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  • Stella-Monica Mpande


Updated: Apr 3, 2020

"Elle n'est pas n'importe qui...elle vient de quelque part" - Sali, Burkinabe hair braider in La Côte d'Ivoire, circa 1993-1998

(Translation: "She’s not just anybody; she comes from somewhere.")

As her long, naturally-pedicured brown fingers seamlessly wove through the thick fibers of the black, synthetic hairs that she braided methodically into my own hair, Sali described the young woman who nearly got attacked in her village about a week ago.  I tried to turn my head back to see her face narrate the story, but sitting on the purple-pink dyed straw mat, with my legs crossed, head placed firmly between her lap, Sali turned my head straight ahead and kept braiding. I think she forgot she was talking to me,

“Tu vois, ils avaient tort—ces hommes-là. Ils ont vu une petite fille, avec sa robe dechirée, et ils se sont dit: Elle est pauvre. Personne ne saura ou ne s’en souciera si nous lui avons fait quelque chose.”

(Translation: “You see, they were wrong—those men. They saw a young girl with tattered clothing, walking by herself, and they thought, 'She is poor. No one will know or care if we did anything to her.'")

My eyes could not see Sali's face, but they could see the cracks and low soft-spoken tone of her voice. With increasing urgency in her message, her fingers pulled and tugged every thin braid rhythmically,

"Elle n’est pas n’importe qui. Elle a un nom. Elle vient de quelque part. Elle a une famille. Elle a une maison. Faut pas dire qu’elle n’est rien. C’est faux.”

(Translation: "She is not just anybody. She has a name. She comes from somewhere. She has a family. She has a home. Don’t say she is a nobody. That's false.")

"Elle n'est pas n'importe qui...elle vient de quelque part."  Sali did a fine job of braiding each syllable into my brain...permanently. Fast forward to 2020, Sali’s words begged two questions for me: How are women invisible? And how are women invincible? Is there an assumption that women are indeed invisible and invincible? And why is this critical today?

At first glance, the questions seemed simple, but they actually have nuances...

We’re familiar with the statistics about the gender gap, salary/wage differentials and the many other staggering facts that continuously remind us that the needle has moved very little since the 1800s. A 2018 McKinsey study revealed that “as employees move up the corporate ladder, the disparity increases. Only 79 women are promoted to manager, compared to every 100 men. Has there been progress for women? Yes. Do we still have a long way to go? Yes.

And so the question is why do these structures still exist? Whom do they benefit and why? And it transcends policy and rules if we had to analyze this. It’s a mindset. And who’s mindset? To be clear, there is an assumption that to privilege a woman’s voice is to always polarize her against a man’s position. Yet, both women and men are the targets of those that have helped women advance—and contributed to her struggle. And at times, it’s arguably more difficult for women to support other women when there is a “crabs in the barrel” mentality that perpetuates stereotypes and insecurities that unnecessarily hold each other back.

One of the saddest conversations I have had was with a young African American girl in Kramer books when I was recommending Iris Bohnet’s “What Works”—a seminal book on gender bias and what to do about it. She rolled her eyes, looked me up and down and said, “Yeah, but your version of feminism is not mine.” I was pained because I know how logical her statement was: white ladies with a healthy-ish income have no damn clue what it is to be a young black woman facing both sexism and institutional racism. But at the same time we must remember: You don’t have to be standing in s*&! to know what it smells like…and if we forget that, and our strength in numbers, we are lost (especially since women already experience mass Stockholm Syndrome and often vote against and hire against their own economic interests)...” - Emily Brearley

To be invisible is to not be seen, and to not be heard. To be rendered sightless and voiceless is to equip and to empower others to see for you where your eyes won’t see, and to speak for you where your voice won’t speak. Arguably, to be made invisible is to remove your agency. Women are not invisible unless they are positioned to be invisible.

Sometimes, fear can drive a woman’s invisibility. Fearful to let their light shine, or fearful to lose the security blanket in an oppressive environment they have formed as a new comfort zone. Perhaps even more fearful of transforming a status quo that would require more than one life term, itself.

“Women of fear are invisible and women of faith are invincible. Invisibility is a culture. Invincibility is a mindset. - Chizoma Nosiri

We were not born invisible. I don’t believe it was God’s will for any one of His children to be invisible. Isaiah. 42: 6-7: “I am the LORD, I have called You in righteousness, I will also hold You by the hand and watch over You, And I will appoint You as a covenant to the people, As a light to the nations, To open blind eyes, To bring out prisoners from the dungeon And those who dwell in darkness from the prison.”

