So wha names yuh wa me use? Wha to call them? Because last week bright and early on my Facebook page one of my friends invited comments in response to a radio programme on Red 96.7fm – a station that essentially caters to millennials eh, the supposedly progressive generation – where the hosts were advising their female listeners that if you dress provocatively, expect provocative behaviour. In response, another poster related a story from over the weekend when a mother told her young daughter that she could not come dressed in a shorts to the Peace Walk that was held because by doing so she’s promoting violence.
Before all that was a somewhat painful interview one evening a couple months ago. On Talk City 91.1FM, the host, Jude, had a young woman advocate on his talk show. She had the “temerity” to claim that this society was filled with examples of rape culture; a claim which Jude proceeded to dismiss with mostly skeptical comebacks although he did manage to cite a document prepared by an authoritative US-based group on rape and incest, RAINN, that explicitly denies rape culture has anything to do with sexual assaults. And of course there’s the ever-dependable-for-trivialising, Kevin Baldeosingh, who cited, among his sources of evidence, an article by Wendy McElroy that also cited the RAINN document. I’ll come back to that issue and why we need to be very careful about citing documents in my next blog.
The point is rape culture does not exist, ok? They said so.
Now, according to the online Oxford Dictionary, rape culture describes “a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalising or trivialising sexual assault and abuse.”
So what do I call what exists in Trinbago then? Because I need something to explain why, as you’re reading this blog, some woman is probably getting beaten up – or as we say in Trinidad, getting a good cut-arse – for refusing sex, while another is being forced through guilt due to religious teachings to submit to the sexual advances from her emotionally abusive spouse. Some other young woman is walking somewhere in Trinidad and being heckled or propositioned – we’ll go with that word for now – regardless of how she feels about it, while a young mother looking to improve her life has to provide some politician with sexual favours for a new job. If there is no rape culture, explain then the context in which a now former Mayor of Port of Spain asserted that around Carnival time the way women dress and cavort in front of the cameras clearly lack self-respect and who inviting things onto themselves. Judging by the kinds of calls that came into three radio stations in support of him when he said it, he certainly isn’t the only one with that mindset.
Perhaps what we should have done first is to ask and answer certain key questions. For instance, if we’re going to have a discussion on rape culture, one of the first things to do is to learn to what extent is power and total control considered important in our society. Likewise, how is sex viewed in relation to the question of power and control? What are the dominant ideas governing human sexuality? Whose sexuality and form of sexual expression is permissible – or even if any form of awareness or discussion of sex is done openly is permissible at all.
Our ideas about sex stem principally from the moral codes imposed on us by the British and French Creoles and American missionaries during the colonial period. Their beliefs came from secular cultural ideas dating way back to Eurasian nomadic hunter-warrior phobias about sex and blood that were codified by Greek thinkers and spliced into Judaic and Christian tradition by way of Greece and Rome. We may be living in 2017 with Internet, smart phones and striped toothpaste, but many old, discredited “moral” teachings based on primitive economics and insecurities continue to tell a lot of us what to do and how to do it.
Basically sex in the Western sense is and has long been understood in the context of asserting masculine power (maybe that’s why we often use terms like “mashing up,” “buss up,” “hitting,” “lick down,” “throw down” to describe having sex). This comes from the way sex was considered something dangerous, corrupting and threatening. Greek philosophical thinking further refined it by positing that mankind was seen as having two internal selves: a higher, superior masculine self that was rational and always in control against a lower, emotional, irrational, impulsive self which was feminine. Human sexuality was seen as belonging to this lower, uncontrollable, destructive irrational side and women – duh – were viewed as being permanently, er, afflicted with this sexual aspect.
So, since women were the root of this dangerous force, the solution was to control it and the women who possessed it. The very rape culture we are debating seems to have occupied the thinking of many ancient Greek and Roman folklorists. From the Rape of the Sabine Women, Zeus’ rape of his mother Rhea (as in Ma Rhea), Apollo’s rape of his sister and numerous nymphs, one gets the understanding that that was a way by which women could be possessed, controlled and “broken.” The way exclusive monogamous relationships came to be elevated as they are today is partly because a man’s wife was considered his private property: it’s very informative and relevant to this discussion that the root of the word “private” is “privare” – to steal, separate or deprive.”
