Veredas - Trottoirs

Category: English

Learning to care as a feminist

Elona wrote this piece for Open Democracy ‘Transformation’ project series on care, 29 October 2019 – with thanks to the editors for the invitation to contribute, you can see the original publication on their website.

In a re-converted industrial building in East London, a regular session of ‘Community Massage’ is taking place. A friend tells me, “that could sound creepy!” I laugh and explain that it’s a collective of trained therapists who organise treatment on a sliding scale for a range of people including activists and those who can’t afford complementary therapy.

They organise the sessions as members of the Common House, a self-organised social and cultural space set-up to challenge the social, economic and environmental injustices that are created by capitalism and the oppressive forces that come with it.

Another friend who’s involved with a different group at the Common House tells me that “it wouldn’t be clear to a lot of people how community massage could be understood as a political and even anti-capitalist activity.” Yet it is well understood by those who co-run the space that such activities are about cultivating a sense of care that enables people to survive social injustices.

Survival can be enough, but we also know that healing practices, peer support groups, film screenings, workshops, being able to cook food in a safe space, or providing childcare for activists can enable people to get involved in organising for social change. “I guess this comes back to quite a fundamental idea in feminist politics,” my friend continued, “making the personal political.”

I was recently invited to contribute to a conversation at the Fabrica Gallery in Brighton inspired by an exhibition called Care(less) by artist Lindsay Seers. The immersive installation was commissioned as part of an OPCARE research project designed to investigate the impacts on older people of having to self-fund their care in the UK as a result of successive funding cuts since 2009.

Indeed, the burden of spending cuts for social care in the UK falls disproportionately on adults over the age of 65. Less funding means fewer professionals to do care work (from help with everyday tasks to more personal care), and also higher thresholds for accessing publicly-funded care. Lorenza Ippolito (the facilitator of the conversation) and I were interested in asking: how is care understood in this context?

What the exhibition makes clear is that models of social service provision that have been developed at the meeting point of neo-liberalism and austerity policies imply that care is something that individuals should organise by and for themselves. It also shows how care is seen mainly as a financial transaction, abstracted from its social and material contexts.

Such an understanding of care is precisely what feminists have been challenging since the 1980s in work by feminist authors of colour such as Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldúa. Carol Gilligan’s writing on a feminist ethics of care has also been inspirational for many scholar-activists.

However, this was not how I first came to think of feminism and care myself. In fact, growing up as a white woman in France, I didn’t proclaim myself a feminist until relatively recently. The row over French female celebrities’ critiques of the #MeToo movement for – in their eyes – condoning ‘puritanism’ and ‘male hatred’ perhaps gives a hint to why this was the case.

Feminists who actively criticise mainstream society in this way continue to be portrayed as ‘extreme.’ Just notice the continued use of the term ‘feminazi’ that was popularised in the USA in the 1990s to discredit feminist practices, or activist-scholar Sara Ahmed’s serious yet ironic call for feminists to be ‘killjoys.’

Learning with feminist and queer activists in recent years has made me certain about the necessity to affirm a feminist position. And not only a feminist position but one that takes into account questions of privilege and structural racism – in other words a radical and de-colonial feminist position. But what does this have to do with care? What do radical and de-colonial feminist approaches to care look like in practice?

Common House Riso print ZINEAlthough very different in nature, both the Common House and Les Grands Voisins in Paris, with whom I also work (a temporary transformation of an old hospital that explores different ways of living in cities), are projects that create spaces for being ‘in common with difference’ and experiment with ways of doing everyday politics that challenge mainstream individualistic, patriarchal and consumerist European culture. Feminism and care are central to these experiments.

The kinds of approaches to care practiced in these projects can be seen as feminist in three ways. First, care is practiced through social relationships, not as an individual transaction; second, care recognises the connections that exist between the personal and the structural – between our embodied experiences and the cultural norms, institutions and policies that govern support for care and caring; and third, care always involves relations of power.

In my experience with Les Grand Voisins I’ve witnessed and taken part in many different care practices that I would call feminist in this sense. For over two years, the old hospital site was home not only to people living in emergency social housing, social workers, artists and professionals working on alternative and solidarity-based economies, but also to chickens, several bee colonies, tools, wood for building modular furniture, pigeons, rose bushes, greenhouses, sewing machines and a turtle, to name but a few.

Members of the project, including individuals who might be defined as vulnerable in certain contexts, cared for the chickens. The chickens brought joy to those living and working on site and to visitors. They laid eggs that were carefully prepared into food. When the project could no longer host the chickens, a new home was found.

As this example shows, care isn’t a one-way practice restricted to caring for some-one or some-thing; it involves mutuality, and it happens in relationship. This isn’t always easy. As everyone knows from family life, ties of obligation and attention can be difficult, painstaking and even unwanted. But when care is practiced as something collective the weight of care can be shared: it’s not just one person’s responsibility.

That’s important because not everyone is in the same position to take up shared responsibilities for caring in terms of their gender, sexuality, ethnic identity, class and abilities; in other words, it’s vital that we recognise the intersectional nature of any care practice. In the Common House we operate a sliding scale for membership, and while most of the groups that organise in the space provide food during meetings, they don’t expect everyone to do so.

