This personal essay is a dialogue-style narrative between two feminists about what it means for us, as individuals to be well while exploring the importance of shifting frames to accommodate individual and collective goals of wellbeing.
Traditional forms of knowing are often denigrated as chaotic, and too whimsical to rely on, yet both Sawyer and I, while navigating our own personal transitions in defiance of structural norms found that we could indeed tap into this knowledge to foster individual healing and expand our capacity for collective care.
Feminist activism challenges the patriarchal norms that set the foundation for social relations in many of our societies. Our respective involvement within the women’s human rights and feminist landscape therefore brought with it moments of reckoning about how our work aims to create shifts at structural level.However, even when victorious, there remains more to be done for individuals to live in dignity and exercise their fundamental freedoms. To an extent, African feminist legal work has centered on how society and institutions ought to frame rights and address inequality whether by removing structural barriers to access or by shifting social norms on what is acceptable treatment of its citizens.
At a personal level, the nagging discomfort with the status-quo is often the push into questioning why things are the way they are and seeking out what can be done to change this. We channel this into collective energy through organizing alongside others who see the need for change, and who are also willing to undertake the tasks needed to move the needle in a different direction.
I am the first-born child of an Anglican priest. For most of my life, I did what was expected of me. I was taught to be a good girl, to conform to the norm: the accepted known and un-interrogated. I studied hard, worked hard, got married.
After 17 years of marriage, I could not do it anymore. I walked away; agonized, and in tears. One person that reached out to me said: ‘you used to be a good girl, who taught you bad manners? Who made you a bad girl?’
That statement sat with me for a long time. The dichotomy between good girl and bad girl is one feminists have fought to address across time. A good girl gets married and stays married. A bad girl gets married and then leaves her marriage. So how does a ‘bad girl’ heal? What does wellness mean when you carry the load of labels? Do ‘bad girls’ even have the right to heal, or must they forever sit with their badness for the rest of their lives, never free from the shackle of the label?
How does this label get carried through the laws and legal procedures of ‘bad girls’ trying to get a divorce, or ‘bad girls’ trying to report sexual violence, or ‘bad girls’ refusing to conform, to keep quiet? The system is set up to teach bad girls a lesson.
But we/feminists have fought hard against this label, through championing of laws that enable women to get equal ground for divorce with men. Now, we must take a long hard look at how the procedure of divorce happens, and whether or not it is set up to punish a ‘bad girl’ who dares leave her marriage.
In the year that I left my marriage, a close friend of mine, having grown up in a female body, was also transitioning into his real body. Maybe he too, got asked when he had turned into a bad girl.
Our paths crossed, and as we each negotiated our transitions from societal norms, into our own, we often had conversations about the highs and lows of the journey.
What is wellness, and how do you navigate it when you are breaking from the norm? You are torn inside wondering if you have taken the right path. You are torn on the outside because you are now judged as other: unfit, not worthy, and not enough. It has been a roller coaster of emotions.
We have journeyed together over the last year. We have met as often as we can, to talk to and listen to the other. We have shared our journey towards wellness. Are we there yet? Not by a long shot. But we would have been much further out in the desert, if we had not been able to provide that emotional oasis that we have been to each other.
That is what we are exploring in this piece together; a conversation between two souls, attempting to find wellness within, while embracing external storms.
Unconventional wisdom requires a necessary yet daunting choice for the one who is making it, departing from the charted course, taking retreat within one’s own scope of gnosis, and yet, we are never wise enough. At least, not until we become brave.
As a ten-year-old girl, my mother fled a philandering, abusive, and negligent man who had failed to be a father or husband. My age, a living symbol of the length of their union, equated to walking away with the clothes on our backs clueless, and with no place to call home. She had to be well, we all had to be well, and so, a choice – a brave choice – was made.
At 29, I knew that choosing to transition would be a big deal. After all, at this point my social networks span across different audiences; family, school, sports, professional circles, friends of friends, who have only known me one way since we met, et cetera. But breaking the norm is my normal. Choosing myself, and my wellbeing is the only way I know to live. A choice had to be made.
The choice to be well, in many ways for me, is choosing to rebel against conventional caricatures about what it means to be, how and when it is prescribed that we must live, work, or evolve. Do we break apart, allow ourselves to be shattered by external authority? Or do we break down into ourselves, letting glimpses of light into the hidden truths within us?
We choose ourselves (sometimes), knowing it is a difficult push against the tide, but we are called by the urge to clean up our well with absolute honesty and allow it to be filled with refined waters. Truth is a multi-way mirror, allowing each of us to see our world reflected upon us, informing our standpoint. And so, unfortunately, or fortunately for us, others cannot know our truths. Only we have the capacity to do that. This is the rim around the gateway to wellness.
Seventeen years after we walked towards our freedom, mother and I revisited the place where our truths last shifted and found that leaving, walking away may have finally been the best thing we could have done then, but, we could not have known such wisdom without the bravery of the decisions that led to that day and the actions that followed.
Two years down my gender affirmation transition journey, I am more confident in the wisdom of the choice to take this leap.
Through this friendship
You and I are learning
That those self-inflicted prisons,
walls of words built around us
Tethering our self-worth
to the pegs of convention
tagging at acceptability
slowly giving up
On parts of us
On who, we could otherwise be.