Researchers like Karen Jo Torjessen tell us that this was the reason Greek houses were built in such a way that the women’s rooms were at the back, away from view of male visitors. Diop, Lerner, Anderson and Zinsser and Walker inform us as well that long before Islam came on the scene the veil was considered an appropriate form of dress for girls and women since their hair was felt to possess magical and destructive powers (so now you know why you had to wear a veil for Confirmation). “Freeborn” women also could not walk the streets unaccompanied and in any case it was considered highly improper in Athens for women to be out in public unless they were slaves – who, ironically, enjoyed greater freedom of movement than the wives of the citizens.
Psychological weapons were also used to bring about women’s compliance. Guilt in particular was used to devastating effect and Jean DeLumeau’s fascinating book inform us that this was one of the main roots of the notion of sin. The role of fear as a tool to keep both women and men conforming to what was expected of them, seems to be an emotion played down by the skeptics I cited. This point about fear is something very important because a lot of what it means to be “a man” is built around fear of what it means if one does not posses the qualities “real” mean are supposed to have. The reinforcement of Western cultural ideas is built up around that emotion – or more correctly, shame. Sociologist Corey Robin tells us in “Fear” “Behind the husband’s abuse of his wife lie centuries of laws and doctrines awarding him authority over her…” (immediately, of course, certain Biblical passages spring to mind such as when ‘God” told Eve):
“…thou shalt be under thy husband’s power, and he shall have dominion over thee
(Gen 3:16, Douay-Rheims Challoner Revision, 1752)
Women were made to internalise feelings of guilt for their sexual energy, their body and what it “did” to the wider society if left uncontrolled. It’s important to note that concerning human sexuality, the one common thread that links totalitarian secular regimes, theocratic states, authoritarian institutions and religions and seemingly liberal secular countries, is repression of women’s sexuality (including repression of “feminine” qualities in men). The only way a “good” woman could “prove” she was in (temporary) control of that corrupting force – and therefore be idealised as a “good” woman – was to act meekly, remain indoors, be innocent and shy of sex even when it was discussed by her husband, refrain from expressing opinions, especially in public, and most definitely avoid the kinds of clothes (or lack thereof) that would “invite” a man’s sexual advances. This is what “good” women did; “bad” women were loud, vocal, opinionated and always in public; these were the prostitutes and courtesans many Greek citizens frequented for sexual pleasure but who were kept on the fringes of society although many of them were well-read and even became persons of wealth. Aggressive or assertive sexual behaviour was reserved for freeborn men since assertiveness was how a man had to prove his honour and fitness to contribute to society. Thus, for a woman to act this way, she was acting like a man and therefore would most likely be sexual like a man.
Sex, as a means of imposing one’s authority, remained one of the means by which a husband was expected to control his wife in European and Euro-influenced households right up to our times. In the 18th century, it was how lords and knights asserted their dominance over their serfs and peasant workers. Jus primae noctis, the custom of a lord having sex with the wife of his serf on the first night of the marriage existed in Europe and of course carried over into the Americas during the enslavement period. It remained very much a part of colonial life in varying forms and was apparently the inspiration for at least one calypso “Sly Mongoose” which, according to Dr. Hollis “Mighty Chalkdust” Liverpool, was a coded reference to the sexual exploitation of domestic workers by a white estate owner.
We are talking about a culture and a worldview that regenerated itself over and over from the Greco-Roman period, through the rise of Christian Europe, right up to the settling of the Americas. Indeed, everywhere the Europeans went and encountered powerful, autonomous women and feminine institutions, they disrupted it, sought to erase it and impose masculinist notions of authority using, if need be, rape. The absolute authority of a husband was such that up until 1884 in England, a wife could be imprisoned if she tried to deny her husband his “conjugal duties”. This, obviously, fed into Trinidad’s society and no doubt is why it took so long for a clause to be inserted in the Marriage Act that criminalised a husband forcing his wife to have sex if she refuses – and why some religious leaders at the time objected so strongly to such a clause.
