Monday, 23 February 2015

I wrote about rape (again) for

You can see links to all my writing published elsewhere here, but I just wrote a piece about rape and victim-blaming over here, in reaction to an infuriating debate I had yesterday.

Victim-blaming is far too common, and like racism, which many people think is defined very narrowly as 'hating Black people', there are some kinds of victim-blaming that are 'benevolent'. A good example would be how parents/authority figures tell girls not to do certain things to 'limit the chances' of them getting raped.

I call bullshit.

"Stop and think, for a moment, what your desire to victim-blame is rooted in, and how much sense it really makes. Victim-blaming, in any context, assuages your fear of the possibility of experiencing a similar fate and shores up your knowledge that bad things only happen to a certain kind of person — a person less intelligent than you, less worldly-wise than you, less obedient, more slutty. 

Victim blaming ensures that you will always feel like bad things can happen to anyone but you (and people like you). If you know better (and you will prove that you do by citing all of the things the victim could have done to ‘prevent’ their rape), then they should have known better. And if they didn’t know better and they got raped, well there you go. Better luck next time!"

Read the whole piece here.

Friday, 20 February 2015

This Woman is Becoming

This evening my heart is breaking and swelling, all at once, for myself and for women like me. There is a burden that I can't place or name, but it is so, so real. 

I am thinking about self-love of the radical variety, the kind that allows me to strip myself and accept myself, to break down this person that I have been told I must be to be worthy, and to become the woman I will be proud of dying as.

I am thinking about love for my sisters - African women, single mothers, lonely women, women who have tamed their voices so long they don't remember the sound, women carrying trauma because they don't know how to set it down, motherless women, shamed women, lost women. I am thinking about women like me, who are desperate for better because somehow we know there is more. The knowing is in our bones, in our feet, in our song. We know there is more. 

I am thinking about my daughter and the boldness of her spirit, the way her heart breaks for me when she sees my sadness, the way she loves herself so completely that my own sadness can not take away her joy, the generosity with which she heals me with kisses, the streak of defiance that makes her stand up to me - the streak I know I have somewhere but can't always find. I am thinking of her way in this world and the ways in which her identities will shape her and bend her, and I am worrying about the ways it may break her.

I am thinking about the work that we have ahead. There is so much building to be done; it is exhausting that we have to spend all this time tearing down what is already there, what is trying to kill us. When will it be time for rejoicing? When will the load be lighter? When will the leaves of the trees planted by our mothers and our mothers' mothers be lush and abundant enough for us all to sit under their shade?

I am burdened with a grief I don't understand, and a fury too. There is so much building to be done, and yet the people who shore up the systems that must be destroyed before we can build are too numerous to count, too powerful to ignore, too content with the status quo.

A lot of the time I want to scream.

There is not enough of me to go around. And yet, I must find a way to become enough. I must find a way to become this woman who will water the tree and plant fresh seeds and clear a path for our daughters and sisters and mothers to do the rejoicing we have been denied so long.

There is a calling on my spirit tonight. 'Hasten the time, sister. Hasten the time.'

I am not enough, but I will become so.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Depression Is Not A Bandwagon, and I Am Not Jumping On

Recently a friend said to me, "you have to show yourself the same grace you would show someone you love." It was a profound statement in many ways, not the least of which is how it highlighted the hardness with which I treat myself.

I've talked a little bit on here about not being able to deal with my grief over losing my mother and unexpectedly becoming a mother myself in almost the same breath, and my unhappiness, fascination with (my own) death as well as my inability to cope with my life are things that have come up as well, but I've never really considered that my emotional state might be deeply unhealthy. It certainly never occurred to me that I might be depressive. It just wasn'

In my head, depression was (is?) this major thing that happens to people with legitimate reasons for having it. I've never felt like I had a right to my own unhappiness, and I've certainly never figured out what to do with it. I'm a happy person. I make people laugh. People love me. I meet strangers and they say things like, "oh, you're the Timehin!" I'm the one dancing until five a.m. in the highest heels with no alcohol keeping me going. I'm the usually quite successful people-pleaser. I smile at strangers and make small talk with bus conductors. I'm a happy person.