“I'm not invisible. I’m God's child and He has put me here for a purpose and nothing else matters because I know my purpose and I have His love and favor. I will move through this and not let society beat me down. It’s a distraction that is working quite well because we keep allowing it to distract us.” - Terri Quintos

For Woman to be made Invisible is a conscious effort either by self or by another to dismiss, diminish and evade her point of view or to eradicate her presence, shift the power balance towards a dominant alternative that aims to position the woman as weak, and subjugate her to control.

It’s easy to look at Woman and form some type of assumption that concludes her as “weak” and vulnerable in the conquest of power. And the quieter she is, the less “problematic” she is. She doesn’t ruffle feathers, maintains the status quo, and apparently gives the false impression that she is weak, unknown and a perfect canvas for unfair treatment. Why? She is falsely presumed to be unprotected because no one can be held accountable to how one treats her. But in the words of Sali, “Elle n’est pas n’importe qui; elle vient de quelque pars.”

In this context, it benefits those who must keep Woman invisible. Her invisibility will preserve the image, security, and value of those in positions of power whose sense of security or identity may feel threatened by her force—whether they care to admit this or not. But it’s not to say her value is not acknowledged. Au contraire, her highly-regarded value-add creates and manifests many genius plans today. However, she remains “hidden” as their best-kept secret to their success, or of a final outcome. And her resistance to a positioning she deems unjust is problematized as: “petty” for fighting for credit or to be seen, “difficult,” or “a handful.” Ironically, these same characteristics won’t be problematic if roles were reversed or if the shoe were on the other foot. Go figure.

Therefore, attempts to satisfy this “difficult, petty” character present her with an alternative consolation prize: be seen and heard—privately. Celebrate her minimally in secrecy and affirm her value behind closed doors—but hide the quantity and quality of her contributions in public, attribute them to another (if at all) and still render her “invisible” to the naked eye. After all, the greater her threat to another, the more invisible she must become.

“I think Black and Latina women have become more visible in society physically but it’s the micro-aggression and minimization of their intellect, humanity and overall narrative that continues to be problematic. It’s important to continue to empower and support them by increasing our awareness and listening to them as opposed to dismissing the realities and challenges they face to their personhood.” - AYOINMOTION

One day, Woman snaps because she is tired. Tired of being a pawn, a mule—and the gloves come off.

Because the core of Woman’s spirit to keep pushing ahead is ingrained deep in her will to survive, birth and nurture life—whether physically or metaphorically. To speak life over death is to project a voice, an idea, and to be present in a room—even in silence—and restore purpose to what was deemed fruitless. So, if this means speaking life over her own purpose to break free from an oppressive dynamic that imprisons her, then so be it. Is this Woman Invincible?

"The breakthrough idea, the much-needed advice, the honest opinion, those become invisible when a woman bites her tongue." - Shawn Ghuman

Woman already knows the odds stacked against her—but she will march ahead. She knows that she is paid less than the average man, but will perform and outperform time again. She already knows she is targeted in organizations where her “minority” status is accompanied with additional pressures to overcome—justifying sisterlocks, codeswitching to curb the heavy accents and slang that dare bring the colloquial from the dirt-paved village, urban slums or sly streets of the inner city to the corporate ivory towers—to still hit numbers, bring clients, rake in profits and compete in a corporate race that was paved with landmines and roadblocks, albeit the glass ceiling.

“I’ve often had conversations with other women of color, specifically Black women, about being  the “over-under.” We are over-qualified, overworked, over-utilized in subservient capacities yet, remain underpaid, underrepresented, and undervalued. Consequently, this rejection and intended invisibility leave us frustratingly fighting against our perceived underestimated abilities. We’re purposely overlooked as our white male and female counterparts (many without our same credentials, merits, and skill-sets) are shown favoritism in the form of better projects, salaries, perks, positions, and more.” - Davia Crutchfield
“The onus to overcoming that feeling by women in developing countries or women of colour in our own developed countries is to consistently UPLIFT voices that might not be heard overwise—and not in some corny, virtue signaling manner… but in a way that is truly genuine and helpful—just as we call on men to give us space at the conference table or hire us to the corner office… We all struggle to get seen and heard in society. We must come together to decisively shift the dial on gender equality.” - Emily Brearley

An unofficial acrobat of Cirque du Soleil, she balances a household that depends on her, while pregnant, to make play time for her twins, help her older child with homework, make dinner, support her significant other, if she has one, be the first to report to work—and at the end of the day, smile, “I’m fine, same ‘ole” when asked how her day went. After all, this is her every day. Is this Woman Invincible?

