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How I Rediscovered Feminism After My Invisible Chronic Illness

Posted: October 30, 2019

Chronic illness makes it hard to be the stereotypical ‘strong woman’. That in turn made the author question, am I a bad feminist?

I think I have always been a feminist. Even before I knew these terms, I questioned the gender roles and micro-aggressions around me. Why should I set the table when guests come and not my brother? Why is it not safe for me to go to market alone? The questions were endless.

When I was taught feminism in college, it was like coming home. I finally had the terminology to give voice to my thoughts. I felt understood like never before.

Things changed when I got diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and Bipolar Affective Disorder Type-II (BPAD-II). Fibromyalgia involves chronic pain and fatigue along with other symptoms. BPAD-II involves mood swings between hypomania and depression. After I got these illnesses, it took a huge toll on me physically and mentally. I started questioning if I am a ‘good feminist’ and if I am strong enough. I had fallen into a trap. My understanding of being empowered and strong was borrowed from the same toxic patriarchal and capitalist structures that feminism sought to challenge.

I tried my best to be stoic…

I had long maintained that chivalry is patriarchal. How do I now ask men to hold the door for me or carry my luggage? I wanted to be strong emotionally but I was depressed, anxious and unstable. I was falling right into the crazy woman stereotype. I didn’t want to show so many disturbing emotions and tried my best to maintain a stoic exterior. Women are more easily ridiculed or ignored if they show signs of such emotions. I was wrong.

Slowly, I re-learnt feminism. Chivalry is sexist, in my opinion. Asking for help in a physically inaccessible world is not. Emotional wellbeing is important. That implies voicing the emotions rather than hiding them. It is important for both men and women otherwise they lead to violent emotions like anger and guilt. I changed my definition of empowerment and strength.

Accessibility is a feminist issue. Fibromyalgia (and some other chronic pain conditions) affect women more than men. Women are more likely to be disbelieved about their chronic pain, especially for conditions like endometriosis which involve menstrual cycle pains. A prominent rheumatologist told me that women have lower pain tolerance. In fact, it took me a long time to get a diagnosis. This is partly because medical professionals were dismissive about my pain.

If we perceive women as more emotional, then their symptoms of conditions like BPAD-II would not be easily diagnosed as it would be seen as an everyday characteristic of a woman. Women are constantly told that they cannot handle stress. I felt guilty and weak when I left my high-pressured job as a corporate lawyer to take care of my health. Am I unable to handle difficult working conditions? Women are often also considered to be demanding attention. Is call for attention that bad – well, that’s another discussion.

So, if feminism does not fight for accessibility, more women will be marginalised from our society and other associated structures such as workplaces. Until we fight sexism in the medical community and services, women will not get equal opportunities due to lack of proper treatment. Also, clinical trials are needed that focus on effect of medication on pain in women.

Women face discrimination even when sick

Conditions like Fibromyalgia, ME/CFS, depression, anxiety and BPAD-II also have a psychosocial connection. Is a patriarchal system more prone to make the oppressed classes sick? Women face their own triggers. Sexual assault, discrimination at home and workplace, public sidelining etc. They face discrimination in counseling as well. They face disbelief, dismissal and such attitudes when talking about their illnesses and symptoms.

Empowerment shouldn’t be defined in a manner where women are expected to fit certain norms. Feminism stands for equality and it needs to give space for voices and concerns of women with invisible illnesses (and other disabilities) to be truly inclusive for fulfilling its goals.

Currently, a lot of events, including pride marches are very inaccessible. I went to the Delhi pride march where all vehicles provided were full. There was no way for someone with an invisible disability to get better access to them. I even tried asking them. Many of the other conferences and events are kept at places with staircases.

Then, there is the problem that modern feminism needs you to be constantly updated with current ongoing to be part of the discussions. If you are not in the know of the latest trending topic of discord, you are not seen as a good feminist. During a flare, you need to relax and shut off from the noise as it can aggravate sleeplessness and pain. This puts you behind on your feminism.

I constantly carry a lot of guilt for not being able to fit within the discourse of feminism. Anxiety causes me to leave all places early due to concern of lack of safety after light hours. I often can not take part in discussions and arguments. I cannot hold a very physically stressful job. There are many more things. Do they make me a bad feminist?

There is an increasing discourse on making feminism more accessible and inclusive. This has still not touched much on aspects of chronic pain and invisible illnesses like Fibromyalgia. With time and effort, let us check our feminism and make it more inclusive. After all, I repeat, accessibility is a feminist issue.

Image via Pixabay

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