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.

Making a Mountain out of a Slightly Smaller Mountain

Just a while ago I sat reading An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory in Juici Patties on campus and managed to overhear two children arguing in the booth opposite.

The little girl was debating hotly for some reason or the other, trying to trace off the boy but he was having none of it, replying to her remarks in standard English and invoking the good old ‘sticks and stones’ adage.

When an adult approached to tell them to settle down now and behave the girl, frustrated, burst out with “But him jus a gwaan like some gyal!”

Fellow Jamaicans can well imagine her tone of voice when I say that she made our patois version of “girl” sound like a bad word. Like it was the most horrible thing a man or boy could ever, ever be. So of course my socio-cultural/quasi-feminist antenna popped right up. 

Gender norms aside – yes, yes masculinity is a Big Deal in Jamaica; boys must be tough (whatever that means) – the equality (or rather equity, as Kat so painstakingly continues to remind me) of our sexes is at stake. When a girl uses her gender as an insult that’s the worst kind of bigotry. She’s saying “How dare you be a girl, how dare you descend to such an undesirable state”. Never mind that that is the state she herself is in.

I suppose she could also have been saying “How dare you trespass on my gender norms; only girls are allowed to speak Standard English and not get upset when we’re insulted”. But I think this interpretation is far less likely (and still not very fair to the genders).

It’s been pointed out to me that I like to seek out these points of debate, these underdog causes to champion, that I deliberately read too much into things. Everyone needs something to complain about I guess. When it’s not the lack of strong female leads in movies, it’s our lack of awareness of gender-based power struggles. 

The situation I described is a common one. Everybody’s heard a variation and you’ve probably even agreed that yes, this man really is behaving too much like a girl. Whatever that means. Our ideas of what men and women should and shouldn’t do are inextricably bound up in our social navigation, we don’t even notice them. But they are archaic at best and irreversibly damaging at worst.

The most important point of discussion is how do we fix them? How do we rid women and girls and men and boys of the notion that one gender is intrinsically superior to the other and, to take this a step further, how do we eliminate the notion that behaviour is gender-limited? 

The subtlety of socialization precludes mere academic intervention. Members of a society are taught how to behave by the society itself, not by books or Powerpoint presentations. We learn from our parents and other adults, from our friends. But how do we effect a change across these expansive  institutions of socialization?

In a recent post, Petchary quoted Marian Wright Edelman who said “You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.

Maybe that’s all we need. More fleas.

Notes on an Educated Black Girl

educated black girl means you have risen above the odds and fought your way out of the hardships that must have defined your life.

educated black girl means you are still somehow, indefinably, less than the other educated girls.

educated black girl means you have to throw off the shackles of your history and culture and language in order to be respected for who you are and not where you come from. (brown girls who speak patois are cute; where they come from, they are taught to demand respect).

educated black girl means when you bruk out it’s shameful. (a few shades lighter would have made it soca).

educated black girl means you have to play a part: long hair, straight hair, cute clothes, keep quiet – everyone loves a woman who knows her place. you are branded a rebel for embracing the texture of your roots and voice. can’t you see you’re making everyone uncomfortable?

educated black girl means knowing that to some people you will either be educated or a black girl.

But never both.

On a related note, International Women’s Day happened last Saturday but we should be celebrating women and talking about (not to mention fighting for) women’s rights every damn day of the year. Educating our girls is important, just like making sure both genders are properly represented in parliament.

The sheltered ones are not yet born

I love having heated conversations about what’s wrong with our country. It’s honestly one of my favourite pastimes. And there’s no end of things to discuss: the Jamaican dollar on the decline, unemployment on the rise, homophobia, violence, the health sector, the education sector. . . the list goes on and on.

Which is why, just the other day, after having a celebratory “You finished your degree! (And I’m only halfway through mine)” dinner with some of my close friends – minus the bitterness – it was perfectly normal to delve into a conversation on why our country is going nowhere fast. This particular discussion, courtesy of the Minister of Education Rev. Ronald Thwaites, was about his passionate declaration that condoms should never be distributed in schools. And then we continued to be outraged that the president of the Jamaica Parent-Teachers Association wants to kick pregnant girls out of high school.

(The illicit affair between church and state is another thing we like to complain about).

