My Seat at the Table

by Najat Hamza


It is an indisputable fact that patriarchy is in charge of the world, regardless of its failure as a system. It is also equally important to note that women all around the world have fought this unjust system to bring about real change and equality. My argument will not be about falling victim to this political, cultural, social and religious system of unfairness set by men for men and fueled by women, but about how I define it. As women, most of us have asked men to include us in one closed group or another as if they hold the key to our freedom, but how many of us stop and think “why do we need to ask men for inclusiveness?”

Patriarchy is experienced and practiced all over the world and it is too broad to cover it in this piece. However, I can speak about my experience as an Oromo woman of Muslim faith. In a society like that of the Oromo, culture plays an important role in gender role assignments and how men and women define themselves. If we look at religion – specifically my religion, Islam – we find that the first believer of our faith was a woman. We also know that the first martyr of Islam was also a woman, not to mention the courageous warriors and defenders of the faith from the beginning to date.

Even though this is the reality, we are made to feel like the contribution offered by women is secondary to that of men, and the honor and respect our faith gives us is presented as a gift from men when it is from God/Allah. If we look at the organic Oromo culture before the pollution of the colonizers, we see the balance it had in handling both genders, the roles each in respect to one another. What we witness and live now as culture, however, is the hybrid of men’s injections of patriarchal ideologies and some borrowed bad practices that give men the unfair advantage of using these pillars as a means to an end.

With respect to religion, if any woman questions any part of these clusters of systems of oppression to call attention to the frame of patriarchy operating from behind the curtain, she could get accused of heresy or falsifying the word of God/Allah. If one questions the culturally-infused system of patriarchy, she could be accused of disrespecting her identity, or worse, her ancestors. We are left in a paralyzing space where we walk on eggshells all of our lives in order to not upset or cause a stir in the honey’s jar that is patriarchy. As women, when we fear to speak out and correct the wrong, not only do we fail ourselves, but we fail men as well. Men benefit from an equal and balanced world as much as women do; it is time to save us both.

We usually talk about a glass ceiling being shattered or cracked when measuring women’s achievements here in the West, but what if we no longer need the limited distance between the floor that is patriarchy and the ceiling as an achievement to roam over it? What if we roamed in galaxies instead? What if sky was no longer the limit? It is not the limit. What if we stop accepting limitations patriarchy sets for us as women and define our own distance with or without limits? We can and we are.

If our goal as women is to crack or shatter the glass ceiling, we are not ambitious enough. Our goal as women should be to let men know: we do not need your glass ceiling to shatter or crack; we already have the most coveted seat at the table. We birthed humanity, we nurtured it, we educated it, we taught it to walk, we taught it to speak, and we unleashed it on the world. It has no place to come back and tell us we have limits as women. If we are still sitting around for men to open a door of opportunity for us, give us space and a seat at the table, it is like asking our own child permission to sit in our own home.

Men may like or dislike who I am, men could agree or disagree with my ideas, men could learn or unlearn from me and I could do the same, but what men cannot do is give me a voice, space or a seat. Because I already have my chair at the table of existence. I am here for a purpose, my purpose is defined for me and I am the master of it. It is hard to complain about a system while we are fueling and empowering it, so for all my women, I say this: put down the fuel pump.

You can join me at the table if interested; your place is waiting if you are not there already. I am grateful for the great women before me who had to remind me to assume my place at the table as prescribed to me and for me.

Najat Hamza is an Oromo human rights activist living and working in Minnesota. Her dream is to see Oromo people and Oromia reclaim their dignity and respect in her lifetime.