Gender Based Violence (GBV) TIG

The epidemic of shameful feminist guilt and inadequacy

By Hasnaa Mokhtar
“We’re trained to feel guilty about everything as women. For some women, feminism has become another thing to feel inadequate about.”
— Deborah Frances-White, host of “The Guilty Feminist” podcast

My head was pounding as my five-year-old son, dressed in a white lab coat and goggles, wanted me to fill his test tubes with the purple liquid to initiate the science experiment. Standing next to him at the kitchen counter, I poured the gooey matter inside the tube feeling the weight of my headache. I recalled the endless to-do list that has been pending and growing for over 17 months since the pandemic ruptured and taken away millions of lives everywhere. The throbbing pain pinched my forehead nerves as scattered thoughts and news headlines jammed my brain.

This pandemic is a punishment from Allah.
Violent incidents have tripled because of lockdown.
Black Lives Matter.
Justice for Palestine.
Submission due date for my journal article was yesterday.
How’s a face mask different from a niqab?
Another Call for Paper.
It’s ok not to be productive.
I’ve been snappy with my son. I need a break. I feel ashamed.
What is my plan to lessen my capitalist consumption?
We’ve fasted two Ramadans during a global pandemic.  
Trauma flashbacks.
The silence around anti-Black Muslim racism is deafening.
The normalization of Palestinian genocide is sickening.
I’m a terrible mother.

My son’s excited squeals snapped me out of my chaotic mental haze. He concluded the experiment successfully and it was time for a midday nap. I negotiated with him to soften his resistance to rest, promising to get him a happy meal after he woke up. So much for dismantling the evils of capitalism. At that point, I had run out of tricks to console his gentle soul in coping with a deadly virus that’s beyond his comprehension. Patting his shoulder gently to help him doze off in bed, I could almost hear Roxane Gay’s words at the back of my head, “I am failing as a feminist…If I am, indeed, a feminist, I am a rather bad one. I am a mess of contradictions. There are many ways in which I am doing feminism wrong, at least according to the way my perceptions of feminism have been warped by being a woman” (2014, p. 288).

Ever since lockdown started in mid-March 2020, I have felt confused about everything in my life and the world. I know at the core of my heart that, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (1988 Lorde, p.130). Yet I still guilt-tripped myself voluntarily into shame. I couldn’t escape the feeling that sits in one’s gut twitching and screaming: you’re a bad mother; you’re a lousy graduate student; you’re a horrible contributor; you’re a witless writer; you’re a thick reader; you’re a fake activist; you’re lazy; you’re slow; you’re not doing enough; you’re never good enough. This spiritual self-flagellation of mine didn’t flare-up with the outbreak. It was always there lurking underneath the surface of my daily grind of graduate school life. The coronavirus outbreak only accelerated its ugliness, exposed its sharp and pointy claws that have been slashing at my self-worth and life purpose for a long time now.

I learned my feminism(s) in university classrooms, which helped me carve a clearer vision of my womanhood against both liberal and islamist misogyny. I concurrently came to understand the toxic academic culture of competitiveness, which dictated that my scholarly merit isn’t about ethics, humane value systems, and moral justice. Instead, my merit was measured by the quantity of awards I collected, the number of written words I put out in reputable journals, and the sum of retweets or clicks I got for my arguments. My feminist ideals taught me that to do the necessary work in the world, and to fight racism, heterosexism, neocolonialism, classism, and xenophobia, and to take breaks, meditate, and to be mindful of my, as well as others’ holistic wellbeing. My feminist reality is that I’m forced by an invisible ivory tower beast to seize almost every publishing opportunity, every speaking engagement, and every grant application or else my resume will not survive alongside thousands of other applications to that one glaring job opportunity. If I slow down, my professional career is doomed. If I maintain the rapid momentum, I will continue to resent myself, to lash out at my son, and to burn out every couple of days, if not hours. I couldn’t keep up even if I wanted to. Sometimes I would hold my son’s soft face between my palms, gaze at his autumn brown innocent eyes, and feel sorry for both of us. It’s neither my vice that I feel guilty for being a terrible mother nor his for being an innocent child with wants and needs. Then whose fault is it?

How did we as feminists and academics get here? What can we do to transform everyone’s life and sprinkle radical love and hope in our hearts? Instead of another feminist call for papers about the aftermath of the pandemic, I had hoped for a nonjudgmental and welcoming virtual safe space where we come together to cry, to vent, and to say nothing at all. Instead of postponing the conference to next year, I had wished it would be replaced by a long meditation session where we practice ujjayi breathing, share our struggles, and reevaluate our priorities. Instead of the e-reminder that my chapter is due in the next few days, I had daydreamed about an unexpected change of submission date that arrived in my inbox without me feeling like a failed fraud for asking to extend my deadline. As I yearned for this imaginable yet unattainable checklist of unorthodox feminist cures, a brave soul on Twitter, Karen Robson, echoed my internal turmoil and typed: 

