(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali's blog has now moved to http://blog.mahabali.me

Breaking the cycle of oppression: hope and hopelessness

8 Comments

I have been thinking for a while now about the different approaches one can take to break the cycle of oppression, once one becomes conscious/aware of it and of the power relations/dynamics taking place.

I may be missing something, but I think there are three main options (an artificial, arbitrary grouping that i am open to revising based on people’s comments):

1. Live with it, tolerate or work around it. This is accepting the status quo, and making changes in oneself that allows one to continue accepting oppression. Many do this as they see no other viable way to go

2. Fight against it. At a minimum, express resistance, or escape completely, but on a bigger level, mobilize others, work collectively to advocate and fight against something. I am thinking of advocacy against gender oppression and how this can change unjust laws, but doing so does not necessarily change patriarchal culture on the family unit level, and even within the workplace subtle forms of gender discrimination occurs despite laws

3. Fight for it. I find this to be maybe the hardest but possibly the best way to go. I just don’t know how it would work. Examples of this is fighting for your country’s freedom from an oppressive state. You don’t want to accept it because it is clearly unjust; you don’t want to escape it because you want to effect change; and fighting against it would risk destroying the country you so love (Egypt a great example of this). Another example is the family unit: a woman can accept abuse, can escape abuse, can keep fighting the abuse, but ultimately what she wishes she could do (assuming there was ever a justification for this) is to find a way to fight for the unit, to find a way to alleviate the oppression in peace and continue in harmony.

We love happy endings and so we wish for the latter option. Does it really work? Did Mandela even really succeed? Ultimately, there are essential elements that needs to be in place for us to consider the third option:

A. Viewing our oppressors as human,
B. As humans, we believe we can communicate with them. I intentionally do not say “reason with them” because as Ellsworth suggests, the voice of the oppressed cannot always speak rationally to describe their experience and I believe in this so much.
C. Hope. We must have hope that things can change. Hope that there remains an element of goodness in the “other” who is human but oppressing us.

I loved the entire poem by Maya Angelou that Shyam shared with me y/day and that I embedded in my previous post on liberating the oppressor.

Here, I quote just a small part of it (“Still I Rise“):

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

And from this part, though the entire poem is a challenge to the oppressor, this one touches me so much because of the “kill me with your hatefulness” and made me think that the most important thing is not to lose whatever love we have inside us.

I know, Jesus said “love thy enemy”. It is not so explicit as this in Islam, but I already told a story of Muhammad’s forgiveness of his oppressors/persecutors in the previous post.

I am just thinking out loud now about similarities and differences in Islam and Christianity on the issues of social justice, based on my limited knowledge of both (though obviously i am more informed about Islam, i have unorthodox interpretations so please do not generalize what i say as mainstream Islamic interpretation):

Christianity has “turn the other cheek” and “whoever has not sinned…” – those two are important in some situations, but I think were not meant to be used in all situations. I could be wrong,but would Jesus ask a woman to “turn the other cheek” if her husband abused her child? I think not.

In Islam there is a saying by Muhammad, also reflected in the Quran, that means loosely: whoever sees a “wrong”/injustice/unacceptable behavior (connotation unclear to me but i think all these could fit) they should try to change it with their hands, if not able, then with their tongue (i.e. voice), and if not, then with their heart, and that’s the least one can do.

I always liked this but it is dangerous, as it may result in people interfering in what is not their business based on a righteousness that may be misplaced.

There is something about discourse about injustice that tends to assume justice is a clear and obvious and universal thing. It is not. The Palestinian Israeli issue is a clear example in my case of the lack of clarity in where justice truly lies.

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Author: Maha Bali

Associate professor of practice, American University in Cairo

8 thoughts on “Breaking the cycle of oppression: hope and hopelessness

  1. Oh Maha this is so deep, you opened a very difficult topic for discussion, my comment will concern only gender oppression related to family, work and community. Simply if one become aware of the oppression state she needs to ask the other person to stop the act of opression not to discuss it , live with it or fight. Taking a position and asking for our rights in a powerful decisive manner is all the difference.
    The actual problem that women are raised to accept the oppression under different titles and we surely cannot differentiate between our rights and what we have been raised to give up and accept for our family and children. Unfortunate a woman can become very weak to stand for her rights before asking her oppressor to stop

    • Ya Fatma, how amazing that you read this post… I was thinking of you after writing it and thinking we gotta meet and whether I would bring it up with you… Sooooo we have to meet soon isa!!! Will email you isa

  2. Very powerful and clear Maha. All religions exist also as social phenomena that end up being interpreted to suit the needs of the interpreter. Interpretation tends towards being contextual and time bound and though I’m not religious, religions themselves all seem to arise out a universal understand of people being equal. Any other “interpretation” seems to me to be a distortion for special interest or “custom” established by power.

