A Ribbon Around a Bomb

We are currently at Nasawiya working on a book on the women who inspire us, interviewing “regular” women whose stories reveal their strength, trying to showcase alternative forms of leadership.

This got me thinking about what strength is, to how the mere concept of strength is riddled with misconceptions and stereotypes. Is keeping quiet and holding in every feeling or negative emotion a form of strength? Is enduring abuse and misery for all eternity a form of strength or is having the courage to recognize and leave certain situations that define us as strong? What is feminist leadership? I don’t buy into this whole “women’s leadership style is softer than men’s bla bla bla” because it simply replicates and reorganises gender stereotypes and prejudices, so what are we talking about when we’re trying to illustrate feminist and women’s leadership? Rest assured, we’re not talking about women in power suits, buying into patriarchal beliefs and attitudes, denying their fellow females employees the right to maternity leave because they want to play “the big boys game”. We’re talking about the unsung heroes of our every day lives who manage to realise what they want for and by themselves. We’re talking about women who may not have the economic power, the connections or the privileges to help them realise and fulfil themselves and move mountains, yet women who do it anyway. We’re also talking about women who might have had all that, yet chose a path that was truly theirs, questioning the very essence of their privileges along the way.

These debates prompted several images to me. Sometimes your brain is a kaledeiscope you can’t control. I remembered that older Egyptian woman yelling at a startled policeman with all her might during the 25th of January revolution. I remembered the Palestinian mothers crying while Israeli soldiers were arresting her son for no reason at all except that he was Palestinian. I remembered that woman joking after her radiotherapy sessions, and so what if they had just removed that tumour from her breast. At least it was not there anymore. And for some reason, I had the image of Frida Kahlo pop up in my mind.

I am not an art critic, but some paintings have always resonated in me: amongst them, Frida Kahlo’s paintings strike a chord in me that triggers an irrepressible sentiment of feeling so impossibly alive, in all the tragic vivid sorrowful joy of the term. And yes I have written vivid sorrowful joy. Her brush strokes manage to conjure up love, pain, change, transformation, death and revolution. Her paintings are life itself, and they invite the onlooker to a feast of colours and questions.

Frida Kahlo has become somewhat of a feminist icon, and how could she not? We’re talking here about a woman who was born in 1907 yet changed her birth day to 1910 to make it coincide with the start of the Mexican revolution. A woman who chose not to comply by social gendered norms by sporting a uni-brow and not shaving under her arms. A woman who by the age of 6 had polio, making sure she would limp her whole life. A woman who at the age of 18 was in a terrible bus accident that left her almost dead, her whole body badly bruised and broken, unable to have children. A woman who questioned every label that people gave her, trying to make her paintings fit into a certain category. A woman who married and divorced and married again the same man, Diego Rivera, to which she used to tell “I had two big accidents in my life Diego, the trolley and you… You are by far the worse”. A Communist woman who happened to stumble into a passionate love affair with Leo Trotsky. A woman who was deeply in love with her husband yet had affairs with women. A woman who you so obviously can’t classify, she sends us all back to the own labels we accept without any form of protest.

Maybe this is what feminist leadership is: protesting labels affixed to us on a daily basis. You over there, you’re such a girl! And you over there, that was such an Arab thing to say! Most of the time, we smile tensely while punching in our mind the little comic ingratiating us with these remarks. Perhaps it is time we pull a Frida.

Kahlo’s most interesting feature (at least to me and since this is my blog I’ll happily go along) is her relationship to her body, a relationship she translated so outrageously in her paintings. I say outrageous because it’s the appropriate word. Frida’s paintings could not suffer the word “beautiful”. Seriously, beautiful is a word you use to describe the painting of a lotus flower on a pond of ylang-ylang essence. Put a Kahlo in your living room and be assured no one will exclaim “How beautifully quaint!” but rather “where should I put my eyes her boobs are looking at me”. But I digress. That body of hers was her own private little torture room (sounds familiar?): she had polio, she had that accident that broke her spine and about all her bones, she got pregnant, she miscarried every time. She stated herself that she felt terribly alone each time she had to go back to a hospital, alone in that body that was betraying her so blatantly. Yet she never gave up on it: she drew it metaphorically, her spine becoming a crumbling column riddling her body with pain so intense it felt like nails in her flesh. When she had to wear a cast she drew on it the sickle and hammer of the Communist party and a foetus. What she could not create, a flesh and blood baby, she created nonetheless.

Do you get that? She replaced seemingly impossibility to create by creation. Perhaps we should remember than when we destroy out bodies, wishing for them to be the copy of airbrushed things that don’t exist. And perhaps we should remember the Fridas we know, and ponder a bit more on feminist leadership.

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