Celebrating Vulnerability

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Mother nature, or daughter nature, whatever…. – Drawn by Diala Brisly

It takes a daunting—often deflating—process to confront the fact that you are excluded from the carefully minted social rubric designed for women. Even more difficult, however, is transforming this confrontation with exclusion from a source of self-abnegation and pathos into a ferment of rebellion. Its spark is our conviction that the standards determined for beauty and social recognition are inherently racist, sexist, and ableist. Only when we arrive at this critical juncture are we able to challenge those standards, re-shape our relationship with our bodies, and abandon the quest for recognition.

Yet we have largely internalized the corporate-set standards for beauty and femininity as universal truths, blaming ourselves for failing to fit into the strict molds prescribed by our communities.
Unfair as this may be, we accept that beauty and physical disability are mutually exclusive and that disabled women should never expect to lead a mainstream family life. No. You are not a woman, but a story. Permanently featured under the tag “inspirational,” lauded for overcoming disability by achieving academic or professional success, invited to speak on the triumph of willpower in the face of seemingly extraordinary odds, perhaps one day “lucky” enough to have a documentarian and a melancholic music soundtrack follow you around. Rarely, however, does something occur to those applauding and showering you with hackneyed clichés about how “it’s all in the head,” inviting you to “inspire” others with feel-good stories about living with disability: rarely does it occur to them to ever think about you as a woman first.

During a charged discussion I had with two friends (the three of us blind Palestinian women in our mid or late twenties), we exchanged tidbits about our daily lives in occupied Jerusalem, about being visibly different in places where difference is not embraced, and about being physically disabled in spaces where disability is closeted. Things got heated when we talked about love, family and kids. “Let’s change the topic,” exclaimed one. “I’ve given up on these cogitations a long time ago. The chances any of us will be loved or considered fit for marriage, let alone get the chance to make a family and have kids, are virtually nonexistent. Why hope for something that won’t happen anyway?”
“Don’t give up hope,” responded my second friend. “Several guys from neighbouring villages inquired to my father about me and if I’m thinking of marriage. They immediately backtrack, though, the moment they are told about the usual caveat, that I’m blind.”

I resisted the temptation to flaunt the advantages of non-heteronormativity and avoided appeals for abolishing marriage altogether. Instead I said with a heavy air of cynicism. “Thankfully, my potential admirers are spared the aftershock of such truly earth-shattering revelations since my disability is visible!”

I was now celebrating it, but it had been the visibility of it all that had long made reconciling with my disability a persistent struggle. At age thirteen, my teacher had publically “advised” me to wear black glasses because my eyes distorted my entire face and hiding them would spare me the public embarrassment. It was not the first time I had been so openly made to feel different, but out of all the insults I had been accustomed to from people on the street and by my classmates, this teacher’s were the most demeaning of all. They were expressed with such authoritative, patronizing, and paternalistic concern that I failed to respond or tell him that it was none of his business. For months I remember trying to ask my mother if she thought my eyes look so deformed. Did she think I was ugly? I couldn’t.

I suspected that she’d give me the talk about inner beauty, or that beauty was in the eye of the beholder. None of that would have eased my teenage distress. In fact, I only considered those comments desperately well-meaning, obviously serving to console those who, like me, are not considered beautiful by mainstream society. I came to dislike my eyes and my body and even briefly considered undergoing a plastic surgery on my eyes. I made sure to wear sunglasses in public and to abstain from posing in front of a camera because I did not want to ruin group pictures. It was not the fact that I couldn’t see that hurt me quite as much as the way I was seen – or unseen by others. I became convinced that failing to date anyone during my university years was because I was simply not good enough. During those years, I quickly quelled any inkling of romantic affection towards any of my peers, constantly reminding myself that such feelings are an excessive commodity that most disabled women cannot afford.

