I am about to write words I wish 16-year-old me, could have read or came across when she so needed to embrace all that she is. Sometimes I think of her, afraid yet bold, naïve yet very aware of things around her. I revisit her very often. I do it with care, cuddling with her, pouring words of comfort that I have grown to find the language to articulate what she felt when womanhood found her, when she was just a teenager. Likeability is a rent she couldn’t afford at such a young age. Most of her identity crisis when growing up was a mix of herself as a fire sign, doing whatever she wants and then also trying to fit the expectations of everyone around her.
We don’t talk enough about patriarchal conditioning to desire likeability as women, about the narrative of being a good girl, running after communal validation by making sure you fit every societal expectations of womanhood. But mostly we don’t talk enough about how our survival as women is rooted in embodying respectability politics. How we swallow our tongue to keep patriarchs not threatened by our?existence. How we gatekeep and justify every violence done to us.
Maybe we could have stayed quieter, dressed more appropriately, or never denounced our boss when he assaulted us or we could have cooked for our lover all his favorite meals at once so he doesn’t cheat. I mean, aren’t we good at putting all the blame on us for not being perfect super women? We have been taught that patriarchy can spare us its violence if it likes us. Like somehow, we can save ourselves from institutionalized sexism if we invest our existence in being liked by our oppressors. I love Assata Shakur and I love that she theorized about respectability politics in a simple quote:
“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.”
Still we want to negotiate about our humanity. I recently had an interesting conversation with a woman I admire. She is among the women I celebrate for paving the way for girls like myself to exist and do feminist work. We were talking about how under-funded this work is and how burdening it gets. She rarely calls herself a feminist. She is known as a gender activist. But her story and her work are feminist. She told me how she failed to get the support she needed for every project where the proposal she submitted for funding included feminist language.
She shared how at first when she started this work, she was on fire. She even added how I remind her of her earlier activism work. She was very unapologetic and firm in her politics. But with many No’s and doors closed, she diluted herself. In her own words:
“I started doing what everyone around me invested in gender equality was doing. I embraced respectability politics. I diluted my politics to fit patriarchal expectations of gender equality and all the support came in.”
I was mesmerized by her honesty. In fact, I was liberated by her honesty. The courage to confront your own work and realize where you sold yourself short. She begged me to never walk in her shoes. She said: “I know everyone is investing in you now. Your radical feminism is getting attention but once you have a seat at these tables, you will be asked a lot to swallow your tongue, to dilute your politics. I am not telling you to not do it but I am telling you that it’s not worth it,” she added “From a woman who knows and sees hope in you, it is not worth it but I understand survival is crucial. Promise me to do your best and fight as hard as you can”
I have been thinking about her words every single day since. Mostly, I am grateful that I have decided to invest myself in intergenerational conversations.
The lived experiences of the women before me can guide and help me to not repeat the same mistakes.
We would be dishonest if we denied that very often our survival comes before our liberation. As deep as we get invested in a free and equal world, we are also surviving first. And that survival always makes us vulnerable, caught in entertaining the male gaze, and embracing diplomatic language because we can’t afford to look crazy then be dismissed before we can even break our silences.
However, Audre Lorde did leave us a liberating quote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” Audre Lorde literally meant her survival is rooted in her resistance and that’s tied to her community.
Maybe there are other ways we can survive if we do it collectively. If we choose to reject individualism rooted in accessing personal power. Maybe if we know that a whole community of feminists has our back, we can choose to not dilute our politics. Maybe we can entertain the male gaze less if we make our work collective and rooted in the community. Maybe our resistance can be effective if we all embrace boldness and not doing the work behind the scenes but appear as one.
Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian American feminist author, made a powerful statement: ‘I don’t want to be liked, I want to be free”.
But this hits differently when you need to be liked , to make it to the next day. It hits differently when everyone around you is comfortable with being respectable and gaining some power for themselves and live happily ever after. Revolution is not a one-time event as Audre Lorde said.
Our breakthrough is a lifetime journey. It is a process, and I believe that we can live as free as we have imagined. My question to you today is this: do you believe you can make it to the other side of respectability politics? And which community are you tied to that can make your resistance effective? Who are you associated with that believes freedom is collective and individual power isn’t something we should celebrate?