post”

jon says:

Replace ‘women’ with ‘blacks’. Alas, it’s no longer funny huh. Bunch of wry wackaloons.

Liz says:

Hi Miry, thanks for posting this. I agree with you – I wish that criticisms could be in public not over private email sometimes. Then, we can link to them or quote them, and explain their impact and how they’re wrong.

They are SO wrong!

It really sucks.

I read your interview with Cerise too and thought it was very interesting when you talked about working with Barrapunto.

Revena says:

Hiya, Miry. I just heard about this while surfing the net and wanted to drop in and say good for you for speaking out.

Miry says:

Followup: http://np237.livejournal.com/21523.html

Miry says:

More info on a couple of mail threads in debian-devel mailing list: http://lists.debian.org/debian-devel/2008/12/thrd2.html

Miry says:

New interesting article from Sam Varghese: “Do women matter in FOSS projects?”


Milan SKOCIC says:

Women implication in Open Source projects is a good think!

Good luck for the future! You have to be persistent!

Miry says:

Interesting to read: http://mjg59.livejournal.com/94420.html

“The fallacy of the completely inclusive community” by Matthew Garrett

Patrick says:

I Think there is never enough women in world !
And especially on the Debian Project.

As against the sexist may disappear .
I do not mind.

Gros Bisous de Fantômas

Baal says:

Hi !

These men are stupid and boring !

Go on, girlz ! Hold your place ! We need women point of view !

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