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.

on the question of choice

Time and again we debate our debating of the A word in Jamaica. In Parliament. On the streets. In churches. In the bedroom. In doctor’s offices. In back alleys. With hangers, with pills, with blood.

The ‘A’ word. Abortion.

The idea is castigated by our ‘Christian-minded’ nationalism and people get very upset whenever it’s brought up. Words like ‘murder’ and ‘human life’ get thrown around. Women are accused of being careless and cruel.

I think too often we get caught up in Christian morals to the detriment of our fellow citizens. As if we forget that slavery too was sanctioned by ‘God’. And I’m not saying that people shouldn’t read Bible, praise Jesus and pray to their Lord but the same way I stay out of Christian people churches is the same way the Church-State should stay out of women’s bodies.

Much like the buggery law it’s simply embarrassing that abortion continues to be a debate in government in 2018. Not even a debate, an issue so taboo we don’t even talk about it. Like sex education. Come to think of it, maybe abortion would be less of an issue if there was more sex ed. I digress.

It’s high time we doctors stopped pussy-footing around while women suffer. And it’s high time Parliament stopped ignoring the issue just because it makes the Church uncomfortable. If you not going to clamp down seriously on rape, stop bawl out when the victims are forced deal with the consequences.

Give women the choice, and get your damn hands off our wombs.

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.

Inventing Language

I have two entirely different and diverging spiels to divulge about this topic. The first, which I’ll probably (forget to) talk about later, is inspired by Dr. Eric Levi’s post about changing the culture of medicine by changing the words we use when we talk to each other.

The second, which I’ll talk about now, has to do with the way we produce and consume Jamaican literature. I say Jamaican specifically, because I think the Caribbean on a whole is doing much better with producing stories that are told in the language of the people. But I can’t shake the feeling that as Jamaicans we aren’t quite there yet.

Prolific writers like Erna Brodber and Kei Miller (among many, many others) must be commended for following the ample footsteps of Miss Lou and putting our dialect on an international stage. But when I read The Last Warner Woman (Miller) or Nothing’s Mat (a recent release by Brodber) I don’t feel like I’m hearing the voice of the man or woman on the street. The dialogue and narration tend to feel like a weirdly off-brand version of Jamaican dialect, the distinction growing when they employ the use of Patois. It’s not that they use Patois wrong (because it’s a language with its own rules and I’m very adamant about that but I should probably leave that argument for another time) it’s just that it doesn’t feel right.

Of course I might be judging their writing too harshly. It’s much easier for me to say that Tamika Gibson captures the essence of the Trini accent perfectly in her YA novel Dreams Beyond the Shore because I don’t live in Trinidad and have no reference for the nuances of their everyday conversations. But I know what I expect Jamaicans to sound like, and the bar I set might be too high to realistically reach on the page.

Another reason for my discomfort with our language in print might be that the sounds and phrases I hear in Montego Bay are noticeably (albeit only slightly) different from the turns of phrase used in Kingston or other parts of the island. So maybe Miller and Brodber are staying true to their own ears, while alienating mine.

In either case the point remains that I have yet to read a Jamaican novel that rings true with authenticity*. It either feels like I’m watching Jamaica through the eyes of a foreigner or like I am the foreigner with strange and altered expectations for the writing. It doesn’t help that most Jamaican writers live abroad, and I have often wondered if it is easier to write home from the Diaspora or if the distance does something to the translation. As if in their habit of making our language and culture more palatable for the foreign audience it loses the vivre that makes it appeal to the local one.

Where does all of this thinking leave me? Tamika Gibson mentioned in an interview that she wrote the award-winning manuscript because she wanted Trinidadian youngsters to have a book that was in their language. Growing up all the stories she read were about foreign places and foreign people and she didn’t want that to continue.

Neither do I. But as I grapple with the idea of writing an authentically Jamaican story I recognize that my struggle is in the physical act of putting one word after the other. Having read so many novel and stories and poems generated by a largely cosmopolitan author base certain phrases and descriptions spring readily to mind. Certain combinations of words naturally trip out of my fingers, but none of these fit our local setting.

