The Problem of Power

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‘Oppressive power is shit!’
The words reverberated around the room. As they did, some members nodded their heads, others clapped and still more cheered in agreement. Four simple words put together in frustration and defiance, in resistance and outrage. The statement was more than a flippant observation – it is a compelling reminder of our daily realities, of the power exerted over our bodies and minds.

It is day one of CAL’s Sexuality and Gender Institute and the conversation is already cutting deep. Over forty members from across the Southern Africa region have come together to share, learn, reflect and collaborate. For the next six days, we will draw on our collective knowledge, on our experiences and struggles, as a way of deepening our understanding of sexuality, gender, patriarchy and oppression. The meeting is part of an ongoing process, one that began last August, through which the coalition will develop and implement the ‘More Than …’ campaign.

As feminists, we know that this campaign – as with all our activism – is ultimately a response to power. Whether speaking of oppressive social structures, violent assaults or the names we are called, all forms of discrimination are grounded in unequal distributions of power. And while we must always consider our practical and immediate needs, we must also seek to disrupt those broader systems that bestow and deny privilege on certain sections of society.

Today we are talking power. Not just physical forms of control, but also the more insidious manifestations of power, the multiple, invisible and sanctioned ways that it is exerted over us. We know that the personal is political and have thus dedicated time and space to thinking critically about our own lives. Creating this space is crucial: when one lives, works and loves within a hostile context, one’s time and energy is often taken up with fighting political and legal structures. But reflecting on our personal experiences is vital to understanding how and why power plays out. As one comrade noted today:

Our experiences have shaped who we are. Our experiences are written all over our faces, our hearts, our brains and our bodies. And our experiences speak to what a lot of young people are still experiencing.

Conversations about our personal experiences of oppression are not easy; power leaves in its wake hurt, anger and fear. Even in safe spaces, such discussions conjure painful memories of injustice, open up emotional and physical wounds. But as activists and feminists, we can support each other in healing and learning and fighting for change.

Today we’re using our bodies to explore the ways that power is exerted over us. In small groups, members are re-enacting personal experiences of oppression as a way of unpacking the workings of power, to reflect critically on the environments, processes and systems that allow such incidents to occur. These performances and discussions help to deepen our understanding of power and are thus crucial for planning and implementing future interventions.

Right now our members are ‘sculpting power’ – that is, they are physically expressing and then deconstructing moments from their own lives. This activity is a way for us to reflect on our ‘personal’, on our lived realities and on our own experiences of oppression.

As the process continues, we will share some of the rich conversations that emerge. These critical discussions will inform the politics of the ‘More Than …’ campaign and help us all to grow together as comrades in arms.

Workshop coverage provided by Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action in collaboration with the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL).

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