Phibbah on IRIE-FM

September 11, 2006

To Whom It May Concern:

I have been listening to IRIE-FM for a few months now, and it has functioned as mostly background noise for me.  So, for the past few days, I have been quite surprised — pleasantly so — to hear such discussion about the essay competition on Phibbah.  But, today, while listening to the DJ on the radio — I don’t know what her name is; broadcast around now, 1:30 — it became apparent that she did not fully understand the real impact and import of Phibbah’s experiences, or how to translate important dimensions of that history/knowledge into contemporary times.  The trajectory of her commentary went as such: she attempted to translate the formal history into Jamaican Creole by synthesizing the known history of Thistlewood raping Phibbah in the following way – “im musse did tink sey a’ ‘im ooman but ah rape im did a rape ‘ar”, and “memba di name Thistlewood, so if you si anybody wid dat name you can sey hmm…is im generation dem”.  She then went on to that while listeners might want to blame Phibba for putting up with being raped, they needed to recognize that she had few options because she was a slave (owned by Thistlewood); however, she was able to buy land, etc. etc. once she took the money he gave her to and became a free woman.  Immediately following, she referred to community activities in Westmoreland to build/renovate a center for adolescent mothers, and mentioned a monument to be built for Phibba. The segment ends with the song “Woman you get standing ovation.”

Now, it is itself remarkable that this is the first opportunity that we have had as a nation to use the historical experiences of Jamaican women to generate productive public discourse about the ways that rape and sexual terrorism continue to limit the lives of Jamaican women and girls.  However, it is not simply a moment to glorify Phibbah for eventually getting on with her life — that too is important — but to take stock of how power inequalities in the society based on gender and class still make the lives of many women and children so difficult that, in many ways, they are enslaved.  The psychological and physical trauma robs our society of women who could otherwise make important contributions, without waiting for the “ded-lef” of the men or the policies that traumatized them in the first place.   I believe that we as Jamaicans have a collective responsibilty to deal with this issue in an intelligent and creative fashion.

Downplaying the horrible experiences of rape — whether historical or contemporary, as the DJ did, only allows the stigma and the violence to flourish.  Women and girls can convince themselves that they can get on with their lives eventually, that there is really no harm done, and really, it is their business, not a reflection of the collective experiences and daily lives of the women who live in that society.  Men can convince themselves that since its their wife/girlfriend/cousin they really didnt’ do anything wrong.  Downplaying rape as a historical and contemporary reality of WOMEN – not just Phibbah and not just the latest victim reported in the Gleaner — allows us to “feel sorry” for the poor ting who this happen to and to ask “wha ki’na mn woulda do dat?” but ignore the ways in which our institutions — like IRIE FM — often conspire against us through their reluctance to call sexual violence against women for exactly what it is.  There are hundreds of Phibbas among us today, and few will get such a lucky break in a time when “owners/slaveholders” come in many stripes these days — fathers, boyfriends, dons, etc.

By ignoring or not recognizing the opportunity before us to condemn sexual violence and to generate new, vibrant debate and solutions about dealing with sexual violence in Jamaican society, we are conceding that rape and sexual violence is not really a problem, when in fact it is the the hidden crisis; just because Minister of National Security and Mr. Police Commissioner has shown little or no  interest in it [can we report sexual predators to Kingfish?] doesn’t mean that this form of violence does not also need national attention and resources. I know that, with effort and awareness, IRIE-FM can do much better to honor Phibba’s legacy.  I am counting on it.



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