Fighting for safer placesPosted: 25 February 2012
Sometimes I feel exposed. So exposed that all I want is a refuge, a shelter. A place, a moment, a relationship I could rest in, and gather enough strength to get back out and fight. Something like a truce. A safe place.
Recently, I have felt this feeling of vulnerability and this longing for safety to be particularly strong. I have been thinking about it a lot, both pragmatically and theoretically. Theoretically – why is it the case that I feel particularly exposed right now ? And pragmatically – what can I do about it, what would I consider as a safe place ?
Being a woman under patriarchy is exposing, in itself. By definition, patriarchy is everywhere, the patriarchal social structures pervade and rule all dimensions of a woman’s life. When she is seen and acts as a worker, a teacher, a student, a tennis player, a singer, a unionist, a friend, a partner, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a lover, and so on, she is a woman, in the political and social meaning of the word. She is part of an oppressed group, and as such, experiences domination both as a wide social phenomenon, and as an intimate matter. As such, she is exposed. At all times, in all places.
To me, feminism is about fighting this exposure, or rather, the social structures which enable it to happen. It is about making the world a safe place for women, for all women. By safe I mean physically safe, but I also mean, psychically, psychologically, economically, linguistically, affectively, sexually safe. In fact, I mean domination-free. I mean political safety.
“It is not easy to name our pain, to theorize from that location” – bell hooks
In order to fight for this safety, one needs to identify what is going wrong. And not only what is going wrong in my own head, but what is going wrong in society as a whole. This is why I say say that theory has saved – and is still saving – my life. Theory allows me to identify patterns of domination, to realize that the fragilities I feel in me are not only the product of my own personal history, but that they are linked to me being a social female human being. It allows me to name my fragilities political.
This has been essential for me, because it allows me to stop blaming myself for feeling vulnerable and it also gives me something to do about it. In addition to trying and fix my intimate fragilities, I can fight the system and the rules which allowed them to develop. In a way, I can act not only on the symptoms, but on the cause as well – I can fight patriarchy.
This is why feminist action consists for me in developing my analysis capacities, with the essential help and support of living and dead feminists: my friends, my comrades, the famous authors of famous books, the anonymous bloggers of obscure blogs, and all the feminist voices that I have come to hear. But if this developing of one’s analysis capacities is essential to me, it can also bring discouragement and desperation. Knowing what’s going wrong and not being able to do anything against it brings helplessness.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying feminism is the problem. Suggesting, even very sweetly, that maybe I should take it a little bit less seriously, or spend less time on it, is a patriarchal assumption. Feminism is the solution, and it being difficult only demonstrates its necessity. I am not saying that the difficulty of the feminist struggle is something noble, or valuable, because I don’t want to be a martyr for the cause (which would just be another patriarchal figure), I am just saying that the fact that being a feminist is difficult and harassing and sometimes discouraging proves that there is a problem and that we need to do something about it.
“There are so many roots to the tree of anger / that sometimes the branches shatter / before they bear” – Audre Lorde
As a result, being a feminist under patriarchy is, by definition, exposing. I feel exposed when I experience domination. I feel exposed when I find that my capacity to analyse patterns of domination are bigger than my possibilities of action. I feel exposed when I am identified as a feminist in a hostile group, or in a partly hostile group. In this last situation, I can feel all the various levels of exposure at the same time: as a woman experiencing domination, as a feminist being able to name the situation “domination” and having or not having the possibility to do something about it depending on the balance of powers, and as a feminist being expected to react and stand up, both by men looking for confrontation and by women experiencing the same domination.
Being identified as a feminist is, for me, part of the struggle. But I sometimes wish that some men didn’t know who I am. That would be only partly satisfactory, and it would make neither the domination nor the awareness of the domination disappear, but it would, somehow, allow me to distinguish between the situations in which I feel that the balance of power is good enough for me to stand up and say something (if there are other women in the group, if I have had a good night’s sleep, if the conversation is held in my mother tongue…), or when I feel that it’s it not worth it and that engaging a verbal confrontation would be more exhausting than satisfactory. Again, it is not fully satisfactory, and it’s only a short-term solution, but it’s also strategical; one cannot fight all dominations all the time, and one needs to spare one’s forces.
