Reflections on Love, Tears and Activism
All over the world, there are women and men engaged in a project of transformation - folk who are not content to seek only the comfort of denial but would rather unearth the truths about the human condition in order to move us forward. These are those individuals, and collectives, who know that they are part of something….something which is sometimes undefinable, but which is known instinctively…rooted in the language of justice, equality, freedom, voice, space, creativity, respect, self-determination, autonomy….. and more. It’s not that such folk are void of ego or ambition. It’s not that they aren’t plagued by the demons of consumerism, misplaced desire or vanity. It’s not that they aren’t wholly human. It’s precisely their humanness that spurs them forward…often with an obsessive love for their ‘people’…which is oftentimes simply love for humanity. Over the years I’ve been blessed to meet so many of those activists, artists, speakers, workers, leaders, warriors, peace-makers, nurturers, healers, writers, thinkers…all dreaming and creating a different world. I remain in awe of each one…too many to name…from my feminist sistahs who I recently connected with in Aotearoa..Samoan, Maori, Indian and European alike, who gave me welcome, wisdom and solace, to my queer activist/artists heart-friends in Brixton who take me to new places in spirit and mind, to my beautiful, outrageous, creative and defiant Jamaican family, proud defenders ofqueer, Jamaican identities (who challenge me to remember my journeys and remember and know that ‘home’ is complicated but that we are engaged in decolonising our minds), to my feminist thinkers right here in the UK who are courageous enough to just push that vision one step further, to my home people who ground and inspire me, shower me with tenderness and fierceness and see into my soul in an instant…truly…my soul sistahs and my partner and children who give me joy, laughter and know me even in the darkness. There are also those who are no longer here…those we have lost along the way…those who I have embraced as well as those who I never met in the flesh but whose words have provided me with insight and strength. Each person has helped me along the way…lifting me, kicking my political butt, inspiring me, teaching me…holding my hand. I am grateful. Without this, I and others around me would struggle to hold on to the courage to keep doing ‘the thing’ that we do. Without this, this year, 2012, would have perhaps been a very different year.
2012 has been my year of tears. I have cried in joy and in pain. I have wept in sheer gratitude and awe. I have sobbed in hurt and frustration. I have belly-laughed till tears ran down my face and I have bitten down on my lips to stop tears from coming while my shaky voice still betrayed my emotions. It has been hard, heart-breaking, troubling, reassuring, painful, frustrating, treacherous, lonely, love-filled, fragile, wonderful and inspiring. In moving at an almost unnerving pace, I have been in and out of people’s homes, women’s refuges, community centres, detention centres, government buildings, police stations, airports, train stations, conference venues, Skype meetings, meeting rooms, taxis and hotels. I’ve experienced and really come to know how a depth of connection is possible in the briefest of interactions. I now truly know that a single conversation can move immediately to the soul and touch the core of self in ways that are usually reserved for the well-walked terrain of old friendships. I’ve come to truly understand that while longevity is a gift, it does not guarantee anything except itself. I’ve come to accept that privilege does not really interrogate itself except when something else (maybe conscience) arises and without the heartfelt interrogation of our own privilege, we cannot transform our world. I have been more aware of the gaps and silos in our thoughts and our practice than ever before. I know that in too many cases intersectionality has not made it off the pages of feminist texts into any kind of lived reality….and therefore I myself, with my intersecting identities and realities, am the embodiment of the difficult, the awkward and the problematic. For example, 2012 has been the year when I have truly understood that only a handful of my white feminist sisters, in this moment in time, are willing to interrogate their racism. I have understood this not because of academic debates or policy disagreements or arguments about agendas and priorities (like many black feminists I have come to accept such challenges as part and parcel of the course and whilst this is tiresome…much of it bounces off); instead, I have understood this in the moments of flippant comments, of intellectual dismissal, of misguided envy which interprets the places that my passion takes me to, and my speaking of the journey, as success and self-admiration. I have understood this because in this last year I have experienced being ‘taken down’ by women that I know – but who I now understand – cannot be with what my partner and I have now started calling soul melanin (a deliberate combination and conflationof terms which are themselves loaded)… for we are (those of us who are continuing this journey) always the ‘black-heart’ woman, the angry black woman, the uppity ‘negress’, the intellectual inferior, the one who dared to speak more, the one who had the audacity to defy, the one who dared to not ask permission of the mistress to speak, the one who is ‘larger than life’ etc.etc. I have walked into spaces where I am the acceptable face of blackness, while the sistah, sometimes the indigenous woman, trying to get her voice heard is ignored…because her words are different, her feminism somehow less than, her love of her black brother a source of suspicion, her attempt to shake off the roles offered to her seen as stupid or reactionary. I have sat in spaces where I was so clearly no longer the acceptable face of blackness because I dared to grow, reach, affirm or celebrate. I have been in meetings where the stench of racism filled the air and the women who I wanted to smell it…simply didn’t…while I watched the black women choking in the smell and all but one lament afterwards at how the ‘movers and shakers’ in our ‘sector’ could be this way…still. I have stopped having certain conversations with women that I care about and even love, because I have found their unwillingness to manage their own defensiveness…just too hard in moments when I am exhausted. Each scenario has broken pieces in heart….and I’ve done what I needed to do…handle the conversation…but oftentimes I have cried or stumbled into dark places in myself not in self-pity, but in hurt and rage that WE are still here. BUT each experience offers a lesson. In a recent conversation with my beautiful, friend and sistah, Dorett, she did her magical thing of pulling the truths out of my belly. She helped me to remember that it is indeed possible for me to love those very same women…but that I needn’t try to keep exposing my raw, black pain in order to have them deal with their racism. I could just understand that there must be necessary distance…and the common ground can be appreciated, and walked, but the different pathways are also who we are. Her counsel as always soothed and challenged me…perhaps getting me ready for another series of journeys. Her counsel also helped me reflect on what drives me…for while my ego is as important to me as everyone else’s…it isn’t my ego which drives me…it’s an overwhelming sense of urgency….it’s an obsessive, unwavering commitment to a different, equal, just, safe, free world….not in 100 years…but right now.
