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.

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Gender. Sex. Silence. Survival.

All across the globe, gender revolutions are happening. And it’s not just in National Geographic’s January 2017 Gender Revolution issue. From the Women’s March in Washington D.C. (and others like it around the world) to the #saytheirname movement in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean, the concept of gender and sexual autonomy have become the prescient buzzwords of the new year.

So many changes are taking place in the landscape of gender – now we’re talking about it openly, for one. Compare the evolution of gender into terms like ‘non-binary’, against the potential backpedaling of the US government away from reproductive autonomy. What a time to be alive.

Of course, negative reactions are to be expected. When Loop JA posted their article on Trina, a Jamaican trans woman featured in the National Geographic issue, almost every comment disparaged the young woman – calling her ‘it’, saying she should have died in one of the many attacks on her life. And somehow in the same breath, being angry that she ‘chose’ to portray Jamaica as way more violently homophobic than it actually is.

It’s true that not all Jamaican gays/trans-folks/bisexuals experience life the same way. Jaevion Nelson (long time human rights activist) points out that by focusing on the most brutal stories we forget about the voices who are not so downtrodden, but equally important. There is no one way to be gay/trans/non-binary and Nat Geo should have considered that in their piece, instead of perpetuating the horror crusade that has become de rigueur in discussions about Jamaican homophobia.

This is not to say that there aren’t things about Jamaica that are downright horrifying. Take the recent travesty involving a Moravian pastor caught in a “compromising position” with a 15 year old girl. (Which is being handled terribly by the media, might I add).

The Moravian church has a lot to answer for, but the culture of silence isn’t only perpetuated by church-goers and elders. The silencing of young girls is so entrenched in our society that it seems impossible to break.

The silence of mothers should not be passed to their daughters. Daughters do not need to inherit the silence of their mothers.
–Ijeoma Umebinyo

Organisations like We Change JA and the Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre (along with dozens of human rights activists) are writing letters and editorials that demand an end to the secrecy. The #saytheirnames movement is growing.

But human rights movements always gather momentum really well only to fizzle out as the public loses interest. Right now everyone is interested in what WROC and the activists have to say but in another nine days those groups will be behind the scenes again, unobtrusively working to change the way our society thinks.

What great catalyst will it take to shake Jamaicans out of their indifference? When will one million women march together for gender equality, sexual autonomy, reproductive rights? Is it to be a slow, inevitable downward spiral, despite the desperate efforts of an enlightened few?

Will we wake up in time to save ourselves?