But unfortunately, since oppression of women is present at all times and in all situations, being a feminist is also a full-time job, and I cannot chose when I want to be a feminist and when I don’t want to be one. On the other hand, there are places and times in which being a woman and a feminist is easier than in other places, and here I have some sort of choice to make: I can prioritise going to safe places, or at least, safer places.
Safety is never 100%. Even in women-only groups, even in feminist groups, domination does happen. I have seen women being upset after something I had said in feminist groups, which means I sometimes exercise symbolic and verbal violence over other women. I have myself felt uncomfortable and unsafe in feminist groups, because I felt stupid, excluded, accused, or dominated. But there are huge differences between those places and other social places. First, being women-only, these groups deliberately chose to place themselves away from male political subjects, who are the people by whom patriarchy is imposed and reproduced. Second, these groups gather people who have a common experience of domination – not the same experience of domination, because one is never only a woman, one is also a trans woman, a racialized woman, a fat woman, a disabled woman, and so on. Having this share of common experience makes the women aware of what they do not want to reproduce, and therefore allows them to think about which tools can be used in order not to reproduce domination: strict facilitation patterns, no fixed power positions, trigger warning systems, and so on. By their reflexive structures and organizations, feminist groups, even if they sometimes fail, give themselves practical tools to enact what they struggle for – safety.
Most of the time, being in a feminist group feels good. It feels supportive, it feels safer. But since I do not live in a separatist community, this is always only temporary. I do not live in a separatist, women-only community both for practical and political reasons. Practically, it would force me to renounce to some form of privileges and to make choices that I am not (yet) ready to make. And politically, I (still) feel that living in mixed social places and having different kind of relationships with men is relevant. I still feel that trying to have important, valuable and satisfactory intellectual, affective and sexual relationships with men is part of the feminist struggle. For sure it forces me to compromise sometimes, but it is still something I am willing to do. Or at least, it is still something that I am doing, even though sometimes I am worried by the emotional and psychological cost of this decision.
“Don’t let me be misunderstood” – Nina Simone
Feminism conditions my relationships to men in so far as they have to position themselves quite clearly. I have fewer and fewer relationships with non-explicitly feminist-friendly or supportive men. When I do, these relationships are imposed on me, mostly by family-related and professional contexts, and I try to keep these relationships to a minimum. With the men I have chosen to have a relationship with, that is, with my friends and lovers, I expect, and demand, implicitly or explicitly, at the very least an absolute and total support. They don’t need to agree with me on every political issue (and they don’t), but they need to support me and to take care of me as much as they can. Being part of the oppressing group does not prevent them from acting on the symptoms of patriarchy – on the results of more than 20 years of socialization as a female subject, and of the daily share of domination, in particular the disastrous effects on self-esteem and psychological stability. They can reassure, they can buy pints, they can laugh with me at the absurdity of the system, they can sympathize, they can acknowledge the difficulties even though they don’t experience them, they can refuse to laugh at a sexist joke, they can tell another man that he is funnier when he is not sexist, they can refuse to go to a notorious antifeminist’s birthday party, they can hug, they can listen, they can avoid asking questions, they can ask questions and listen to the answer even if they are not sure to agree with it.
My friends, to some extent, do that, otherwise they wouldn’t be my friends. They can be doing it for various reasons: because they are convinced that the oppression of women is bad and that patriarchy is shit, because they feel guilty for being part of the oppressing group and want to compensate for it, or because it is in their interest, and by that I mean that it is the only way for them to maintain a close relationship with me; all these reasons are not mutually exclusive. Depending on the context, I can or cannot be concerned by the reasons why they show support. Sometimes I chose to trust them, to assume that the support they show is not, or not entirely interested. Sometimes I take the risk to trust them without knowing if it’s right and it turns out it was. Sometimes I regret having thought that the level of safety of the relationship was high enough for me to lower my guard and assume that I could count on a shared responsibility of the feminist vigilance. Sometimes I regret having trusted them.
