“No One Warned Me”: the trade-off between self-care and effective activism
Is there a trade off between protecting your mental health as an activist and doing effective work?
While reflecting on my human rights career thus far, I remember getting advice in passing on staying “detached” from my work, with no guidance on how to apply this in a practical manner. How does an activist remain engaged and passionate while also being detached? And is there a point at which we are too detached and then cannot empathize with the people for whom we are advocating?
In 2007, shortly after graduation, I was fortunate enough to work with one of my professors on a research project on women who go to courts to get divorce. As part of the research, I conducted interviews with lawyers and women who approached women’s rights associations, due to their inability to afford divorce costs. I do not remember being warned about the mixed emotions and personal stories that I would encounter and how that would affect me. At the end of that year, I started working at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), and the first file I worked on was monitoring and documenting violations of the freedom of religion and belief. But again, I was not warned about the heavy emotions. I had not received any training or advice on how to separate myself from my work, and that lack of preparation and awareness affected me for years to come.
I started drifting away from all of the religious practices that I used to perform, which connected me to the attackers.
I quit my job in 2009 to continue my studies. I left Egypt, carrying with me a heavy emotional burden because of my work. I loathed the same old repeated sectarian attacks, and I hated how they always ended the same way, with no justice given to the victims. As a result, I started drifting away from all of the religious practices that I used to perform, which connected me to the attackers. I started to lose connection to my religious feelings. I grew weary of the calls and interviews describing the sabotage and burning of churches, and the expulsion of Baha’is from their village.
Nonetheless, I returned to Egypt after the revolution, and worked at Nazra for Feminist Studies, where I started the first women human rights defense program in the MENA region. I felt revived and I remember the passion I—along with the entire civil community in Egypt—had when starting on a new file. I shared many moments of joy, hope, and pain with a team with whom I was honored to work.
Flickr/Gigi Ibrahim (Some rights reserved)
"I returned to Egypt after the revolution, and worked at Nazra for Feminist Studies, where I started the first women human rights defense program in the MENA region."
However, the work soon started to take on another direction, driven by feelings of guilt and insufficient working hours to deal with the violations human rights defenders face. The privileges we carried turned into a guilt that should be atoned by continuing to work, and because of pressure from management, we dismissed any aspect of personal life, be it health or giving adequate time and efforts to family and friends. Overworked and overwhelmed, I soon lost my ability and appetite to work in such a poisonous atmosphere, and I decided to quit. I still feel that I failed the team I worked with, on a professional and personal level. I neither had enough tools nor adequate knowledge to enable us to overcome the testimonies we heard, and to protect ourselves from their influence on our mental state and personal lives. My only consolation is I did not continue in this harmful loop, which only keep escalating and accumulating. I left and many others left after me due to the same issues.
After that, I tried a new coping method: keeping a clear and wide distance from directly meeting the victims and survivors of human rights violations. But this also affected my work. I returned to EIPR, focusing on the “Transitional Justice” file. I thought that by working on this file, I would not have to listen to people talking about their painful experiences. But summer 2013 with its waves of state violence and sectarian attacks did not give much leeway to anyone.
Initially I refused to accept what was happening—denial and detachment are coping mechanisms, after all. I was in so much denial that I attended a wedding party to pretend that I was not living through such deadly events. Now I cannot really decide whether the documentation I did was adequate or whether my fear of the pain of what I would hear affected the quality of my work. I could not bring myself to go to the streets, with my colleagues, to document the violent events in real time. I was satisfied with the information I got through phone calls. This attitude was not derived from laziness, or an inability to reach people and meet with or interview them, but it came from fear of empathizing too much, and feeling too much pain, as had happened before.
I envy those who are in the “human rights” field and look at it strictly as a career, or subject of study and academic work. I am quite certain that this kind of person suffers less, and would have a better ability to endure and continue in this line of work. As for me, I cannot detach myself from my work, emotionally and psychologically. Perhaps that is why I still try to distance myself from documenting the testimonies of victims and survivors.
A few months ago, I met one of my colleagues to discuss our joint work, but ultimately we could not do it because of the effect of her work and her need to recover from it. This was the other end of the spectrum: being too traumatized to do good work. Where is the middle ground?
I do not have answers yet, but I do have my own share of bad experiences that allow me to ask questions. I know that others are also seeking answers, in the hope that we can find a safe space to work without losing our human connection with what we do.
Yara Sallam is the Criminal Justice Unit director at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).