How being a ‘voice for the voiceless’ is a form of oppression

By Iwatutu Joyce Adewole
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I know hate is such a strong word but I hate it when activists claim to be advocating for the voiceless. Who are the voiceless? Is there such a thing as voiceless? What exactly do they mean by voiceless and how are they advocating for the voiceless.? If they have classified the voiceless as people with speaking impairments, I would say that they are wrong because they have a language: the sign language. And we must be patient enough to listen and understand if we truly want to include them and believe they have a voice.

Or maybe who they refer to are the oppressed. And I would still say they are wrong because oppressed, vulnerable, marginalised groups all have a voice; an unheard voice and a silenced one. One of my favourite quotes is from Arundhati Roy, “There's really no such thing as the 'voiceless'. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

That quote is right in all ways of all the groups that we fight for today: women and girls, poor people, the LGBTQI community, black people, people living with disabilities. Many women who have experienced rape at some point in their lives have said “NO” once or more. NO is a two-letter word, short but meaningful and valid. It was spoken and that is a voice that was silenced. The voice of more than 100 protesters with Davis Mac-Iyalla to say ‘LGBT Rights Are Human Rights’ and ‘Stop State Homophobia’ expressing their disgust at a new Nigerian law that exposes LGBT to insecurity, threats, and harm was also ignored.

And we cannot count how many times we’ve unheard the voices of black people just like Tyrique Hudson who went to court to obtain a protective order from a 53-year-old white man who later murdered him. Hudson, a promising young man died because his voice was ignored or should I say not loud enough to be heard just like every other black man who has died from preferences of unhearing their black voices. Or should we talk about the most trending issue: Can we remember how George Floyd said “Please I can’t breathe, my stomach hurt, my neck hurts, everything hurts, they are going to kill me” in the video where a white police officer knelt on his neck like he was thanking God for his power: the oppressor’s power?

I love the way Martin Luther King put it, “Black Power is the cry of the unheard”. He didn’t say voiceless because he sure knows that black people have a voice just like every other oppressed group that has been silenced.

Poor people and people living with disabilities have been speaking about their struggles using the media; we even do documentaries about poor people and their way of living but most of the time we use them to achieve our agenda be it political or social validation for being good people. Have we really done something for the poor that involves not bringing out cameras to record the moment or our assistants to keep a note of everything for a detailed report so we can show the world that we are doing something for poor people?

One of the times my voice was unheard was when I was kidnapped. I told my kidnapper to let me go, I screamed and even cried that he should allow me to speak to my mummy and then he said I should take off my clothes. I asked him if I was about to take a nude photoshoot because I didn’t want to imagine that a man, a stranger, was about to go inside of me uninvited. I have heard of rape, I know what rape is and it seems I was about to take my clothes off for it. I did take my clothes off and I do not why I kept telling him I don’t have a vagina amid tears. Oh, I know why I told him that: I was afraid of getting raped again, of getting killed in the process, but I was more scared of getting raped than losing my life and I didn’t want him to see me as a being with a vagina if that was the only thing that was going to protect me. Many of my friends and work colleagues are going to remember me saying the words “I don’t have a vagina” maybe as a joke or on my WhatsApp status or during an argument and they never get the reason why I do so. Some of them even occasionally ask that if I really do not have a vagina, what do I have? And we all laugh it all out. Well, it was a sentence I hoped my oppressor understood.

Our oppressors know that we have a voice because we can speak, they heard us speak most times in a language they understand and even in cases when we cannot speak we showed signs, we cried, we frowned, we put on a sad face for situations that cause us distress, things that make us feel uncomfortable and this to me are voices regardless of how they were spoken. They were just voices preferably unheard.

When Amy Cooper called the police that an African American was threatening her life, she knew exactly what she was doing; she was willing to use her white privilege to threaten the life of a black man because she sure knew her colour mostly can’t be challenged against a black man; she is aware that the systemic racism and injustices are for her not against her. At some point too, my kidnapper let me go and said, ‘Go and die.’ And that is what oppressors do, they are willing to weaponise their influence, existing prejudice against you. Oppressors know what they are doing, the power is in their hands; they can choose to ignore you or just listen. It is their call. The power of oppressors is that they do whatever pleases them and, when they choose to be kind, the world needs to see them as good.

So when activists use the word voiceless, it makes me cringe. Are they trying to be oppressors too? Because it seems to me that they want the world to glorify them for voicing out for the voiceless. And if they do not want to catch a glory for that, they are giving power to oppressors by simply saying some of the oppressors’ actions are justified since the voiceless can’t be heard, they can not speak. How could they have heard them? We forgive you for these actions but can you hear ours now as if they forgot what the power of oppressor means ㅡ that they don’t do things because a voice was heard, they do things because it is preferably heard.

When we say voiceless, it means we are invalidating and demeaning the experiences of those facing the oppression because the reality of the oppressed is not that they do not have a voice but that their voices are unheard and their struggle for an equal world in an unfair world is ignored. When we use the word ‘voiceless’, we are slowly becoming oppressors ourselves.

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