Caribbean Feminist Activists Face Threats, Intimidation & Misogynist Bullying

On Monday, April 21, 2015 an audio recording captured Guyana’s Minister of Health, Dr. Bheri Ramsarran calling feminist activist Sherlina Nageer “an idiot”,  “a little piece of shit”, threatening to “slap her ass…just for the fun of it”, and to have her stripped by “some of my women”.

A statement sent to the press by the Minister of Health subsequently claims that he was provoked to such misogynist violence after Sherlina Nageer interrupted a press interview. Sherlina can be heard demanding state accountability for Guyana’s high maternal mortality rate, which is the highest in the English-speaking Caribbean.

The Minister invoked the language of “provocation” to justify his act of violence.  The invocation of “provocation” is frequently used to justify and rationalise men’s fatal violence against women and has crept into state and activist responses to violence. The language of provocation, just like the denigrating language and threats the Minister directed at Sherlina, is the language of misogyny.

Women’s human rights defenders from across the region have attempted for decades to hold Caribbean governments accountable to women. This is not the first time that their efforts, are met with violence, threats and intimidation. Last month,  in St. Vincent and the Grenadines a communications official working in the Prime Minister’s Office sought to shame a rape survivor on live radio for sharing her testimony  at a women’s conference. In Barbados last year, a long-standing feminist activist and government employee walked out of a meeting in response to sexist comments. She and was condescendingly and threateningly offered “a word to the wise” from the floor of Parliament by the Minister with responsibility for the Bureau of Gender Affairs and accused of publicly displaying “bias for one gender over the other”. These examples are symptomatic of institutionalized and systematic sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny in the region, and they promote marginalization and intimidation of women at all levels.

Women are 51% of the population and our governments must be accountable to us.

We will not be intimidated into silence as silence means death.  Literally.

Sherlina Nageer was called a “piece of shit” for insisting that women’s lives and health matter. She was threatened with the misogynist and violent acts of public stripping and beating for insisting that governments have a responsibility to ensure women have access to quality sexual and reproductive health services.

We recognise such abuses of state power as a reflection of hatred of women, an unwillingness to recognise us as fully human and a refusal to treat us as equals. They also reflect the callous disregard elected officials show for the people — boys and girls, women and men — they are meant to serve.

We call on our state managers to denounce acts of violence wherever they occur. We caution our politicians throughout the region that their silence on these offences against its citizens speaks volumes to their commitment to gender justice and the rights of women. If they will not speak out due to a lack of political will, we will speak out in the knowledge of what is right.

Join us in holding regional state managers accountable by submitting accounts of their abuse of power and office to any of the following email addresses:

redforgender [at] gmail [dot] com

catchafyahnetwork redforgender [at] gmail [dot] com

womantratt [at] gmail [dot] com

We invite you to sign below in solidarity with Sherlina Nageer and all women human rights defenders who face violence, threats, intimidation and loss of employment for the work they do on behalf of all of us.

Tonya Haynes

Fatimah Jackson-Best

Stephanie Leitch

Sign on to the solidarity statement here.

Read Sherlina’s response here.

Press Statement by Dr. Bheri Ramsaran

On Monday, April 21, 2015, at around 09:30 hours, I joined a group of peaceful persons at Whim Magistrate’s Court to give solidarity to former President Bharrat Jagdeo.

As I was about to depart two journalists sought an interview with me on the matter at hand to which I readily agreed. During the interview I was rudely interrupted by a woman who kept shouting and interrupting me throughout.

I shifted away on several occasions in an attempt to avoid her but she persisted in interrupting the interview.

It was unfortunate that I was provoked into anger and uttered harsh words at her for which I now regret.

I therefore wish to apologize for uttering those words.