Feminist shame is an epidemic. Feminist guilt during a deadly worldwide outbreak of a pandemic disease is ghoulish. To feel as though no matter what I do, it’s never good enough and I’m failing as a mother, as a feminist, as an academic, or simply as a human. If I fought injustice every day, I feel guilty. If I took a day off, I feel guilty. If I watched a children’s movie with my son, I feel guilty. If I sent him to school, I feel guilty. If I stayed up all night to complete and submit an article, I feel guilty. If I procrastinated because my productive energy was low, I feel guilty. If I exercised first thing in the morning for an hour, I feel guilty. If I didn’t meditate first thing in the morning, I feel guilty. If I spent more than an hour on a virtual call with friends, I feel guilty. If I didn’t call them, I feel guilty. When was the last time we discussed feminist guilt in a classroom setting? In a conference? During a virtual meeting? Where does all this guilt come from? Harriet Lerner wrote in her book The Dance of Anger: “Our society cultivates guilt feelings in women such that many of us still feel guilty if we are anything less than an emotional service station to others” (Lerner 1985, p.7).

The gendered impact of COVID-19 matters. The Guardian and The Atlantic discuss at length how “Women’s Domestic Burden Just Got Heavier with the Coronavirus” and “The Coronavirus Is a Disaster for Feminism,” respectively. But what is crucial right now is to adopt creative tools that tackle the root causes of this feminist shame that’s eating into our souls. I look myself every day in the mirror and affirm: you’re good enough; you’re doing the best you could; you’re only human; you’re loved; you’re appreciated; you’re precious. I exercise, meditate, connect with my friends, and remind myself that it’s all right. I focus on the feminism that elevates my spirit and boosts my strength while allowing me to be vulnerable. I choose to actively and assertively exorcise venomous guilt and shame from my thinking and feelings. I am slowly regaining my strength, but I wish to have my feminist sisters help me in alleviating the collective guilt and shame.

My son woke up from his nap, rubbed his eyes, and wrapped his arms around my neck. “I love you, mama” he whispered with his half-shut eyes. I squeezed his fragile body tenderly and replied, “I love you too, sweetie.” If I am to do anything about my shame and guilt, I should start now because he’s a reflection of my emotions and my ways of being in this world. That’s when I reminded of the emancipatory voice of the magnificent Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who explained to us why We Should All Be Feminists encouraging me:

“Give yourself permission to fail. The guilt that we place on ourselves as parents is tremendous. I feel like we are supposed to be setting examples of strength, power, joy, and excitement for our children. And it’s been really lovely to embrace that mindset both in how I’m parenting and in how I’m working” (2017 Adichie in Ma).

I have embraced my failures as a mother and learned to explain my motherhood shortcomings and apologize to my little boy whenever necessary. However, do I stand a chance of securing both our livelihoods after my graduation if I allowed myself to fail professionally—especially after the coronavirus drastically altered our ways and means of living? Maybe, if, as feminists, we allow for failure to take place, shame, guilt, and inadequacy free. Are we there yet?
Works Cited:
Gay, Roxane. 2014. Bad Feminist. New York: Harper Perennial.
Gupta, Haridasani Alisha. 2020. “Are You a Guilty Feminist?” The New York Times, February 24, 2020.
Lerner, Harriet Goldhor. 1985. The Dance of Danger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships. New York: Harper & Row.
Lorde, Audre. 1988. A Burst of Light: Essays. Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books.
Ma, Julie. n.d. “25 Famous Women on Guilt.” The Cut (blog).
Robson, Karen. “Twitter / @klrobson: As a researcher I’m growing…” July 25, 2020, 6:01 p.m.

This essay was submitted in August 2020 in response to the Call for Papers “World Making in Nepantla: Feminist Ideals for Pandemic Times.” It was accepted but never published. The editors are aware that it is now submitted to the GBV TIG Newsletter for publication.
Hasnaa Mokhtar started her tenure as the Director of the Global Village at Douglass Residential College, Rutgers University on March 15, 2022. Prior to this position, Hasnaa was the Postdoctoral Associate at Rutgers University’s Center for Women’s Global Leadership. She holds a Ph.D. from Clark University, and her dissertation is focused on narrative power and the invisible trauma of gendered violence in Kuwait. She is a scholar, researcher, and activist, with expertise in the Arabian Gulf, focusing on narratives of Muslim survivors of gender-based violence. After graduating in 2015 with a M.A. in International Development and Social Change, Hasnaa developed a passion for transdisciplinary approaches to addressing violence in Muslim communities. Hasnaa’s writings have been published in mainstream media such as Fortune and Yahoo and in academic journals such as Feminist Review and Feminist Anthropology. Previously, Hasnaa served as the executive director of the Center for Nonviolent Solutions in Worcester, MA, and more recently as the special program director at Peaceful Families Project. Hasnaa is passionate about life, personal growth, spirituality, and everything in between.
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