Herstory 4 – Getting personal on groups

I don’t really remember the whole process going on in that first group. I remember being bothered by there not being enough trust for people to speak openly about their realities. I got the feeling I had done something “wrong”, breaking a cultural code, if I spoke of rape or other abuse. The more open talks happened one-on-one outside the group.

I think an essential part of these groups should be that there’s an open enough atmosphere for the women who dare to share. Of course, we all choose when we feel comfortable with speaking out. But there should definitely be space made for women who are willing to speak. This oppression is maintained in a vacuum of silence.

I was just reading through an old internet forum. Created for a feminist group called Magma (I came up with the name, through a conversation with another woman). It was with some of the women from the self defense group. And I see that a problem I have is that I really function in a different way, I’m really active and enthusiastic, and also very open with my feelings. Very emotional, and I think that goes completely against the Finnish culture.

One common experience I have with other foreigners in this country, is that we are traumatized by the culture (I am not exaggerating when using this word, a Brasilian man was using this specific expression, and I was nodding with full understanding). For a long time I thought there was something wrong with me. Something I didn’t understand about the culture. Cause it was really difficult getting contact with people. Then after some years I discovered that it’s the same for all the people living here. Finnish people also get ignored. It’s normal, not to reply to sms, or emails, or phone calls. Or arranging meetings where no one shows up, because everyone thinks they are not important, and that it wouldn’t matter if they come or not.

The finn-swedish culture is a bit more cheerful and outgoing. But also very superficial. Sort of “How do you do? Fine thank you, and you? Lovely weather!” I usually answer how I’m really feeling at the moment, whenever I’m asked, and this is something that’s hard to take for people, who are used to sticking to these cultural patterns, where only positive feelings are allowed. The main problem on the forum seemed to be that I spoke openly about negative feelings. Lack of friends, and loneliness. This made people feel uncomfortable, and I was told I should seek therapy.

In the Magma group, I took hold of an idea that had been used in another city. Making an art-exhibition with the theme “My Feminism” to show that feminism is as diverse as there are feminists. It went through the usual process of there being many enthusiastic about it, and then people dropping out, not saying if they weren’t going to do what they had said they would. So I was there on the forum, asking and encouraging, and saying that I didn’t want to be a leader, that we needed to take responsibility of this as a group. In the end I ended up making a third of the exhibition myself.

I broke with the group, because there was clearly no space for my way of being there. One of the things I made for the exhibition was a papier-mache thing (cause I thought it wouldn’t look as horrible as if I would have painted something…)

It was called Sisterhood – The personal is political. A box. Hanging on the wall. With a volcano in it, pieces of red and yellow text running on the side of the peak. With phrases of women talking about violence. In front of the mountain, was a circle of people, hand in hand. Some of them had texts on their t-shirts. The personal is political, in different languages. Some of them had texts stating: Silence is Golden and The personal is private. Which is a phrase I encountered in the feminist self defense group, that there is a difference between personal and private. Once again there’s a vague line drawn, and a woman should know herself when she’s crossed that line. It’s very effective, works really well, to silence us. The women carrying these t-shirts were also holding a Finnish flag.

In relation to the exhibition, I stated on the forum, that I hadn’t been happy about the process of getting the exhibition together, cause I had ended up coordinating it, and I wasn’t really happy about that. And I also felt unhappy about the silencing attitude supported by many on the forum. Encouragements to seek therapy.

And that I general had felt that for the first time in my life, I had been exposed to bullying.

I had tried to make friends with one woman in the group. But she felt really uncomfortable with my way of expressing myself. I think both in private email exchange and also on the forum. She had felt uncomfortable with me stating openly on the forum, that I’m depressed, don’t have friends, wanted friends, and that I felt lonely. She sent me a private email saying that I talk a lot about love – seeing, listening, caring for -, but that I really don’t know how to make it happen in relation to the people around me. She said she had often felt bad and criticized in my company. She was the first one setting off this idea of me needing therapy, and the rest were eager to follow. She was stating that I should get professional help, and maybe then I would be able to figure out why I don’t have any friends. I don’t know if there was ever anybody on that forum that felt uncomfortable with these statements being made about me.

I know it was also painful for me, that it was the woman I had felt attracted (drawn, interest… I’m still not sure what words to use about these things) anyways, a particular liking for, that had made these statements.

And, wow, I posted her email on the forum… So that was the first time for that. I guess.

I think I will learn something in this process of going through my sordid past.

But before I drop this specific subject, I’d like to say that it was also hard and non-encouraging leaving the first self defense group and starting my own thing, there seemed to be this general belief that one should be an “expert” before starting something by one self. That it’s important to be able to deal with situations where women open up and speak of abuse, or freak out or just knowing how to deal with tough situations. Which is something I think is funny, since it was clear, that I was the problem case in that group, and people hadn’t been able to deal with that.

I felt really uncomfortable with this way of thinking. Because feminist self defense is really about getting rid of these punishing societal “You can’t” norms. It’s all about allowing and accepting. Autonomy. Creating your own rules.

Who can proclaim themselves to be experts on life? And when are we fully ready to dive into something new and unknown, and experience and learn?

Just do it. We can’t stop life from happening. You live, you learn.
Note: When I speak of “Finnish” culture I’m speaking of my six years in Helsinki. A place where, if you step outside the door, and the neighbor is on their way at the same time, they choose to close the door, and wait until you’ve disappeared, before they leave themselves. And saying hello to your neighbors makes them have frightened autistic spasms (I am really not exaggerating, this is what the culture is like to a foreigner). The same goes for when you’re out in the city, if you would speak with someone waiting for the bus, they will look at you as if you were mad. Or even react in an aggressive way. Once I was with a Mexican friend on a tram. We played a game, where the first one who would see someone smile, would win. No one won the game. Have a look at any Aki Kaurismäki film, and you will know what it’s like here.

Additional second note: I’ve heard from Latin Americans that being exposed to this involuntary solitude, can create greater personal depth. Learning to appreciate time for oneself, and being by oneself. Alone. Which could be perceived as a totally abnormal thing in other cultures.


One Response

  1. “Traumatized by the culture” is a great term. It really feels like it and I hate how strongly it affects, as with time, you’re starting to act the same even if you don’t want to.

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