My grandmother, Mama, used to say we were all ‘living on borrowed time’. I’ve never really analysed that pronouncement, but Mama was a loving, formidable woman who believed that life, like time, should not be wasted. She knew that this is not a dress rehearsal. This really is IT! Maybe all of that time that I spent with her explains part of why I am so very driven. Maybe I have known and lost too many people and I know the fragility and uncertainty of life. Maybe I am mindful of how many feminist sisters have died in the last decade. Maybe I know that many of our queer warriors exist only now in our memories or in the legacies of change that they have bequeathed to us. Maybe I just know there’s a lot to do. Dorett helped me to articulate my sense of urgency. She helped me to unravel my sense of ‘I don’t know if there will be tomorrow, or later, I only have NOW’! So while I know I’m often tired, and I need to start spending more time with my friends again, and I want a holiday where I stare at the sea and get sand in between my toes…I know that as long as the colonisers refuse to be uncomfortable…while the colonised have to live with the anguish and ‘discomfort’ of legacies of colonialism then I can’t truly pretend to be free, I know that as long as religion continues to be a platform for hate, my spiritual freedom is threatened, I know that as long as women are killed simply for being women…this is not a free world…I know that as long as LGBTQ people are seen as less than…this is not the world I want to live and love in…and the list goes on. I want to live a long, full life…but as Bob Marley rightfully pointed out…this isn’t about ‘my life’….this is about something bigger…much bigger.
In love, remembrance and gratitude,
© Marai 2012
This government has stated that it is taking forced marriage seriously. As an activist, I am of course happy about this, as it feels as if they are making an an effort to address what is a complex and even life-destroying issue. Yet it’s not all celebrations in my world. Perhaps my activism leaves me sceptical on occasion, perhaps I don’t trust governments, whatever it is I find myself worrying about where we are going with this. I am excited about awareness raising, about prevention and definitely about strengthening accountability in a safeguarding context. I am not so keen on this creation of a separate criminal offence. I have a few niggles, some of them I’ve started scribbling about as they were literally keeping me awake….
Victim Empowerment or Passing the Buck?
We generally don’t ask children to use the law to negotiate with their parents in order to prevent child abuse. We don’t expect (adult) women to use the law to negotiate with violent partners. Yet one of the arguments being used to support the creation of a separate forced marriage offence is this notion of victim empowerment i.e. that young people (many of whom are children) will be able to negotiate with their parents to stop their parents from forcing them into a marriage. Now that is all well and good when it works, but let’s not forget that WE have a duty to safeguard children. It’s our responsibility, not theirs. This law might help parents negotiate with extended family members, it might help older siblings protect younger children - but let’s not use this law to put even more pressure on BME children - we already do that with FGM. We must also be mindful that, in the reality of many forced marriage cases there are several parties involved in the process of coercion, control and violence. Are we asking young women to negotiate with all of these people, when we wouldn’t expect an adult woman to do that with an individual man?
Survivors of forced marriage are not a homogenous group. They are individuals, from a diverse range of ‘communities’. Some survivors support the creation of a separate offence, others don’t. In this debate, the voices perhaps most comfortably heard have been the ones that support the creation of a new offence. This of course makes sense as forced marriage is abusive and is clearly a violation of human rights. A separate criminal offence offers a seemingly good solution. But let’s just make sure that we also hear the voices that are worried about the impact that this will have on victims and potential victims. Let’s also listen to those survivors who want the government to do something, but are anxious that this is not that something. I work for an organisation that represents some of the voices that are less likely to be heard i.e. the women that haven’t made it on to the pages of the Daily Mail or The Guardian or on to our television screens. Yet those women too have their stories of survival. My colleagues and I will do all that we can to support them to be heard..after all they too deserve an audience.
Sending a Strong Message?
I’ve been really interested in what different groups of young people think. Interestingly enough, some grassroots organisations who interviewed young people said that when they asked them about creating a separate offence they said ‘yes’. When asked if they would use it, those same young people said ‘no’ as they would not want to be involved in prosecuting their parents. When asked why a separate offence is needed then, they said ‘to let people know it is wrong’. So the question is then, why aren’t we getting that message out anyway?
