This article was originally published on West Indian Critic and is republished with permission.
One of the aspects of weaving intersectional feminism into your life as a Caribbean woman involves a lengthy process of unlearning the damaging ideas and beliefs thrust upon you by Caribbean society. Even if I once had a West Indian teacher wrongfully assert that the Caribbean is a “matriarchy” because “mothers tell their sons what to do”, the reality is we are in a culture that’s patriarchal and even our mothers, aunties, and grandmothers buy into the mindset.
Here’s to the West Indian mothers who raised us to be strong and defiant, but today I’m going to call out the women in our lives that didn’t raise us to be prone to accepting women’s liberation. I’m going to call out the ones who raised us to only speak when spoken to, who victim blamed, who abused and belittled the boys and girls in their stead.
So today, here are five ways that older West Indian women reinforce patriarchy.
Believing “boys will be boys”
This is the mentality than informs the way many West Indian women raise children differently. Girls are kept under lock and key, taught that the world is too dangerous for them or that they are “temptations” to men. Boys on the other hand are allowed free reign to do whatever they please. Girls aren’t permitted to go out, interact as they normally would but boys are permitted (if not expected) to run amok, with very little control. This attitude that “boys will be boys” removes accountability for the inappropriate behavior male children exhibit. It’s a way of policing women to the extreme while allowing for bar behavior from male children.
Not only is this lazy parenting, it’s patriarchal to assume that expectations for male children should be lower than expectations for female children. This lays the groundwork for men’s poor behavior later in life. “Boys will be boys” paves the way for both men and women to learn that men deserve more respect, they deserve to dominate over everyone and women’s role is to remain subservient no matter what.
Thinking men’s behavior is young girls’ responsibility
This particular belief is brought up in many contexts, but one of the most recent ones I’ve noticed is in discussions about girls’ school uniforms. Most school uniforms are long — past the knees — and extremely hot and stuffy considering tropical climates. Yet debates about making uniforms shorter, including physical education uniforms, is often stifled because short uniforms “lead to” men being attracted to young girls (between the ages of 5-17).
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A majority of West Indian women do in fact believe that men’s attraction to young girls is “natural” and to curb this natural attraction, school uniforms should be longer. The assumption that young girls are responsible for pedophilia and not the grown, entitled men who prey upon them is another way that West Indian women reinforce ideas that are harmful to women. This is not just a belief that West Indian men hold; West Indian women hold it too. They teach their young daughters that they are responsible for the way adult men behave around them while never holding adult men responsible for their own entitlement or disgusting behavior towards children.
Blaming victims of rape and incest
It’s not difficult to see how the second point here leads to this one. In a world where girls are responsible for the behavior of adult men, when terrible acts of violence like rape and incest occur, these young girls are again blamed. When a thirteen or sixteen year old is pregnant, she is the one blamed, not the adult man who likely impregnated her. The concept of girls being “fast” (while not prevalent in Saint Lucia specifically) is used as justification for victim blaming.
Girls are not protected from violence; in fact, they are blamed even by those who label themselves as “progressive” or “thinkers” in our countries. Instead of understanding the sick culture that contributes to male violence against women, girls are blamed for anything from not enough church attendance to inappropriate clothing. Of course, it’s fair to say that these are widespread beliefs amongst all people in our culture but they are particularly insidious coming from West Indian women who (in theory) should understand the way male violence is leveraged against them.
However, the same people who were victimized perpetuate the same oppressive ideas. The cycle of abuse continues unless West Indian women today choose not to believe that every message from their mothers is a reflection of the way things should be.
While many West Indian women actually laud their closeted gay sons and nephews for being “good boys” (normally because they defy the expected entitled, brutish behavior of WI men), they are the same ones who sit in church and pray for fire and brimstone to be rained down upon gay people in our countries. Many West Indian women hold onto homophobic beliefs (Leviticus 20:13 informs their worldview) and enact physical and/or emotional violence upon gay or suspected gay people.
Cis, straight West Indian women are just as homophobic as men, using the same slurs and calling upon similar types of violence. West Indian women are just as homophobic to their daughters as to their sons. And of course, along with this homophobia, you will find transphobia as well. These beliefs are so prevalent that even West Indian feminists don’t realize how their groups are exclusionary to the LGBT community. Even women interested in women’s liberation do not notice how their ideas of liberation never even considered trans women, bisexual women, or lesbians.
Encouraging abuse and violence in relationships
Harsh and abusive disciplinary tactics are one of the ways abuse and violence is normalized. There’s a reason abusive behavior is often described as “cyclical”. The behavior we experience growing up is what is imitated later on in life. When emotionally or physically abusive behavior is the primary mode of “discipline” in a child’s life, it is difficult for them to function any other way as adults.
This relates to patriarchy because often times, abusive tactics are employed against boys in specific ways that numb them to emotional experiences, encourage a lack of empathy and foster abusive behavior later on. I have a number of examples to back this up but the most recent one happened just last week. I was shopping for new apartment decor and a woman was walking with her son (no older than five years old) and hitting him as they walked. Of course, as he was getting hit (hard) in public, he began to cry. As her son wailed at the top of his lungs, this woman shouted, “Stop being a wuss!”
Is it really “being a wuss” when a five year old starts to cry? Or are you holding him to a patriarchal male standard where he learns his own emotions (and therefore, the emotions of those around him) are unimportant? Another lesson this child could learn is that mocking/belittling someone’s emotions is a way to manipulate them into doing what you want. The lessons learned from this are not simple and neither are they short lived. This is not coming out of thin air either — this is backed by psychological research into child psychology as well as research into effects of upbringing on adult behavior.
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Before writing this post, I questioned why I should focus on how women contribute to patriarchy. After all, patriarchy primarily benefits men in our society. I thought it was important to write a post about women, however, to combat the idea I discussed in my previous post that the mere existence of women in a particular spaces makes it feminist. I also wrote this post to inspire accountability in women interested in identifying as feminists or learning more about women’s liberation. One of my personal and political beliefs is that before we can educate others, we must educate ourselves and, more importantly, do the difficult work of unlearning what we have internalized.
So this post wasn’t written for men to get off scot-free. And it wasn’t written to “attack” women for no reason. I want Caribbean women to take a long hard look at what we believe and what we may not even realize that we believe and ask ourselves: how are we teaching our daughters, sisters, and nieces to uphold patriarchy’s status quo? How can we break down these cycles in our communities and push for women’s liberation?
[Featured Image: A photo of a person with blond, curly, chin-length hair. Their hand is resting on their neck and jaw. They are wearing a white and gold bracelet. Source: pexels.com]