The day started with drumbeats.
Forum participants came out and marched to the plenary venue, 1,800 feminist strong with drummers and dancers among us, in support of Homa Hoodfar who had been imprisoned for 96 days in Iran. It was to be another 16 days before the professor and anthropologist was set free, with her release due to an international campaign by activists, academics and governments, many of whom were present at the march.
This drumming, dancing and marching was a fitting start for a plenary themed around solidarity, resistance and creative disruptions. Panellists talked about the importance of culture and art in activism - and their limitations.
Kholoud Mahdhaoui, a founding member of the Tunisian feminist Lesbian, Bi and Trans (LBT) organisation Chouf, spoke of art being a vehicle, an international language through which we can communicate our ideologies. She described the way Choufthonna, a three day Tunisian festival, creates a non-state revolutionary space, shifting a regional discourse of victimisation into one of creative resistance.
Yasmin Thayna of the Coletivo Nuvem Negra and PUC Rio, and one of the creators of Afroflix, a Brazilian online platform that creates audio-visual content by Black people, spoke of cinema as a tool for struggle as it shows the potential to exist in different ways. She stressed the need to construct counter-narratives that show the historical context of Black women’s existence in Brazil and the right to memory.
Alicia Garza, from the US-based Black Lives Matter movement and the Domestic Workers Alliance, also focused on the need to fight on the terrain of culture, giving #BlackLivesMatter as an example of a successful cultural change strategy strengthening organising efforts to dismantle systems of dominance. However, given the propensity for capitalism to brand the culture change while dropping the demands from the equation, she cautioned that cultural change is not liberatory in and of itself but rather can make the landscape more amenable to other types of change.
Starting as a general discussion about lessons, challenges and victories, the conversation naturally moved to focusing on one strategy in particular: ways to practice self and collective care.
Indeed, this was a recurrent theme of the forum, potentially linked to the current historical moment in which we currently find ourselves. Globally, civil society space is shrinking. The 2016 State of Civil Society report found serious threats to one or more civil freedoms in over 100 countries in the previous year. Attacks on women human rights defenders are increasing. We face new ways that fundamentalism, militarism, global capitalism and patriarchy combine to violate human rights and a growing backlash to the rights of women and LGBTQI people in particular. Given all this, it's not surprising that forum attendees felt the need to discuss self and collective care, looking both within and outside the self.
Arelis Uriana from Consejería de Mujer, Familia y Generación and Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia underlined the need to seek spiritual strength to overcome obstacles, barriers and silences, speaking about the importance of starting with ancestral knowledge, connecting to nature and harmonising bodies with thoughts. Part of this, she said, includes realising that protection is born within us and guides us everyday, ending competition with each other and breaking the fear and nervousness that keeps us from saying what we are really experiencing.
At the same time, Kholoud reminded us of the power in opening up more to other women and reflected on how the act of looking more directly into the eyes of other women in aggressive and patriarchal spaces had nourished her and made her feel less alone.
Alicia questioned the very idea of the ‘self’ in self care, noting how it exists within the capitalist framework. Telling the activist to go and take care of themselves, have a massage or go to the spa is a very individualistic notion of care that replicates the very ideologies we are trying to fight she said, noting that asking others what they are doing to take care of themselves does nothing to lift their burden. People, especially activists, depend on each other to survive and care has to be understood collectively. The way we manage our communities has to be as communities of care, with recognition that being a healer who develops care tools is as important a movement role as being an organiser.
While the other speakers talked of strategies, Yasmin spoke of how the Forum had taught her of the importance of self and community care itself.
She spoke of being told while growing up to ‘swallow those tears’ and that the pressure on women to be strong all the time leads to them not thinking they have feelings and need to take care of themselves. She linked this to the experience of being a black woman in Brazil where black people make up the majority of people living on the streets, in psychiatric hospitals and with health problems. In one of the most striking moments of the discussion, she admitted she didn’t have the space for self care: she had learned to fight and could not stop.
What Yasmin said resonated with many of us present and her allowing her own tears to be visible during the discussion was a very powerful testament to the importance of emotion and expression in feminist spaces. The space accorded to thinking through ways to sustain ourselves and our activism by taking care of ourselves and each other in plenaries with all participants present was welcome. After all, each of us has either experienced burnout ourselves or know someone who has.
As panelist Yara Sallam said at the opening plenary on the first day, “We shouldn’t romanticise being ill and tired all the time.” Yet, we tend to continue treating this as exceptional, individual cases rather than seeing the mental health impacts of our work as systemic and endemic in all our movements.
Arelis told the audience, “You know the answer to how to take care of yourself.”
If this is true, why do so many of us not do it?
As one participant said at a session on self-care and collective well-being, the only control we as activists have is the kind of spaces and organisations that we create. We talk about self and collective care as being a radical political act but how do we take this forward, particularly when we have internalised patriarchal notions valuing reason and logic over emotion and feeling? As activists, we need start from a place where we assume burnout will happen unless prevented and think of what this means for ourselves, our communities and our organisations.
These discussions at the AWID plenaries are a good start but the discussions and reflections - within ourselves and in our communities and movements - need to continue.
About the author
Chitra Nagarajan is an activist and writer who works to promote and protect human rights and build peace. She lives and works in Maiduguri in north-east Nigeria. She tweets @chitranagarajan.