Looking at me Looking at Safe Spaces
Judyannet Muchiri (@judyannet1), Canada
October last year I left for Kenya to begin what I have come to think of as my most important work yet. I have since been in Kenya exploring the influence of safe spaces on young women’s civic participation. Although this research is for academic purposes, it is also very personal. As a feminist, my academic pursuits, my professional work and my personal life are all in conversation with each other and are deeply guided by feminist values.
I am now sat here in Nairobi waiting out the #COVID19 Pandemic that has disrupted our lives. While I am very disoriented, this has afforded me time to reflect on this work that I have been doing for the last couple of months. I have been in conversation with diverse young women and women’s rights organizations to co-imagine and co-create safe spaces for young women. I arrived at safe spaces the same way I arrive at any other work that I do; with an intent to expand spaces and freedoms for young women. However, I did not count on the emotional labour that would come with this kind of work and what it would take to accomplish my goals. I have intentionally adopted feminist and participatory approaches with the recognition that young women know best what safe spaces mean for them and therefore should be the ones to articulate these safe spaces. With this work I intend to demonstrate that in the absence of safe spaces the extent to which young women can participate in civic activities is limited. Therefore, this work is a call to invest in structures and an ecosystem that enables women to exercise agency and live their best lives. It is important to point out here that I use the term women with the recognition that this is a blanket term that includes persons who self-identify as women.
As with any other research project I was prepared for surprises. However, it became clear to me very early on that this would not be like any other research. When I started meeting women and gathering them to talk about safe spaces, the first thing that I noticed was how women received me and my work with so much tenderness. And as I continued experiencing this kindness from women in Nairobi, Nyanza, and Rift Valley I began thinking about what it means to work from a position of kindness.
As I travelled around the country talking to women, it also became clear that safe spaces work is not easy work. This work asks for more. It asks for more time. It asks for more resources. It asks for more commitment. It asks for us to be very intentional.
To be honest, this is not something I anticipated. I did not think about what this work would demand of me. The emotional labour required. I became overwhelmed.
Acknowledging when one is overwhelmed is important. Equally important is deciding what to do with that knowledge. This has been a learning point for me. Admitting that yes, this is sitting heavily on me; yes, I need to take a step back. This is where self-care comes in. And I use the term self-care here recognizing that the ability to take time off to take care of oneself is a matter of privilege and not everyone is able to do so. I feel strongly that we need to acknowledge our positionalities and the privileges these positionalities afford us. That said, what I have learnt to do in these instances of overwhelm – and they have been many - is to sit in silence.
Sitting in silence has been difficult. It turns out that even taking a break needs some intentionality. What I am keen about here, and I think this is a lesson for other feminists as well, is what sitting in silence enables.
Sitting in silence enables us to breathe. It enables us to thank ourselves for showing up. It enables us to look at lessons learnt. It enables us to think about what we can do better going forward. In other words, this is an opportunity to step back and look at our work from a distance. It is also a recognition that activating feminist realities is continuous work that will indeed take time.
While sitting in silence has helped, what has really inspired me to keep going is all the women that I have encountered. Doing work focused on systemic change seldom brings quick results, making it difficult to stay motivated. But that should not deter. Every bit of action helps.
The knowledge that there are women across the country -and the globe- organizing and putting in the work, despite insurmountable difficulties, to expand freedoms for other women gives me so much hope. This is what makes me know that, indeed, feminist realities and futures are possible.
Finally, it is only right that I acknowledge the women who have held me and my work with so much tenderness. I have already thanked each one of you personally, but I also want the world to know what absolute legends you are. I am lucky to know you. The world is lucky to have you. Thank you.
Upasana Agarwal (@upasana_a), Kolkata, India
Looking at activists and feminists as healers and nourishers of the world, in the midst of battling growing right wing presence, white supremacy and climate change. This piece highlights how our feminist reality puts kindness, solidarity, and empathy into action by showing up and challenging the status quo to liberate us all.