Archive for the ‘Patriarchy’ Category

A Love Letter to Jamaican Girls

A Love Letter to Jamaican Girls
January 5, 2017

I.
I have been thinking about love letters lately. Do you remember the ones you used to write or receive when you were a teenager? You would write it in secret, always when you were bored or supposed to be doing something else, and would hide it until you had a chance to give it to the intended recipient.

The prose was flowery, full of rhymes, clichés of all sorts filled the pages, lots of hearts and roses and declarations of undying affection and adoration for every aspect of the person.  The receiver would hide it in a special place, to read by themselves, over and over again.

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With scraps of paper,  borrowed pens and makeshift envelopes, we felt it important to record those feelings, to release them from captivity and hope that the person who received it would know what feelings they had inspired.

Jamaican girls need a different kind of love letter right now. Not the ones with the hearts and flowers, or written for humor’s sake, but the ones that will affirm and build them up against the ugly, hateful, toxic and deeply unloving ideas being spread about them.

Letters that anoint girls with the same intention and care as if she had journeyed to a balmyard for a bath.

Letters that girls can carry in their bosoms and pockets as spiritual defense, in the tradition of our grandmothers who used to carry herbs wrapped in pieces of cloth and tied to their brassieres to ward off evil.

Letters that make them feel strong, powerful and untouchable, as if they walk among us, but are not of us.

Letters that heal, that empower them to resist, that encourage girls to see each other as her sister’s keeper, to see herself in other girls, and to protect her fiercely.

II.

 

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Hilda Belcher, “Run Little Chillun, Run, Fo’ de Devil’s Done Loose”, 1931, Vermont

It is truly frightening how much Jamaican society has become invested in telling girls exactly how little they are valued as persons.  Maybe this isn’t new though; something I hope to investigate more over this year.   But it’s really not an exaggeration to say that nearly everything that is being said to and about Jamaican girls in public – on social media, in the taxis, comments from random strangers, sermons from the pulpit – is anything but loving.

The favourite response is to blame girls when they are violated by men.  Sadly, even girls themselves participate to prove that they are “better”.

Right after her body is found dismembered in a gully, canefield or latrine, or the unspeakable violence against her has been made public, the unofficial campaign to re-victimize her unfolds:

What could she have done to cause this to happen?

Why was she on that road?

What was she doing with him?

She must have wanted it or she wouldn’t have gone there.

She acts too grown for her age.

She should have said something.

She or her mother is being paid so nobody should complain.

She wants too much attention.

If you listen carefully, you can hear it: the deep dislike and distrust of girls. They are bad until they prove otherwise.  In the most casual conversation among Jamaicans, it takes nothing for adults to start accusing girls of being “too much” – too fast, acting too grown-up, too curious, too impatient, too impetuous, too loud, too mouthy – too whatever we don’t like or value in someone else.  In the stories that we like to tell, girls are, by definition, temptresses, schemers, always wanting to lure men into compromising positions.

The intention, whether stated or not, is always to blame girls for the harm that comes to them, and to remind us that men’s “nature” is particularly susceptible to being unleashed by prepubescent girls.  Whether it is a group of boys in a bathroom or a 62 year old man who is reputed to be a molester of an entire family of girls, men are presumed to be powerless to resist her.

 

And of course, the time-honoured ammunition for this position: the Bible.  There is simply no shortage of favourite misinterpretations to be launched from pulpits, verandahs and Facebook posts to defend sexual violence against girls.

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/dd/a9/5a/dda95af42741960fe94fa125f8f78deb.jpgYoung women are also harmed by the onslaught of negative talk. Just listen to the words adults use to curse them, to make them feel ugly, small, worthless, powerless, like nothing.  Instead of teaching girls how to love themselves and develop a positive self-identity, adults are quick to find ways to control and beat them into submission: ugly uniforms, limits on their physical movement, shaming them, denying them information, feeding them with outdated and unproven ideas, imposing silence, physically beating them.  In the warped way of many adults, this formula of “bending”, “breaking” and “moulding” is what will produce meek and mild girls, girls who do what they are told and march in exactly the ways they have been directed by adults, especially men.

The negative talk that is constantly hurled at girls seeps in, and slowly eats away at how girls see themselves and what they learn to expect in terms of how they should be treated. Too many girls spend their adolescent and adult years denying or burying their experiences of violence and humiliation, just biting their tongues and biding their time.