Everyday practices of care are intimately connected to structural violence in the form of racism, sexism and natural resource extraction. Caring as a feminist is a way to reduce dependency on exploitative economic relationships, but it also creates moments of mutuality, kinship and solidarity. This in turn can increase collective capacity and people’s ability to contribute to transformational politics.

Yet even in places like the Common House or Les Grands Voisins, care can become a burden that falls heavily on the shoulders of a few individuals. Or the need for self-care might become an individualised practice divorced from a collective context, thus reproducing the kinds of economies these projects are trying to challenge.

It is this potential for ideas of care to slip back into individualistic and exploitative relationships that the Care(less) exhibition attempts to highlight. Feminist perspectives show that the political dimensions of care can be easily forgotten or wilfully dismissed. To counter this danger, they always ask: who and what is being cared for, and to whose benefit?

A few months ago I went into a library in Paris and asked if there were any science fiction books by francophone authors written from a feminist perspective. A young female librarian showed me a few publications, and I commented that most of them were historical science-fiction and fantasy novels. Her response was that “feminists in our society have already achieved emancipation,” and so “it is more relevant to bring to light hidden or forgotten histories.” I was so taken aback that I didn’t even know how to respond.

Retelling herstories is an important radical practice, but feminism is not a thing of the past. Practices of care don’t have to be labelled as feminist for us to claim and reclaim care as feminist praxis.

Thanks to Lorenza Ippolito for inviting me to contribute to the conversation piece at Fabrica, my comrades at the Common House and Les Grands Voisins, and doctoral companions for formative feminist conversations.

Highway 4

On the road from Sihanoukville, 21 September 2016

It is nearly 6pm as we drive northbound. Emerging from in-between Chuŏr Phnum Dâmrei, the Elephant Mountains, we enter the flood plains of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. In the distance, dark clouds are slowly creeping up from behind the mountains, taking the place of the setting sun. And as the traffic slows down, I notice more details on the roadside, the opaque green of dusted trees, the greyed whitewashed walls of abandoned, empty constructions, and piles of plastic and trash glistening in the evening light.

The road stretches 230 kilometres in imperfect north-south fashion, cutting through the provinces of Kandal, Kampong Speu, Koh Kong and Preah Sihanouk. It is, for the most part, a narrow dual carriageway atop flood-eroded berms and scattered with potholes. The national Highway 4 is one of Cambodia’s main arteries, connecting the capital, Phnom Penh, to Sihanoukville, the country’s only international shipping port in the Gulf of Thailand. The road was paved with USAid money in the early 1980s after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and then privately managed as a toll road until earlier this year when the government decided to nationalise it in a populist move. There are fears this will lead to a worsening of the already poor condition of the road.

The road gets busier, its porous structure now bristling with motorbikes squeezing through cards, buses and trucks in all directions. “Look at the markets. So many markets!” says Juan peering out the windows of our minivan. As our pace continues to slow, I can see more clearly. There are markets, but only temporary ones. We are approaching a long strip of factories that I noticed a week ago when we were going the other way, but in the daytime they all seemed empty and bleak. Everything was hidden inside. Now it’s early evening and the end of a day’s work. People are pouring out onto the roadside. Stalls pop up at the factory gates, and from them, stretching all along the road, queues of people form, distant stories. A woman folds a newspaper and fits it inside her handbag, changes her posture, folds her arms over her chest, eyes fixated on the floor; a single man on a motorcycle rides slowly along the queue (offering a ride?); a group of three women sitting on a pale blue mat eat roasted meat from a bowl.

I sit in our comfortable air conditioned minibus watching this other world go by: now all is a tangle of buses, motorbikes, cars and trucks. Hundreds of trucks. Open-top, wooden-framed trucks. The trucks are full of people piled up like cattle. Those on the sides are barely able to stretch their hands out to hang onto the edges of the frame, as the wheeled machine embraces the heavily battered road.  Some wear masks to shield the dusty evening air, and all look out. Tired looks, their eyes lost in the distance of transit. A growing knot forms in my stomach. I start to feel intensely overwhelmed.

Human transport, Cambodia, September 2016

Human transport, Cambodia, September 2016

My attention goes back to the queues. Mostly women, with badges hanging tidily around their necks, walk out of the temporary market areas and line up to catch their ride home. There must be a system: how do people know which truck to get on? There are no signs, or stops, and each one surely goes to a specific neighbourhood, town or village, where everyone gets off at the same place. After people pile on, a rope or some other makeshift barrier is tied to hold the last ones in, to be sure they are at maximum capacity. As I watch I find myself thinking of the technicalities, the logistics. Maybe it’s easier that way. I feel powerless and guilty, here as tourists, just getting off a boat from a (polluted but precious) island, resting, diving, ‘disconnecting’ for a short while. I now understand why they call the seemingly simple minivan we’re riding in a ‘limousine bus’.