There’s no set or pre-defined way to describe Montego Bay because it just hasn’t been described often enough. So the task that rests with the writer who talks about home is really to build the language brick by brick in a slow meticulous operation. Because it’s never really been done before so you have to pay attention to get it right.

It’s the difference between moving into a densely populated neighbourhood where all the houses have been around for centuries and moving into a neighbourhood where all your neighbours are still building the houses from scratch. It’s grunt work, fantastic work, and it will take elbow grease, grit and determination. Luckily, we’ve got those in spades.

Plastics and the Environment

The government of Jamaica plans to ban plastic bags smaller than 24″x24″ in January 2019.

This is widely regarded as a Good Move, however I cannot dilute my skepticism. I believe plastics are evil and harmful, I believe climate change is a dangerous and disturbing reality but I’m not convinced this is the smartest solution.

The biggest users of plastic bags (lada bags, scandal bags) are the lower class. Middle class and upper class Jamaica jumped on the environmentally conscious bandwagon years ago, carrying their artisanal tote bags to the supermarket and recycling their plastics when possible. But for the average Jamaican downtown who visits Mr. Chin shop to buy a few pounds of rice and flour lada bags are the most economical option. When plastics are banned, will the increased business costs be passed on to this consumer?

daryl-vaz-2-640x425
Image from JIS website

The government refers to these plastics as single use, but the majority of Jamaicans who get these bags in the supermarket use them in all sorts of ways: to carry goods, food, medications, papers. Many people re-use them as garbage bags. And even though I switched to biodegradable garbage bags, I still use lada bags to collect my cats’ poop when I clean their litter boxes. It’s just the most practical option at this moment.

If the government wants to address our serious problem with plastic pollution, I think a better use of their time and energy would be to invest in more recycling plants. There’s only one on the western end of the island, near the border with Trelawny, and no recycling receptacles anywhere in Montego Bay at all.

It would also be worthwhile to invest more time in public education on the environmentally friendly substitutes in their day to day lives. Market baskets, boxes instead of bags at the supermarket, paper boxes for food instead of styrofoam. If these options are upfront, public and popular, if they are easy to choose then people will begin to adjust accordingly.

make20the20wrong20things20hard20and20the20right20things20easy20_new

Banning plastic bags is more stick than carrot, and punishment is not the best long term solution to behaviour change. Because what it really comes down to is a question of convenience. It is more convenient to get a plastic bag from the supermarket than to walk with one of your own. It is more convenient to throw garbage out the window of a moving car than it is to find a bin. That’s what we need to change.

This is basic system design, GOJ. Make the right thing easy to do.

Notes from a State of Emergency

Sometimes I forget why I like writing so much. It’s not a habit or some intrinsic drive. Lord knows if I had internal motivation this blog would be updated with something resembling regularity (perish the thought). I like writing because I’m convinced that there are stories out there waiting to be told, and I am the one who needs to tell them. Like the nebulous dreams in The Land of Noddy (credit: Roald Dahl) waiting to be caught and dreamt, there are stories floating in the ether waiting to be heard and written. This is one such story.

This post has a soundtrack. Plug your headphones in and enjoy ‘Caution’ by Damian Marley.

Living in Montego Bay these days feels a lot like living in a fish bowl. Everyone keeps peering in at you and tapping the glass, wondering how you breathe in the same fluid that you keep pooping in. There’s a distinct ‘This is Water‘ kind of vibe, and most residents are aware of the Elephant in the Room in an abstract “Oh yes, that’s a problem” way. The Elephant is, of course, gun violence. St. James has been running hot for a while, with a body count that far outstrips the rest of parishes in terms of people murdered since the start of the year. We closed out 2017 with a record 335 murders.

The government’s initial response to the wave of crime sweeping the country was the creation of ‘Zones of Special Operations’ which gave soldiers and police officers license to set up shop in specified communities where they could question and detain ‘persons of interest’. The first ZOSO was in Mt. Salem, and at the time I lived in a neighbouring community. The ZOSO didn’t really change much about my day to day life, but then I have the privilege of (1) being a woman and (2) living in a community with significantly less stigma. Additionally, I don’t bleach my skin and I don’t drive a so-called ‘scammer car’ (you know, the super expensive ones that ghetto youths buy overnight) so I didn’t fit the typical profile of a ‘person of interest’.

