Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bahamian women have not sat by silently in the wake of the suffrage movement by any means ...but today’s calling is for more organisation, more mobilisation, and more united action... ...And importantly, there is a need to bridge the generational gap, to harness the wisdom of elders and the energy of youth... ...Today’s calling is for a movement that will inspire new generations of women to continue the good fight

Voices Of Women Must Be Heard

Tribune Features Editor

DURING the most recent general election in the United States of America, I came across an interesting online flyer captioned “The Republican Party Rape Advisory Chart”. It listed a set of talking points on the seven types of rape in the minds of a “Republican rape apologists.”

The “Gift-From-God Rape” was aptly described by Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock: “When life begins with that horrible situation of rape that is something that God intended to happen.” “Legitimate Rape” was described by Republican Congressman and Senate candidate Todd Akin: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Republican Congressman Ron Paul expounded on the category of “Honest Rape”: “If it’s an honest rape that individual should go immediately to the emergency room; I would give them a shot of estrogen.” Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon was the spokesperson on “Emergency Rape”: “It was really an issue about a Catholic church being forced to offer those pills if the person came in an emergency rape.”

The “Easy Rape” was described by Republican State Representative Roger Rivard, who said: “If you go down that road, some girls, they rape so easy.” Republican legislators sought to have “Forcible Rape” clearly defined in law under the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act”, which would prohibit federal funding of abortions except in instances of “an act of forcible rape or, if a minor, an act of incest’.”

Republican Gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams is cited as the “father of Republican rape apologists” for his championing of the concept “Enjoyable Rape”. During his Gubernatorial campaign he publicly made a joke likening rape to bad weather, claiming that: “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.”

The results of the US election were widely panned as a rejection by women of the Republican platform on women. Calls have been loud and furious for Republican men to shut up about rape “forever”.

Liberal comedian and political satirist Bill Maher called Republicans “vaginaphobes” on his late night HBO series, asking the question: “For Republicans to do well in the future, they need the woman vote: Women out vote men by 10 million. Okay. Don’t the Republican men, even if they have these views, in the future, have to shut up?”

The answer from Democratic commentator James Carville invoked Southern culture: “You know, in order to get that boy’s attention, you got to hit him upside the head with a two by four. Well the sound you heard on election night was pine on skull.”

What has become increasingly clear in US politics is that women have power at the polls: not because of the demographic distribution that sees more women voting than men; because of their capacity to organise and vote for their own self interests, exerting their influence at the polls.

In the Bahamas, we are not so fortunate. For all of our efforts over the years, which have led to much advancement for women, today there is no women’s movement to speak of; we have many women voters, but no collective women’s agenda.

Speaking at a panel discussion held last week by the Bureau of Women’s Affairs in celebration of National Women’s Month, “Women in Leadership: the Untold Story”, women’s rights activist and gender specialist Audrey Roberts described a movement as a sustained effort of mobilising and organising around a set of issues that represent the collective voices of women, opposed to a series of disjointed single actions that respond to issues that arise.

The best model we have in the Bahamas of a women’s movement was the women’s suffrage movement. While much has been achieved since the 1960s – thanks in large part to the contributions of Bahamian women who became political leaders – it is questionable whether or not the movement has been sustained.

“We are at that time again when there is a need for a women’s movement,” said Mrs Roberts, speaking to the burgeoning call from the spirits of Bahamian women for power and agency in the exercise of their collective will. I agree wholeheartedly.

The recent discussion of marital rape revealed so much about where we are as women, and the patriarchal strong hold that still grips our society. It is very much relevant to the patriarchal psychology that runs so deep in the Republican Party, as described above.

In the Bahamas, the Republican Party is represented by fundamentalist factions of the Christian church, the most aggressive force working against the advancement of women in Bahamian society. Along with partisan politics, but even more harmfully so, is what Professor Olivia Saunders described at the panel discussion as the “religiousising” of women’s issues in the Bahamas.

Referencing the way in which partisan politics results in the politicisation of issues, Mrs Saunders invented the term religiousising to speak to the way in which religious dogma and religious doctrine is continuously used to undermine arguments for the advancement of women.

Mrs Saunders posed the point as a question to Rev Carla Culmer, Rector at Wesley Methodist Church, who was a speaker on the panel. I was very interested to hear a female church leader speak to the point; however, Rev Culmer opted for a conservative answer, encouraging women to ask their 
predominantly male pastors to speak from the pulpit about issues that are important to them. She also called for more education and mentoring, which would result in the empowerment of women.

Perhaps in more private forums, at first, it is important for women of the cloth to start speaking directly to the point. The rise of the feminine in church leadership must be accompanied by the rise of the female point of view. Women in ministry must play an important role in the women’s movement, and they must become vocal advocates of women and women’s rights in public spaces. They must contest the dogmatic views spouted by their fellow clergymen or church followers when those views are spoken in the interests of patriarchy and not righteousness.

Rev Culmer has had an interesting journey in the Methodist Church. In all of her leadership capacities, her appointment was a first for women in the church. And even as Rev Culmer continues to rise through the ranks of church ministry, the battle continues, as there are traditions in which people “expect the pastor to be a man.”

The view that men are ministers and women are wives is so entrenched in the church, for one of her parishioners it took him 11 years to come to church to listen to her preach, she said. The position of wife is a standard fixture in many churches with duly assigned responsibilities.

In Rev Culmer, the church was confronted with the image of a single woman, who in the context of religious patriarchy could never been seen as a minister of religion with the moral authority to be a spiritual advisor. The church is slowly moving along a progressive learning curve, but the journey remains long. After all the Anglican church recently voted against appointing female bishops.

