‘My leggings, their rules’

Marching through the streets of Bridgetown in the company of some of my closest girlfriends and colleagues, women I barely knew and women who are complete strangers, was a most liberating and empowering experience. Although I would have wanted more women to show their discomfort with the levels of sexual abuse and violence against women and girls by joining the march, I was heartened by the number of people who participated in the exercise.

The responses of the people who were in town at the time of the march revealed some of the significant work to be done around women’s equality and women’s safety in Barbados. Some people chose to hurl expletive-riddled phrases at the women as they marched. Even as the women in Barbados marched to demonstrate their discomfort with how men treated their bodies in public spaces, they endured male comments about their legs and vaginas, their shapes and if they should have been in the road marching in the first place.

These comments were hurtful and raw and they characterized the hatred and disdain for Barbadian women bound up in the Barbadian man. I found myself trying to imagine the males hurling the insults as lovers and fathers. I started to wonder where their deep-seated hatred for women had come from, what kept perpetuating it and, more importantly, how could we use the strategies of social re-engineering and behavioural change campaigning to create shifts in the attitudes.

Some of the women on the sidelines also took the time to express their opposition to the call for greater support and safety for Barbadian women. Others took the opportunity to look on in silence, as if they were making up their minds about how to feel about the exercise and their place in it.   Still other women walked a bit with the march, raised a supportive thumbs up or showed other forms of support.

In social media discussions surrounding the march, there were some common and pervasive misconceptions about female empowerment and the reasons for sexual harassment. It is unfortunate that men in Barbados have internalized that once women demand more respect and abuse-free spaces and lives, that they are man haters or that they have issues with men. Women marched with their sons on Saturday. Some women marched with their husbands.

Asking for due respect from men is by no means a signal of man hating. It is unfortunate that we have not moved our discussion about women’s bodies beyond this misnomer. Another perpetual misconception is that in order to demand respect, women must first be responsible for being respectable. By virtue of a woman being a human being, she is respectable.

If she happens to be wearing clothes or no clothes, if she happens to be ‘wukking up’ or a prostitute, women deserve respect and none of these states is immediate consent. There is this view among men in Barbados that their mothers, wives and girlfriends, their daughters and sisters are respectable. Thus, these women are placed on a pedestal and then, the rest of women who are ‘less good’ can be treated any way. It is lost on these men that every woman or many women are somebody else’s mother, wife, girlfriend, and so on and so forth.

We need programmes which dispel these misconceptions. Every man needs to understand that it is his responsibility to respect women. This changes the notion that it is the burden of a woman to become respectable to avoid harassment and assault. Men also have to be disabused of the notion that women who demand respect of equal spaces for men and women are just miserable and sexually frustrated.

No woman likes to be in a relationship where she is not comfortable and cherished. It is never sexy to be harassed verbally on the street, or worse sexually. The comments men make about women’s bodies have nothing to do with sex. We must recondition our men so that sex and disrespect are never synonymous.

The final point I wish to make, as I reflect on the Life In Leggings experience, is that there is a clear and blatant lack of political will to confront women’s issues in Barbados. It was not lost on me that while a senior Minister in the current administration noted that he could not ignore the numbers for the Barbados Labour Party-sponsored “March of Disgust” or the downgrades the economy is attracting under his party’s stewardship, he was mute on the Life in Leggings march.

I think if the women of Barbados are serious about reasserting their agenda into public discourse, the political directorate has to be called out on their grandstanding. Women outnumber male voters in Barbados by at least two to one. We have to become discerning and stingy with our votes to ensure that we get more political will which is needed to reach some of the goals we have for ourselves and our daughters.

We also have to ensure that we speak out against faux pasin language and expressions by our political leaders. These are the ways in which the attitudes and views about women will change. We need to claim the week around International Day of the Woman on a yearly basis and ensure that we fill it with activities which demand that all Barbadians focus on women and girls and their needs, during this international window created for exactly that.

I think that the young women who were able to create the hash tag and then turn the energy into a protest march, are to be highly commended. I hope that their commitment to live harassment and abuse-free lives can be the catalyst that rekindles the ‘womanist’ agenda across Barbados.  There are my leggings but I am still hemmed in by their rules. Yet I am heartened that hands and feet have begun to move.

 (Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full time mummy and part-time lecturer in communication at the University of the West Indies. Email: mhindslayne@gmail.com)

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