April 21, 2015

Recordings have surfaced that suggest that one day after the Health Minister Dr. Bheri Ramsarran apologised he told a health forum that “so we have these miscreants who are sometimes supported by the international community because they are rights activists, right to spit in my face but not collect two slap, you understand me, or one of my ladies who love me wreck her up, you understand me?” Full transcript of comments available here and below:

“So we have these miscreants who are sometimes supported by the international community because they are rights activists, right to spit in my face but not collect two slap, you understand me, or one of my ladies who love me wreck her up, you understand me? Well you know I’m Bheri best, all the ladies like me. Suppose one of my big strong women seh “wuh yuh do we doctor, wuh yuh do dis innocent lil man? Wacks! Wacks! (imitates the sounds of blows). Then she’s going to become a hero, some of us will mek sure we give her a medal. Right, spit in my face, I don’t know if she got rabies or what, I know she was rabid. That woman need psychiatric help.”

This Stabroek News editorial provides the best reporting of the events and the best commentary and analysis on the Minister’s behaviour. It ends with a call for him to resign or be fired.

Natural Hair Ban at Barbados School

Borrowed images
willed our skins pale
muffled our laughter
lowered our voices
let out our hems
dekinked our hair
denied our sex in gym tunics and bloomers
harnessed our voices to madrigals
and genteel airs
yoked our minds to declensions in Latin
and the language of Shakespeare

Told us nothing about our selves
There was nothing at all

From Colonial Girls’ School by Olive Senior

Even a dog’s hair must be groomed (facebook comment).

We black people using this black roots as an excuse to walk about the people place like you have no owner or sense and quite often looking quite stupid all in the name of trying to get back to your roots. Why we black people feel that unless you looking untidy and foolish you acting white (facebook comment).

Look how quick them could come up with a petition about a few knotty children that won’t comb their picky head (facebook comment).

locks for me have been a kind of anti-beauty. A deliberate subversion of an idea of what hair should look like for a black woman (Tillah Willah).

The Afro-Trinidadian women in my office tell me that hair is important, having combed hair is important and that this is something black girls learn early, because of the general disparagement of things African and the overwhelming pressure to bleach, straighten, press or cover natural black hair. Having to present as acceptable, decent and civilised is a given because its alternative is to fall to a racist stereotype (Gabrielle Hosein).

It has been reported that the Principal of one of Barbados’ elite secondary schools has banned black girls with hard hair/nappy hair/kinky hair/natural hair from wearing their hair loose i.e. from wearing their hair in the way that it grows out of their heads.  She has declined to speak to the media so we have no idea what her reason for this ban is.  The principal has since indicated that while she recognises the beauty of natural hair, all students must be “neat and tidy” when in school uniform.

Some supporters of the ban have claimed that the “twist out” hairstyle is womanish, distracting, inappropriate for school and that it is just one specific style that is banned and not natural hair itself, (but it’s a policy directed exclusively at black natural hair!) Notions of neatness and tidiness are not at all neutral. When it comes to hair, they are often extremely exclusionary with black women and girls expected to engage in massive amounts of grooming just to appear presentable. Not even babies and toddlers are exempt from these standards.

Times change. Some of the natural hairstyles that may now be grudgingly considered appropriate in a professional setting represent a hard-won acceptance.  Women have been fired for wearing braids in Barbados. Rastafari have been persecuted across the region with multiple attempts to exclude rastafari boys and girls from school because of their hair. The same way we learnt to accept the “Revlon locs” and the twisted updos, we’ll have to get used to twist outs, wash-and-go, and loose natural hairstyles.

Supporters of the school policy have also claimed that a principal’s powers are absolute. They see the principal as the sole decision-maker and source of authority and argue that students should follow the rules without question.  They see this as necessary preparation and discipline needed for the world of work. They see public disagreement with the hair policy as an attempt to discredit the principal because she is a woman leading an elite former boys’ school. They have argued that natural hair can be smelly and unkempt using terms like “bag fuzz”, “rats’ nest” and “matted” to describe loose natural hair. They have argued that natural hair requires special rules.

Long, slurpy stupse.

Elite secondary schools in the region share a history of colonialism, racism, sexism, classism and anti-blackness.

Sometimes teachers think that they are doing students a favour when they socialize them into white supremacy, self-hate and respectability.  They believe they are preparing them for the world of work. Preparing them for survival in a globalised world that is anti-black. Making somebody out of them despite their blackness or working class roots or countrified accent. These teachers are in need of consciousness-raising. They need to learn better so that they can do better.