Fast forward to January 2018 and the establishment of a State of Emergency for the parish of St. James. The SOE again grants police officers and soldiers the “power to search, curtail operating hours of businesses, access places and detain persons without a warrant” (JIS, 2018). The Prime Minister reassured citizens that law enforcement officers have been trained in human relations and are expected to treat all persons with dignity and respect.

But the gap between the rich and the poor looms ever wider.

Privileged business owners like Jason Russell complain that the change has hampered Pier 1’s delivery of the ‘tourism product’ (read: Pier Pressure lock off too early). Meanwhile people from poorer communities retaliate futilely against the invasion of their homes and lives as in the case of Lasco, Lost and Found. Overcrowding in the lock-ups creates a public health nightmare, and some of these ‘persons of interest’ are as young as 16 years old. Always the scales are tipped against the disenfranchised, the impoverished and the uneducated. If the US struggles with systemic racism, then institutionalized classism is Jamaica’s cross to bear.

The system designed that stony is the hill dem cyaa climb

Too much, cry the privileged whose lives are only hampered by violence when steps are taken to prevent it. Long lines of traffic at parish border checkpoints cause frequent delays. Businesses forced to close early lose profits.

Too little too late, cry the families whose lives have been shattered by gun and steel. Just last week my hairdresser buried her 26 year old son, gunned down with his baby mother on their way home. He was three months younger than me.

***

I straddle a world of relative privilege (a world I work hard to stay in), but my eyes are glued to the harsher realities that exist outside of my immediate bubble. The struggles and paradoxes that perpetuate our systemic inequalities have continued to be forced into a harsh light by the social media coverage of this State of Emergency. But not many of us are ready to see it, to stare without blinking at the uncomfortable truth.

The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

This is water. Pay attention.

Unlearn: Self-Love is Paramount

Often as children in Jamaica we are not taught to love ourselves. The prevailing mindset is that children should be seen and not heard, displays of emotion are frowned upon (worse if you’re a boy) and the needs or wants of a child in a family with many older members are usually overlooked.

Contrast the technicolor televised images of my childhood where Foreign children are raised with so much self confidence it seems like entitlement, where people are consoled when they cry and where parents/extended family seem attuned to the emotional needs of the younger relatives.

Because I had the privilege to be exposed to this alternate experience of childhood, I was aware that the way we do things here is not necessarily the best way. I also had the opportunity to observe the difference in outcomes when children are raised in a loving and nurturing home instead of a yard where every man is for himself, and I remain convinced that the way we parent in this country is largely responsible for the way we deal with the deeper problems that plague our society.

But why is this relevant.

Most of the time I write because I hope that something in my words will resonate with the right person at the right time. Hoping the current of the universe will push this cobbled craft to the person who needs it when they need it most. A lot my posts start their lives as ‘what I wish someone had told me’ and I’m vain enough to believe that if I needed to hear this, then someone else does too.

So this is relevant because we need to be reminded that it is okay to love yourself. The lessons I learnt growing up as a child in Montego Bay (bloodthirsty and falsely cheerful Montego Bay) are lessons I had to unlearn as an adolescent (and which I’m still unlearning as an adult): sadness, disappointment and insecurity are not things to be ashamed of. Wanting affection, support and stability is not a sign of weakness.

Lessons I am working hard to teach myself are exercises in self-care, developing my psyche and feeding my soul. Giving myself permission to make mistakes, backtrack and be better than I was. I’m being deliberately vague because this process is different for everyone, and in the various stages of your life self-care means different things.

But everyone should start from a position of unconditional positive regard for who they are. There will be aspects of yourself that you think are flawed and fucked up, there will be voices in your head with many negative comments (likely honed from a lifetime of hearing  those comments out loud) but the first step is to open your arms and love yourself.

It is okay to love yourself; it’s actually a good thing. It doesn’t mean you’re prideful or you won’t get into heaven; it doesn’t mean you’re conceited or you think you’re better than people. And newsflash: negating your self-worth will not make people like you more. The sooner you learn this the better.

c9i7iumxoaakvva