‘The body of history does not determine a single one of my actions. I am my own foundation. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate the cycle of my freedom’. Fanon (1986: 249)
I have been often asked why there is this tendency of feminists to be aggressive, why are you angry? I have to say I get frustrated when feminists (mostly women) are being (again) compared to ‘aggressive’ men when they assert themselves against gender injustice. In this blog I will attempt to explain why I am a feminist and why anger is important in my efforts to contribute in changing unequal gender power relations.
I think the desire to act against social injustice started early in my life though I became aware of it late and named it feminism. The first acts I recognized as unjust were related to gender. It was the sense of powerlessness I felt as a girl and a young woman gradually transforming in protest which urged me to study social sciences. I was born in a country with a ‘communist’ regime; no apparent class distinctions but where most of people gradually became equally poor whereas the small elite of State became the oppressing class. I saw the first inequalities in the ways boys and girls were treated in my family and community. I remember the first acts of protest when my mother served bigger portion of meat (which was rare) to my father and youngest brother than to my sister, myself and herself. Sometimes she would not have a portion at all for herself and I felt sad. Every time I protested, I was told this is because they are men. I got the same answer when arguing with my brother or other boys. My mother would remind me not to assert myself against them because they are boys. But particularly my grandmother was very annoyed when I contradicted my brother and she insisted I behave properly like a girl. When I said this is unfair, she would always say that’s the way it is and women should obey to men. I think my parents understood my rebellion and were more flexible during my adolescence years. Nevertheless gender double standards followed my life experiences and as a young woman I always found myself struggling to prove that women are equal to men.
The attitude of my grandmother legitimizing women subordination haunted me during those years. I wondered why a woman, who had a tough life, raised her children on her own because her husband was sick, would insist that men are superior to women? I still remember when I was trying desperately to change her attitude when she shared stories of her life with me. Once she told me that at times she had to get back alone during night from the local market to her village because my grandfather was unable to go. She would ride a horse, wearing trousers and a cap which men usually wore in those times and when a stranger appeared in the way, she would start coughing pretending to be a man. I still remember her cheeky smile amused by the idea of passing for a man which she deemed to be the best way to keep her safe.
I never succeeded changing my grandmother’s opinion but one time I got a different perspective which had never happened before in our discussions. It was when she told me the story of how she went to the secretary of the Party in the city to request a student scholarship for my uncle. She always thought he did not consider her request because she was a woman who did not know to make a strong case. She said it pained her that she failed her son. I told her: nana, you are an amazing strong woman who did struggle all life and did things on her own. The secretary of the Party did not consider your request just because you were a woman. Why you still say women should be inferior to men, don’t you think this is unjust? For the first time in my life she did not give me that answer which enraged me. She kept quiet and gave me this smart and shy smile which I still cherish it though it pains me. It is a bitter reminder of the fact that she had not the option as I do in speaking up against injustice, let alone act on it. Was my nana hiding under that smile what Scott (1990) calls ‘hidden transcript’, her silent disagreement with the domination that she could not dare to make it public? She did not do that with me, though I think that day she was quite close to reveal the ‘unspoken’.
I can’t help thinking maybe I was wrong assuming that she was not aware of the injustice? Maybe she had internalized powerlessness and the acceptance of the ‘public transcript’ was inevitable as the most viable way for a woman to survive in a harsh patriarchal society? Maybe her persistence to dismiss my active protest was urged by a concern to prevent me engaging in conflict? Was she trying to ‘protect’ me or she had indeed embodied permanently the patriarchal norms? If I had read Bourdieu’s theory (1977) I would have talked to her about social structures reproduction; how the domination ideology and structures are continuously reproduced and ‘naturalized’ in absence of alternative social structures and relations. I would have told her that she had internalized the dominant ideology thus giving a common sense to practices legitimizing women subordination. I would have told her that if the hegemonic ideology is questioned by people like me who can imagine different alternatives are possible, then one realizes that is oppressed and will oppose it. I am not sure this would be fully convincing my grandmother, particularly if I recollect her smile. It makes me think that there were (though few) stories of women in her time which opposed patriarchal norms but were publicly shunned. I think she feared I could become potentially one of them if I continued with my ‘nonsense’ protest.
I realize that I had discussed with my grandmother about feminism epistemology and ontology focusing in the validity of her/my knowledge as women. Only when I challenged her to value this knowledge against to what she believes to be just or unjust, she was quite close to tell me another story. Hemmings (2012) argues that is the affect such as rage, anger, frustration, etc. created as result of the dissonance between experience and one’s beliefs which mediates the move beyond identity politics thus marking the difference between a woman and a feminist engaging in actions. She notes ’ The difference is marked by affect, by what is that one can live with or cannot live with, and the extent to which one’s life is or is not bound up with a desire to transform gender relations’ (Hemmings, 2012:156).
I think my grandmother had suppressed the affect coming from her judgment of the unjust situation, understandably so given the context. She was alienated in a context where woman’s value was established in relation to the man. Man is the norm, the standard, woman is the ‘Other’ which comes into ‘existence’ because of man. My nana could not be a feminist; on the contrary she was trying to control my rage and preventing me to become one because she knew this meant conflict. And she was right.
It took painful efforts for me to overcome the alienation and liberate myself from the ‘prison’ I was creating with my bare hands. There was no difference between my zeal in proving I was as worthy as a man and my nana wearing men’s clothes to cope with the domination. I realized that being worthy and equal are not masculine or feminine traits, but it is the society which has put the ‘man’ as the standard value in organizing its systems. I realized that when I met men who are opposing women subjugation (and not only theirs) and patriarchal system same as I did.
I did not take my grandmother’s advice. I kept questioning and nurturing my affect and used it to speak up and solidarize with other women and men who act for gender equality, in personal and professional life. Challenging the patriarchal domination is probably one of the most difficult tasks but I know that I will oppose those people and systems sustaining such practices. It makes me angry when the term’ man’ and ‘mankind’ have been and are still used (from academics as well) as the reference value for humanity. That is why I have chosen to refuse my value being determined in reference to men. I get angry that still in most of the places I have lived this norm sustains symbolic and material inequalities.
I wish I could have read earlier Fanon’s ‘Black skins, white masks’ and talk with my grandmother about it. As he puts it ‘Those Negroes and white men will be disalienated who refuse to let themselves be sealed away in the materialized Tower of the Past. For many other Negroes, in other ways, disalienation will come into being through their refusal to accept the present as definitive’ (Fanon 1986:244)
- Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. 1st ed. Cambridge, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Fanon. F. (1986). ‘ Black skins, white mask’. London: Pluto Press.
- Hemmings.C. (2012)’ Affective Solidarity: Feminist reflexivity and political transformation’ in Feminist Theory, Vol.13 (2), pp.147-161.
- Scott, J. C. (1990) ‘Domination and the arts of resistance. Hidden transcripts’.New Haven and London: Yale University Press