I heard a set of poppycock recently on a popular call in show. Although it did not surprise me because of the proponent, it alarmed me because it is unfortunate that men in ‘power’ in Barbados are still so fragile in their manhoods and unaware about gender issues.
The topic was the perceived rise in the level of aggression among Barbadian school girls. The opportunity was used to advance the usual misogyny which has come from the quarter before. The argument went something like girls and women in Barbados are so aggressive coming out of having been liberated. The liberation and the role changes were done without considering how men were displaced and women now ‘flex muscle’ to show their new statuses.
The set of premises is by no means new. The same types of arguments have been raised as justification for why Afro-American men date Latino and white women and rate them higher than black women. Wherever the set of premises manifest, they are usually disingenuous and resonate most with men who are simply uncomfortable with the advancement of women. That advancement has led to displacement in the gender relations, but it cannot be seen as the role of women to compensate or fix that problem.
Aggression is a human characteristic. Women and men are aggressive. Where men are aggressive, they are usually seen as ‘alpha male’. The complement of alpha male is ‘alpha female’ but we have not traditionally seen aggression as a female characteristic. Perhaps more than the ‘aggression’ we are seeing in women and girls being labelled good or bad, perhaps we must first accept that women can be and should be at times aggressive. We should accept that the only type of acceptable female behaviour is no longer docile, mild and pleasant.
In direct relation to our school girls, though, I am not sure if what we are seeing can be labelled as new aggression. Barbadian women, and to a lesser extent Caribbean and Diaspora women of African lineage, have strong and bold personalities. There is a historical context to this. We pretend as if we do not know that there was no separation of cruelty and labour on the Caribbean plantation. Women headed canes and men headed canes. Men worked in the sun and rain for upward to twelve hours a day and women were by their sides.
African-descended women did not have the luxury of being ‘soft’ and in need of male support like their white housewife counterparts. They were not perceived to need men as partners or fathers. The African man and woman were simply modes of production on the plantation. This is our historical reality. Coupled with the brutality of everyday work on the plantation, the African-descended woman was further tortured by becoming the sexual possession of Massa. Granted, some African-descended men lived this horror as well.
African-descended women quickly learnt that sex was a commodity with the ability to make life easier on the plantation. If Massa liked a woman, she could get extra food, a little better lodging, perhaps she could flee the hot sun completely and get in ‘the big house’. These variables led African-descended women to view each other as threats and competition, not as friends and counterparts.
They plotted against each other and took stories to whomever they thought could be a help in keeping one woman oppressed so that there would always be better opportunity. Womanhood was not something to be celebrated in the plantation context but the characteristics of womanhood became tools of manipulation and guile.
These modes of engagement, the perceptions about relationships with men and the types of personality traits of women have largely been left unaddressed and unchanged over the years of Caribbean post-independence life. I am not sure that we are seeing anything new in our school girls but what we are seeing is testimony that we have to do more to uplift womanhood and put it on an even footing with manhood, not that we have done enough or too much.
Despite the efforts of the feminist/womanist lobby in Barbados, womanhood is still largely a burden. Women are still expected to become the primary parent of children because African-descended men still largely do not understand their role as fathers. African-descended women are still viewed as strong enough to go it without a man and most never get the benefit of a partner who shows up and makes a consistent effort.
African-descended men, instead of reviling Massa for having turned African-descended women into cheap sexual possessions, have picked up where Massa left off. They use their money and ability to grant favours, keeping several more generations of Caribbean women clinging five to one man, hoping for the ‘big house’ opportunity. Women still see each other as threats and, instead of enjoying a sisterhood, there is to this day constant undermining and disharmony in relationships among women.
I hope by now that I have made the point that the characteristics of womanhood we are seeing in Barbados currently are by no means new modes. I hope you also understand by now that I am not advocating all the features of Barbadian womanhood as wholesome or healthy. Actually, the point that I want to make is that we have severe elements of dysfunction in the family structure of Barbados that are remnants of our plantation past.
This has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with woman advancement, although the shifts occurring in gender roles may have laid the inherent dysfunction barer. For anybody to pretend that they do not know this contextualization of the issues or the difference between woman advancement being the cause of perceived female aggression and female advancement having resulted in the issue being more revealed, is displaying blatant intellectual dishonesty. African-descended Caribbean men are working out fatherhood. They are slowly, sometimes painfully readjusting their behaviours toward their children.
Here is the newsflash – Caribbean women are in the same exact process. Recall that on the plantation, women had children who were left with an older female hand who was not as productive and who worked at chores in the plantation yard. This practice of passing off children to an older female relative to raise stayed with us through the years as a feature of our society. Now that grandparents are younger, for the first time, mothers are responsible for rearing their children in a more real and close way.
That is what is required, but there is no solid model for such child rearing among Barbadian women. There remain the high levels of sexualization of women and girls in the Barbadian society and rampant and unchecked rape and assault. Frustrations out of this type of existence can manifest itself as aggression.
We want school girls to speak up and solve conflict instead of resorting to fighting. Yet when a female union leader tries to settle grievances by talking, she is attacked in the worst way. We want school girls to be measured and reserved but we are told at the national level women wanting attention can only get it by running down the street naked.
Our school girls are confused. They are caught between the old plantation and a world that tells them they should be able to live validated and respected lives. The thing is, we the adults are confused too. Alas!
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communication at the University of the West Indies. Email: [email protected])