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Joking about being a Token

Have you ever made a joke to try to lighten the mood or make your colleagues laugh in a serious setting and immediately wish you could take it back? That’s what happened to me recently during an online seminar I took part in.

I had been asked to give a short speech about ‘Women’s Participation' in civil society and in politics based on my general thoughts on the topic and in particular, on my experience as the chairwoman of a civil society organization. It was an interesting forum to share my thoughts in and I was inspired by the rewarding and insightful commentary I heard from the other female participants from Syria who talked about their research on and experience with the topic.

During the event, I shared my thoughts on problematic issues related to intersectionality that continue to come up in these settings, such as how feminism is defined and by whom, as well as the solutions that are often proposed to include more women in political processes. These solutions, such as quotas, for instance, often produce their own issues, including tokenism.

When I have been asked to participate in international meetings, working groups and contexts of some significance, I have often wondered if I have been chosen simply to check a box as a token. Woman, check, minority, check, person with a disability, check.

I mentioned this during the event, but then made a spontaneous joke about whether I had been chosen to take part in this seminar for the same reason. Everyone laughed and we quickly moved on. But after the meeting, I felt like I had made a mistake and regretted making the joke. That made me start to wonder; by making light of the issue, had I started to believe myself that I was just a token representative?

To me, this is one of the most potentially damaging aspects of quotas and tokenism: it can cause us to doubt our own value. Others will likely question our right to a seat at the table, but if we ourselves engage in self-depreciation, it will only damage our capacity to work for and drive important agendas while retaining the strength to deal with all sorts of backlash and sidelining that come with a minority position.

Whatever the circumstances were that eventually led me or others in a similar position to be invited does not matter. Being a representative for any underrepresented group is a privilege that carries with it a responsibility. I feel that this responsibility is not only to those we currently represent but an obligation to those who have come before us, who fought for our right to be there. I’m confident that they had us in mind when they took bold actions in the past. Many expressed their visions and hopes in writing that continues to inspire. It goes without saying that we have a responsibility to those who will come after us.

At the same time, we should never accept to simply be a placeholder or window dressing. That’s how those who view us as a token representative may see us or want us to behave, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If they expect us to quietly go along with the proceedings, fine. Our obligation is not to them. If they don’t appreciate our opinion on a certain matter, that’s something they have to deal with. We know who we are, and who we have the responsibility to represent. It is certainly not easy. The less space that is offered to certain groups, the wider the range of interests and opinions will be that must be covered. For me personally, it has sometimes meant that I had to leave aside my personal convictions, to be able to present the perspectives and legitimate interests of others who were kept outside the rooms where their fate was decided.

I imagine that many others have experienced similar feelings and situations. People who were at some point the only person of colour at a particular table, or the only person with a working-class background, or who came from the wrong family, region, religion or country. Wearing the wrong clothes, speaking with the wrong accent, or expressing opinions that did not fit.

Above all, why is it that underrepresented and silenced groups have to wonder about the circumstances that led them to a table where they have an opportunity to speak? Should we not instead be looking at the quotas and boxes that people have to tick to occupy those tables as a matter of course? The unspoken boxes that ensure that majorities will continue to consist of people with the “right” background, expressing opinions that will not disrupt a status quo. Why do people speaking from a position of privilege so rarely question if they are really qualified to occupy the positions they hold? If they stepped back to consider, they might realise that this has little to do with merit, qualifications, or the experience necessary for such a responsibility.

Whatever the circumstances may have been that offered me a chance to be part of that inspiring online seminar, or to sit at other tables over the years, I hope to use such opportunities to help change a system where worth and authority seem to be largely granted according to the extent that a person or group is able to put others down. To talk of representation, or civil society, or democracy, we urgently need to understand the value of supporting and including others. This means listening and learning from people with other experiences or different views and practicing the ability to pick each other up so that we all can contribute with the unique talents and insights we have as human beings.

Chavia Ali

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