When I was at secondary school I distinctly remember our principal asking all the girls with natural hair to stay behind after assembly for a talk on tidiness and appropriate hairstyles. This is gendered and racialised policing of black girls’ bodies that is usually classist as well. It also communicates just who legitimately is supposed to occupy these elite spaces.

Young-gifted-and-black women wearing their hair as it grows out of their heads exist in all kinds of leadership roles where their intelligence and expertise are acknowledged and rewarded. So aside from how arbitrary, racist, sexist and anti-black these rules are, aside from how emotionally and spiritually damaging this policing of black girls’ bodies is, there is really NO case to be made for socializing black girls into anti-blackness. Black women and girls can and do bring our full selves, our flyness and our talents to all the spaces that we occupy, create and help to shape. Our blackness, our bodies, our sexualities do not need to be mitigated, tamed or policed. We do not need to be infantilized or socialized into white supremacy or black middle-class respectability just because a powerful few have not yet realized that it’s 2015.

It’s 2015. And it’s majority-black Barbados.  If black girls can’t wear their hair as it grows out of their heads at this very moment and in this very space, then when and where?

This post is about the larger issues, not just the policies at one school. To read more about that school’s decision visit Loop Barbados. They have also done a follow-up article.

***

Sign the petition calling for the principal to remove the ban against natural hair. Tell her just how saddened and disappointed we are by her decision.  Tell her too that we know she is learning just like all of us. Ask her to open her heart to what we are trying to teach.

The majority of comments I’ve read have expressed disapproval of the ban on the hairstyle. However, many of the people who claim to embrace natural hair only do so if it is processed i.e. plaited, twisted, loced, in an updo, heavily styled etc. What is considered acceptable natural hair is hair which is recently styled or re-loced and which does not appear fuzzy. “Acceptable natural” is not at all a rejection of European standards of what hair looks like but a negotiation with those standards— a move closer to mixed-race curliness as ideal and attenuated blackness as acceptable through conformity to notions of neatness, tidiness and professionalism. So we’re left with the paradox that large numbers of women in Barbados wear their hair natural but this widespread acceptance of natural hair does not extend to kinky, loose hairstyles which are deemed dirty, knotty, wild and unkempt.

***

This week in St. Lucia a boy was sent home from school because of his hair cut (pictured below). His father asked:

What is wrong with such a short cropped head of hair? We black and mixed black people must shave our heads bald to be accepted?

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A word on terminology: some have expressed disapproval with my use of the terms “hard” and “nappy” and have expressed a preference for the term “curly”. In Barbados we talk about “hard hair” to described tightly coiled black hair. Typically hard is not meant as a compliment or a neutral descriptor. What positive or neutral terms do we historically have to describe black hair? Nonetheless, hard is a term I use to describe my own hair. Hard has some positive slang connotations like fly or cool. I’m reclaiming hard as a positive descriptor of black, natural dopeness! I know nappy as a term mostly used in the US, again often in a negative way, but I think the natural hair movement over there has done a lot to reclaim that term (“happy to be nappy”). The kind of black hair that is coming under intense scrutiny is not considered “curly” in the cultural context of Barbados. So even though the hair may be tightly curled or coiled, to use the term curly to describe it would be culturally incorrect. There is also the classification system, invented in the US, which grades hair from 1a to 4c.  It’s not a system I use. Black people have been styling their hair for millenia without a need for these classifications. Given the racist history of anthropometry, I don’t see why black women need another racialised classification system to separate us into As and Cs. The term kinky, which means closely or tightly curled, was suggested to me and I’ve edited the post to reflect that.

***

Learn more about the politics of black hair in the Caribbean at the following links:

Got My Hair Un-did

As a mother of a half-African baby girl, each day I discover how little I know about black hair. 