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If they are lucky, they learn how to love themselves and the children that they are responsible for.  But what is more likely is that their rage and buried hurt visits their children – through beatings, hurtful words, silence.

When adults deny girls love, we set them up for failure. We make it more likely for them to make poor choices in their personal lives because they are willing to go wherever they will find something that feels like love. When we choose to act surprised when girls demonstrate agency or act out their self-hatred, we are denying our responsibility in killing their dreams and slaughtering their self-concept.

III.

All of this is why Jamaican girls need love letters.

They need to be told that they are beautiful, smart, courageous, talented, that they matter, that they are poised to do great things, and that they hold the future in their hands.

They need to be told that being outspoken is a good thing, that bold girls become great women, that they don’t need permission to think.  They need to be told that they are no better or worse than any other girl who is different from them. They need to be told that all girls deserve the same opportunities to shine.

What they need to hear is that it is not ok for anyone to hurt them.  They need to be told that their bodies belong to them and them alone.  They don’t have to keep any secret when men and boys do unspeakable things to them.  And they don’t have to respect any man or do what he says just because of the political party he belongs to, which business he runs, whether he carries a gun or a bible.  Our girls need to know that they are not required to respect authority when that means they have to suffer in silence.

We need to tell girls that they don’t have to be afraid. They need daily reminders that they already know how to be courageous.  That surviving the journey from home to school to church to shop and back home with their dignity intact is an act of courage and defiance.  They need to know that other women have walked this path too, have survived and are willing to stand up for them.

We have to tell girls that their dignity is theirs to own and defend, and that no one can take that from them. No girl is dispensable or worthless.

All girls, and especially those who come from under-resourced families and communities, need psychological armor to protect them from the public assault on their character, their persons and on their lives. When we surround them with love, they become invincible. They are counting on us as adults, and we need to stop disappointing them.

So, here’s to you, Jamaican Girl!

Even if:

  • You live in the roughest part of the poorest community in your parish.
  • You spend all daylight hours sitting under a tree or in somebody else’s place just to avoid your own home or your classroom
  • The pastor/deacon/church brother has taken a liking to “laying on hands” during every prayer meeting
  • You were told that you are black and ugly like sin and you believe it
  • You are the “pet” and favorite toy of your cousin/uncle/stepfather/father/grandfather/neighbor and you don’t know why
  • You believe that you are better than other girls because you are sure that what happens to them could never happen to you
  • You have to decide between skipping school and asking the taxi-driver to drop you in exchange for a feel-up and some credit
  • You do not attend a “prominent” school, your picture is not in the newspaper, and you did not pass 10 subjects
  • You believe that it is a compliment when men of all ages call to you on the street
  • You have been held down, felt up, battered and bruised over and over again because they say that you are not a virgin so it doesn’t matter
  • Your family thinks you are worthless because you were raped
  • You have been told that you need to start fending for yourself, including having sex with older men, in order to pay for light bill and lunch money.
  • Your teachers tell you that good money is being wasted to send you to school
  • You can barely read or write and don’t speak any English
  • You bleach your skin because you believe that you will be more attractive and men will pay more attention to you and help you get ahead
  • Your community is a place where girls like yourself feels trapped or fantasizes about escaping from.

Regardless of where you live, what your situation, how well you speak English:
You are precious.
You are loved.
You matter.
You are a fighter, you are capable of great things.
We believe you.
We believe in you.

We have not always spoken up in your defence when we should have, but we see you.

We know that there’s no future if you don’t make it. There are many, many of us who are fighting for you and for your survival.

Stay strong, Jamaican Girl!

I love you.

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Create your own love letter!

 

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Silencing Women

On Saturday, September 1, 2012, a young woman, Kayann Lamont was shot and killed by a police officer, Corporal Dwayne Smart. Her unborn child is also dead and her sister injured and hospitalised.

Why did this happen?

It all started with her expressing her frustration about being robbed earlier that day.  She used “indecent language” or “bad words”.  The police attempted to arrest her for this, she resisted and he shot her in the head – twice.  Read the Observer’s accounts here and here.  The Gleaner did a story on the police officer; the Star focused on the family.

