Governments, policy-makers, businesses, scientists, faith leaders and activists are gathered in Glasgow for COP26. During two weeks of negotiations, policies and action plans are to be agreed upon. As UN climate officials have warned, inaction will result in global security and stability breaking down, with continued migration crises and food shortages bringing conflict and chaos.
Masked participants are a reminder that these negotiations are taking place during a pandemic. COVID-19, among many other crises, has unveiled the fragility of the social care system and economy. Women and girls in all their diversity are most impacted by the climate emergency, but still face challenges in participating at the table where decisions that affect them are taken.
Sharing the table is a good metaphor to illustrate who are subjects and who are agents of decisions. There are social, economic, racial and gender disparities that affect who has a seat at the table. The theologian Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro talks of the round table, which has no sides and no preferred seating ; where space is constantly made for newcomers and where all can be seen and heard. At COP26 and beyond, women are seeking a round table, with all its potential and possibilities.
Sharing or accumulating food defines social relations. The word “companion” carries in its (Latin) root (con-pan) the notion of “with and bread.” With whom do I eat the bread? Whoever is my partner at the table, she, he or they are my partners in life and in social relations. We become allies with those whom we share the table and with those whom we share food. If women are not integral, whole and comfortable at the table, then the table is not round, inclusive and democratic.
The COP26 negotiations show that our current policy-making spaces are not inclusive. Critical voices and their lived experiences of the climate emergency, those who should be at the forefront of these discussions, are silenced, ignored and forgotten. “As long as women are asked to bring a self-denying mentality to the communal table, it will never be round, men and women seated together; it will remain the same traditional hierarchical dais, with a folding table for women at the foot.”
Patriarchy is a system which holds power; a system reinforced by colonizers – one which takes territory to be conquered, explored, ab/used. In the same way women’s bodies continue to be positioned as a territory to be conquered, domesticated, ab/used. There is a deep epistemological and practical connection between what destroys the earth and what denies people of their rights and agency. This goes hand in hand with a theology that uses biblical testimonies to justify hierarchical power relations. The Creation story is one example – land will be dominated as man will dominate woman.
Throughout COP26, there have been strong calls from civil society, including people of faith, for feminist and decolonising agreements and action. There is a collective and heavy responsibility to rethink, renew and rebuild, while we continue to live with COVID-19. We must shift our focus to the empowerment and agency of those concerned. The time for ‘benevolence’ and ‘pity’ is over.
We are no longer searching for Western saviours. We are calling for justice, and for countries to address histories of oppression. This requires those practices of solidarity which create communities, and bringing people together in relationship with each other and Creation, and with shared responsibilities. This is rooted in our theologies, which call us to love – love your neighbours – as the diaconal mandate of churches and faith-based organisations. This is without imposing and absolutising our truths, like a universal imperialism that obstructs the flow of biodiversity, creates borders and controls territories.
If we continue with the metaphor of the shared table, we can reflect on the food we bring to that table. As poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz says, “If Aristotle had cooked, he would have written much more.” There is often a distance between the kitchen and the library in women’s writing. Sometimes the kitchen seems to refer to an obscure place, where women lose themselves in mechanical gestures. In silence, with poor understanding of complexity, and with no need for a higher level of reflection and knowledge or difficult language. Orality dominates. There is the assumption that the library is a structured atmosphere of complex knowledge and language; one where the environment nurtures a highly-qualified level of knowledge that is systematized in written narratives.
Recovering memories from the kitchen and searching for the wisdom in recipe books is a political movement which vindicates the plurality of knowledge. It is searching for solutions from a context perspective. Kitchen philosophies are a cognitive experience distinct from normative knowledge which is normally learned in predominantly patriarchal and male- oriented educational institutions that lack the materiality of daily life. The production of knowledge in that protected and carpeted environment is safeguarded from the rumours, noise, dust and smells of domestic life.
Let’s talk about our knowledge, spirituality, wisdom, philosophies and theologies. They flourish while we move about our kitchens with their tables, pots and jars, but also in libraries, seminaries, negotiating rooms and academic spaces. Let us conclude with one possible recipe for a faith-based feminist and decolonised outcome towards a new social contract. This is one, there will be other, diverse pathways for gender justice and environmental sustainability, where social justice is at the centre of global development:
- Create Round and Inclusive Tables. Identify the missing voices and address structural and social barriers.
- Practice Solidarity. Be challenged to do things differently, to decolonise and create communities shaped by our feminist and faith values.
- Search for, Research and Respect Community Knowledge. Avoid reinforcing hierarchies of knowledge, and shape policies based on the realities, lived experience and knowledge of people on the frontlines of the climate emergency.
- Address the Extractives Status Quo and Promote Economic Justice. Promote biodiversity and ecosystems; protect access to water, food and land; and, work for a gender-responsive care economy.
- Counter Fundamentalisms and Anti-rights Backlashes. Work with women’s rights organisations and transformative faith-based approaches to transform social norms, strengthen democratic spaces, and amplify marginalised prophetic voices.
 Musimbi Kanyoro. (1997) In Search of a Round Table: Gender, Theology and Church Leadership. Geneva: WCC
 Naomi Wolf. Hunger. In. Patricia Fallon, Melanie A. Katzman, Susan C. Wooley. (eds.) Feminist perspectives on eating disorders. New York/London, The Guilford Press, 1994, p. 98
 Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. La respuesta a Sor Filotéa de las Cruz. In Margaret Sayers Peden (trans.) A Women of Genius, an Intellectual Autobiography. Salisbury, CT: Lime Rock Press, 1982.
Elaine Neuenfeldt is the ACT Gender Programme Manager and Rachel Tavernor focusses on ACT Gender Advocacy.