So it was in this regard that the internet’s virtual world was a blessing. I found that I could interact with people for years without them knowing about my disability, all in a place where the issue didn’t really matter at all. While I have never felt embarrassed of it, even if there have been moments when I cursed it and when I wished I could see, it was never something I was ashamed or shy of. Still, I found relief in virtual spaces where people knew nothing about my disability, where I was not marked out or stigmatized or treated with overt respect or offensive sympathy.
Being different does, however, have a slew of advantages. It relieved me of many of the social obligations that encumber able-bodied women of my age. I was never rebuked for not attending family-related events and celebrations, allowing me to enjoy a relative margin of privacy. I was never pestered by typical questions about when I was going to get married (which I have come to appreciate considering how frequently women of my age have to face this question). Older women in our family never bother me with their wishes for me to get married and have children, and that’s a relief! But I am simultaneously aware to the ableist notion that lies behind this different treatment; they still see me as a girl, not a woman. Yet it was not like I was spared the restrictions imposed by the patriarchal system. In fact the restrictions are even more stringent for disabled females, and all the worse since we have to deal with patriarchy dressed in the attire of extra paternal concern and apprehension.

It was also the visibility of my blindness, indeed, even more than blindness itself, that has regularly led me to repress my vulnerabilities and cloak them under the veil of strength and mental toughness. I was obsessed with appearing strong, always feeling the onerous weight of expectations on my shoulders; that I must prove that despite my disability, I can do anything just as good, if not better than anyone else. I had to prove that I’m not in need of anyone’s sympathy or help. I had to prove that I’m perfectly independent and that disability did not constitute an obstacle whatsoever for me. It was the obsession of meeting those lofty standards that made it inconceivable for me to articulate my vulnerabilities, even to myself. I wanted to fit the paradigm of the successful person who overcame disability and who is expected to be a role model for other people.

I can go on about the problems afflicting this particular discourse that many people with disability are forced to follow. It, for one, depoliticizes the whole issue and makes it seem as though it’s just a matter of individual perseverance and determination, ignoring that the struggle for disability rights is collective and inseparable from the anti-capitalist struggle for social justice. It also reduces people with disability to a homogenous group, and it gives the impression that there are two binaries: either the person who overcame disability to become an inspiration; or the person who failed to overcome disability and as such deserves pity and even rejection.

Yet, such binary discourse does not even begin to scratch the surface of the struggle with disability.
Even those who are privileged enough to satisfy the common standards for success despite their disability have their own vulnerabilities and should not shy away from expressing and sharing them, for they are not the superhuman models that many want them to be. It took me almost twenty-five years on this planet to finally allow myself the right to appear vulnerable. While I draw strength from people who tell me, directly or indirectly, that I managed to change their perception of people with disability and that they have great deal of respect for me, at times I have my own breakdowns. Tired of the gesticulations of pity that scorch my ears on that day, I decided to just go home and release my accumulated anger and vitriol.

“Ain’t I a woman?” I wondered. I folded my white cane and smashed it to the ground and then pulled off my shirt. I meticulously touched my breasts and passed my fingers around my nipples, I touched my waists, thighs and vagina, as if to remind myself of what so many insist to ignore: I am a woman and I have a strong sexual desire and a sexuality that is perverse, erratic and occasionally repressed and self-censored, but it’s very much there. I want to feel loved, to be told “you look pretty tonight,” and to cuddle someone else other than my duvet. I fear loneliness and I don’t want to censor or repress my emotions anymore, and I don’t want to conceal my eyes or hate them. I don’t want to feel naïve for wanting all of these things. Our dreams can be as big as liberating Palestine and as small as not being alone on a cold night.

But if disability makes it hard for a woman to fit into the mold prescribed by society, then it’s the molds that need to be changed, not us. If we fail to meet the standards of beauty and femininity because of our disability, aberrational eyes or canes, then it’s those standards that need to be smashed, not our canes.

When Sojourner Truth let out her indignant cry “Ain’t I a woman?”, she was screaming for all of us: all the misfits and outcasts who want to overthrow all systems of oppression from white supremacy and colonialism, to patriarchy and ableism. She was speaking for all of us who want to lead radical changes in our own oppressed communities but without looking to the oppressor/colonizer for saving. Her words echo the struggle that we have to wage today: a struggle that moves beyond the theoretical framework of intersectionality; a struggle that does not treat disability rights as a subaltern cause, but rather puts them in the forefront of any movement demanding liberation and justice; a struggle where people with disability are not treated as a burden or as a mere sign of diversity, but rather as leaders of the movement, a movement where our vulnerabilities are not ridiculed, but embraced.

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