The denser it gets, the dustier it gets, vehicles drawing up puffs of black smoke and dust as they roar by. The air is beige and hazy, the heat of the day having long dried last night’s rain. Motorbike riders ride past with one hand covering their mouth. As in Vietnam, but less well-equipped, they ride in twos, threes or fours. The strip of factories is interspersed with repeated sets of international schools displaying signs in English and French, and shiny new banks, advertising microfinance opportunities. The markets are busy, selling tonight’s dinner and collections of clothes just off the production line. Further down the road, black hammocks fill in the yet empty cafés. Jobs, consumption, precarity, dreams, and lending…ingredients that sound all too familiar.

We see names of garment factories and industrial parks. The compounds here are in the hundreds. It is an area of the country that is less prone to flooding, and home to the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone which offers tax-reduced opportunities for businesses to set up shop. And lots of jobs. In 2014, workers protested against low wages, but as some labour conditions do improve, at least in terms of safety and working conditions, little attention is being paid to life just outside the factory gates.

After arriving at our destination the knots remain, still tight. So I decide to look into Highway 4 and its garment factories. It is a promising sector, with more and more factories being proposed and built, responding to a need for jobs in a rapidly urbanising country (and the ever insatiable fast fashion industry). I find very few references, however, to life on the other side of the fence, the danger of the factory workers’ daily commute. A few paragraphs buried in recent news of elections and political fallout: ‘Truck carrying garment workers crashes in Cambodia, 54 hurt’.

On the road, the sky now is dark and dust swells up from the busy ground. The dark suddenly becomes a canvas of shapes and textures as a thunderstorm in the distance illuminates the tormented sky.


Elona & Juan, October 2016

Trans-Mongolian. Stage 2: Siberia

Omsk - Ulaanbaatar

Omsk – Ulaanbaatar

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Thursday 4 June, past midday. Leaving Omsk

Alla, without an accent, is not a grammatical mistake in Spanish but Liza’s mom our host. Upon entering, she asks us to take off our shoes and put on the two pairs of carefully prepared slippers. After settling into our room, we make our way to the kitchen and sit at a small round table covered in a yellow plastic tablecloth decorated with flower pots (describe more: cold, dark room, dirty curtains blocking the sunlight,  traces of extinguished cigarettes on the table cloth)

Alla places an aluminium kettle on the stovetop. “Tea, coffee?” she asks in English. I could do with just a glass of water, but it seems imprudent to refuse. “Do you have any coffee?” I ask her. “Yes, of course,” and she without a moment to spare takes out an aluminium pot (or was it copper?) from the oven. She shuts the oven door so hard that the kitchen walls seems to crumble. She takes a plastic container from a small, dark wooden cabinet behind the table, and tosses two heaped teaspoons of ground coffee in the pot. Then, with the care of someone watering grass, she pours some of the boiling water from the kettle into the pot, and puts it over the already lit burner. Turkish coffee, it will be black and bitter strong. Elona helps herself to a teabag of Early Grey from the tin on the table.

We have just arrived, and the apartment on –

“Elona, what was the name of street where we stayed in Saint Petersburg?”

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Gers, slow tracks, smiley faces and dust

Monday 15 June, 5 AM. Black birds. Small black birds swooping in and out of holes in the walls, through antennas, cables and metal structures that extend from the buildings. Below, dirt streets, potholes, overflowing bins, cars squeezed into the limited space. I raise my eyes and look at the compound; a calm and central courtyard surrounded by a wide concrete outer ring of apartments. Two archways join the space to the city, an open fortress only a block away from Sukhbaatar Square. Strange structures.

A muffled yawn escapes my mouth as I watch the scene from the window on the sixth floor. A man carries a bucket full of water and empties it on some plants. A young couple leaves for work, and a middle-aged man arrives – a night porter perhaps, he wears an unbuttoned white shirt with black striped brown trousers which are too short for his legs, his socks are white. The sun is rising and I can already hear klaxons in the nearby streets. Slowly the city awakens. Soon, the now familiar music of the rubbish truck will join the soundscape. An inaudible sigh flows from my eyes. Nostalgia. I don’t know when, or if I will be back. This view, these sounds, will not be repeated. Every window is unique. So I record the language of the birds with their city. Ulaanbaatar.

Sunrise in Ulaanbaatar, Monday 15 June 2015.

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Trans-Mongolian. Stage 1: Anticlimax

St Petersburg - Omsk

St Petersburg – Omsk

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Wednesday 3 June. Past Perm, on the way to Yekaterinburg

Arms resting on the frame of the corridor window, I see it pass. Bright, gigantic sphere, it shines through the branches. In vain, porous clouds try to conceal its splendour but its light seeps through their cloak, bathing the forest in a grey, almost ghostly halo. The night is so clear that it is possible to distinguish the different greens of bushes and pine trees. I carefully peer out, just enough to see the tip of the train taking a curve. Gulps of fresh air hit my face, stuffing my nose. Tireless, the machine pulls its wagons, lighting the way, its beams long swords perforating the Siberian night. On it goes, with its green metallic body, like a giant caterpillar in its untiring march towards the East. It does not go fast, it cannot, and even slows at times, weary of the worn tracks. But it is enough to leave the moon behind, slowly moving towards the right side of the window. Someone passes behind me, I get distracted, and there it is again peering in from the South East.

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