    I grew up as a Unitarian and though I paid not much attention we did study all religions in Sunday School and never learned to favour one ideology/interpretation over another because they all said the same thing at their core.

    I like Karen Armstrong’s (religious historian) comments on Compassion:
    “Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

    This quote comes from a section of a book subtitled “Wish for a Better World” which tells me it is a wish for balance in a reality of imbalance. A goal to be actively pursued rather than to be smugly content with.

    The more people I meet on the net the clearer it is that this place represents and escape from the smallness of local powers. Where I worked the people in charge were the ones who could centred themselves in their smallness of a world and defeated everything. Maybe the first step in “liberating” them is step into a bigger world and leave them to their own self-regard?

  3. “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
    ― Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear

    “If you’re going to hold someone down you’re going to have to hold on by the other end of the chain. You are confined by your own repression.”
    ― Toni Morrison

    Make our fear transparent.

  4. Pingback: On finding my voice (part 2) #rhizo14 autoethnography | Little did I know...

  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Maha.

    Oppression has many faces. Many times I admire the bravery of people to stand up against oppression.

    This last weeks I was impressed by the courage of homosexuals in Africa. Even when their lives are now at stake. Earlier the little Pakistan girl that was shot because she enfavoured girls having an education, impressed me and millions with me. What bravery she shows against scum/cowards that tried to kill her!

    Often it’s not clear whether removing an oppressor will in fact lead to a better world. We’ve seen many examples where the void after chasing away an oppressor gets filled with an even worse oppressor. In chaos people often ask for a strong leader (mostly that’s a man then).

    In one case though, I see no danger in removing oppression, and that’s removing oppression of women.
    It’s world wide. Not in the same intensity everywhere, but still it’s there.
    As a father to my daughter and stepfather of two stepdaughters (all teens), I wish for them to grab the opportunities to develop themselves to all of their potentials.
    Yet, they also are part of this western culture and have already somehow internalized the cultural (potentially oppressing) gender specific ideas. E.g. it’s not cool if a girl …. (fill in something considered boyish).

    I see only one real way out of this: education.
    Not the funnel of the oppressor, but real possibility to develop oneself.
    I know I’m not the only one who sees this way out, the Taliban and e.g. Boko Haram agree with me that education could help to liberate young women. That’s why they kill girls that go to school.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Ron. That was really insightful what you said at the end: that the extemists who oppress girls and prevent them from going to school also believe in the power of education. Now, one nuance of empowering girls, particularly in developing countries, while ignoring the men and their other forms of oppression is that it creates a crack in the society where the girls are liberated but the men not, and the men start to feel inferior to them, which sometimes makes them try to assert control, further oppressing the girls who are now more conscious of their oppression but unequipped to fight it in a socially acceptable or harmonious manner. What constitutes removing this oppression? Education does not remove it, but it makes girls aware of it. It might make them fight it, but most probably at the loss of social harmony. Which could be a good thing, but it could be a bad thing, too, when it means increased rates of divorce, etc. Gender oppression is actually the one that does NOT go away. The oppressor remains half of the population. Laws do not change ingrained cultural beliefs and attitudes. What do you think?

  6. Hi Maha, Freire covers to the mechanics and persistence of oppression in early parts of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” so I’ll let his words speak on this. Thinking of liberating the oppressor is difficult except the idea of the oppressor liberating themselves is a passive hope only. Without our participation in the WHOLE process of liberation we are just hiding behind the comfort of being helpless ourselves in the more difficult part of being liberated. What cost is it to me to quietly declare release from oppression in the midst of others who quite obviously are not?

    Anyway, for practical purposes it doesn’t please me much that people who hurt me can absolve themselves–of course they can because they control the whole game. When I absolve them I declare my pain as legitimate and deserving of notice. That I am human and something that suffers and not just an object of play or abuse. If my saying it first breaks the spell of false justification in the “rules” of relationships distorted by power then I also avoid the obligation of retaliation and just switches roles around.

    Someone needs to stop feeding injustice or it just keeps coming back.

    I’m not particularly religious but love this:
    http://sufism.org/foundations/hadith/the-sayings-of-muhammad-2

    Meditation in God is my capital.
    Reason and sound logic are the root of my existence.
    Love is the foundation of my existence.
    Enthusiasm is the vehicle of my life.
    Contemplation of Allah is my companion.
    Faith is the source of my power.
    Sorrow is my friend.
    Knowledge is my weapon.
    Patience is my clothing and virtue.
    Submission to the Divine Will is my pride.
    Truth is my salvation.
    Worship is my habit.
    And in prayer lies the coolness of my eye and my peace of mind.

    Happy International Women’s Day!

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