We all want to fit in, don’t we?

Christine Stegling taking to the Power Stage at Women Deliver.

We’ve all done things to fit in. About 25 years ago, I married my husband, Victor. He is from Botswana and we lived in Gaborone, where I worked on HIV and Human Rights.

I sat on Botswana’s National AIDS Council when it was chaired by President, Festus Mogae. I was obliged to wear a smart dress at every meeting – and the President would often refer to me as “our ngwetsi” meaning our daughter-in-law.

I found this informality kind and even a little charming until I told my husband. Victor pointed out that it was not only a term of affection but a subtle way of keeping me in my place, ensuring I remained within the boundaries laid down by Botswana’s patriarchal culture. This young woman could tell it like it was – but only up to a point.

I did not object. I needed to fit in so that knew that I had the opportunity to influence Botswana’s response to HIV.

We’ve all been there haven’t we? Maybe in less unusual but more painful circumstances –but we have all been there. It’s natural. Very few people actively seek to stand out.

But what are we fitting in to? We are fitting in to patriarchal societies that limit us, dehumanise us and even kill us.

We are fitting in to a society where 25 white, mostly old, male legislators in Alabama can tell women in the state that they have no control over their bodies when it comes to pregnancy.

We are fitting in to societies where men believe “A woman is like an olive, the more you beat her the sweeter she is.” – a Lebanese saying that we found during our research on the links between violence against women and HIV in the Middle East – a region where girls and young women are twice as likely to acquire HIV compared to boys and young men of the same age.

I am not using the term patriarchy naively. I know that there is ample theory and intellectual struggle behind the concept. A five minute talk will not do justice to that.

But patriarchy is real for every woman in this room. Some have suffered more than others. Some of us are able to fit in and can glide through, looking the right way and saying the right things. Yes, patriarchy is still there but it doesn’t harm us too much.

Fitting in, or more precisely, not shaking the fundamental societal structures that we operate in as women activists, results in not asking the big questions

Questions like: how will we end new HIV infections if in reality most of us live in social, economic and political conditions where patriarchy is not challenged.

The answer is that we will not end HIV until women are able to control their own lives, including our sexual health. This means I can negotiate who I want to have sex with and whether I want to use a condom or not; this means having a choice about whether and when to have children. It means I have access to safe abortion services and I don’t need permission from anyone to make that choice.

We are more than mothers, wives and daughters. Embrace us in all our complicated glory – as businesswomen, as sex workers, as politicians and as women who use drugs.

We dance around those issues because we don’t want to address patriarchy head on. Because it is difficult. It is political. It is uncomfortable.

And what about women who will never fit with what the patriarchal narrative defines as ok – or at least as tolerable?

Who am I talking about? I’m talking about our friends, our sisters. I’m talking about people that we work with every day at Frontline AIDS. I’m talking about our friends Abinha, Maxy and Halyna. They do not fit in with the patriarchal narrative but they are making themselves heard. Like so many women on the margins of society they are doing more every day to protect lives than any of those 25 senators in Alabama.

We cannot stay where we are. We need to move forward. There are two simple things that everyone can do every day.

Let’s say things as they are. If we want to be heard, we need to stop saying nice things and using sanitised language that gets us onto cosy panels. We need to talk about rape instead of gender-based violence. We need to talk about the power imbalance that makes it impossible for women to negotiate safer sex in marriage. We need to talk about the politics of power that denies women a voice simply because they are women. What we say really matters. If we allow ourselves to be toned down then we are simply fitting in.

Let’s stand together as women, in ALL our diversity. Next time you are on stage or in a meeting ask yourself – How am I going to stand up for women who have the least power? What are you going to say about mothers who sell sex, sisters who use drugs, transgender aunties, HIV-positive girlfriends, lesbian neighbours? Are you going to stand with them or are you going to conveniently forget to mention them?

This comes down to honesty, about who we are, what we do and the extent to which we fit in. We are all a mass of contradictions. Are we ready to stand together in solidarity?

We need to name patriarchy for what it is to end violence against women, to end unsafe abortions and to stop men making decisions against our bodies in the courthouse and in the bedroom. Only then can we secure a future free from AIDS for everyone, everywhere.

Let’s stop fitting in.