The weapons of the weak and civil society

The Unruly blog site has become like a confessional to me. It is a place where I talk about my frustrations and aspirations. The best part of it, unlike a confessional is that I get to read my colleagues’ blogs and get inspired from what I read. I felt solidarity in all sessions we had in this module. It felt good being involved with professionals in critical discussions on development.  It has been a privilege to share with people who have such a strong sense of justice and equality.

This time I want to talk about my struggle in keeping in terms my political subjectivity with technocratic solutions provided by development projects I am involved. The frustration has been growing with years and comes from the realization (based on personal experience) that mostly civil society’s NGO sector deals with the symptoms of poverty and not its structural causes. Therefore I have started to articulate more strongly that ‘we’ are complicit in sustaining injustice. I have realized that the word justice for some reasons makes people feel uncomfortable, probably due to its strong connotations with moral and ethics. I am told from some colleagues that I should not moralize but to be simply a good specialist who is objective and rational.

During this year of study, I have been reflecting over my past experiences and I think they have a point.  I should be rational indeed! Am I not the professional who chose to earn her living by helping people and ‘alleviate’ the social pains of the capitalist system?  Indeed, I remember this was one of the first things I learned in social work undergraduate studies. A social worker is a relatively new professional compared to others and deals with the poverty and social issues created by the system. I remember the professor smiling and saying that as practitioners we have a prime interest on social problems because if such problems will cease, we will end up jobless.

This was the first (very cynical maybe, someone might argue) important lesson learned during that year. But there is a difference when the professor says so and when you actually get to live the dilemma between your professional background and personal ethics. The simple truth is that I qualified to become a professional who facilitates solutions for disadvantaged people/citizens by connecting them with service providers. I am part of the system indeed and I am quite aware of my complicity, positive as well as negative contribution. But I found out how bitter and cynical can be when facilitating the connection of marginalized individuals to services in a highly nonfunctional system and society!

It is not my intention to deny civil society’s role simply because I have not been involved in those types of initiatives aiming to bring about social justice. That is not at all my intention. I think my frustration is related to my involvement with typical initiatives such as providing services to poor people when the state does not provide. Other initiatives were related to training people about their rights based on the assumption that if they know better they will keep the state accountable. These experiences have made me question my role in sustaining unjust systems.

Firstly, because if civil society NGOs are there to fill the gap left by the state, they are justifying the notion and practice that is ok if state reduces its responsibilities as long as the charity and private institutions are ‘responding’. Secondly, the notion of citizenship is used as the golden standard for poor people to find solutions to problems. I agree with Chatterjee when he notes that ’… the spread of neoliberal ideology has authorized the consecration of every non-state organization as the precious flower of the associative endeavors of free members of civil society’ (Chatterjee, 2004:39).

Therefore participation in civil society is prescribed as the best way for marginalized to exercise agency in an institutional way. So, people have to be trained first to become educated citizens, get organized in groups, know their rights and then knock on state’s doors or attend lobbying meetings etc. etc. This has not worked overall during my work experiences and it was particularly frustrating being one of those initiators of the ‘circulation’ of poor people in the famous circle of networking without results. They were ignored and left out at the end.

I think this was mainly because the government in Albania during this long transition phase from communism to ‘democracy’ has provided dramatic evidence that does not care and respond to the issues of its citizens, let alone the marginalized. There is also a fundamental gap between the most marginalized and the ‘enthusiastic’ professionals like me that teach the ‘uneducated’ to become citizens. We do not loose in the process but they do as their living depends on it. Therefore I have seen the hypocrisy of the discourse of ‘social inclusion’ preaching that marginalized have to be ‘integrated’ as equals in a system which in reality is founded in their exclusion.

Maybe this works in other contexts in Western liberal democracies.  I don’t know because I never had that experience of citizenship. I relate mostly with Chatterjee perspective on citizenship and governability. He (ibid) argues that in twentieth century the classic political theory of modern state keeps propagating the illusion of citizens with rights while in reality people cease to be citizens and transform into populations. They are objects of governability which operates upon the principle of benefits and costs.  Therefore there is a contradiction between the techniques of administering populations which create in practice different categories of population and the imaginary homogenous construct of equal citizen and nation.

I think same that the political project of civil society (in the third world countries particularly) hides the reality that there are different groups of populations and not a ideal citizen. People in the margins are not free citizens but mostly technical liabilities for the administration. I agree with him when he says that in practice these populations in the margins or subalterns, which he names the political society, do have political agency though act it in different ways from the elite groups which organize in political organizations or civil society institutions (Chatterjee, 2004).

That is why I do not accept anymore the discourse that as a representative of civil society I am contributing for better solutions to people in the margins. That is why I think that I am being complicit when I am part of a system that preaches civil society based on citizenship concept as the best way to social justice. Therefore I firmly oppose the discourse which describes the politics of the marginalized, their ways of resisting, protesting or finding solutions as ‘illegitimate ‘ I firmly oppose to the interpretations of these acts as violent and uncivilized just because they are not organized in the ideal shape of the civil society institutions.

I think the marginalized can and have the right to actually find their own ways to practice politics in this context of dualist discourse of citizenship and governability. I think now that the minimum I can do as a development worker is to understand those acts and not condemn them. The minimum is to get aligned with their resistance as one of multiple ways of seeking justice.

