Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 4 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Breaking the cycle of oppression: hope and hopelessness


Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 4 seconds

I have been thinking for a while now about the different approaches one can take to break the cycle of oppression, once one becomes conscious/aware of it and of the power relations/dynamics taking place.

I may be missing something, but I think there are three main options (an artificial, arbitrary grouping that i am open to revising based on people’s comments):

1. Live with it, tolerate or work around it. This is accepting the status quo, and making changes in oneself that allows one to continue accepting oppression. Many do this as they see no other viable way to go

2. Fight against it. At a minimum, express resistance, or escape completely, but on a bigger level, mobilize others, work collectively to advocate and fight against something. I am thinking of advocacy against gender oppression and how this can change unjust laws, but doing so does not necessarily change patriarchal culture on the family unit level, and even within the workplace subtle forms of gender discrimination occurs despite laws

3. Fight for it. I find this to be maybe the hardest but possibly the best way to go. I just don’t know how it would work. Examples of this is fighting for your country’s freedom from an oppressive state. You don’t want to accept it because it is clearly unjust; you don’t want to escape it because you want to effect change; and fighting against it would risk destroying the country you so love (Egypt a great example of this). Another example is the family unit: a woman can accept abuse, can escape abuse, can keep fighting the abuse, but ultimately what she wishes she could do (assuming there was ever a justification for this) is to find a way to fight for the unit, to find a way to alleviate the oppression in peace and continue in harmony.

We love happy endings and so we wish for the latter option. Does it really work? Did Mandela even really succeed? Ultimately, there are essential elements that needs to be in place for us to consider the third option:

A. Viewing our oppressors as human,
B. As humans, we believe we can communicate with them. I intentionally do not say “reason with them” because as Ellsworth suggests, the voice of the oppressed cannot always speak rationally to describe their experience and I believe in this so much.
C. Hope. We must have hope that things can change. Hope that there remains an element of goodness in the “other” who is human but oppressing us.

I loved the entire poem by Maya Angelou that Shyam shared with me y/day and that I embedded in my previous post on liberating the oppressor.

Here, I quote just a small part of it (“Still I Rise“):

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

And from this part, though the entire poem is a challenge to the oppressor, this one touches me so much because of the “kill me with your hatefulness” and made me think that the most important thing is not to lose whatever love we have inside us.

I know, Jesus said “love thy enemy”. It is not so explicit as this in Islam, but I already told a story of Muhammad’s forgiveness of his oppressors/persecutors in the previous post.

I am just thinking out loud now about similarities and differences in Islam and Christianity on the issues of social justice, based on my limited knowledge of both (though obviously i am more informed about Islam, i have unorthodox interpretations so please do not generalize what i say as mainstream Islamic interpretation):

Christianity has “turn the other cheek” and “whoever has not sinned…” – those two are important in some situations, but I think were not meant to be used in all situations. I could be wrong,but would Jesus ask a woman to “turn the other cheek” if her husband abused her child? I think not.

In Islam there is a saying by Muhammad, also reflected in the Quran, that means loosely: whoever sees a “wrong”/injustice/unacceptable behavior (connotation unclear to me but i think all these could fit) they should try to change it with their hands, if not able, then with their tongue (i.e. voice), and if not, then with their heart, and that’s the least one can do.

I always liked this but it is dangerous, as it may result in people interfering in what is not their business based on a righteousness that may be misplaced.

There is something about discourse about injustice that tends to assume justice is a clear and obvious and universal thing. It is not. The Palestinian Israeli issue is a clear example in my case of the lack of clarity in where justice truly lies.


  1. Pingback: On finding my voice (part 2) #rhizo14 autoethnography | Little did I know...

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