The Token Woman on the Margins
The past few weeks I have been contemplating an issue but have been unable to give it an appropriate title. So, perhaps by presenting the issue, I can process it and identify what really bothers me.
As a Palestinian Christian who has spent the past decade advocating for peace and justice, I’ve emerged from this experience disillusioned at the magnitude of internal politics, and at the present I do not know how to deal with it.
There are many capable and well-spoken Palestinian Christians who can represent and articulate our struggles for justice and peace. At times, it feels like we can cooperate and share opportunities, and at other times it feels like we are fighting each other to grab hold of opportunities by climbing over one another. The latter seems to be my regular experience as of late, and i want to know why.
There have been many instances where I am placed in the category of a rising young adult. Not a woman. Not a leader. Not a peacemaker. I am grouped with rising, young Palestinian Christian single men with leadership potential who are between the ages of 25 to 30. However, in my mid-30s and with more than 10 years of experience in leadership and peacemaking, I neither see myself as a young adult nor a rising leader. I respect many of those young adults with whom I am grouped, but I find it disrespectful to be constantly categorized with those who have far less experience than I do. Many times those who put me in this category are men my own age. And I wonder, why is my experience unacknowledged?
Sometimes I feel that, in my culture, adulthood is connected to one’s marital status or the lack of it. Perhaps that is why I remain in the category of a young adult until my wedding day. I struggle to understand how my marital status is connected to my skills and capabilities.
I am well aware that Palestinian culture revolves around the family as the nuclear unit, and it is more about prestige or status than it is about one’s choices. A good way to explain it is that people expect everyone to conform to a certain lifestyle, and we as a Palestinian church are not different. Our expectations start with excelling in school, then acquiring a degree or two, getting a good job, getting married, having kids and then making sure our kids repeat the same cycle and so on. This is my culture’s view of a “normal life.” There is nothing wrong with that, but not everyone falls into this category.
Why do we have to marginalize those who do not fit the mold? Sometimes the marginalization is like a carrot to lure single people into marriage. However, marriage is more than just status, and it should not be taken lightly. If you meet the right person, then go for it. If not, the cons outweigh the pros, especially for women. In this patriarchal society domestic responsibilities are on the women, along with our non-domestic aspirations.
As I watch certain events unfold in front of me in which more and more opportunities are opening for young adult men, I am on the sideline. I admit it; I am jealous. I have to work twice as hard, and I still get the bench. Even in leadership, there are benches. The opportunities available to me within leadership are supportive roles in a hierarchy where I am welcomed to maintain the status quo and allocate my skills to elevate a group of male decision-makers. Only then will I be able to rise again, within a confined role, until I reach women’s “glass ceiling” and become “problematic.”
Ironically, at the same time, women’s presence is sought after due to international or donor interests, and only then am I no longer an emerging young adult but rather one of many women serving in the church. The search for a female representative becomes a subtle battlefield, encompassing a mishmash of women from all aspects of service such as youth work, Sunday school, family ministry, handicapped aid workers, medical caretakers and worship leaders. Oddly, all these women are placed in competition with one another in the eyes of the decision-makers and the chosen one becomes the token woman in the community.
I don’t quite know how to address these challenges, how to grow as a leader and find equal opportunities for new challenges and experiences. I don’t have answers, but this is where I am, at the intersection of my faith, my ethnicity and my gender -- a token on the margins.