This article originally appeared on West Indian Critic and has been republished with permission.
Socioeconomic class influences all of our daily routines in the Caribbean. What we do on a morning (full, balanced breakfast vs. bread and tea), how we commute from place to place (bus vs. sedan vs. luxury four wheel drive), where and how we work (cashier vs. civil servant). Socioeconomic class is not “taboo” in a country where people flaunt even the most meaningless status symbols — from Jansport backpacks to Audi’s on the verge of getting repossessed. But when it comes to women’s liberation as well as LGBT liberation, the majority of people are silent. All of a sudden, class becomes invisible when it might force you to look at a situation from a nuanced perspective.
In reality, your socioeconomic class affects everything. You can’t avoid discussing it when discussing women’s liberation or you will never succeed in true equality. Additionally, you cannot (as a wealthy person, let’s say) take a condescending role of “leadership” over the needs of all women. Being patronizing doesn’t mean you’ve all of a sudden developed a nuanced understanding of what women in poverty need. Try again.
Here are five ways that class is likely to affect your experience as a woman in the Caribbean.
1. Access To Education
Opportunities for women who live in poverty are stymied from the time they’re in primary school. In Secondary School and beyond, your level of education, as well as the quality of your education is still very much linked to your socioeconomic class. Can you afford to do get a degree? The ability to travel for a university education, to continue school beyond A-levels and more is all highly dependent on your family’s ability to either afford school or take out a loan. This leaves a large portion of women in poverty who simply have no access to education — the same education people claim will free them.
Scholarships for a few individuals DO NOT change the entire landscape for women living in poverty whose lives were predetermined from the time they attended primary school in a specific region.
The socioeconomic class you were born into therefore has an effect on how you experience the world. To someone whose parents could afford to send them to Canada/US/UK for continuing education, achieving a bachelor’s degree will seem “easy”. But for a woman who grew up living in extreme poverty, achieving a bachelor’s degree will not be the same.
These discrepancies don’t just apply to the tuition required to further your education. This affects young girls from the time they’re in primary school: Can their parents afford to send them to school every day of the week? Can their parents afford bus money or school books or food? Achieving an education is tilted in favor of the middle class and upper middle class. It is not simply a function of “working hard”, contrary to a belief held by much of the sheltered classes of our region.
More Radical Reads: Did You Do Any of These 6 Activities Today? Then You’ve Got Class Privilege
2. Perception Of Women’s Immediate Needs
Wealthy women in this region have a very different perception of what women’s immediate needs are. This typically leads to a feminism that looks very bourgeois at best and violently exclusionary at worst. Considering the immediate needs of women in our countries should not focus on the immediate needs of wealthy women — which tend to be largely around acquiring more social capital and power than necessary.
The needs of women in poverty tend to be more about survival than about simply feeling good. There are very real issues in our countries that would be better solved by wealthy women donating money and labor rather than holding exclusive roundtables. Continuous community action doesn’t have the same luxe feel as an exclusive charitable event, plus it requires continuous long-term planning. When we choose how to help women based on the immediate needs and desires of the wealthy, we will find it impossible to achieve social equity.
More Radical Reads: 10 Ways to Check Your Privilege Around Poor and Working-Class Friends
3. Access To High-Quality Health Care
Women living in poverty receive very different treatment from health care professionals than women who don’t live in poverty. From doctors to nurses, women are judged based on their perceived socioeconomic class and the treatment they’re given is dependent on this as well. Disparities in health and health care exist outside of the Caribbean too and we can look to previous research to understand how the effect play out in our own countries.
The discrepancies in the quality between our private and public hospitals also point to a glaring example of how much worse the quality of care is for poor women than it is for wealthier women who can afford (or manage) the hefty price tags associated with private hospitals. This doesn’t even touch on the affordability of health insurance for women living in extreme poverty, where you’re certain to see this same discrepancy.
Poor women get far worse health care than wealthier women and this affects their experience in the world, their approach to illness as well as the long-term prognosis for serious illness.
4. Impact Of Rape, Abuse, And Domestic Violence
Poor women are less sheltered from abuse and domestic violence and they’re less sheltered from the long-term impact of sexual assault as well as abuse. Poor women are more likely to suffer from the aftermath of domestic violence and are also more likely to suffer from domestic abuse. The link between poverty and surviving domestic abuse goes beyond the increased likeliness of being a victim. Approximately 50% of domestic violence and assault survivors lose their jobs as a direct result (see source linked above). In homes headed by women, where women are the sole income earners, this can have devastating effects.
