Be Punk As Fuck

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’.


Each Other

‘The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.’

Antonio Gramsci

I let her pass and she smiled at me, giving me the thumbs up.

I smiled back.

All we have is each other.

These words have been going on in my head for a while. Since we have been ordered to remain in the confines of our homes (those of us lucky enough to have a place to call home, those of us lucky enough to have a place to call home that is not violent and abusive), I’ve been thinking about what our after will look like. Those of us lucky enough to have an after.

All we have is each other.

Another favourite of mine is ‘Only the people save the people’, which I think I even prefer. ‘All we have is each other’, against the deathly individualistic ideology of neo-liberalism. And I’m sick and tired of the emphasis on just the one person, sick and tired of the cult of the individual, of the myth surrounding self-made men (and sometimes women, because you know, feminism LITE TM) , removed from the dynamics of oppressive systems, usually a white straight cis-gender person, the universal metric against which we are all measured. That one person, who had the right amount of hustle and grit to ‘pull themselves by the bootstraps’. That one person, who more often than not, had a safety net. And not a public one.

Sick and tired of what capitalism has done to us: having us focused on individual responsibility, leading to the criminalization and moralization of poverty, sexuality, disability, otherness. Sick and tired of this lie that if you’re struggling, one way or another, you are somehow lacking. That there is something you’re fundamentally doing wrong. That you’re doing life wrong, because the market doesn’t lie and that it does you no good to go against stereotypes conveniently and neatly waiting to rule your life so you don’t have to think. We have seen a lot of individual responsibility discourse lately, and it has almost always come with repression and punishment against those who were already marginalized way before COVID-19 ever appeared, and who now have to face the instrumentalization of a pandemic geared towards the increase of this repression.

‘Only the people save the people’ conveys the idea of solidarity. The idea of collective power and action. Of unshakable bonds built between individuals united in their decision, in their political choice, to support each other against the assaults of the ruling classes and their systems of oppression. Solidarity is the beautiful battle cry of those who refuse fashionable cynicism, of those who agitate, educate and organize, of those who refuse point blank to consider poverty a moral failing, gender a destiny assigned at birth and race anything else than a social construct.

Solidarity is subversive and beautifully dangerous: it defies the frames of charity and performative support devised by neo-liberalism to depoliticize struggles. Solidarity asks uncomfortable questions about patterns of discrimination, public spending, corporate responsibility, impact of austerity measures and neo-liberal policies on the lives of people and of workers, it asks to speak to the manager to hold them accountable. It is obsessed with justice and accountability. Solidarity is thousands upon thousands of hearts beating in unison, realizing their collective power. Solidarity is a fist raised, ready to support, embrace, build. Re-build.

Re-build lives and bodies, not the economy. Re-build them in sustainable communities. Now that confinement measures are slowly being lifted in some parts of the world, even though the virus is still circulating amongst us, aren’t we all silently asking ourselves a thousand questions? (or maybe, indeed, it is just me and my ever-present friend anxiety). Where will we park our fears? What to do now after having heard of, witnessed or existed next to so much death? What to do when mental health care is stigmatized, deprioritized, inaccessible for so many? What to do when you have seen the devastation caused, not by the virus in and of itself, but by the result of years and years of defunding and neglect of public health and hospitals, of unaddressed racial and gender-based discrimination, of rampant ableism and ageism, of criminal classism? When those who die are seen as expendable anyway, because they lived in poverty, because they were women who stayed in abusive households for lack of support of any kind, because they were old or had underlying conditions and were seen as a weakling anyway by a neo-liberal society that only assigns value to productivity. Productive bodies are worth saving, others, not so much.

This is where we need solidarity, in its most radical, political form. This is when political choices, from votes, to mobilization for social, gender and reproductive justice, to online activism, to organizing support for the most marginalized become a manifestation of a refusal to exclude and other, and become the foundation of a society outside of the neo-liberal paradigm.

One thing is clear: we should not go back to the way things were, not because of some romanticization of ‘the day after’, but because the way things were proved to be, quite simply, deathly.

Imagine for a second if we brought together that righteous, pure, unadulterated outrage and grief, and solidarity, and let the world explode in collective action and calls for accountability and the dismantlement of the systems that accepted all of these deaths, and so many more that are not COVID-19 related.  We should expect higher levels of repression, surveillance and punishment still: the old world has smelled the threat and will not go down without a fight.

All we have is each other. Only the people save the people. We might not be able to touch, or hug, or hold each other just yet, but we can still organize and resist.