Rape Culture Thrives in our Churches

On September 23, Dionne Smith and her teenage daughter were brutally murdered in their home by Fabian Lyewsang, Smith’s common-law husband. It was a vicious act, carried out by a man against the women he should have been protecting.

This is the kind of gender based violence that Jamaicans encounter every single day, but we simply pretend it is something less sinister, less insidious. We pretend, as two prominent pastors have argued, that this act of violence and others like it are the result of women. Women choosing the wrong partners, women choosing to stay instead of leave (never mind that they have nowhere to run), women choosing men who murder them in their beds and then drive off a bridge into the Rio Cobre.

In the words of a Parkland shooting survivor, I call BS.

This is victim blaming.

This is the patriarchy.

This is misogyny.

This is rape culture.

This is the church leading the flock astray. Where I would have expected Pastor Glen Samuels (president of the West Jamaica Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (WJC)) and Pastor Joel Haye to lead the charge in holding men accountable for their actions, they have failed us all miserably. And they have failed the women in their congregations worst of all.

When two clergymen can feel comfortable getting behind the pulpit to chastise women for the “bad decisions” that put them in the path of dangerous men we have a problem. When the congregation listens and agrees, when a major news outlet (yes, the Jamaica Gleaner) blasts the story on the front page with the headline “Pastors urge women to choose partners carefully” we have a problem.

And the problem is the systemic, pervasive and frankly disgusting idea that if women would dress right, speak right, act right, choose right then men would not be able to hurt them. The problem is holding women accountable for the behaviour of women AND men, and holding men accountable for nothing. And it has to stop.

Fabian Lyewsang was responsible for his actions, not Dionne Smith. If it had not been Dionne it would have been some other woman. This fact is indisputable. Men alone – not women, not circumstance, not peer pressure, MEN – are responsible for their own behaviour.

When we fail to hold men accountable we fail to notice that 1) our women are in dire need of protection and 2) that our men are suffering from deep emotional and psychological scars. Until we can address these two issues – protect the women while healing the men – our society will stay stuck in this desperate pit of rampant murder/suicides.

When you realize you’re in a hole, the first step is to stop digging. Pastor Samuels and Pastor Haye need to stop digging and work with our elected leaders to find a way out that doesn’t involve climbing on the bodies of murdered women.

a word on checkpoints and the assailing of women’s bodies

The State of Emergency is now in its tenth month. Violent crime levels appear unabated. Every issue of the Western Mirror carries a front page headline on some gruesome murder or gunfight.

Twice daily checkpoints are my new normal, since I live and work in two separate parishes. I drive through, waving to the unlucky soldiers assigned to stand in the middle of the road in the grueling summer heat, and smile.

At first I would approach each checkpoint with a sense of trepidation. Would they stop me to search my car? And then annoyance. Would they stop me to try and get my number? My experience was getting harassed by soldiers and police officers alike who appeared to have no other reason to stop me than to chat me up like a man in a bar. It was unprofessional and frustrating.

I used to slow and stop so that the officer or soldier could peer into the car, but these days I slow down just enough to give a brisk wave unless I’m told otherwise. This is just another way one learns to navigate social conventions as a person of the feminine gender.

After a while, when my frustration had faded to good-natured acceptance, I started to notice female soldiers now deployed to man the line. One day while cruising through at my snail pace, I overheard a bus driver call out a raunchy greeting to the lady soldier standing in the road. I cringed, and questioned.

Beyond the sexism that exists among one’s professional colleagues, a sexism that can potentially be challenged and eroded by professional success, is there a deeper and more pervasive sexism in society at large that undermines the execution of professional ‘gender roles’?

Is there a certain level of respect accorded to soldiers and police officers? Do we accord that same respect when the soldier or police officer is a woman? And does the change in tone when addressing a female member of the armed forces imply a lack of respect, or is it simply a neutral cultural phenomenon?