And yet, more and more often, for longer and longer periods, I really just want to escape my life. Maybe even die. Getting out of bed is so hard that I don't do it. I've lost so much weight over time that I'm actually smaller now than I was before I became a mother, because eating is not something I think about or generally want to do. There was a period when I felt crushing guilt every time I ate a meal, so that I would go for days without eating just to avoid that feeling. There are days when the weight of the 'I can't deal with today' is so great that I sleep till I make myself sick. There was a three-week period late last year when I almost never left my bedroom.

I had a nanny and so I would see my daughter first thing in the morning and last thing at night, with brief interactions whenever she bounced into my room, because I simply couldn't be around her. I felt like a horrible mother because not only could I not conjure up the energy to play with my child, I couldn't even be a decent human being to her. I couldn't smile at her, couldn't hug her, couldn't be patient with her. I had to stop smacking her because I realised I wasn't necessarily doing it because she was badly behaved, but because I was unable to process anything rationally. It took more energy than I had to be angry, and yet I was. I was furious when I wasn't despondent, I didn't know why, and I hated myself for it.

I felt like life was out to get me. I swung between black wells of despair and hopelessness and desperate attempts to 'fix' my life by changing my attitude. Yet, months later, no matter how the individual events that make up my days go, my overwhelming feeling is one of deep unhappiness and dissatisfaction. The prospect of social interaction fills me with dread, which is bizarre, considering how extroverted I am. It takes massive acts of will for me to choose to do things with people, even people I love very much. I've berated myself over my laziness, my apathy, my inability to simply pick myself up and make the most of my quite charmed life.

And yet, I found it a bit unsettling when I was talking to this dear friend about my general, constant, perplexing unhappiness, and she said, "girl, that sounds like depression." This conversation came on the heels of Chimamanda's much-talked about and unethically published essay on her personal struggle with depression, a link to which I tweeted rather cheekily:
I had read the article detachedly, marvelling at the depth of feeling in her revelations, absently noting similarities, thoroughly enjoying her voice. Someone asked me later if I could relate, and I jokingly dismissed her. But during the conversation with my friend, she pointed out to me how everything I described seemed to indicate that I might indeed have depression.

I didn't know what to make of that. I still don't. I know how serious mental health is, and how we don't appear to know how to handle it; people always seem to either be claiming to have mental illnesses that they really don't because of a ridiculous desire to differentiate themselves, or they assume everyone who is mentally ill is unstable and violent, or they simply don't believe that mental illness is actually illness. I explained to my friend that I am loath to claim depression because I don't want to contribute to the faddish wave of buffet-style mental illness-havers; 'Oh, I'm a depressive creative type. Fifteen days a month, I simply can't function. It's what makes my art so poignant.' No.

But the truth is, there are times when I am 'not myself,' to borrow Chimamanda's turn of phrase. And it has been going on for a long time. I don't want it to continue. I need to figure out what it is that makes it so hard for me to function, and I need to fix it. And if that means that I might indeed be diagnosed by a professional as being depressive, then so be it. I won't continue to sacrifice my emotional and mental health or my relationships because I don't feel like I 'have a right' to depression. If it can happen to anyone, it can happen to me too. It doesn't make me any less me; if anything, facing up to the possibility will make me more me. 

I miss the girl I used to be, the woman I know I could be if I could just get rid of this dark cloud hanging over me. I want her back. If facing up to depression is all that I must do to get her, then I'm doing it. Why wouldn't I?

Friday, 6 February 2015

Gender Justice, Intersectionality and What My Feminism Means to Me

That title is a bit heavy-sounding, I realise (and probably a little misleading, as this post will not be the meaty 5000-word essay a title like that would lead one to expect), but I was having a conversation with my colleagues yesterday, and it helped to solidify a lot of things I've only been aware of peripherally in my own journey as a gender justice advocate.

It was announced that Chimamanda Adichie is in the running for a Grammy this Sunday, thanks to the excerpt of her 'We Should All Be Feminists' speech that Beyonce featured in 'Flawless***', and this news sparked an interesting debate about feminism in the African(?) context.