Throughout all this, much of the blame lay on the woman’s side. She was, after all, the temptress even though according to European and Arabic cultural thinking she was also the weaker sex. So with all that in mind, perhaps we can better understand now not only the comments purportedly made on Red 96.7FM and by the former Mayor, but how we always get echoes of that theme even in intellectual circles like when this lecturer and Guardian columnist wrote:
“Apparently, women who want to be left alone go out in the streets dressed in next to nothing and dance suggestively to songs explicitly identifying them as sex objects. Ms. [Anya] Ayoung Chee [said] ‘Coming out in the streets in the tens of thousands, owning your space, owning your freedom. What is that besides activism?’
A hint of what it could be was besides activism was visible in the schools’ soca monarch competition. I watched (on TV) as…four or five girls, dressed in clothing I considered inappropriate for young girls, and moving in a way I consider inappropriate for young girls. This is the schools’ explicit curriculum. And apparently, the kids are learning.”
(Raymond Ramcharitar “Carnival Consciousness, Trinidad Guardian pA20, March 15, 2017).
So you see why I’m kinda confused that in 2017 we still don’t seem to know that in most cultures influenced by Christian Europe, Arab Islam and certain Hindu sects, the notion that boys and men are entitled to take and possess a woman’s body – i.e., rape culture – is so ingrained that it’s even celebrated in some circles. Clearly there is some sort of mindset that considers these kinds of response as what a man will “naturally” do. Walker tells us that in the Victorian period men weren’t held legally responsible for “debauching” adolescent girls because the legal age of consent for females was twelve (sounds familiar?). Raping children was a “common pastime” for men in parts of Victorian Europe as they believed it was a cure for syphilis (by the way, syphilis almost seemed to denote status among middle and upper-class Victorian men according to Peter Gay in his book). But the socialisation that was expected to bring forth a proper “lady” placed most of the guilt on….the female.
Which leads us to patriarchy. Yeeessss, I know it’s that overused and abused word in some circles (*cough* feminism, *cough*) but what word to use then if we eh going with that? Because writers like Baldeosingh smugly throw up all sorts of statistics that “prove” patriarchy is a myth and that women today have it much better than their forbears. And, like former Mayor Tim Kee, he eh de only one; I once responded to an article, written by a Caribbean national “of colour” to boot, which claimed on the authority of another article, that modern day feminism owes much to the same capitalism many of them rail against.
So, given that the Miriam-Webster dictionary defines patriarchy as a “social organisation marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line; broadly: control by men of a disproportionately large share of power”, I need to know what exists here in Trinbago, the wider Caribbean and the “West”…because evidently we eh have patriarchy neither.
Give me a word, then, that I can use to speak about the styles of leadership we applaud in these societies that discourage displays of certain emotions, value aggression – even if it isn’t (necessarily) of the physical kind – and competitive individualism along with the whole range of words that traditionally were considered masculine. I need nouns and adjectives to apply to the way one’s sexual partner is considered one’s private property; the way development projects are undertaken without properly taking into consideration the negative environmental and social impacts…provided consideration is given at all. I need a way to speak about cultural ideas that normalises women taking their husband’s name upon marriage but raising eyebrows and blood pressure if he takes hers. And how else do I contextualise the way men aren’t shamed as much if they marry/sleep with a younger woman but if a woman does it she is called a “cougar” and if she is unashamedly sexual she’s a ho/slut/whore/jamette/skettel/conks/jaggabat ….(insert demeaning title here).