References:

Chatterjee, P. (2004). The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. New York: Columbia University Press.

Image featured in the header: Indian policemen and activists from the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) clash during a demonstration in Guwahati on June 22, 2011, held to protest against the government’s drive to evict settlers on government land, in Guwahati. STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

 

The angry feminist and activist; my struggle for disalienation and liberation

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)

 References

  • 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

 

 

Bare lives and political resistance

My visit to Palestine in 2014 was the most painful reminder of how illusionary can be the concept of human rights in a modern state entitled as the main political body to guarantee human rights. I was working in Afghanistan on that time when I was asked to help with the evaluation of few programs implemented in West Bank. Even though I was advised by my colleagues that travelling from Afghanistan to Israel was not the smartest decision, I did choose to go because I have had always this great desire to visit Palestine. My Palestinians colleagues warned me that interrogations and delay at the airport are ‘normal’ procedures and instructed me to be patient and not protest. If I did so, that will prolong my delay or worst; getting a refusal of entry.

Thus I devised an initial strategy to prepare at best to ‘forget’ being a human being so I could not feel emotions of rage while being questioned at airport. The seven hours I spent in between intervals of interrogations about my motives of working in Afghanistan, travelling to Palestine, my religious beliefs and all sort of questions to prove that I was not a terrorist, reminded me of what is to be ‘bare life’, stripped of political meaning.  I was left in a room for many hours with people coming and going, amongst them this young girl who was crying while talking on the phone. I could not help but smile at the irony of that moment as she was saying to her friend that these people were violating human rights. It made me smile because I could understand that she was grappling to maintain her ‘bios’; that qualified form of life of a citizen with rights and resisting to be just a biological form of life. But in that room we were all bodies, numbers who were screened to be classified from the security officers as worthy or not for entry. I could understand that our bare lives had power and political meaning but in a different way. Our bodies were considered suspicious so further inspection and interrogation was deemed to qualify us in people with the right of entry.

For a moment I felt this impulse to go close to the young girl and hug her but thought she might find it weird so I just stood in my chair. Now I think that the impulse to hug her was my body’ s reaction to get closer and solidarize with some body in the same state of exception. It was the urge to maintain my humanity, my ‘bios’ and saying to myself and her that we are still human and our lives matter. My strategy of forgetting to be human could not work as I found myself finally later approaching another woman in tears. She had been refused entry and was repeatedly saying she did not know where her husband was as he was taken from another officer. I tried to calm her down (and myself by doing so) saying that her husband would definitely come soon enough and she had to wait for him. I think these acts of getting closer to others kept me human. By 2:00 in the morning when the room was empty I started to feel anxious, overcome by emotions of anger and headed outside to ask the officers for my passport. Finally by 3:00 in the morning I was given my passport and the right of entry.

My existence in the margin was short-lived compared with the bare lives of my Palestinians colleagues who had to pass through checkpoints on daily basis, living under the settlements in top of the hills among other difficulties. The most painful existence is that of the ‘citizens’ of Gaza forced to live in a ‘city’ prison. I spent only ten days in Palestine and I can never forget the pain. I keep bearing witness of what I saw and experienced but it is hard to do so.  I keep asking how some body can live every day in the state of exception and oppression.  And I get frustrated when the acts of Palestinians resisting occupation and violence are interpreted as terrorist acts whereas the meticulous oppression and violence exercised by Israeli government is considered administration.

Agamben (1998) argues that the ‘bare life’ value’s rests in the fact that the power of sovereign modern state is founded in its inclusive exclusion thus politics in the modern state is biopolitics. He notes that ‘state sovereign violence is in truth founded not on a pact but on the exclusive inclusion of bare life in the state (Agamben, 1998: 107). The control state exercise over our bodies and lives is legitimized by the modern discourse of social contract implying we are equal and free citizens with rights but have also given the right to the state to enable our rights. What happens when the state is not guaranteeing human rights but indeed reduces people in bare lives? Do not these bare lives have the right to use their bodies as a political weapon to re-enter in the politics arena and reclaim their humanity? I think they do precisely because our bare lives have power, our bodies are political.

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Enver Hoxha statue falling in Tirana. The fall of totalitarian communist regime in Albania in 1991. Found at balkaninsight.com. Photo courtesy by Armando Babani

The bare lives and bodies of students and mine workers who went on hunger strike forced the communist leader to start discussions with the dissident elite for changing the political regime in my country in 1991. The international political situation and the fall of Berlin Wall was an important factor also but it were the Albanians bare lives close to starvation which rose up and got together in squares to make the most important political statement after 45 years.

BBC radio report about students hunger strike and fall of communist regime in Albania 1991

As a feminist I can say also that the feminist struggle has shown that women bodies are an arena where politics of governments are implemented. Feminists have long time understood that bodies are politicized and rely on their bodies as a powerful political tool coming together in protests to claim their humanity, their rights. The personal is always political!

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Men and women gather in Warsaw to protest for abortion rights. NurPhoto via Getty Image. Found at huffingtonpost.com

References:

1. Agamben, G. (1998) ‘ Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

2- Photo in the header image: Carnage at UN school as Israel pounds Gaza refugee camp.Found at gmanetwork.com