We talked and talked about how backwardly this country is being led, and about how much our leaders need to open their eyes to what’s really going on. We talked about the sexism so deeply ingrained in our society that a public figure sees no problem condemning girls in a situation that is physiologically impossible for them to get into alone.

We talked like we knew what we were talking about, like we were defending the Jamaican people against the evils of their leaders, like we understood how people in this country thought and acted.

First. World. Problems.

More like how we thought they acted.

The past week I spent on a rural community experience in St. Mary has made me realize that we know very little about the way Jamaicans think and feel. What we see as rational thought based on international ideals has absolutely no bearing for the mother of three in rural St. Mary who goes to church every Sunday and wants her children to be holy paragons of virtue. Our concessions to the nature of society would probably be viewed as concessions to evil. “Condom inna school? You ah tell de pickney dem fi have sex!”

I thought those ideas were expressed by a minority that could be brought to see reason, when in fact they are expressed by a majority whose beliefs are their reasons. We are by and large a conventional society; most Jamaicans don’t like new things or ideas. The government, then, is not leading us against out will. Rather, we are the wayward goat dragging our owners along the wrong path.

The Bible had sheep. We have goats.

The few and many who live in cosmopolitan areas like Kingston or Montego Bay get so much more exposure, but we are so much more sheltered. We really have no clue about what’s going on in our country, about how the average man thinks, about what he believes and how he acts. And until we can tap in to that well of understanding, this country is never going to get anywhere.

In one of my lectures they talk about the community development approach, and how when you’re trying to effect change the needs of an organization must first be subverted to the needs of the community. She is not going to jump all over your family planning clinic until you fix the roads in her housing scheme. It’s a reasonable system, and completely appropriate for our society. But the government is not doing that. Instead, the leaders and the led are often pulling in completely opposite directions at the same time, getting us exactly nowhere.

At the end of the day there’s only one question to ask: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes*?

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*Translated from Latin as “Who will guard the guards themselves?” or as I meant it “Who will lead the leaders?”

The few, the smartphoneless, and the violently jealous

These days it’s as strange to meet someone without a smartphone as it is to meet someone who isn’t on Facebook, or who only has a Lime (one of two local networks) phone. But we’re out there. Well, I’m on Facebook, but the other two are totally me.

Smartphones have become de rigeur among Jamaicans, with the more affluent among us owning not just one, but two. Yes. The Blackberry is the Lime phone and the iPhone is the Digicel. Of course the allure is understandable: you have the internet at your fingertips, not to mention cameras and MP3 capabilities. It’s like a computer that fits in your pocket. What’s not to love? People my age are all over them for the instant communication of BBM (not that anyone uses it that much any more) and the du jour What’s App. Sometimes I catch students revising Powerpoint presentations on them too. They’re multi-functional, I get it.

But they’re still just a technological fad, and one that will fade or change or become obsolete with time. It happened to the early “fridge” cellphones; it happened to the first room-sized computers; it will happen to everything. Everything is eventually improved upon.

I’m in no rush to get a smartphone, because riding that wave only leads to wanting more, more, more. You get the Bold, then you have to get the Bold 2, the Bold 3, the iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy, the Galaxy 3. Hell, I want a smartphone, but I’m smart enough to know that that way lies madness. Always, there is the rush to keep up with the times and with your friends. It leads to all kinds of disparities and envy, and once people get jealous they get angry. They do stupid things.

Last week my friend’s phone got stolen because some jerk decided he wanted one too, and instead of getting one legally or accepting the fact that he couldn’t, he decided to gang her with a couple of his friends and just take it. But I don’t want to digress into our social injustices; that’s a whole blog on its own.

To all the smartphone users out there – and someone is probably reading this on one – be careful about where you use your gadgets and who you use them around. Play nice; don’t leave people out just because they don’t have email on tap. And be grateful for what you’ve got. 50 years ago, we didn’t even have cellphones.

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If you’re interested in more discourse on technology and communication, my friend Ray blogs about that very thing on So Says Ray. Go check it out.

the issue of sexuality

It seems like the universe has conspired to have me write this entry. On the same morning I stumbled across Raising My Rainbow, a blog about a gender non-conforming 5 year old, I had an enthusiastic seminar on sexuality and HIV.

