Post 228.

Almost forty years ago, Audre Lorde wrote, “we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and still we will be no less afraid”. Around the region today, women are posting sexual harassment, abuse and assault survival stories as part of the #lifeinleggings movement, precisely to overcome that silencing and fear.

The hashtag and postings were started by Barbadian women Ronelle King and Allyson Benn to highlight the pervasiveness of sexual violence. Can any of us say that we don’t know one woman who has experienced such threat, fear, harm and denial of choice, possibly many times?

They linked their initiative to Barbados’ 50th independence and, therefore, to the impossibility of ‘development’ without also ending gender inequalities. Caribbean states have paid scant attention to the realities of rape culture while reframing twenty years of lip service into a story of “too much focus on women”. Yet, the courage it takes to share these stories suggests that silencing remains more dominant than safe space for women’s truths about their relationships, families, communities and nation.

Breaking these silences remains a risk. Families are invested in hiding stories of sexual predation, telling women that it happened in the past or that it’s more important to just keep peace. People respond that, somehow, you must have looked for that because of your clothes, your job or smile. Others’ trauma at hearing what happened to you has to be managed, sometimes making it easier to say nothing. It’s common to not be believed or to be blamed or seen as bringing down shame or wanting attention or, worse, as a joke.

Now isn’t the time to say not all men rape, assault or harass. Women are not accusing all men, they are simply no longer hiding what actually happened to them. Women are not responsible for protecting themselves, for ‘men don’t molest decent girls’. These stories begin when we are children and modesty provides no safety. Women don’t want men’s protection, we want their solidarity. There’s one message that can change women’s #lifeinleggings, and that is that men’s sexual self-responsibility has no excuses.

From Bajan politicians to Guyanese indigenous women to Jamaican reggae singers to Trinidadian university educators to policewomen in St. Vincent to disabled girls across the region, every kind of Caribbean woman has stories. Imagine what it means when education, class privilege, fame, age, ethnicity or profession makes no difference?

Audre Lorde has written, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you”. Almost forty years later, in support of #lifeinleggings, Tonya Haynes, in the Caribbean feminist blog, Code Red for Gender Justice, wrote,

“Women broke every silence. We spoke of street harassment: girl, yuh pussy fat! Principals who made no room for comprehensive sexuality education but slut-shamed girls who were themselves sexually abused. Rape by current and former partners. Years of sexual abuse by fathers, step-fathers, uncles, cousins. Stories of men who told us that they’re waiting for our four-year-old daughters to grow up. Men who offered jobs or rides or food or protection only to demand sex. Only to split our bodies open when we refused. Men who raped us because we are lesbian, because we are women, because we are girls, because they could. We exploded every myth about how good girls and good women are protected from this violence. That good men will protect us.  That all we have to do is call in our squad of brothers and uncles and fathers. We asked, and who will women and girls call when our fathers and brothers and uncles assault them? We affirmed that asking men to protect us from male violence is not freedom. All men benefit from male privilege and unequal relations of gender which disadvantage and devalue women and girls. We demand autonomy not protection! We split this island open for every woman and girl who has had her body split open. We split this island open and let all the secrets fall out”.

If you want to break your own silences, there is a #lifeinleggings gathering, on Saturday from 4-6pm, at the Big Black Box on Murray Street in Woodbrook. Go. Listen. Share. Let all our own islands’ secrets fall out.

Advertisements

Post 128.

You are a teenager. Your dad tells you he wants to look at your body. He touches your genitals. After, he says he’s sorry. He doesn’t want you to tell anyone. You do tell, your mother, your aunts and the police. He says you are lying. Your mother believes you. Who will others believe?

You’ve now lost a dad and must mourn a man still walking around town, one who was supposed to protect you but who now casts you as the threat. You have no idea what rules actually matter anymore, given that the ones you thought most mattered have now been violated. Why not self-harm? Why obey anyone when adults have failed to obey the rules that they should?

Maybe you act out because it’s a way to let others know you are going to do whatever you want because, regardless of the support you have, this hell is and will be your own. Maybe you act out because you are angry, maybe to forget, maybe to test those around you to see if they really are on your side, maybe to push back at the boundaries of their love.

Maybe when you know what it means to be vulnerable, you reach in many directions for safety, even directions not right for you. Hurt, betrayal and loss are confusing. You live them emotionally, understanding your rationales and reactions only long after.

You don’t know it yet, but you will deal with this for decades. It may affect your future relationships with others, even with yourself. It may crush your ability to trust. It may lead you to take risks. It may leave you less able to negotiate control over your body and sexuality than you need to be. It may lead you to search out future abusers in one form or another. You don’t wake up one morning and find the whole experience was a dream.  You wake up on mornings carrying the experience, sometimes awake, sometimes sleeping, inside of you.

You also don’t yet know how many other girls this happens to. The women who come to hear about your abuse, who remember their own, also begin to discover how many of them were affected. They revisit their pain. If only there were less silence and less shame. If only women didn’t carry feelings of blame or hadn’t decided to forget, the stories of survivors of child sexual abuse and incest could fill every newspaper page.

These women and their stories can reduce girls’ vulnerability. Maybe, hopefully, women survivors will find a way to heal and protect where others have failed. Maybe, men who have also survived sexual abuse will also come together, not just to support each other, not just to run perpetrators, but to dismantle the kind of masculine power that makes men more likely to be sexually and physically violent to those they love.

National statistics suggest that child sexual abuse happens everyday. This teenager is real. She isn’t me, but that doesn’t matter. She is ours. So are all the others.

There is action to be taken everywhere. Like my sistren, Nadella Oya, you can make a statement on the walls of communities, you can teach children about their rights. NGOs across the country need volunteers and ideas. There is the regional Break the Silence Campaign, started by the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI, whose blue teddy symbol is becoming more visible. Find out what you can do.

We need to end hushed family conversations, cycles of violence and tolerance of perpetrators. Tomorrow should not add another story.