Yuh definitely cannot call it the “natural” order of things – although that is what it is sometimes called. And I am not only referring to the usual bible-waving, Quran-clutching, Gita-wielding con artists aka PPIMPS (Priests, Pastors, Imams, Pundits); I am referring to some newspaper columnists and otherwise very intelligent people, some are agnostic like myself, who are forever trivialising these issues whenever they are raised by feminists (did I just mention Baldeosingh again?). They ignore all the information out there gathered by scholars like Diop. Birnbaum, Markhale, Gimbutas, Finch, Thompson and Stone. These researchers show us that even in Europe – the seat of our patriarchal values – for thousands of years before there were male-dominant cultures, human societies functioned under guidance of feminine-focused customs. These were not female patriarchies but were more or less egalitarian societies that were informed by codes of equity, reciprocity and honour. Sexual interactions were not wanton, promiscuous screw-fests…..well…not always, but were much more open. Forcible sexual assaults were often noted for their absence by early European explorers – even words to describe “rape” often did not exist.
Now granted, some of the views advanced from the more radical feminist side can be extreme. But this is to be expected when dealing with counter-cultural movements that confront entrenched systems of social injustice – like rape culture and patriarchy. Most of the time they remain on the fringe, however, and so to use them as if they’re the main narratives; to refuse acknowledgement of a culture of forcible sexual/bodily entitlement or to dismiss and trivialise it in the way it is done; to claim, as Milton Wray did in the Jamaican Gleaner, that clamouring for gender equality is why we have dysfunctional families and a degradation of social mores, is, frankly, disgraceful. I said it then and I maintain that stance today.
Let’s be very clear: Trinidad and Tobago, like many other societies colonised by Europeans, is a society that has normalised physical, psychological and sexual violence. That normalisation existed since the Spanish colonised the damn place, so it has always been a violent society and much of that violence stems from European ideas that celebrated masculine aggression and masculine notions of leadership. This is no secret; Prof. Brereton, writing in “The White Minority in the Caribbean,” tells us that:
“creole whites had an extremely strong sense of the absolute need for ‘racial purity’. Much more than the resident Europeans, they were open to the suspicion of having ‘Negro blood’. Legal marriage to anyone known or reputed to have non-white ancestors would have meant automatic loss of membership in the Creole elite…..[however]….. ‘Outside’ liaisons between white Creole men and black, mixed-race or East Indian women were a well-established convention”
Now, to be fair, some of those liaisons were genuinely romantic, but by and large most was based on the white AND masculine sense of entitlement to women’s. So I find that there is a certain degree of intellectual dishonesty among certain writers to pretend otherwise or that this has no bearing on today’s society…or maybe it’s just that they are too immersed in Eurocentric ways of thinking to see any other reality. Either way it is not doing this country any bit of good.
Now I will argue that in these kinds of societies, the issues of patriarchy and sexual violence are more complex and inextricably interlocked. They aren’t as clear-cut as they are often made out to be in a North American context; in the Caribbean, you are ill-advised to leave out of any serious discussion of violence against women and children the residual effects of the “effeminising” of laboring-class men during enslavement and colonialism. Perhaps in the dualistic North American cultural context we can claim that when arguments like this are made – certainly by many “men’s rights” groups – the intent is to deflect from the legitimate concerns of women. But here in the Caribbean we also have to include in conversations the stripping of ancestral ideas of masculinity of men who came from cultures where it was unthinkable for a man to abuse women; where powerful codes of honour existed along with equally powerful all-female secret societies such as the Sande Society that ran the public marketplace, the main economic centre in many West African territorial-states.
We have to include in the conversations how these men were humiliated and shut out of positions of real power in the enslaved/colonised model except for a selected few in a very narrow parameter. Indeed, Lord Harris perhaps put it best when he said in 1848:
They are not – neither Coolies nor Africans – fit to be placed in a position which the labourers of civilised countries may at once occupy; they must be treated like children, and wayward ones too; the former, from their habits and their religion; the latter, from their utterly savage state in which they arrive.
