Majandra Rodriguez Acha: the Norms Shifter

28 October 2020
SERIES Narrative power & collective action: conversations with people working to change narratives for social good 12 items

[This conversation was originally published in part 1 of ‘Narrative Power & Collective Action’, a collaboration between Oxfam and On Think Tanks. All conversations were edited by Louise Ball. Download the publication.]

Majandra Rodriguez Acha is Co-Executive Director of FRIDA: The Young Feminist Fund. FRIDA is run by young feminist activists and supports young feminist movements across the global South. Majandra is also Co-Founder of TierrActiva Perú, a collective and national network working towards system change for ‘buen vivir’ (the good life). She is also connected to other activist movements and spaces, such as Tamboras Resistencia and the Laboratorio Nacional de Activismo.

It’s these fundamental beliefs and narratives that we need to begin to question and shift. Break down those binaries and build new understandings that look at the deep diversity, interdependency, intersectionality and beautiful complexity of the world.

What do narratives mean to you?

Narratives permeate everything. In the groups I am connected to we don’t sit down and say ‘let’s talk about narrative’, but it is everywhere and in everything that we do.

And I think it’s a big part of activism in general. Because ultimately, we are trying to shift narratives and common understandings about how society should work, and question what is seen as ‘the norm’.

A lot of young feminist activism is about changing and shifting social norms, and questioning the systems and ideas that underpin them.

Shifting norms and systems

The young feminist movements that FRIDA support are very clearly working towards shifting norms.

They speak about things that are uncomfortable to speak about. They question what we consider to be the norm or what is acceptable.

These young feminists are spearheading a lot of really deep transformations by questioning narratives and understandings of how the world works. And in particular, questioning gender roles, and how men and women relate to each other, and gender and sexuality more generally.

The social challenges and issues that we confront are deeply systemic in nature. They are about the social, political, economic, cultural, spiritual systems we live in, how those systems are set up, and the understandings that underpin them.

Basic notions about how the world works and how humans and nature relate to each other are at the root of a lot of the violence, inequality, discrimination, and stereotypes that we see in society.

For example, they are binary and hierarchical worldviews that separate out ‘man’ over ‘nature’, ‘reason’ over ‘emotion’, science over the arts, men over women.

It’s these fundamental beliefs and narratives that we need to begin to question and shift. Break down those binaries and build new understandings that look at the deep diversity, interdependency, intersectionality and beautiful complexity of the world.

This will allow us to recognise and value difference based on respect and dignity, and to value interdependency rather than domination.

Challenges facing young feminist activists

We are very aware that young feminist activists are facing a closing civic space and rising fundamentalism.

This means increased vigilance, surveillance, criminalisation of activists in general and the normalisation of racism and hate speech.

The normalisation of extreme fundamentalist and very conservative discourse really impacts young feminist activists, young women and young trans folk in particular around the world.

It’s important for us to recognise that young feminist activists are the experts of their own reality. They know what’s best in their context and work.

So, we try to listen to what is helpful for them and not impose things. For some groups, a lot of online noise, social media and so on is helpful. For other groups that’s putting them at more risk.

We try to protect groups as much as we can, not revealing information that they don’t want to be revealed to the public.

We take holistic security very seriously. And we have measures for protecting data, privacy, and communications. We work with staff focal points that keep connected to regions and countries to keep a real time track of what’s going on at the local level so we can react and respond.

What narratives and attacks do you get?

We’ve seen feminazi being used a lot, as well as other stigmatising narratives.

The term feminist also carries with it a huge weight because of how it’s been interpreted by mainstream and fundamentalist actors.

Sometimes the term itself is not only useful but it’s part of the struggle, we are fighting for the term feminism to be understood.

Yes, we are feminists, and that might make some uncomfortable but that’s also what we want to do – that can also be a strategy. But for others it’s not so useful, or they don’t feel represented by the term, and we see and value that as well.

We encounter a lot of ageism. Civil society sees us as young, with infinite time and energy, always willing say yes and work voluntarily. People get excited and come to us with all these questions but they don’t compensate us for our time, knowledge and experience.

A couple of months ago, FRIDA shared something on social media comparing the impact of COVID-19 thus far with numbers of deaths from violence against women, to open up the question about what society chooses to define as a ‘crisis’, and how we react differently to different crises.

We had the usual social media trolls and people saying you are not considering that men also suffer, or that there is domestic violence against men too.

We aren’t trying to negate that men suffer violence, nor the impact of COVID-19. There’s an idea that by highlighting the impact on one group, you’re saying that there’s no impact on anybody else, or any other form of harm.

What lies beneath those attacks?

Beneath this is the normalisation and justification of violence against women. The idea that this is how it is and has always been.

‘Why were you drinking? Why did you go to that party?’ When you say these things, you’re saying: ‘You diverged from how things should be according to my worldview, therefore you are to blame.’

Beneath that narrative is the normalisation of gender roles, assuming women should act in a certain way, and when they don’t, whatever happens is their fault because they were the ones who broke the unwritten rules.

Narratives and political participation

We are seeing a lot of complacency, fear, individualism, isolation, and alienation. The media plays a role in causing fear and separation amongst people.

It’s all systemic, it’s all interconnected and it’s set up to be that way. People are ‘supposed’ to be happy consumers, reproduce, have families, etc. That’s in the interests of the system. And so, there are strong economic forces that uphold that system.

We can see how feminism has been appropriated in mainstream spaces. Powerful actors see that it gets a response, people get riled up and want to do something. They think, ok we can sell you a t-shirt or create this campaign you can click on. But none of it is fundamentally questioning the system or getting at any of the deep rooted issues. You’re basically just sustaining and reproducing the system.

That conformity isn’t a coincidence. It doesn’t come from nowhere. It’s not like there’s somebody sitting cackling with laughter making it happen either. But all these different forces set up things so that it is better for people to just be happy consumers. Because that maintains the system. And anything different is responded to with a lot of violence – which the media will then immediately amplify and distort.

People become terrified of protesting or thinking outside the box because of the reaction it can have. Plus, there are often limited mechanisms or systems to support people who want to stand up to their boss, partner, teacher, or whoever. So, they feel alone in it and just give up.

Connections and solidarity networks are about building community and letting it be known that it’s not just one or two people, but it’s actually all of these people all around the world, doing all of these things. And it’s so incredibly powerful.

Advice for other activists

We should strive to be happy as we do activism, and enjoy it, because ultimately that’s what it’s about, right?

We all just want to be healthy and safe, and for our loved ones to be healthy and safe, and to have a good relationship with the natural world, to breathe fresh air and all of these beautiful things, not fight and live amidst fear and violence.

We can’t just focus on the hate and the fear, saying ‘we hate this’ or ‘we don’t want that’, but rather focus on the love and solidarity and care that we actually want to see.

We can centre our activism and our work on the positive right now. That’s not a utopia. You can literally do that right now – think about how you can centre that more in your work, in your life.

I mean, definitely go out protesting, demanding your rights. But how can we centre care, joy and pleasure in our activism as well? Because ultimately that what we’re trying to build, with justice and dignity.