Posted by Farfahinne at 10:45 AM
Being a feminist and part of a feminist collective can be a comforting privilege. The comforting part relies in the feeling that you are part of a community where individual members share to a large extent the same values, ideals, frustrations and goals; where a sense of support and solidarity among members prevail. On many occasions I felt this privilege. When few years ago I was passing through a personal experience that left me broken, weak and isolated, my feminist friends were there and stood by me. They helped me overcome, process and reflect on this experience in a way that made me gradually capable of rising again with the least damage possible. I learnt, in the hard way, that what we experience as women in the private is political indeed and that the collective has the political and the moral duties of not leaving any woman behind.
The space we wanted to create is a space where women from different backgrounds can come together, talk about anything that bother us; start initiatives on multiple issues that we set as priorities on the agenda of the collective; where we can express our gender, sexual and political identities without being morally judged, where we can get solidarity and support when we most need them; where we can share resources and exchange knowledge and skills; where we can find the political power in our collectiveness. We wanted it a place from where inspiring progressive politics, radical, feminist, secular and leftist, emanate. From which we can build alliances with other progressive and democratic forces on different common goals: women rights, workers’ rights, refugees’ rights, so on and so forth.
However a feminist collective is not necessarily an ideal place. Many times, the political and social structures that we claim fighting, with all the conviction in the world, can be recreated in our feminist place, unintentionally. When we claim to fight uneven power dynamics as part of our feminist ideals, we don’t notice that sometimes we regenerate them in our most intimate and political place that we presume safe, free, liberated and liberating.
I am writing out of my personal and political responsibility as a member of a feminist collective where I played a leading role for a period of time. What I mean by leading role is that I was given by the collective some responsibilities and day to day duties. Where I was responsible in executing the collective’s decisions and following up on the tasks designated by the collective. I am writing out of my personal responsibility to give justice to women who we left out in a total denial of our feminist beliefs.
More than one year ago, the collective was shaken to the ground when 3 members communicated their frustration that their report on a sexual harassment incident that took place in the collective’s space was overlooked and neglected. The frustration came to reveal deeper problems in relation to structure and authority: how decisions are being taken? Whose voice is being heard? What democratic structures that allow the expression of all members equally exist or are non-existent? What mechanisms did we put in place to be more attentive to women’s concerns? Was our space really as feminist as we thought it was?
The questions kept arising throughout this intense process. None of us claimed that she had an answer but members who took part in the process shared a common sense of acknowledgement that these questions are legitimate and there’s a collective responsibility in finding answers to them, especially if we wanted this collective to persist. However, process was interrupted for many reasons, mainly because of the rising distrust among members and some who thought to take advantage of the situation to mark points over other members.
In relation to sexual harassment I found out that for a collective, it’s easier to deal with the incident when the harasser is a male outsider. It’s easy to blame and shame and hold a male responsible for sexually harassing a woman because after all men are socialized in a way that tells them that it’s okay for them to harass a woman; that they have the total right to display power over women’s bodies as fathers, as brothers, as boyfriends, as bosses, as professors, as husbands, as friends, as fiancés, as clergy men, as politicians, as soldiers, etc. But how to deal with a sexual harassment case when both the accusing and the accused are women members of a feminist collective?!
Hence, during our meetings another sexual incident arose. When one member told us she was sexually harassed by another. And again we were totally consumed in dealing with this issue, when what was intended to be a confidential procedure went public with the name of the member accused of harassment. What was intended to be a safe mechanism to deal with the incident in a way that is healthy turned out to be a disaster. We neither knew how to investigate the matter properly, nor we knew how to bring justice for the accusing and the accused member. Moreover we didn’t hold responsible the member who disclosed the case for the public.
The accused member, who knew about the case from a mouth to mouth gossip, denied every relation with the incident. She felt isolated and pushed out of the community, with her reputation tarnished as a “harasser”. Being someone who is at the intersection of multiple forms of disadvantages, for being a woman worker, a lesbian, a secularist and a leftist, feeling also automatically kicked out of what she once perceived as a safe space and community, without being questioned, was not something that is easy to endure alone.
I understood very late what this friend and comrade went through from social isolation and psychological burden and self doubt. During this time I didn’t even bother myself to pick up the phone and call her to ask: what’s your take on what you are accused of? Put aside that I had a “leading role” within the collective to lay down the ground for a democratic structure where a transparent mechanisms are put in place to deal at least with these incidents that believe it or not, may take place in self-claimed feminist spaces as well.
I do acknowledge the fact that I share responsibility in what happened to these four members, since I should have stood for them as other members stood for me before. It’s wrong, simplistic and naïf to assume, that if a woman is a feminist then automatically she can overcome an injury. We always find comfort in talking to someone who can listen to us and understand and be supportive. After all isn’t this what feminists should do at least to one another?! I feel no sense of heroism or courage in this acknowledgment. I say that out of my political belief and commitment to my feminist values. I acknowledge the fact that I didn’t rise to the level of my beliefs and that we failed in creating a space that is not exclusionary, where members acknowledge that they come from different backgrounds and where we should be open and sensitive to the overlapping layers of disadvantages where many of us are situated.
Why I am talking about this after one and more years? For sure my intention is not to point fingers, nor to blame a particular one or two or three persons. I am writing first because, on a personal level, I didn’t find a closure yet with this experience. I don’t think I will anytime soon. Second, I am not talking from the view point of someone who lost hope in the struggle for gender and social justice. On the contrary. I am talking out of my past responsibility and future ones in these struggles. We should reassess this experience in order not to commit the same errors that can be disastrous on political and individual levels.
We lost so many beautiful, smart, energetic and committed women in the way we handled the problems which arose in our journey. I don’t think that any space can be ideal, not even a feminist space. But we should learn from our experiences, so that when they arise the next time -and they will- we know how to deal with them in a way that make our spaces more inclusive and sensitive to our injuries and wounds; and in a way that empower us individually and collectively. I am certainly now more aware of the obstacles, one of them is when the personal is conflated to someone’s duty in a collective, or when a political stand is conflated with complex interpersonal histories.
I don’t have magical solutions. I still believe that the answers to the questions that I presented earlier should be made collectively in a way that is rooted in our experiences. I am only sure about one thing that denying the past problems that arose, will not be the best way to go in our present and future feminist politics… not anymore.