Women Protesting the Killing of 27 year-old Kayann Lamont in Yallahs, St. Thomas. Picture courtesy of Jamaica Gleaner (Sept. 3, 2012)

TVJ  news also covered the story.  One viewer shared the coverage:
“the 3rd sister an eye witness was on TVJnews n told the story,according to her; her sister was not speaking to the policeman but he overheard her telling someone ’bout dem BC” while he was righting a ticket,he came to her n told her he was going to arrest her 4 D indecent language, he proceeded to do so n she resisted a strugggle ensue n he fell, people started laughing; they both got up off d ground, he then kicked her foot n she fell he shot her twice in the head the other sister told him”u cant shoot mi sista fi nutten’ he shot her too,the third sister which is the witness came up to him said the same thing and he pointed the gun in her direction san she ran behind a fat woman she said…thats wat TVJ reported.”

Since the story broke, the conversation has shifted with each new report.

First, there was the search for intentions and explanations.

Next in focus was on the seemingly apparent contradiction between the policeman’s religious belief and his behaviour, complete with the insinuation that “demons” must have taken over his head!

In the absence of any legitimate argument that would have shifted the blame from the police to the deceased (i.e. there was no “shots were fired; police returned fire”  scenario), there has been some scurrying by government officials to appear to hold their own accountable: this press release from the Ministry of National Security and staeas well as the Police Commissioner’s statement regarding the responsibility of senior police officers in terms of preventing and reporting “excessive use of force”.

Now that he has been arrested and charged with murder – note, of KayAnn not of her unborn child – new accounts of the deadly shooting incident feature someone who is less than level-headed, and who refused to back down, even pointing his gun at one of his colleagues.

Also introduced into the story is the notion that police officers are stressed and mistreated too, hence their sometimes too-violent responses to civilians.   One article even suggested that most police are suffering from mental disorders which go untreated. The Ministry of National  Security has now given the green light for psychological testing of police officers to occur.

Now, while many are rightfully decrying the inhumanity of killing a pregnant woman and her unborn child (one body per bullet), the [typical yet] unnecessary show of force from police, and the problem of the very existence of a law that criminalises speech, something else crystallized for me as soon as I heard the story.

In my mind, this tragedy didn’t unfold as it did because of the mere expression of “badwud” and the overzealous action of a police officer who was dutifully enforcing the law.  I don’t even have to ask: nuff wud – gud, bad an ugly – didda chip outta Yallahs dah day deh; this is Jamaica, after all.  And the men are usually the loudest and most consistent practitioners of such. So the question is – why her?

I believe that this tragedy occurred because a woman was speaking out of turn, a man in a position of authority told her to stop, she refused and he did what he could to put her in her place.  When he was publicly ridiculed because of by his own stupidity, he decided to take it out on her, and punish her sister too.

In response to Javed Jaghai’s status update on FB: “This has to be some kinda twisted joke. Tell me I’m reading this story in The Onion. Fi baduod?!! Fi raas an bombo? Nuo sa!”

I responded:
“You know what i think happened (just because I’ve seen or been part of this kind of mix-up far too many times). The pregnant woman was cussin’ – and I know how we cuss when we feel wronged. She bun all ki’na fyah pon di teef, i’m modda, di wutlis police wheh shudda did si an prevent her from being robbed. An shi deh talk loud loud.

Police deh roun, look an si ah who deh cus, and said, “a pregnant woman should not be cursing; she is setting a bad example for her child”. What kind of mother is she going to be? So he says to her that “she should not be cursing” (not, it’s against the law to curse).And she says “suh what ef mi waa cuss badwud? look ummuch people deh cuss badwud an yuh n’aa badda dem? Mi can seh anyting mi w’aa seh, afta anno yuh did affi deal wid xyz….” And him get bringle an seh “but ah who dis umman a cum tell mi bout seh shi n’aa tap chat. shi nuh know who mi?” And we know how it all ends.What is or is not law enters the story after the fact. This is a great opportunity to attack the utter injustice of such a law, but that bastard was all about controlling her, and she wasn’t having it. He used his gun because he had one. If he’d had a truncheon he would have bludgeoned her to death; if he didn’t have anything, he would have given har wan rass bax an kick out har what’s it not.”

Kayann Lamont was silenced because she was committing an even greater sin than cursing.  As a pregnant woman, she was not aware that she had been given a special responsibility to represent herself as being above reproach.  Belly umman, or pregnant women are seen as “real women” in Jamaica in a way that non-pregnant women are not.  Carrying a belly is a sign of one’s fecundity and heterosexuality.  It is a sign that one is worthy of being with a man, and that a man has chosen to be with her.  Pregnancy is a major achievement that moves both men and women up a few notches on the gender scale (and of course, she’s supposed to have more than one, because as I have heard often, wan pikni anno pikni).

