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COLUMN – Fathoming Caribbean woman

Today's WomanI had the opportunity to attend the HeForShe campaign launched by UN Women on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2015. Although I got to the ceremony relatively late, the comments section of the activity was quite an instructive experience. I came away with two main points in my mind.

Firstly, I was again offended by the way I perceive the UN Women machinery to frame and promote agendas. I am sure that all is meant to be done in partnership and consultation with the countries being served, and yet I seldom feel this when a campaign is launched. Although no one can ever totally deny the usefulness of the initiatives which UN Women spearheads, the cultural tweaking and matching are often left in question.

I try not to box myself into too many academic moulds. Academics is abstract and theories are not very good at bending to the vagaries and complexities of life. Having said that, the irony is I believe in relativism as opposed to universal theory as a guide for my academic work generally.

I stop short of saying that I support relativism over universalism in the human rights debate though, exactly because of the nuances I spoke about earlier that make theory a strange thing. Culture should never be used as a stretch to justify injustices against women and girls. And yet any campaign in the Caribbean region that is not culturally grounded is doomed to fail from the beginning –– with respect to women’s rights and equality.

Relativism basically makes a researcher constantly aware of defining the parameters of the work to ensure that everybody knows what is being done. The assumption is that no knowledge is absolute and knowledge changes according to the cultural space in which it finds itself.

It cannot be taken for granted that another person knows, and knowledge is not transferable from one space to another without redefining and adjusting for cultural nuances.

It feels to me that UN Women sees certain constructs as universal –– the meaning of feminism; the agendas that must be lumped together and not; and the times that countries are ready for various interventions.

As much as we have been able to make some gains for girls and women in the Caribbean, there is still major work to be done. Maybe the discussion on what characterizes Caribbean womanism/feminism has already taken place and I am just too young to know; but I feel like it is time for a redefinition of terms and mandates.    

There are some contested spaces within Caribbean feminism itself that see some women not even being comfortable with the identification of being feminist. While I know wholly and solely that I am womanist, I stop short of claiming the title of feminist, as it is described in the Caribbean context.

Redefinition and evaluation are critical elements of ensuring that any prolonged work does not lose its focus
and edge.

This brings me to the second point that stuck in my head. I am not sure there has been a sufficiently prepared wicket for the HeForShe match. Barbadian men are still unclear what exactly this noise about woman rights is about.

Some see more women in jobs traditionally thought of as the preserve of males and ask the question: what more do women want? They see more females with access to education and producing more success there than men, and they really are at a loss when it is asserted there is work yet left to be done.

Serious redefinition of the Caribbean man and his role and place beside the new Caribbean woman is yet to be pursued. No one, except of the National Organization of Women (NOW) and one other commentator, has expressed alarm at the blatant misogyny being peddled by the Men’s Educational Support Association (MESA) under the guise of “men fighting for men’s issues”.

My rejection of MESA’s approach to discussion on masculinity and the injustices faced by men is no suggestion that I do not believe the discussion is worthwhile and necessary. However, when an organization sets itself up because there is a women’s lobby, it suggests that the intention is making a mockery of that lobby and the resolution of deep-seated issues it hopes to address.

If we start a conversation that asks men to partner in a cause that their very actions show they do not understand, how far will we really get?

Still I came away from the whole HeForShe exercise thinking that perhaps imperfect action is better than no action at all. I have often been pained by the silence of UN Women, which is headquartered in Barbados, as Barbadian women are disfigured or slaughtered by intimate partners at an alarming rate.

Having been dissatisfied with that, I guess I must now be satisfied that something finally is being done. For that reason I have decided to give HeForShe a chance. I left unsure what form exactly the campaign would take; but if there are other sessions I commit to attending and seeking to keep my readers posted.

If we are all tired of seeing our women disfigured and slaughtered –– even though there are other issues we are not totally comfortable with –– this is some point of reference our women and men can speak to.

I choose to use the campaign to continue the fight for each and every Today’s Woman to be supported in the pursuit of her maximal potential. But I want to end this week with a couple of “dangerous questions” for married and involved women out there.

Are you sure that “he for you”? Have you ever been bold enough to ask?

(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and a part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies. Email:

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