I’m pretty sure that woman was used to getting catcalls in her line of duty, and many women are. Some find it annoying, some find it flattering, and for some it’s just a part of life, neither good nor bad. In my culture there are many things that my liberal ideology struggles to accept, and this is one of them.

Is it inappropriate and unacceptable for a man to calls out ‘Psst, babes‘ when a woman walks by? Is it only inappropriate when he does it to certain Women, or in certain Spaces? Does the acceptability depend on the man’s intention: to objectify and assault, or to compliment and affirm? If the action is allowed, is there an expected response? Is it rude to ignore them? It certainly seems that way.

And is it really such a big deal?

In some spaces it can be. As a general rule I ignore the leaking air and the catcalls, but on certain streets I make damn sure to respond with a polite greeting. At issue here is the concept of danger. On main roads I feel safe enough to ignore the calls; on side streets I am too aware of my vulnerability to invite an uncertain threat. I fear, so I conform. But does this make me complicit in a social norm I desperately wish would change?

I don’t have the answers, but I think it’s important that we start talking somewhere. A catcall on a lonely avenue isn’t the same as being sexually assaulted, but the threads of gender-based violence run deep. Until we can pick up the ends, wherever they are scattered, we will never begin to untangle that knot.

UWI’s Whirlwind of a Week

It started with this article on the front page of the Sunday Gleaner on February 1. Halls of Horror was the initial headline, since removed online for reasons one can only speculate about. But truthfully, this problem started long before Ms. Heron called out the skeletons in UWI’s closet. The skeletons had to be there first for her to display.

Heron’s study ‘Whose Business Is It? Violence Against Women at UWI, Mona’ is a scathing indictment of UWI’s nonchalant attitude toward gender-based violence on their campus. She cites reported cases and anecdotal evidence in her research (this isn’t a comment on her validity), condemning UWI not for violence on its campus but for not dealing with the issue. The Gleaner goes a step further and calls UWI a “haven for those who assault and harass women” – maybe taking it a bit too far. Meanwhile the entire UWI administration from Camille Bell-Hutchinson (campus registrar) to Lerone Laing (guild president) is denying gender-based attacks left, right and centre.

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones

A few letters of rejection, damage-controlling press releases, and suitably outraged blog posts later, we fast forward to Tuesday night when this happened. It was virtually biblical: a female (student) being stoned by males (students).

Whatever spin you want to put on it (and my Facebook feed has people demanding to hear the guy’s side of the story; even the UWI statement has unappealing implications) it boils down to boys throwing rocks at a defenseless girl. Which is just wrong, by anyone’s standards.

Naturally, UWI students erupted into protest, postponing the campus Homecoming celebrations and showing the university just what happens when they try to sweep safety issues under the rug. Spearheaded by the campus beacon of gender affairs, Mary Seacole Hall, a peaceful protest was staged on the Ring Road (admirable coverage by Loop and by my aunt’s account also featured on the evening news). The campus called an emergency meeting of its administrators and hall managers – perhaps to figure out how they can bow gracefully out of this debacle. Understandably, people are upset.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In an ideal world, cataclysmic events like this one would spark dialogue and open the way for real change, real policies being implemented in the office and on the ground. But this is Jamaica, land of quick fixes and patch jobs, of putting everything off until it’s SEP. Given UWI’s track record when matters of female safety on campus are brought up in the media (Annie Paul details that quite well), it is all too likely that this too shall pass.

But it shouldn’t be allowed to.

I hear stories of girls going to report assault cases and being dismissed. I hear stories about girls getting dragged around by their hair because people refuse to interfere in ‘man an ooman problem‘. As a girl on this campus – in this society, in this world – safety is always, always, always on our minds. How dare UWI declare it ‘not a priority’? It is our foremost concern.

How many girls have to be raped before we can talk about this openly? How many women have to be assaulted before we can all agree that this (catcalls, harassment, stalking) is not okay? UWI likes numbers: the number of reported cases of sexual assault account for less than 1% of the student body, they argue. What percentage of our bodies qualifies as a priority, UWI?

#HOWMANY do you need to see?