“As a woman, you have to prove that you have a right to be there,” said Rev Culmer, speaking of the struggle.

She has had instances of officiating events in which the letter “a” from her first name Carla was dropped off her name by someone assuming they had received mistaken information. The senior pastor after all would surely be named Carl and not Carla.

Rev Culmer’s story is an important one to share and so are the stories of countless women who continue to battle against patriarchy and sexism in their respective spheres of influence, two central pillars standing in the way of gender equality and equity.

The sad reality is that women are not sufficiently creating their own platforms and using existing platforms to tell their stories; to let their voices be heard and to stand and be counted in a united front. Our stories are hidden under bushels and our voices are muted by our own private retreat.

To excuse themselves from having participated in the public debate about marital rape, politicians often say, the government never brought a bill to Parliament. Seeing Parliament as their primary platform, politicians use the opportunity to debate bills to speak to national issues, and when no bill is brought to the floor they hide behind that cover. And even when they do speak on the floor, much of what they say gets lost in the partisan hackery. Outside of Parliament, politicians can take advantage of existing platforms and create their own platforms, as can all Bahamians.

Women’s activist Michelle Miller spoke at the forum and lamented the fact that every time she turns on the radio she hears men talking; every time she turns on the television she sees male talking heads. “Women are not speaking and presenting our agenda to the public on a regular basis,” said Ms Miller.

“Where is the platform? We need to create a platform, a consistent platform that allows us to use the power of influence,” she said.

As far as engendering a movement is concerned, Ms Miller suggested that a critical need exists for women to create and utilise public platforms. She said young people model the behaviour of their elders, and young women need to see female leaders making representation on their behalf in public; they need to see the fire in the bellies of their female leaders to spark their own spirits.

I completely understand the sentiment. Such was my only real disappointment about the ceremony held last week in the House of Assembly to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement; our political leaders said the expected things, praising the legacy of the suffragettes and calling women to work together, but I did not see the fire in the bellies of our female parliamentarians.

I was hoping for a presentation from at least one of our political leaders to match the stature of the presentation delivered by Dame Dr Doris Johnson in 1959 on behalf of the women’s suffrage movement. In her delivery, PLP Senator Cheryl Bazard reminded me the most of what I imagine Dr Johnson to have been like, but all of the speeches lacked a certain audacity.

The event was truly commendable and inspiring nonetheless, based on the strength of the 1959 speech, which still holds such relevance today. It was a moving display of bipartisanship in ancestral remembrance. My critique is not to take away from that fact. The entire presentation was laudable.

But if there was one thing missing, it was the bold articulation of a 21st century agenda that could really light a fire in the consciousness of Bahamian women. The love fest we witnessed amongst the various government and the opposition members around the constitutional issue, which was the subject of the 2002 referendum, was welcomed. Bipartisanship on this issue is long overdue, but the current efforts are redeeming efforts on the part of the government and opposition.

The emphatic statements made by Dr Johnson in 1959, asserting the invincibility of womanhood, seem farfetched in the climate of conservatism that exists today, but that kind of leadership is exactly what is needed today, not only by our political leaders, but all of our women in leadership positions.

The achievements of the women’s movement over the past fifty years seem to have put women in the Bahamas into a comfortable stupor, which is so unfortunate because our work is not done.

“Today, invincible womanhood, mother of men and ruler of the world raises her noble head and approaches the courts of justice with the clarion call of equal rights for all Bahamian women… We women press this demand and ask such enactment on the basis of not who is right, but what is right for our country. We judge expediency only on this basis. We seek no compromise. There is no alternative. We abhor any delaying action. We women ask only that you gentlemen move now to secure the rights of 54,000 women, including your wives and daughters.”

The audacity of these words spoken from the mouth of Dr Johnson on behalf of the women’s suffrage movement in 1959 is truly moving. I admire the fact that Janet Bostwick, the first woman to be elected to the House of Assembly, had the privilege of sitting in the magistrate’s court when they were actually delivered. I am grateful that I was present last week when they were read again by the women of the House and Senate in a joint sitting of Parliament.

While the suffragettes were galvanised around the issue of enfranchisement at the ballot box, they were also clear on the wider women’s agenda. In fact, they asserted there are issues which specifically require the “insight and interest of women to investigate, report on and seek improvement”; they suggested men were not naturally interested in these issues. I wonder to what extent women still hold this view.

“We women wish to serve our country and assist your efforts in attending to such projects as housing schemes, slum clearance, establishment of libraries and museums, local welfare services, supervision of food and drug supplies and the establishment of reasonable and respectable lodgings for temporary visitors from our Out Islands,” said Dr Johnson in the landmark speech.

“Education in the processing and operation of school medical services and milk distribution, care of our many weed-covered cemeteries, registration of births, deaths and marriages, proper filing system of registration of voters, suppression of nuisances, maternity and child welfare, birth control information centres, jury service, notification and disinfection of infectious diseases, care of the aged, etc, are only a few of the areas to which women can make their contributions. This is a task so large that it takes the energies of everybody, men and women, to better conditions in our islands,” she said.

The suffragettes were clear about their agenda and specific in their demands. They were persistent in their pursuit, organised in their action and united in their efforts. They affirmed the value in their very womanhood and demonstrated their worth through action.

Bahamian women have not sat by silently in the wake of the suffrage movement by any means, but today’s calling is for more organisation, more mobilisation, and more united action. And importantly, there is a need to bridge the generational gap, to harness the wisdom of elders and the energy of youth. Today’s calling is for a movement that will inspire new generations of women to continue the good fight.

December 03, 2012