The urge to write this text has been brewing for months while I was struggling with burnout and anxiety over my inability to stay productive and keep up with feminist activism in my home country, Kazakhstan. Ironically enough, right after my pitch was accepted, I suffered a family loss and a health crisis that induced my stress and prevented me from writing it for another month and a half. When I was reeling from my sadness and stress, the guilt for not keeping up my usual level of productivity never really went away no matter how many times my friends and family told me to take care of myself and not to worry about work.
The relationship between feminism and guilt is not new and it is being rigorously explored. You are probably familiar with the term impostor syndrome.
Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes first theorized success guilt as a gendered phenomenon more commonly found among women, although it was later proven to be also common among men.
Some believe that self-doubt is a normal thing, especially for generally anxious Millennials, that on its own cannot cause considerable detrimental effects on one’s mental health. As an academic and activist, I personally never thought of my struggles as impostor syndrome. To me, I had real reasons to feel dissatisfied with myself when there is so much liberation work to do and everyone else seemed to be playing their active part in it. At some point, between reading Gloria E. Anzaldúa and Paulo Freire, I have set quite a high bar for myself as an academic in the field of sociology and gender studies who aims to be a part of the decolonization effort.
Academia, activism and accessibility
If you are not particularly interested in academia or activism, you might not know of the ever-present debate about the division between the two when the relevance of academia is questioned and the nature of activism is evaluated. Academics, in the Western understanding of the word which dominates the discourse, are often perceived as scholars producing verbose texts with little practical value for the public. Two master’s degrees later and on the precipice of starting my doctorate studies, I can attest to that, which is why I believe in the cause of bringing scholarly research to the masses as a tool for education and organizing.
I would constantly remind myself to not lose touch with people by consuming news and information every free second I got and always putting my work in the context of a bigger purpose. Every time I started a new essay or research paper, all the self-imposed criteria would pop up.
The high bar I set for myself did not account for my limited resources and relative inexperience, as well as for the inherent clash between the culture of Western academia and accessibility. For me, it is always “I want to contribute to the production of knowledge available to everyone” vs. “I have to meet the standards of Western publications in order to earn their respect and get published.”
Here is one thing that few people talk about – writing is expensive.
No, I did not have to pay to submit my academic publications and essays but I also was financially reimbursed for my published work only once. (It never occurred to me to ask for compensation, as I considered myself lucky to simply be published, to begin with. It is only after speaking with my academic colleagues I realized that publications often rely on our insecurities and shyness and that asking directly can result in negotiations and compensation.) In order to continue my academic activism, I have to sustain a full-time job that is usually unrelated to my primary field of interest. At the moment, I am juggling my day job with at least two freelance jobs. If I had not gotten into graduate school for my PhD studies with a full scholarship, I would have had to continue taking on different jobs in order to have the opportunity to write and research topics I am truly passionate about.
I believe that not everyone understands this important and often hidden context that surrounds the work that many academics and activists produce.
For me, the decision to write is always intentional, but, at the same time, I feel like I do not have much choice. I have to write and I have to speak up in order to stay true to myself. I especially would like to continue to do that because there is not nearly enough attention to Central Asia and how its complex postcolonial, post-Soviet, and predominantly Muslim context affects gender roles in the region. However, it took me a while to recognize that I may not compete on the same level as writers and academics who are privileged enough to pursue their interests without worrying about finances or who have already established the reputation and connections necessary to receive money for their work.
For me, my research was always my activism. I saw it as a way to explain social phenomena in need of public attention and change. Frankly, I prided myself on being aware of the shortcomings of my vocation and on trying to bridge the gap between scholarly and activist work. I stayed on top of the news, art events, Facebook groups, online seminars related to gender issues in Kazakhstan. I would always look at topics and issues in the news through the prism of research, wondering what puzzles need to be studied and what social trends are especially worth examining right now. As I started to get to know more and more people, network with them, and get invited to events, it felt impossible to turn down any opportunity to stay in touch with the current issues and build my reputation. Whenever I thought of not joining another zoom seminar or not posting my opinion about yet another controversial matter on Instagram, my anxiety over not staying up-to-date with current events would make me do it anyway. I had the ultimate academic FOMO (fear of missing out). But even the powerful mix of strong will, passion, and anxiety cannot sustain you forever. About nine months later I started to feel so exhausted that no amount of sleep could fix the fatigue.
The social media effect
Maybe the reason I let the stress of being a perfect decolonial academic and feminist activist get to me so much is that I have not seen many people talk about the side effects of the pressure we put on ourselves when we dedicate ourselves to a cause. Yes, we do talk about burnout and impostor syndrome. Once in a while, an article or an Instagram infographic about these issues would come across my feed. However, these topics are almost never discussed in the joint context of academia and activism. The conversation about them usually goes along the lines of “Feeling insecure at your corporate job? Trust your gut and speak up to your boss.” This is not very relatable to my struggle. Social media also made it worse, as it usually does, by projecting the image of everyone else doing well and achieving the most.
