Month: February 2015

Intersectional Feminism: Women’s Health

Until my summer class is over, I have neglected to really discuss it in great depth on this blog or in any kind of formal writing. This is a very intentional omission as I’m keeping my head down this summer I feel more comfortable speaking more generally of women’s health and what I’ve learned of its condition on St. Lucia so far. Everything written here merely mirrors my experience in St. Lucia and I welcome commentary that differs from what I’ve learned. As of right now, my experience with women’s health here has reflected a dangerous level of misinformation and ignorance with no interest in learning otherwise. The deep roots of colonial Catholicism are entrenched beyond belief in every aspect of interpreting women’s health and conceptualizing female sexuality.

The culture regarding women’s health straddles and occasionally crosses the line from ignorant to downright dangerous. Women possess just as much, if not less information regarding their bodies and sexualities as men do here which exacerbates the patriarchal power dynamic where men become sole proprietors (for this is how they are viewed) of women’s bodies and sexuality. The problem with comprehending female sexuality is so deep that I cannot even begin to touch upon the politics and problems regarding LGBTQ members of St. Lucian society (who are largely undercover or extremely private anyways). Most women here aren’t totally aware of the most important part of women’s health, the vagina. The anatomy of the pubic area is taboo and unfamiliar and there is widespread misinformation regarding virginity and what that means.

The act of sex itself is largely seen as taboo between unmarried couples despite the fact that St. Lucia has one of the world’s lowest marriage rates and a birth rate that does not reflect a large number of births occurring within wedlock. I wonder how much women are in control during the act of sex here. In speaking with acquaintances here, I’ve largely gotten the perception that the act of sex is seen as something that is not expected to be pleasurable for women. It’s seen as something that men are owed for either being good people or paying for dates or for dishing out the right number of compliments. Penetrative sexual intercourse seems to have nothing to do with women who are objectified to an advanced degree here with many men colloquially referring to women as “tings”. I can’t even begin to think of a way in which the act of intercourse is seen as being for women because such an idea is unheard of down here.

I don’t know if I observed a single positive thing that would give me a hopeful outlook regarding women and their awareness of their sexual health. There is even a great deal of stigma regarding basic facets of sexual health like pap-smears which I’ve heard “make you not a virgin anymore” and STD testing. Women protecting themselves against STDs by carrying condoms or using birth control is also heavily stigmatized.

I could go on and on providing numerous examples of all the things I’ve listed above; I could even continue to list the ways in which the perception of female sexual health is warped. Is Catholicism or a conservative culture an excuse? It may provide an explanation but in my opinion it is not an excuse. Cultural differences are irrelevant at the point where they intentionally oppress one group (women) over another. The staunchly patriarchal view of women’s health and women’s bodies is harmful because it leads to increased cases of domestic abuse, sexual violence and other forms of violent crimes against women. I’m not advocating a total destruction of St. Lucia’s culture regarding women’s health, merely greater access to correct education that is free from religious and patriarchal bias against women.

Is Criticism an Act of Love?

Positioning myself as a critic of West Indian culture may frame me in such a way that my words seem poison, as if they are complaints launched by a foreign but professional whiner. When did critique and love become mutually exclusive? Does somehow being critical of something suddenly mean you don’t see its value? This view is patently wrong. Critique in itself can be a demonstration of love, and with regards to Saint Lucia and the West Indies this is most certainly where my need to critique stems from. I have a vision of what our country could be like given the intelligence,  survivorship and drive our people possess. While some of our more positive traits may seem to be dwindling fast, I still believe we can do the work of healing.

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Simply Beautiful // Cas En Bas (Photograph is my own)

Without critique, there can be no cultural growth. If we accept every piece of our culture as it comes, how can we hope to adapt and survive in a changing world? We will need to change and we will need to adapt and as we change, our culture need not disappear, but should change with us. A part of humanity is always striving for better, and working towards improvement. For some, this need to “strive” can be capitalist and self-interested. They will strive to accumulate as much wealth as possible at the expense of those around them. For others, an effort towards improvement may be moving towards the deconstruction of oppressive power structures towards a more egalitarian world. Arguably, a push towards an egalitarian society is a part of Christian duty.