One of my coworkers insisted that feminism is a 'Western' import and has no real relevance here, implying that African feminists are mindlessly replicating a struggle that has no bearing on our lives. I found that incredibly difficult to stomach, because apart from his ahistorical analysis which 'proved' that African women are not oppressed (on the basis of matrilineal inheritance laws that may or may not apply in some communities and events like the Aba women's riots), he persisted in saying that women in African societies are empowered, despite hearing testimony from the mostly female group about how our lived experiences prove the exact opposite.

It was interesting to see how, despite real people providing real evidence to this intelligent person, he refused to even acknowledge that  he could be wrong. His worldview and intellectual position on a matter which he was not an authority on (based on the absence of either any real research or lived experience) were more important than the actual reality; it was easier, safer, I will even argue, to hold on to the comfortable and familiar delusion of a world where women of African descent are safe and happy, than to engage with the reality as presented by actual women of African descent.

An interaction on twitter yesterday between Rosie O'Donnell and Lauren Chief Elk ran along similar, albeit more violent lines; Lauren asked Rosie to pose critical questions to a guest billed to come on her show, Eve Ensler. Eve is a prominent White feminist whose work has been critiqued over the years by marginalised women; women of color, trans women and female children have been harmed by the erasure and exploitation that characterises Ensler's activism (see a Google search of 'critiques of Eve Ensler' here).

Rosie's response was violent, disproportionate and racist: she dismissed the (legitimate) questions as being a 'cruel attack', used images of herself with Black girls to 'prove' that she was not racist (as if proximity equals respectful engagement), used a racist slur on Lauren, and even said that she and/or Eve Ensler, both of whom are rich, White, cis-gendered women, have 'done more for women of colour than any woman of colour'.

Needless to say, I was genuinely horrified by her behaviour. But as I thought about it, I realised the parallels between her 'rationale' and my colleague's: We all have biases and prejudices that prop up our worldview which determine whose voice we consider valid/valuable, as well as determining which narratives we dismiss whenever they conflict with our constructed perception of reality. It is my theory that the more privilege one has in an oppressive system, the stronger the effect of these biases on one's ability to reason and to adapt one's ideas upon receiving new information.

I used to get angry with people like my colleague and Rosie, but there are way too many of them in the world. Shit gets exhausting, fam. Now I just use this knowledge to check myself. Oppression is rarely a linear thing; there are intersecting sliding scales of oppression and privilege, depending on the context of any interaction within the system.

Despite being an areligious dark-skinned, unwed African mother uninvested in performing femininity and living on the continent (which therefore places me quite low on the 'value' scale in the neo-colonial capitalist patriarchy that holds sway in most 'Third World' regions and in the White supremacist capitalist patriarchy in the West), I still have privilege based on my status as educated, middle-class, cis-gendered, and urban. There are many, many, many struggles that I can not identify with and in many cases am not even aware of, because they are simply not my story.

Yet, the fact that something is not my story does not invalidate that story, nor does it make it untrue. Gender activism in my region is far from being inclusive (I have many theories as to why this is, but this post is way too long already), and the only truly transformative way we can progress in fighting for 'women's rights' (notice how in activist-speak, 'women' generally means straight and cis-gendered females), the only way we can effectively intervene in the issues affecting marginalised groups that are not like those of us privileged to have the education, resources and platforms that enable us to call ourselves activists, is to share our platform, de-center ourselves when we purport to be allies, and amplify the voices of these groups rather than claiming to speak for them.

In summary, it is vital to listen. Even when it is uncomfortable, we must. Even when it challenges our ideas and shifts what we perceive as 'reality', we must. Progress for some marginalised groups is not progress for all (mainstream White feminists and Real Housewives of the Nigerian NGO, I'm looking at you). We must discard the ridiculous notion that oppression is a binary of powerful and not powerful, and that everyone is always and forever either one or the other. And we must leave no oppressed person behind. This is what my feminism, as an African woman, demands.

What does your activism demand?