Our neighbourhood, our network, our strength
by Marta Plaza Fernández, Madrid, Spain (@gacela1980)
The feminist reality that I want to share is about weaving networks in which we uphold one another. Networks which come together in different ways, which emerge from our shared vulnerability, and which make all of us stronger.
The streets of Chamberí, my neighbourhood in Madrid, became much more of a home following the gatherings in the plazas organized by the citizens movement that originated in a rally on May 15, 2011. I think about how, during those years, we met each other and were able to associate faces, voices, smiles with so many neighbours who previously were only silhouettes without names or pasts, and who we passed by without seeing or hearing each other. I think about how we’ve become involved and dedicated; how we’ve woven a palpable, tangible community; how we’ve been advancing hand in hand towards building a new more inhabitable world, which we want and that we urgently need to create.
A group of activists and utopian neighbours, (in the best sense of the word utopian) – that moves us to action to do something real – that group for me was practically the first that reacted differently when I shared a part of my history and identity with them. With these women I shared my psychiatric diagnosis, my multiple hospital stays, the number of daily pills that accompanied me, my disability certificate, my difficulty in preserving that vital link that periodically disintegrates in my hands.
These neighbours, friends, comrades, links, loves –did not only not distance themselves from me once they got to know someone who many others had labelled as problematic, manipulator, egotistical – but became my principal network of affection and mutual support. They decided to navigate with me when the sea became agitated with storms. These people have given a different meaning to my days.
Building our feminist reality also encompasses carrying the “I believe you, sister” that we use when a friend has suffered a macho attack to the violence experienced by psychiatrized women at the hands of the very psychiatric system and institutions that are supposed to help us (and instead are often the new abuser who traumatizes and hurts us all over again). And this reality must include respect for our decisions, without taking away our agency and capacity to direct our own steps to one space or another; to listen to our narratives, desires, needs…without trying to impose others that are alien to us. It means not delegitimizing our discourse, not alluding to the label of our diagnosis, nor our madness.
With these transformation, each stay in the psychiatric institute did erase the ties that we had been able to build, but instead this network stayed by my side, its members took turns so that each day there would be no lull in calls, in visits, so that I could feel them as close as one can feel another person separated by locked doors (but unfortunately open for abuse) within the confines of the psychiatric ward. Through the warmth and kindness from my people I could rebuild that vital link that had once again been broken.
The even bigger leap happened when I was already aware of the numerous violent acts and abuse (where among other assaults, I spent days strapped to a bed, relieving myself where I lay), I decided that I would not go back to being interned.
This network of care, these women neighbours-friends-loves-comrades, they respected my refusal to return to the hospital and supported me through each crisis I’ve been through since then. Without being interned, without violence.
They took turns accompanying me when my link to life was so broken that I felt such a huge risk which I couldn’t handle on my own. They organized WhatsApp group check-ins. They coordinated care and responsibilities so that no one would feel overwhelmed - because when an individual feels overloaded, they make decisions based on fear and the need for control instead of prioritizing accompaniment and care.
That first crisis that we were able to surmount together in this way – without being admitted to the psychiatric institute, represented a dramatic change in my life. There were months when my life was at risk, of intense suffering and of so much fear for my people and for me. But we overcame it together, and all that I thought was that if we could get over that crisis, then we could also find ways to face all the difficulties and crises that may come.
These feminist realities that we’re building day by day keep expanding, growing and taking different forms. We’re learning together, we’re growing together. Distancing ourselves from a welfare mentality, one of the first lessons was that, in reality, there wouldn’t be anyone receiving care (because of a psychiatric label) or anyone helping, from the other side of the sanity/insanity line. We learnt – we’re learning – to move to a different key – that of mutual support, of providing care and being cared for, of caring for each other.
We’ve also explored the limits of self care and the strength of collectivizing care and redistributing it so it’s not a burden that paralyzes us; we learnt – and we keep learning today – about joy and enjoying care that is chosen.
Another recent learning is about how difficult it was to start integrating money as another component of mutual support that we all give and receive. It was hard for us to realize how internalized capitalism kept on reverberating in our relationship with money, and that even though no one expected any payment for the containers of lentils we cooked amongst us when eating and cooking were difficult tasks, our expectation regarding money was different. Phrases like “how much you have is how much you’re worth” become stuck inside of us without critically analyzing them. It’s easy to keep thinking that the money each one has is related to the effort made to earn it, and not due to other social conditioning distant from personal merit. In fact, within this well-established mutual support network – redistributing money based on needs without questioning – was still a remote reality for our day to day. That’s why this is something that we’ve recently started to work on and think through as a group.
We want to get closer to that anti-capitalist world where mutual support is the way that we have chosen to be in the world; and that entails deconstructing our personal and collective relationship with money and internalized capitalism.
In these feminist realities we also know that learning never stops, and that the road continues to be shaped as we travel upon it. There is still much to do to keep caring for ourselves, to keep expanding perspectives and to make ourselves more aware of the persistent power imbalances, of privileges that we hold and continue to exercise, without realizing the violence that they reproduce.
Though we’ve already travelled so far, we still have a long way to go to get closer to that new world that we hold in our hearts (and for some within our crazy little heads too). Racism, classism, adult-centrism, fat-phobia, and machismo that persists among our partners.
Among the pending lessons, we’ve needed for a long time already to build a liveable future in which feminism is really intersectional and in which we all have space, in which the realities and oppressions of other sisters are just as important as our own. We also need to move forward horizontally when we build collectively – getting rid of egos, of protagonisms, to live together and deal with the need for recognition in a different way. And to also keep making strides grounded in the awareness that the personal is always, always political.
How we relate to and link with each other cannot be relegated to the private domain, nor kept silent: other loves are possible, other connections and other families are necessary, and we are also inventing them as we go.
This new world which we want to create, and that we need to believe in – is this kind world – in which we can love, and feel pride in ourselves – and in which all worlds will fit. We’ll keep at it.
by Upasana Agarwal, Kolkata, India (@upasana_a)
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.