I read an article yesterday that stayed with me all night (my sleeping patterns are erratic at the best of times, which gives me plenty of time to think about light things like what’s my life purpose, is death constantly hovering above us, that kind of things).
This article is entitled ‘My mother was born on this day, and reborn in the Black Panther Party. We are her cubs’ and written by Malkia Devich Cyril. You can read it here.
A beautiful and poignant homage to his mother, the author also highlights what his mother taught him about the meaning of being part of a social justice movement, about the inherent politics of it, and about the ethics of engaging with one. One paragraph particularly struck a chord:
‘Organized social movements can both wound and heal, they often do both at the same time because true change is a turbulent process. Power is never wrestled without a defense or without a demand. To weather the pain of both change and those that would counter it with their own organized violence, we must become as compassionate, as tender, as forgiving, as insightful, as kind, as gentle, as fair, as thoughtful, as respectful and as accountable as we possibly can. From stillness comes action. From suffering, kindness.’
It felt as if every sentence captured part of my experiences in engaging with feminist and leftist movements, and I am still processing many of the implications these words entail.
I read this article right after finishing up our weekly radio show ‘Three Feminists Walk Into a Bar’, that I co-host with my sisters and comrades Lina Abou Habib and Maya El Helou on Hammam Radio, where our conversation on gender stereotyping turned into praising the sisterhood we encountered in feminist movements, and into us deciding to do next week’s show on feminist love.
One of Maya’s most powerful quotes (and they are legion), is ‘feminist solidarity saves lives’. And to me, here lies the inherent healing power feminist movements have. Feminist solidarity and feminist love have healed me from a lot of misconceptions about myself and others and from internalized misogyny I had absorbed growing up in a patriarchal society (notes: all societies are). Engaging with feminist movements, at the global, regional or national level, feels like stepping into a crowd that feels like you do, whose wounds looks like yours, whose scars feel like yours. There’s a level of understanding and acceptance you seldom encounter elsewhere. Feminist movements are also places where you realize that love can be a political, conscious choice, that love can be revolutionary, that love can be hard work, can be intense, can exist outside of the traditional framings of what it ought to be, can be platonic, romantic, sexual, and everything in between.
Feminist movements are healing because they make space for emotions and build on emotions: anger moves you into action, love moves you into kindness and compassion, solidarity dismantles power dynamics. Feminist movements force you to see these emotions, make something out of them and accept them and deal with them.
These movements are healing because they show you that building political alternatives is possible, that you’re doing it right there in this space you have created with nothing except brains and hearts and guts. Spaces that you never had and that were designed out of sheer will to carve a place for yourself and for anyone else that might need them. That palpable hope created in the midst of chaos, oppression and discouragement is what keeps you going.
But feminist and leftist movements can also wound you, and the wounds you bear from interacting with them is proportional to the love and commitment you pour into them. Because we believe so hard in them and because we are so heavily invested in them, we sometimes tend to forget that they do not exist in a vacuum, that we are, and they are, a product of societies rife with power dynamics, systems of oppression and patterns of discrimination. Yes, your flat feminist organization that wants to undo hierarchies might lead to an accountability deficit that might ultimately hurt you as an individual and hurt the movement globally. Yes, you might (oh and habibi you will) encounter sexism in leftist movements, where the comrades will do anything from trying to silence you, to undermine your ideas, to sexually harass and abuse you. How do you then heal from sustaining wounds inflicted by and in your healing place? Dealing with this kind of pain and trauma has been and is, for a lot of comrades and for myself, one of the most trying experience we’ve ever had to face. The realization that we’re not immune to oppressive dynamics just because we feel magic whenever we take up public spaces and feel united in our purpose, the disappointment, the injustice, the lack of accountability, the anger (not the kind that propels you forward, but rather, the kind that drags you down), all of these conspire to make you want to leave these movements, never to return. How come we don’t though? And how do we heal?
The response the author offers in his article is probably what resonated the most in me: ‘To weather the pain of both change and those that would counter it with their own organized violence, we must become as compassionate, as tender, as forgiving, as insightful, as kind, as gentle, as fair, as thoughtful, as respectful and as accountable as we possibly can. From stillness comes action. From suffering, kindness.’
Now don’t get me wrong, no one is applying for sainthood here: perpetrators of violations and violence will be held accountable. Voices will be raised against whatever oppression and discrimination that take place in our movements, investigations will be carried, accountability mechanisms will be put in place. There should be no doubt that when we mean the dismantlement of power dynamics, we mean it everywhere.
But this idea of using radical love, including radical self-love, as a political, revolutionary tool one chooses consciously to undo systems of oppression and ultimately reinforce movements is deeply appealing to me. Not because I see it as an opportunity for growth on an individual level (although that can be an interesting by product), but because to deliberately choose love and kindness in societies that demand cynicism, individualism and competition of us, to deliberately choose political love and solidarity in societies that demand of us to only see love as a narrow concept of romantic love in a heterosexual relationship, feels like a powerful antidote to toxic dynamics and behaviours.
Another favourite quote of mine is: In an age of performative cruelty, kindness is punk as fuck. Be punk as fuck.
At this time of year last year I was in Nepal for work. There, I met an incredible group of South Asian feminists that were strategizing together. The sheer energy, the debates, the strategies, the sharing of feelings about the contexts they were active in brought me back to a small, poorly lit room in Ashrafieh where I was doing the same with comrades and sisters that felt the same.
With this comes the realization that home is wherever and whoever wants to make this world more just, more accepting, more equal: these people are my home, and I vow to be home to them.
At the time, my colleague told me: ‘it was really nice to see you interact with the group this way, you seem to be home’.
I remember smiling, sitting beside her for the group photo: ‘Payal, I am home’.