When we are silent about the violence in our ‘communities’, the violence continues; and as women we are told that we are covering up, colluding, somehow complicit. Yet, when we speak about the violence in our ‘communities’, our voices are used in evidence in the arguments that our ‘communities’ are backward, underdeveloped, more aggressive and more patriarchal…our voices are used to justify more policing, more scrutiny and more immigration control.
So we say this:
We will speak - as to not speak would destroy us. We will describe our experiences, we will choose our pathways of healing, we will acknowledge, negotiate and even celebrate our differences, we will be accountable to ourselves and to the allies of our choosing, in ways that we define, and in ways that they are wise enough and gracious enough to respect…we are no longer your slaves, your indentured labourers, your exotic items, your vessels, your pieces of art and novel antiquities…we are not specimens or oddities…we are not chattel or machines…we are not noble or ignoble…we are who we say we are… and that is always subject to change.
We will not be grateful or apologetic. We will not take the back seat. We will not be wheeled out to pose so you can make yourself feel better. We will no longer be told what to do. We may sit in the driver seat or we may choose to be passengers…but that is always subject to change.
We will be loving, angry, outrageous, funny, bold, wild…we will be whoever we choose to be…but remember that is subject to change.
We will now hold you to account, for that which you have done and that which you continue to do…in the name of progress, science, art or religion. We will resist further attempts to bottle us, make us ugly, make us beautiful, make us fit, or make us the other. We will resist…and even that is subject to change.
We reserve the right…always to speak our own truths, tell our own stories and build our own complicated futures….and those are definitely subject to change!
The ultimate Ms!
Exploring the notion that rioting was about masculinity and entitlement…
I think that it is important to have dialogue about masculinity. I just also think we have to be really careful about not oversimplifying our arguments.
In my mind, expressions and manifestations of masculinity are fundamentally linked to other aspects of social identity. Where others see entitlement, I see disenfranchisement and marginalisation, alongside that notion of entitlement. For example, whatever entitlement a young black man may feel in his interactions with women, he is much less likely to experience that in his interactions with the ‘world out there’. His masculinity is therefore likely to be constructed with fundamental tensions. One where powerlessness sits alongside entitlement…except that the entitlement is inevitably impacted by marginalisation…it does not exist in a vacuum. Let’s not forget that in a Western historical context the black man was not considered ‘man’…he was ‘boy’ and ‘animal’. Starkey has reminded us that such thinking is alive and well in a brain next door! Masculinity must be interrogated in a context of class, race, sexuality etc.
I speak to and listen to young black men in London…I listen to my son. Many young men are terrified of being on our streets and only feel ‘safe’ in numbers. Of course, I know that they are often scared of other men…including men which represent the ‘system’…police officers etc. but that fear impacts on individual sense of power / powerlessness. I am not suggesting that this is the same experience as that of a young woman in a public space…but I do think that we need be careful about the assumptions that we make about how particular groups of young men engage with the world.
The aspects of masculinity that are destructive and problematic definitely surfaced throughout these riots..however, my own feminist response has me consider what role I can play in changing attitudes and creating ‘a different world’ as the EVAW slogan states. As a feminist, I can no longer say, of those aspects of masculinity ‘it’s not my problem’…I have come to know…in my heart and in my mind that it absolutely is.
On young people…
I know we cannot pigeon-hole all the people that rioted or looted…but I also know that we have created a society which does not love our young people. I grieve for the people whose homes and businesses were destroyed…but I also grieve for many of the young people…who looted and ‘rampaged’. Our society engages with too many of our young people through lenses of suspicion, cynicism and resignation. David Cameron speaks of ‘sickness’…one woman in her rage, called the looters ‘feral rats’. Some feminists have joined in, calling young people names such as ‘scum’. This is not new thinking, these are attitudes that are increasingly embedded in our social policies. The riots provide an opportunity to challenge some of that thinking and to listen to..rather than diminish our young people even further.
When is a protest a protest…???
I also find it interesting that we inevitably create hierarchies around what we ourselves deem to be legitimate responses to on-going, systematic oppression. ‘Delinquency’ can be resistance…it may not be a comfortable form of resistance, especially when viewed from a place of privilege…but sometimes the pressure cooker explodes and it’s horrible and messy. I’m not minimising the issue of opportunistic looting, but isn’t that often the case in these situations? Uprisings are often not tidy…and while we can look on, like David Lammy and say ‘this was nothing like Broadwater’ etc…those situations were also condemned. As were the Oakland riots in the USA in the early 1990s which was also marked by widespread looting including of people’s own communities. What seems to be senseless…is often the untidy, ‘unacceptable’ expression of deep frustration. That moment (sometimes iconic) when…each generation, each oppressed group finds it’s voice, articulates it’s rage, is often not the kind of protest that many of us now would want to associate with..Stonewall, Brixton and Toxteth may not have been ‘legitimate’ but for many of us…they ARE symbols of resistance that shape our thinking and remind us of the necessity of defiance.