I love Saint Lucia. I love the West Indies. I love our culture. Yes, I mean that I love more than carnival, our food and our music. I even love some of the “bad” things about our culture like the tradition of poor customer service and the rambunctious attitudes of our people. But if I loved Saint Lucia and didn’t point out  the areas we need to work on, that love would be hollow and disingenuous. It’s like being in a relationship. You may accept the good and the bad, but this doesn’t mean you suddenly begin to see the “bad” as something good.

While there is a lot to appreciate about our country and region, there is also a lot to work on. Pretending we don’t have problems will not make the problems go away. Relying on external forces will not solve anything either. Every country, especially countries ravaged by hundreds of years of colonialism, has a lot to fix. Critique moves us forward; it helps us to heal and to grow. If that isn’t an act of love, I’m not sure what is.

Black Feminism And How Women Interact

I’m going to be 2015’s biggest cheese ball and start this post off with a quote from Chimamanda Adichie. This quotation explains one of the challenges you may experience when learning about black feminism and trying to live more positively.

“We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men.”

You may recognize it from the popular Beyonce song we’ve all had on repeat since December 13th 2013. This quote has been in the forefront of my mind since I’ve come down here and as I’ve started to notice interactions and body language between women in public spaces. I can’t help but have this quote at the forefront of my mind as I listen and observe the women around me. Maybe it’s strange, but whenever I’m out, I feel highly in tune to the people around me. I notice body language, the way they say certain things, the way their eyes move and pretty much everything else. My intuition and my sensitivity to body language are heightened when I’m not alone.

The insights I’ve gained through observation have led me to believe that there is a crisis in women’s interactions here. There is nearly tangible tension amongst women who are not close friends. It feels hostile and unwelcoming. This tension creates a social environment where instead of helping, loving and supporting each other, women are constantly in competition. And for what? I haven’t been able to pinpoint that quite yet, but I think Ms Adichie might be onto something. When women are constantly challenging each other in the social realm instead of being supportive and loving, we cannot be liberated from a dominant male culture.

Challenge: Trying not to side eye negative people.

In public, women try to test you. They may size you up, looking you from head to toe with a judgmental face. Occasionally, some may flirt with your romantic partner in front of you. A lot of times, there is just a general sense in casual conversation that your weaknesses are being assessed and judged, that you are being categorized. The categories that exist here are unfriendly. There is a strong perception that you can only be two things: the “good girl” or the “bad girl”. (Think Madonna vs. Jezebel and the connotations of both of those things.) The thing is, we are all guilty of judging and trying to compete with other women, women who we may not even know. It doesn’t have to be this way.

In situations like this, where making external changes is nearly impossible without changing your own attitude, I prefer tactics of passive resistance, or resistance through changing my own behavior. When someone is sizing me up, a bright smile throws them off and surprises them. When someone is flirting with someone who I’m on a date with or sizing me up in that situation, I show how little I am bothered by it instead of making a face or any other response. Acting jealous and competitive shows an insecurity that I do not have (or perhaps a confidence that I DO have!). When people try to categorize me, I let them try, but I happen live in such a way that makes putting me in a box difficult. I’m smart and soft-spoken enough that I could easily be a “good girl” but I know my “wild” hair and “too short” dresses could easily catapult me into the category of a “bad girl”. It makes life difficult for the average judgmental person. Yet, not everyone lives like I do, and they don’t deserve to be subjected to judgment for their choices either.

Where I live in the United States, the cult of womanhood amongst black women is different. We do have a culture of supporting each other, regardless of how close we are. There is a positive environment amongst women of color that I would love to see replicated here. Living in a nearly homogenous white student population, we only have each other. This has forced us to stick together for survival purposes; so I don’t think this difference is a cultural difference between the U.S. and St. Lucia entirely. The difference still exists however, and it has opened my eyes as to ways that you can change your own behavior and dismantle this unspoken hatred between women.

1. Try to compliment at least one female friend a day. Tell her you like her hair-do, her nails, something. Make it genuine. Don’t just compliment for the sake of it. Training yourself to see things that you actually like about the women around you will get you started eliminating a lot of implicit negativity you may have towards other women. This is the easiest one, so if you find the others more difficult, try to do only this for at least a week before moving on to the others. The results will be worth it.

Challenge: Keep being a carefree black girl!

2. Catch your negative thoughts about other women. It’s hard to police your own thoughts, but the positive feelings you get from doing this far outweigh the inconvenience of having to self-monitor. When you see a woman and feel the need to judge her clothes, hair, body or man, take note of the negative thought you had. Don’t eliminate it! Form the thought in your head, go so far as to say “Wow, I thought she was wearing really terrible clothing.” Acknowledge the negative thought and then assess.

