The thing about the table is that when you arrive, you find the agenda already set, and established with little space for its amendment; and we all know that discussions had under AOB are never as weighted as the validly agenda’d items.
So it is, in fact quite critical to consider whether or not women who are not privileged with visibility and palatability, even want to be at the table. Sure, they may be able to bring their own foldable chair, and a cup and they may insist on what discussions need to be had. However, if the table is not their own, I am not absolutely convinced that the discussions at the table, even where they may be swayed by the inclinations of the uninvited guests, would have as much impact as intended.
Marginalised women, carry the weights of the world on their shoulders. The expectation is that they should do so silently. The poor woman whose poverty is the result of the government’s corruption, is expected to gratefully accept the social welfare handouts, and her gratitude is often expectedly expressed through a vote every four years. The newly-wed depressed bride, suffering abuse at the hands of either her husband or her in-laws or both, is often advised go itshoka and to remain publicly silent about the abuse. The intersex child born to traditionally religious parents is often assigned a gender at birth and when they are old enough to start seeing themselves for who they are, their families hold their breaths that they never speak about it outside of the four walls of the family room. A lesbian woman in a physically abusive relationship with their partner is left out of the definition of victim or survivor of gender-based violence, so where she can seek help is often limited on the basis of not only where she is geographically, but also, who is engaging on what affects her. A woman who is raped by her partner or husband does not report it because it is treated as a domestic dispute. A young girl molested by her elderly neighbour has to have her whole life uprooted and she is moved from her support system, and family, and everything she needs to heal, to allow the man to continue his life with no shame. A sex-worker exploited by law enforcing officers, while on the job, has nowhere to report the crime against her because of the perceived criminality of her work. An undocumented woman working as a house-hold manager for a local family, bears the abuse of her madam or sir and their children because she “has no papers”. The young girl from rural Botswana, trafficked by her own family to work for a family member in the city, is made to feel like she is being done a favour and should therefore be grateful that someone was willing to save her. These are only few of the weights carried by many and perhaps even most women in our society, even those
These are the weights which very few people who are at the table ever speak about, and even so, publicly. Those who do, we celebrate, and are grateful for. However we also understand that the table, being the system, makes it near impossible to even acknowledge one’s own weights. If one cannot even speak of their own suffering, carrying another’s weight can be an unfair expectation, quite honestly. It is usually easier for a person who is further away from the problem and the politics surrounding it locally, to be the one to address it.
This is perhaps the reason why our black African mothers, aunties and older sisters, were excited when Princess Diana, a white woman privileged in visibility, who had a deep, complex and often toxic intimacy with media, spoke publicly about challenges women either remain silent about or speak about in hushed tones. She was not who they are. But she spoke about the problems they experienced so personally, it resonated with them. She spoke about infidelity in a relationship which promised monogamy; she spoke about eating disorders, and suicide attempts because she felt lonely and abandoned, despite the public persona; she spoke about in-laws who did not want her and for whom she was not enough, despite her having brought them back to the affections of society! Her campaigns against land mines, extreme poverty and HIV stigma shifted the ways the world engaged on the issues. Princess Diana represented, for our mothers, aunts, and older sisters, fear which had turned to rebellion and most importantly, strength to publicly speak one’s truth and tell one’s story from their own perspective. But Princess Diana, even though she came to the table and was *allowed to engage, she was not expected to be independent. For her independence, she had to create her own table, set the agenda for what could impactfully be engaged on, and follow through with using her power for change. Although we are not all princesses and we cannot, ourselves, always be able to set up a table, we have realized, most importantly that there is no space for the weights that women carry at the table.
The Diana’s of today are very different. In a world in which we have taken so much of the power of the media into our own hands, through social media, it is within our own power to determine whether we want to be at the table, whether the table is necessary, and how our weights are stacked. The table is a challenging space to maneuver. However if we are to engage it, we are to do it with our eyes as wide open as possible.