With this kind of humiliation, invisibilising and infantilising, it’s not hard to connect the frustrations that were built up to the acts of rage against the women and children around them…as well as against each other. This here is also the root of the violent crime situation we are dealing with presently.
So how then does one argue that patriarchy is a myth when the ideas that laud aggression as a mark of leadership still determine who is elected and who is promoted? The fact, as people like Baldeosingh love to argue, that many cases of domestic violence the perpetrators or initiators are women, that many industries that were once the preserve of men are now being taken over by women, does not change in any way the valued ideals aggression, private ownership or of how these industries are considered successful – where’s the progress when a woman is the CEO of a company that exploits its workers and/or wrecks the environment? It does not change in any way the notion that that violent aggression is based on certain ideas that, as anyone familiar with ancient Greek and Christian history would know, were expressly considered the preserve of men? In fact, it’s a testimony to the near-complete fashion with which male-focused cultural ideas have been internalised by both men and women in certain cultures. This is certainly the line taken by Prof. Claudia von Werlhof in this paper that outlines the all-encompassing nature of patriarchy. And there can be no question that this was the nature of colonial rule in the Caribbean. This was how leadership was conceptualised by the new elites who joined with the old ones in 1962. How then is it a myth when learned people know that cultures often take years, centuries even, to change? In the early 20th century, Trinidad was still very much a society where, according to Prof. Brereton:
“Upper class social life revolved around private visits and parties. The men had their clubs, but women were largely confined to domesticity (apart from church and charitable activities). The sun was dangerous to the complexion, and there was always the risk of offensive remarks, or worse, from the lower orders. Limited to domestic management and family affairs, often poorly educated, Trinidad’s white women can rarely have developed wider interests.”
And given that the ideals of the middle and upper classes were what was projected as the proper way everyone was expected to live, what does one think was encouraged among the labouring classes if they were to move “up” in society? During the indentureship period, many women fled suffocating patriarchies in India and ended up in different ones here in the Caribbean. Indian patriarchy merged with European patriarchal ideas of male entitlement to women’s bodies; Prof. Patricia Mohammed informs us that according to official police reports in the early 20th century, Indian men could not understand how the killing of their wives could be considered a criminal act: “I kill my own wife, why not? I kill no other man’s wife.” She goes on to point out that a lot of these issues stemmed from a sense of wounded pride. We find this among the Afri-Trinbagonian peasant population and rural areas although, according to the historical accounts, there was also a much more “common sense” approach to sexual intimacy in decades gone by.
This does not mean that Indian women were hapless, helpless damsels in distress; Sarah Morton, wife of John Morton, the Presbyterian missionary who came to Trinidad to Christianise the Hindus, informs us that:
The loose actions and prevailing practices in respect of marriage here are quite shocking to the newcomer. I said to an East Indian woman, whom I knew to be the widow of a Brahmin, ‘You have no relations in Trinidad, I believe?’ ‘No madame,’ she replied, ‘only myself and two children; when the last immigrant ship came I took a ‘papa’. I will keep him as long as he treats me well. If he does not treat me well I shall send him off at once; that’s the right way, is it not?
By this response (and the shocked tones of Ms. Morton) we can glean that there was a strong patriarchal culture in this society and that that was being confronted by Indian women who had clear notions of what they wanted for themselves. We can locate documents showing that it was even more pronounced among African communities in Trinidad where both men and women remembered cultural traditions and institutions denoting women’s autonomy and often rejected being married in the Eurocentric sense. The ideological battle between European and non-European ideas of what women’s role must be is what helped define Trinidad and Tobago to this very day.
So let’s exercise a little honesty; patriarchy and rape culture are very prevalent here in Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean. And as the economic situation continues to evolve the way it is, to the detriment of many men, a lot of them who still hold assumptions about their superior positions and notions of entitlement, will assert themselves in that violent way as the only means they believe they can regain control of their lives and of those around them. If we want to break that cycle, we have to get at the source and look at the entire picture as unpleasant as it will be. We didn’t start this fire.
Shem Hotep (I go on peace)