The Empty Chair
By: Shannon Schmidt and Leslie Cox of the Young Women’s PC(USA) Delegation to the Commission of the Status of Women
The woman standing before us held her hand out to the chair in front of the room. We had gathered to listen to a presentation by Masimanyane, a woman’s support network centered on ending violence against women and girls. Instead, we listened to this woman as she explained that Masimanyane had decided not to attend, on the premise that they wished to stand in solidarity with the many women who would not be able to participate in the 61st Commission on the Status of Women due to the United States’ recently implemented travel ban. Following her explanation, she read from Masimanyane’s official statement on its rationale for choosing not to attend:
“We have serious concerns about the far-reaching impact of the recent spate of executive orders which serve to exclude, demonize and criminalize specific communities in the United States of America (USA) and some communities globally, jeopardizing the lives and livelihoods of women. Further impact of the executive orders is the denial of the right of women of member states to participate in this global forum. We took this decision to express solidarity with, in particular, the women of Libya, Sudan and Somalia, as well as our sisters in Syria, Iran and Yemen.”
As opposed to the originally planned presentation and panel, those present were encouraged to stay for a round-table discussion on the relationship between global populism and the status of women.
Our discussion was centered on the emergence of far-right political figures and parties across the world. There was a focused and dynamic energy to our dialogue, and it was clear that each woman in the room desired space for their input and concerns. Each woman’s voice was textured by its own unique intent; while some of us wanted to provide our insights on opposing the spread of divisive ideologies, others took the time to gently emote over the lives that have already been impacted by the new United States President’s first large string of executive orders.
Here’s the thing, we are here as delegates on behalf of the PC(USA) denomination. It is our faith that has driven twelve young women to attend the CSW. We come from different walks of life, yet the majority of us are attending seminary. For me, it was seminary that taught me what the imago Dei truly looked like. Genesis 1:27 affirms the personhood of every human being. The text reads, “God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God they were created; male and female Got created them.” This text is the theology that guides my politics. When executive orders dehumanize our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors, our faith body must stand up and affirm the imago Dei of all humanity.
Our refugees need their hosts countries to affirm their humanity and value. Our refugees need our churches to stand in solidarity and fight for their rights. Our panel began with a sweep of hand gesturing towards an empty chair. “This empty chair represents the many women who could not be with us at this year’s Commission on the Status of Women. It represents all of the voices that will not be heard at the United Nations this year.” This year, we are missing out. Women have been left behind and it is our loss. While the panel began with this image, we have continued to name the absence of those who could not attend this year. For those of us who are representatives on the ecumenical end, this empty charge became our charge and benediction to welcome, fight for, and love our global sisters.