The majority of academics and activists I keep tabs on only post about their accomplishments, seminars they are attending, social issues they would like to raise, etc.
I am the same: I proudly share my new articles and lectures that I listen to but when I am my most unproductive self, I banish myself from social media, sometimes even deactivating my accounts for a while. It creates this twisted cycle where I am so intimidated by the success and vigour of my colleagues that I push myself to disregard my own needs and health causing eventual stress that, once again, makes me feel inadequate next to my colleagues.
Here, I would like to make a remark that I am writing from a position of incredible privilege. The fact that I am able to write an essay like this in English already puts me at the advantage of having a potentially larger audience than Central Asians usually have. More importantly, my ability to even take breaks and muse over activism and academia is a privilege compared to millions of people living in a constant state of violence and oppression with no option to check out of the struggle for even a day or two. My privileges and the ache I feel for the fights for freedom happening right now across the world almost discouraged me from writing this text before I found the courage and inspiration to continue. I do not take my gifts lightly and can only hope that I might offer something of value to the discussion.
Refusal as an anti-capitalist act
I do not have a definitive conclusion to this piece. As a writer, I write to understand, for introspection, and for educational purposes. I have more or less made peace with my dual identity as a researcher and activist. I have decided not to settle for binaries and to accept my position at the crossroads. The high standards I set for myself remain but I am working on making them into a long-term general guide rather than a rigid frame I have to fit in no matter what.
I also am working on not spreading myself too thin chasing the exposure and experience. I have stopped looking at calls for papers at the moment because I have two publications pending that I need to focus on but mainly because I would like to have some rest. I do not watch every Facebook seminar instead opting out for a movie (although I still save all the links just in case). For the first time in years, I have returned to reading for fun and finishing a fiction book in a couple of days. All the academic books and articles will still be there when I need them.
When you come from an underrepresented region and are a woman of color, there is a mentality of scarcity embedded in you by the world we live in.
I often think that given my background and limited interest in my home country I should take every opportunity that comes my way. This is also induced by the inherently competitive nature of academia where publications can make or break your career. Saying no to myself and prioritizing my emotional wellbeing when my brain is wired to constantly chase ‘success’ is an important skill I am currently finessing.
As for my fear of becoming irrelevant and out of touch with on-the-ground issues of feminist activism in Kazakhstan, I have come to realize that it is much better to stay focused on your own path and make sure you represent and contribute as much as you can in what you have chosen. For me, it is social research rather than blogging, or legislative work, or organizing efforts. The work I am doing and I plan on continuing represents my activism as I offer my research and writing as an avenue for learning and reflection for anyone interested. I wholeheartedly support my sisters and brothers in solidarity in Kazakhstan and Central Asia who all do their part in raising awareness and changing minds. I intend to stay in touch with them and be informed by their work and, hopefully, vice versa.
It is important to understand that the capitalist system we live in is largely to blame for the many struggles I have described above. The culture of competition sips through every aspect of our lives while our labor is being devalued. As a society we have normalized optimizing our lives to the fullest in order to ‘make it’ in the traditional capitalist understanding of success and academia is not immune to this process. In her book Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, Jia Tolentino writes about how mainstream feminism became a quest for optimization for a ‘better self’ that causes women to never be satisfied and feel empowered by seeking societal approval and fitting into its standards. What was supposed to be a rebellion against patriarchy and capitalism had to conform to them in order to become popularized. I believe a similar logic applies to modern academia and activism.
Despite our best efforts to create spaces that contest the system and construct decolonial efforts, both academia and activism cannot escape the market logic of capitalism where the more is always better. That is why so many of us feel guilty for turning down opportunities for publications, or not producing as much content online, or not always staying on top of current events.
Even though we are dedicated to improving the world, we cannot exist outside of it which includes a culture that prioritizes work and tangible results. Refusing this culture to consume us and guide our work and speaking out against it is perhaps the most vital and revolutionary step we all can take as decolonial academics and feminist activists. We should speak out more about how tiring it is to keep up and how we are entitled to our own pace and our own joy. These may be self-evident things to many of my colleagues but the fast-paced, performative nature of today’s digital world makes it easy to forget, at least for me.
Written by Aizada Arystanbek.
Aizada is an intersectional feminist and a young activist and academic specializing in gender-based violence, gender and culture, and nationalism, who believes in the decolonization of academia and overthrowing of the patriarchy.
Illustrated by Dinara Satbayeva.