Raising My Rainbow really struck a chord in my mind because it was the first time I was ever confronted with the reality of such a young child being allowed to opt out of his predetermined gender roles. If you haven’t before, take a moment to consider what this means and check out the blog in the meantime. This five year old boy gets pedicures done with Mummy, dresses up as girls for Halloween and generally spends a lot more time in skirts than most other boys his age.

I am hard pressed to put my finger on what exactly weirds me out about the situation, but I definitely had a moment of “WTF?”. Generally speaking, I encourage people not to let themselves be tied down by the constraints of society and not to let themselves be pigeon-holed into a role they’re uncomfortable with. But I’ve only ever given a thought to adults in this situation. Because grown-ups are assumed to know what they want. But a child?

So I guess my real issue is his age: is a child that young capable of making these kinds of decisions? And should we trust the decisions they make? The family is the earliest institution of socialization we’re exposed to, and that gives parents the enormous responsibility of turning out functional members of society. In effect, parents are expected to guide the child on the path to becoming an appropriate adult.

But how can I fault this boy’s parents for letting him express himself, especially when the alternative would be to force him into society’s idea of the ‘real man’? Too often in Jamaican society, we toughen up our boys too much, robbing them of much-needed emotional expression. The concepts are diametrically opposed. Is one approach the right one, or does the issue fall into the shady grey zone of human experience?

I will not deny that hearing about this little boy’s first pedicure didn’t sit comfortably with me, but that reaction is largely a product of my environment. I believe in advocating the right of a person to be whatever gender he/she wants to be without judgement. That should include little girls and boys too.

Shouldn’t it?

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How would you react if your 3 year old son decided he wanted to dress up as Snow White for Halloween? 

This is what happens when you let me go to a Philosophy lecture

This one is a wall of text, guys. Apologies in advance, unless (like me) you like words. In which case, you’re welcome. 

I was a third year medical student pretending to be a first year Literature major, sitting beside a final year Philosophy major from Germany.

It was the best day of my life. 

Some of my classmates are using the four weeks’ holiday we’ve been granted to rest and reflect. Some have been using to to prepare for the annual third year production, Smoker. Some have been using it to prepare for their upcoming clinical rotation.

Today, I used it to sit in on lectures in the Faculty of Humanities and Education. And it was amazing. My ardent admiration for Literature, notwithstanding (Austen fans, see what I did there?), today I discovered the dearth of possibilities that lay open to most other university students (with the possible exception of students from the Faculty of Law): the almost limitless variety  of classes and courses that can wind up creating a one-of-a-kind bespoke first degree, and not just the one-size-fits-all paper that most students leave university toting.

I am absolutely green with envy at the students in Humanities and the Social Sciences who are restricted in the course decisions only by credit allowances. UWI is an all-you-can-eat buffet, and medical students are on a water-and-lettuce-leaf diet. Everyone else is given a plate and told to fill it as much as possible. So many of them waste so much of their plates, just leaving the space empty, when they could have topped it up with the study of languages, culture, psychology, gender, literature. Or is the lettuce leaf just greener on that side of life?

I want to rail against the university for the vacuum they’ve given us to study in, for how limited our options for real enlightenment are. These foundation courses that are meant to give students the benefit of a multi-faculty education are compulsory, true. But they have a pass mark of 40%. They only require 4/10 of the effort. They only need you to know 4/10 of the concepts and information that are being rigorously dissected by some other student doing some other major in some other faculty.

I am upset that we are allowed, encouraged even, to study one subject exclusively. Is a liberal education the opposite of this? Where can I get one of those?

I think the well-rounded university graduate is a myth. Called into being by some employer who wants a business grad with a working knowledge of computers and human behaviour.

The issue at heart is the cycle of invalidity: the undergrad freshman wants to make money when he/she graduates, the university needs marketable graduates to maintain its credibility, and of course society stigmatizes the liberal arts graduate as un-properly-educated and unqualified.

When will we recognize the relevance of every subject? When will we stop subjugating one discipline for the veneration of some other? (Philosophy-for-Science, I’m looking at you). In short, when will universities, as social institutions, create an environment that is suitable for developing the cornucopia of human minds it professes to cater to, instead of trying to jam every peg – square and otherwise – into one round hole?

Perhaps when philosophers stop teaching philosophy and start leading governments. Perhaps when doctors stop treating bodies and start healing psyches. Perhaps when students stop being simple mind-jugs waiting to be filled and start being critical leaders of social change.

Most likely I’m asking for too much, and much too soon.