Being angry AND cursing in public was doubly unbecoming of her because she is a mother.   Remember, this is the country where there are signs barring women from entry into public buildings if they are wearing sleeveless tops, and where the newspaper provides coverage of preachers complaining about the attire that women wear to church.  Don’t forget the ongoing hissy fits that are regularly thrown about dancehall couture, bashment funerals, and the spectacle created by women’s unruly bodies and behaviour therein.

This is not the first Jamaican woman to be silenced for cussin’ badwud.

In fact, it is worth taking a little step backward  to recognise that this tragic moment is historically charged.   The history of the antipathy towards “badwud” has particular resonance for working-class Afro-Jamaican women.

”In this man world you got to take yuh mouth and make a gun!”  In 1983, Paule Marshall used her column in the New York Times to recount her memories of growing up as a girl in Brooklyn New York.  In particular, she talks about how the informal segregation of Barbadian immigrant women into household spaces like the kitchen also allowed her to learn how they used words to talk back and to resist the invisibility and oppressive conditions that they encountered. It is how they claimed a sense of self that was fully autonomous in a setting that conferred only un-freedom.

Black working-class women in Jamaica, particularly the non-religious ones, often flout elite rules of public conduct.  There’s a small but substantive body of work that documents how verbal abuse figures into the gender performances of black women in public: whether enslaved women living under plantation slavery (Diana Paton‘s work on language and violence and Marlon James‘ novel The Book of Night Women come to mind) or black and brown women in post-emancipation Jamaica (e.g. Louise Bennett’s Cuss-Cuss and South Parade Peddler, Gina Ulysse‘s Downtown Ladies and Winnifred Brown-Glaude‘s work on women selling on the streets of Kingston).  Such women (as distinct from ladies) include the “madda lacy”, the women who walk with a certain swagger and whose active tongues evoke fear in others – “mi nuh w’aa shi cuss mi atall” –  and who can lay out a few lengths of cloth (a polite euphemism for Jamaican patwa epithets – blood claat, bumbo claat, raas claat, pussy claat, or any combination thereof) to artfully suffocate any opponents.   Women with “light tongues” are forces to be contended with in Jamaica.  They know it.  The ones who fear them or try to contain them also know it.   Portia Simpson Miller was roundly chastised for saying “don’t draw mi tongue”, a phrase that is typically issued as a warning by “those” women to provocateurs, lest the storm of words and lengths of cloth unfurl.   To use this phrase was to remind listeners that she did know how to chrace, testament to her working-class background and a hint that she possessed a vocabulary that she should have been trying to hide.  No ‘respectable’ woman chraces, because chracing happens in patwa, and, well, that certainly isn’t the language of  respectable women either.   Men of all statuses curse and tell others, including women, about dem claat – that is to be expected and even applauded.  Women doing that, not so  much.

The ethos of female respectability in Jamaica says that Kayann should not have been “behaving that way” in public or “talking like that” in public.  It seems as if this policeman felt that if no one was going to be brave enough to tell her that she was contaminating the airwaves at Yallahs, he certainly had the duty and authority – social, moral and legal – as a lawman, to do something about her behaviour.

So here it is – she has contaminated her child’s moral future; she has shamed motherhood, declared herself free enough to speak her mind and told all of Yallahs what kind of woman she really was, what kind of mother she would be.  Who knows? Her child – whose sex was not known – might enter the world chippin’ a few claats itself!  And he was a god-fearing Christian who should not have to listen to people “talking like that”.   Jamaicans lack discipline, we are often told, and here was a clear example of indiscipline.  And by a pregnant women.  Indiscipline knows no bounds, apparently.  Discipline her – put her in bounds, in her place.

What was worse, he fell while he was dragging her away.  So, she cussed him, and I’m sure others got in on the situation, and when he was further humiliated in his attempt to humiliate her, he shot her.  Then he shot her sister who, instead of cowering to the man with the gun, reacted in defense of her sister, now lying dead on the ground.

The masculine calculus operating at the moment gave him little choice.  This gun was how he would rescue his position within Jamaican patriarchy.  He, after all, is a police officer, a lawman.  No other man is higher than him.  Women are supposed to defer to him, listen to him.  He had a gun.  Didn’t she notice? He had never been more powerful than he was in that moment.  It was her mouth against his might, and finally, his gun.  The ultimate silencer.