The Black Hair Conundrum

St. Lucian Boy Kicked Out of Class Over Hairstyle

Young Barbadian men excluded from Polytechnic because of locs 

Good Hair in St. Vincent and the Grenadines

It’s Just Hair

I’m a twenty-something overachieving chick with dreadlocks and a predilection for wearing Converse to work

Tales of a Caribbean Natural

Tales of a Caribbean Natural: Secondary School Edition

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Have you ever blogged about hair politics in the region? Please share your links with us? Are you a black woman with natural hair? Please tell us what terms you use to describe your hair? Have you come across any other Bajan blogs talking about this issue? Please share them with us. Do you disagree with us completely? Tell us in the comments!

image source: http://www.loopbarbados.com

Take Back the Tech, Don’t Take it Away

Here’s a video clip in which a Trini mom explains that after observing changes in her nine year-old son’s behaviour she became worried that something was wrong.  On attending a PTA meeting she heard teacher express concern about boys performing oral sex on each other at school.  She then states (quite matter-of-factly, in my opinion) that only after she beat her son, to get him to talk, she explains, did he admit to having been raped and bullied at school. She suspected that he was being victimised and her last resort to get him to open up to her about that victimisation was to beat him, to use violence against him. Continue reading

Top 10 sexist and heterosexist moments in Caribbean Politics

Contribute to the final list of top 10 sexist & heterosexist moments in Caribbean politics by leaving your suggestions in the comments below.  Here are what i’ve been able to come up with in no particular order. Thanks to all who sent suggestions via facebook and twitter.

1. Trinidad & Tobago: Minister of People and Social Development claims “severe fatigue” after a flight attendant alleges that he touched her breasts when he grabbed her name-tag and threatened to have her fired because she asked him to stow his luggage correctly.  The Prime Minister then fired him.  Before the dust could settle on this one, police were investigating reports that the Minister of tourism had physically assaulted his former partner, causing her to lose consciousness. Continue reading

No thanks, Banks!

So Banks Beer, which markets itself as the national beer of Barbados, recently launched an ad with the tag line, “My Brown Ting, My Banks.  Brown never looked so tasty.”
Yup, a racist, sexist colonial throwback which draws on a long history of the sexualisation, commodification and thingification of the brown woman’s body. Very, very original and imaginative, Banks.
Banks joins a long list of other Caribbean advertisers who drawn on worn-out racialised and sexualized images of women to sell anything from alcohol to cellphones.

Vidyaratha Kissoon of Guyana has publicly denounced the objectification of women’s bodies in advertising, especially light of the persistently high levels of violence against women in the region:

The use of women’s bodies in advertising and marketing in Guyana has increased in proportion to the intense levels of violence that many women and girls face. Around the world, many advocates against violence campaign against the objectification of women in the media.

When we wrote about the Banks ad on our facebook page, one reader responded that we were focusing on non-issues to the exclusion of other more important ones, that for that reason no one takes feminists seriously and that alcohol advertising must use sexualized and racialised images of parts of women’s bodies because their target audience is men:

rrrriiiiiggghttt, when you all are done you will turn alcohol ads into what? milk ads? these products are mainly marketed at MEN hence the sexy images, instead of flustering over a beer commercial why not campaign for real issues affecting women, such as the right to choose and abortion rights.
This is why women’s rights movements are now viewed as nuisance groups.

This perception of feminists as “nuisances” is as old as the sexist, racialised images Caribbean marketers trade in. So too is the old trick of accusing us of failing to understand what the real issues are and of being selective in acknowledging our activism.

Another reader had this to say:
this frankly sad but strange logic is more common than not from your average Caribbean woman. A function of how much out popular culture of hypersexualising not just thoughts, but songs, slang, our festivals like Carnival and Chutney fetes in T&T…Its really disturbing to read someone say its aimed at men so must be OK. Where’s the subtlety? Nobody’s saying wear a sack but whatever happened to commercials where companies never felt the need to tell us that brown never looked so tasty.

Her comment highlights the fact that since these racialised, sexist images are EVERYWHERE they have become normalized.
Well, a few flustered nuisances will be doing what we can to highlight to contextualize and historicize these images. Join us! CODE RED has started its own campaign asking our readers and members to send us sexist ads from across the Caribbean. You can email us too at redforgender [at] gmail [dot] com.