I have those regrets when they show, by what they say or do, that the relationship is not as safe as I thought it was. It always happens when I am the most vulnerable, either because I trust them enough to lower my vigilance level, or because I am so exhausted and weakened that I do not have the strength to ask for more than peacefulness and non-judgmental support. I call it a backlash, or a truce-breaker, and it always happens when expect it least. When I tell a man I considered to be my friend, that I am under the impression that he sometimes is slightly patronizing with me and that he answers by endless emails of abuse. When I, exhausted by a tough day, rest in the arms of a lover and that he, thinking he is telling an innocent and entertaining story, tells a rape joke. When my shrink tells me being in love with a woman is a deviance and a perversion. Sometimes they apologize afterwards, but this doesn’t suppress the abuse from my mind or my computer, and it gives me the responsibility of saying “it doesn’t matter, I forgive you” when in fact it does matter. When a man I trust breaks the truce, he reminds me that there is no safe place. That safety is always to be fought for again and again, and that when it happens, it is always fragile and temporary.
“Wherever in this city, screens flicker / with pornography, with science-fiction vampires, / victimized hirelings bending to the lash, / we also have to walk” – Adrienne Rich
Which brings me back to my first question: what should I do, where can I rest, where can I be safer? Staying alone in my room with shut curtains is not a satisfactory solution, because it would be too great a victory for patriarchy to have me locked in, and because there would still be my computer and its flow of misogynist adverts, rape-apologist comments, and misogynist media. Then, since I want to get out and stand, I need defence strategies. Of course I cannot prevent the random leftist guy having lunch next to me to call a right-wing female politician a sexist name, nor can I prevent the media from doubting that a woman has been raped when she says she has been raped. But there are still things I can do to try and spare myself. Using an advert-blocking software to make the right part of my screen safer. Deleting the hostile “friends” from social networks when I feel that their presence on my list endangers my safety. Not opening a newspaper which has a smiling rapist on its front page at breakfast. Saying “I have no time to spend on contradicting you right now” when a man accidentally drops a sexist assumption on my way out. Postponing important discussions about self-definition, the modalities of feminist action, or any other topic when I am not up for it. Playing music when I don’t want to take the risk of having a discussion. Leaving a room when a loud hostile man is being loud and hostile. Not exposing myself when it’s not necessary, the definition of necessary being up to me, according to the mood and the context. Privilege situations in which the level of hostility and anxiety seem, at first sight, reasonable.
“Don’t you know / They’re talkin’ about a revolution” – Tracy Chapman
Now I know that defining safety negatively, by what it’s not – a situation in which the level of hostility and anxiety seems reasonable – can seem quite pessimistic, or defeatist, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s realistic to say that a woman’s life under patriarchy is difficult. In those conditions, sparing oneself is already a political act; it cannot be called running away when the thing you’re trying to spare yourself from is genuinely hurting you. And because these sparing strategies go along with the active and positive idea of living women-orientated lives. That is, valuing, developing and taking care of any relationship one has with another woman, friend, comrade, lover, sister, mother, grandmother, daughter, fellow unionist, or anything else. Every single relationship, of any type, between two women, is in itself an act of resistance against patriarchy. What patriarchy wants is having each woman isolated, on her own, believing that the shit which is happening to her is either not real or of her own responsibility. Talking, laughing, crying, marching, shouting, hugging, kissing, having sex with other women is political, it is resisting.
There will be no absolute safe place for a woman as long as patriarchy is living, that’s pretty much its definition. But we can fight for safer places, whose barricades against patriarchal attacks, from the inside or from the outside, we can reinforce. In those safer places, we can rest, we can sigh. And then we can stand on the barricade and shout, with all our strength, who we are and what we fight for. Safety. For all women. At all times, in all places.