Where did this judgment come from? It may come from jealousy or anger or it may come from nowhere at all. It doesn’t matter if there is a rational reason. Once you have understood the source of your thought or comment, force yourself to find one nice thing to say about the woman you have just judged. It doesn’t even have to be something real! You can think to yourself, “But I bet she is a really good cook.” You just need something to replace the negativity in your mind and practice mindfully choosing positivity.

3. Do not engage with negative looks, comments or behaviors. We are tempted to respond when we feel threatened. If another woman gives you a dirty look, sizes you up or flirts with your partner, her behavior does not reflect on you, it reflects on her. She may have her own insecurities or other factors that lead to that behavior. While you aren’t in control of her actions, you are in control of how you respond to her actions.

I do not advocate accepting abuse lying down, but if a situation is not dangerous, there is no need to engage with negativity, for your own sake. Respond with a smile, or neutrality if you can’t manage that. This tends to jar people, and while it may not change their minds, it will give you some peace and perhaps an upper hand. Responding to hate with love is not always the solution, but in this case it can serve as an effective way to break down barriers between women.

Black Feminism & Sexist Dating Expectations

Although the subject can become repetitive, one of the ways I try to practice black feminism in my life is in my romantic life. I’ve been in St. Lucia for my ten day vacation between J-term and spring semester. During that time I’ve been going out to eat with a male friend of mine nearly every night. I’ve started to really notice a quirk in St. Lucian culture with regards to customer service. We all know about the stereotype of the West Indian shop owner or restaurant owner with a bad attitude. I’m a bit too comfortable here to be surprised or bothered by the abrasive attitudes of workers. I’ve grown to love having to work to give up my own money. What has bothered me is the way financial transactions are handled by people who work in customer service.

Now, I’m not a big believer in either the man or the woman paying every single time. Sometimes the bill is split, sometimes he pays, sometimes I pay. It may not be split evenly, I’m certainly not keeping tabs, but it’s split in a way that both of us are comfortable and satisfied with the occasional free meal and the occasional expense. Servers, waitresses and bartenders seem to have a more sexist idea about these financial transactions. Workers have a clear expectation that paying for meals is the responsibility of the man. I am not necessarily offended to the point of reaction, but it is tangibly sexist. Here are a few different situations this has happened in that I can recall, just from the past four to five days:

1. Ordering drinks and the bill is placed in front of my friend immediately.

2. I handed a fifty dollar bill to a server and she returned the change to my friend. (This has happened twice.)

3. I took my credit card out of my wallet and handed it to a server and she returned it to my male friend for a signature, despite the fact that I took the card out of my wallet in front of her.

These experiences have only occurred with female servers. This shows that sexism is not exclusively practiced by men. Women can play an equal role in enforcing patriarchal expectations. These experiences are negative for a few reasons:

1. (This is the obvious reason!) It’s offensive for people to assume that I cannot or should not pay my way. Why not place the bill in the center of the table? Or return my change and credit card to me?

2. It places external pressure on men to fulfill specific gender roles. This is not a gender role expectation that I placed on him; it’s an external pressure on our dynamic that neither of us agreed to, and as a result, I view it as an inappropriate invasion.

3. It makes it acceptable for women to enforce patriarchal ideas about gender roles. The cult of womanhood in St. Lucia is very powerful. Women here are very susceptible to the example and societal demands of women around us.

I don’t expect this to change when I go out in the future. I do have my own ideas about passively resisting this sexist intrusion. While most people may just “avoid the trouble” and give the man the money to pay at every occasion, I refuse to do so. I don’t make a lot of money — I’m still a student — but I’m proud of the fact that I am relatively independent. Instead of submitting to these expectations, I will force those working in customer service to acknowledge the fact that women can and do pay their way in this world. I will continue to hand money to waitresses as they look expectantly towards the man to pay. I will continue to use my own credit card, and proudly print my John Hancock on the line as they look shocked that a man would dare let me pay for dinner.

Until this becomes normalized, there can be no change. There’s nothing unfeminine about paying for a date. There’s nothing unfeminine about a woman handling her own money. Of course, undoing a sexist culture is not this simple. So, I’m not claiming to be some sort of hero or massive activist, but individual changes and convictions are important. When it comes to dining out, this is my contribution.