I have not really been using this blog space but I thought this issue is a really good place to start. If you follow Caribbean news you would know that gender-based violence and issues of sexual abuse and assault are prevalent in our small societies. While nation-based and regional advocacy groups have steadfastly engaged the issue and kept pressure on law enforcement to amend laws and procedures that would improve the process for reporting crimes of sexual abuse, coverage of such incidents by the media, and due process and justice within the court systems. Yet, the number of reported cases, especially in my home here in Dominica, have remained very high, with the recent numbers for 2015 at 128 for sexual related assaults against minors. For a population of 73,000, this is incredibly high and these are just the cases that were reported and officially processed. This week in national news, a number of high profile men – entrepreneurs and public officials – have been linked to incidents involving a minor. The visibility of the men alleged to have interactions with the minor has given the issue quite a bit of press. Of course, the partisan politics have distracted us a bit from focusing on unpacking the layers of the prevalance of sexual abuse to get at the core of the issue.
I write a column for The Chronicle, Dominica’s longest serving newspaper, called “That’s What She Said.” Several months ago (April 2015), when there was no major incident to speak of, I reflected on the way my gender politics had transitioned after moving back to Dominica. I think it’s an important time to reflect on that conversation (written for a local audience)…
You say feminism like it’s a bad thing (April 2015)
A few weeks after I moved to Dominica in 2013, someone who would become a good friend of mine for a while reminded me that I needed to keep my “American ways” to myself if I was going to be able to live here and live well. At the time, it was a joke and although I hit him right back with a few ways of his own he could keep to himself, one of his examples of “American ways” struck me as particularly astonishing and sad, although not at all surprising.
Of all the vices I had brought back with me in my suitcases and barrels, my feminism was definitely the most offensive of them all. That idea has stuck with me more and more and as I’ve lived here I’ve come to understand that while women are visible in the workplace and taking up major roles in public and private sector, in community leadership and politics, we need a dialogue about feminism, probably now more than ever.
I have the opportunity to speak publicly quite often because of my professional profile. It’s important for me to have the vocabulary of feminism every time I have to engage questions of whether I’m single or married or having children immediately following those speaking engagements. For every three people who are really engaged in what I was saying or my professional or community work, there were three who were more interested in what I was wearing or what I did in my spare time – right there at the event!
Feminism must be part of our national dialogue because too often, men don’t have to filter themselves and their suggestive jokes or “compliments” in professional spaces. And saying “this is Dominica” or “it’s just a joke” find the women on the receiving end of those gestures as uptight, too tough, or even worse – frigid or gay (as if I’m supposed to be insulted by any of these terms. I don’t have time today to discuss the rampant homophobia). Feminism is needed because too many men work on the assumption that their own attraction or desire to consume women’s spaces, thoughts, bodies, sexuality are de facto reciprocated and any lack of interest on your part can lead to ridicule, especially the tired “stop acting like you don’t need men” narrative. Engaging in a mutually consensual and organically developed relationship is not the same as being bombarded with inappropriateness on a daily basis when you’re trying to get your work done or enjoy the company of friends.
So with all my “American feminism,” I have found in my time here that so many women of my generation and the one before are facing similar issues. So what exactly is foreign about an ethos like feminism that allows me to respond appropriately to that?
I’m fortunate to have access to resources and a vocabulary that allows me to respond to these frustrating situations with a modicum of patience and tact. But there are many girls and women among us who can’t or don’t know how to prevent such incidents. So instead of simply musing on my own position, I will make a short list of visible issues in our community that make feminism a word, idea and practice that is not just relevant but critical to our culture and politics:
1) Sex-Related Crimes: every few months members of the legal fraternity, social workers and media workers express their concern and frustration over the number of sexual assault cases that dominate the list of Criminal Assizes. Moreover, this list is almost completely acts against female victims and a large percentage against young girl children (especially ages11-16). And yet we spend so much time policing young women’s bodies and choices using the language of morality that, albeit well-intended, justifies rape culture: dress modestly, respect yourself, don’t use foul language, don’t spend time around men, etc., etc.
Here’s an idea: how about spend all that energy providing positive extracurricular activities for girls and young women? How about starting at the place we need to start, which is working collectively to see laws enforced against convicted criminals of sex-based crimes? How about we start telling men about their morality: don’t rape. Don’t rape. That should be the whole story. In a moving section in the Eve Ensler play Vagina Monologues, the point is made clear. I can dye my hair green, have two boyfriends in one year, or buy a form-fitting dress to go to a party with my friends, but “my short skirt and everything under it is mine, mine, mine.”
We want to encourage young women to dress appropriately for occasions and contexts, for their age, and certainly in ways that make them feel most comfortable and beautiful in their skin without being self-conscious. But I must say that we spend too much time using language of modesty about young women’s choices rather than discussing what men can and must do differently. In Delhi and Istanbul, the purity and modest dress that their culture and religions demand certainly haven’t stopped men from egregious abuses of power in their sexual violence against women.
2) Street Harassment: Two young girls, about 15 years old, are walking home from school when three young men, clearly older than them, give them some attention, with a “pssst.” They giggle and think it’s cute because they’re 15. It’s age appropriate behavior. But she knows she shouldn’t tell him her name or number if she doesn’t want to and so politely declines further conversation and keeps walking with her friend. And what happens next: cursing, public ridiculing, even further physical harassment with men following her to her destination.
Each girl learns that her body and her beauty are objects of manipulation or shame and will forever have to police herself in public. She will either know then that it’s powerful enough to bring these men to her to attract material things or she will be completely self-conscious about what she does, what she wears. Meanwhile, it may be likely that she lives in a maternal single-parent home and doesn’t interact with her father on a regular basis. But God forbid he catches her in that unfortunate encounter with the young men: she might get a beating for “talking to man” in public without ever being able to explain what happened. Such is the cycle. I guess that’s what he meant by feminism being a foreign thing.
Surely, women themselves also perpetuate these gender biases in ways that continue to validate the actions of the men. The lost art of the compliment is a clear example of that. Women have to create a more positive and reinforcing culture that allows us to see ourselves reflected in each other and therefore encourage and empower each other. We need this in areas of self-esteem, professional development and personal health and wellness.
We need a vocabulary for feminism because far too many women in our culture value the opinions of men over the evidence of women’s success. For a woman to have been successful, it is impossible for her to have done it without the suggestion of other means. The dominant function of gossip in our society is to shame women into “respectable” behavior when it validates men’s behavior. Nobody ever asks, “Who did he sleep with to get that job or those resources?” except when it’s to attempt to shame a man for covert homosexual practices – equally unconscionable.
For me, feminism is about a daily attitude and practice that recognizes the humanity of women beyond their utility to men. It is about affording women an equal opportunity to choose the terms under which they want to interact with men in their professional and personal spaces. It is about choosing to focus on their work, career, communities without being forced to explain their choices in their private lives in order to be taken seriously.
Feminism is about working hard to create safe spaces for women and girls to have the same amount of outdoor playtime as boys without being called “fast” before they hit age 10. It’s about making sure that people believe that they are as good at Math and Computer Science as their male counterparts in the classroom. In other words, all men can be feminists too. So if that feminism is a foreign concept, as my friend has stated, then I’ll either need to go back “foreign” or get new friends.
Note: If you want to read more opinions on the current case, you can check out the editorial page of The Chronicle.