Women who are not poor still face issues of being vulnerable to rape, abuse, and domestic violence, but they tend to be more sheltered from the events. It might not be as life-changing to lose your job if you have months of money saved up for example, or tons of assets and a well-connected family to help you through the difficult times. However, for women who are living hand-to-mouth, the impact of rape, abuse, and domestic violence differs.
Child maltreatment via neglect is more common for people who grew up with poor mothers; this isn’t for moral reasons or due to “education”, but rather due to the economic realities of living in poverty. Being a poor woman means less time to dedicate towards child rearing and can lead to abuse. This can have two effects. Women could be on the receiving end of this while they are children and they can also perpetuate this abuse when they become mothers. Considering both poverty and abuse are cyclical, it’s not hard to see how childhood maltreatment can perpetuate from one generation onto another giving poor women a markedly different experience of childhood and abuse from those in wealthier economic situations.
Poverty and sexual violence share an analogous link. People who commit sexual violence often target poor women due to their vulnerable positions in society; perpetrators intentionally target women who will be in socially weak positions to seek justice or to retaliate. And again, as with domestic abuse, experiencing sexual violence puts women who are already vulnerable at greater risk of losing their jobs or suffering other financial consequences.
5. How Other Women Treat You
I added this last point not necessarily because it has been studied at length but because it’s true and it’s especially true amongst women who consider themselves to be educated. And women who consider themselves to be feminists.
Feminist circles are rife with classism. There is a moralistic stance taken against women who don’t have fancy educations regarding feminism and against women who don’t express themselves in certain ways deemed acceptable and appropriate. It shouldn’t be hard to guess therefore that what’s considered “acceptable” is behaving in a way that is posh, fancy or more upper class. Women who express themselves in ways that are deemed too “declassé” and “unrefined” are ignored, dismissed and discounted constantly. If you’re a frequent flier on my blog, you should be able to guess which racial demographic these women tend to fall into… Even in the Caribbean.
Especially in upper-class circles, there’s also a negative, condescending attitude towards younger women and their views on feminism. As there is a great degree of younger women who do not believe that women’s rights should be exclusive to the bourgeois class, many older women take this opportunity to discount the valid work of younger feminists and younger women in general. They do this via tone policing or flat out dismissal of younger feminists opinions. Basically, they latch onto any excuse for things to remain the same as in truth, they are not interested in women’s liberation but getting a cushier spot within their already secure position at the top of the status quo. Again, this is rife with respectability politics that actually have a negative impact in the long-term quest for women’s liberation.
You don’t have to dress like a nun to be a feminist, although, to many middle and upper-class feminists, especially in the Caribbean, you do. Maintaining your image and acquiescing to the rules of patriarchy becomes more important to the wealthy than change. To them, feminism is simply a tool to acquire the power that men have and it isn’t a genuine movement to dismantle systems of oppression like the cis hetero patriarchy. (Just a full disclaimer here this term is NOT my own. I hope I’ve cited it well enough so just click the link and give credit where it’s due.) This is because, in order to dismantle systems of oppression, you do have to take a hard look at socioeconomic class and bringing liberation to the poor, something that most middle and upper-class people possess a deep fear of doing.
This is all to say that due to this fear of poor women and what their liberation would mean, as well as an allegiance to patriarchy on some level, wealthier women treat poor women as their lessers. And they might have fancy excuses for why they’re doing so but the reality is something different and it’s largely based on unexamined prejudices, personal philosophies as well as flat out bias.
I am not going to add any disclaimer here about not wanting to “hurt feelings” or whatever you want to call it. The fact of the matter is that middle and upper-class women should feel uncomfortable, especially if they have never thought about ANY of these points before.
I especially want to direct this to young feminists who are eager to label themselves feminist while pursuing patriarchal approval with equal fervor. Their desperation to inhabit to worlds that are totally incongruent leads to many contradictions and flaws within Caribbean feminist groups whether official organizations or simply groups of Caribbean feminists in general. Ask yourself: Could your actions and your personal philosophies require greater scrutiny? Is there more fine tuning and education for you to accomplish? How can you be a better person without relying on the smoke and mirrors of a label unfettered to genuine action?
Additionally, I want to ensure that women who read this take the time to really check themselves for the condescension that is typical of the “educated” classes in the Caribbean. I want to personally remind you that your degree is just a piece of paper, but how you treat the women in your community is very very real. How you live in the world is where all your significance lies. Your identity need not rely on putting other women down. Rather, we need to open our hearts to all of the women on our islands and allow our women to speak the truth of their oppression, even if we don’t like what they have to say or how they have to say it.
[Featured Image: A person with black and yellow long braids smiling. They are wearing a pink sweater. Behind them are trees. Source: pexels.com]