“There is a saying that behind every successful man, there is a strong woman. Most marriages in the Black/ ethnic communities today are held together by women. They endure abuse, infidelity, shame just to keep their homes together and once the man/ husband achieves success, very few credit their wives for the moral and physical support in that journey.” - Yvonne Kirabo

But here is another question—is her invincibility the skill at masking the invisible hurts that push her to the brink of madness?

Black women and all women of color I feel have gotten the short end of the stick less access to things needed to fulfill their daily needs and that of their families. Lack of access to proper medical treatment. Lack of access to opportunities in the workplace. Lack of respect and honor in their communities. With all of these stressors, women in general and women of color in particular, have shown extraordinary courage and resilience.” - Dini Henok
Black women are invincible in society. Our resiliency has shown that we are a force with which to be reckoned, and no matter what, we will make a way. #trustblackwomen - Ronda Taylor Bullock

Woman’s resiliency is tested against the pressures that accompany her, especially in any foreign country where she is deemed a minority.

“Immigrant women provide an unknown society with the nurtures, hard work, and sacrifices she wishes she could do for her own land. Yet, her presence becomes invisible in the profit-making chain of command that doesn't even consider her when the time comes for the pie to be cut. She brings life into this world in a land that will now be of her children. This brings her joy, but at the cost of the pain of having her dreamed motherhood stripped for one full of what is for her unknown.” - Aitza Haddad

Whether it is participating in wars as spies, combatants, or taking paid positions and being breadwinners in eras of war—in Britain, the U.S., different parts of Africa and the rest of the globe, Woman’s Invincibility contributes to the political freedom and socio-economic advancements in ways that many narratives diminish.

“An invincible woman is one that found her true purpose and is living her life accordingly. This type of woman has made sacrifices to be where she is and dealt with judgment from others regarding her life choices. Her scars reflect the battle she has been through, however, her scars tell us of her survival. She is invincible because if she can survive the inner combat to freedom without caving into societal pressures, she is a hero.” - Zephorah Nure

And then the twist. Perhaps, in Woman’s Invincibility, she finds the agency to choose if, and when to be Invisible in her commitment to nurture, preserve and give life. But it will be on her own terms, in her own agency.

"As a mother, and therefore a woman, I’m invincible because I’m invisible. Through my teachings and examples, I can leave a mark in this world through my children just like my mother and my grandmother did before me. My influence can carry on for generations to come even long after I am gone, as that, I believe, is the ultimate power of a woman.” - Cindy Roberson

As do the words of my mother, Proscovia Mpande, and her generation to me and my sisters in my moments of weakness she has said since I was a child, “Keep strong. You know what you are fighting for.” It wasn’t just about fighting, but committing to a purpose against odds.

Yes, Mommy, and the fight takes on new meaning with every chapter of this life…

“I have observed from a man’s perspective that when we affirm our womenhonestly acknowledge their strengths, and support all of their effortsthat Woman responds with agility, creativity, loyalty and an intense love that will not be matched. There is truly nothing a woman cannot do and no situation that will prove insurmountable for a woman with a plan.” - Estifanos Berta-Samuel

So, cheers to all women before, during and after me! Thank you for fighting for me and for our generations ahead. Remember also that you are worth fighting for.

“When we think of Harriet Tubman, Soujourner Truth, Corretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz, Dr. Dorthy Irene Height, Barbara Jordan, Madame C.J. Walker, Dr. Joenetta B. Cole, Susan Taylor, Barbara Smith and the long list of magnificent women both past and present we say (Ashe) and we speak your names so that others might gleam from your very existence and your tenacity to lead by example. The example that has been set is a light to all of our paths so let us continue to celebrate our counterparts during this Women's History Month.” - Terrence Tarver

And if Sali were to see all of us today, she would remind us, “Elle n’est pas n’importe qui…Elle vient de quelque part.”

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