Letter of the Day | Please respect a woman’s right to say no ... and to live
THE EDITOR, Madam:
I was about nine years old when my body began to show signs of puberty, and the changes that came with it. Despite the inevitable and seemingly unexpected angst that came with the onset of puberty, nothing prepared me for the onslaught of unwanted male attention that accompanied it. It seemed that everywhere I went, grown men felt it okay to comment on the “readiness” of my body. They whistled at me, and shouted things like “fat p** p**” and “sexy girl”. While boys my age fumbled over how to approach me, men felt they had a clear opening to begin priming me for “big ooman” things.
What began at about the age of nine mushroomed into what felt like a constant fight to keep my female body safe. By the time I got to high school, there was constant pressure to “give it up” and, after that, I was constantly having to find clever ways to turn men down and field the inevitable insults that came with “dissing them”.
A walk through my town as a 13-year-old was something for which I had to mentally prepare myself because the comments were both lascivious and furious. What that taught me very early was a kind of deep shame as I grappled with why my growing body seemed to invite assault. By the time I had my first job and a supervisor harassed me with constant unwanted advances, I realised there was no redress to be had when our female head of the organisation basically told me to find a way to deal with it on my own. There is a culture in Jamaica of men feeling they have a right to women’s bodies, and I am not alone in my experience.
The murder of Khanice Jackson, and disappearance of Jasmine Deen, are too many to count, so many women who are moved to share their stories every time a woman disappears or is murdered in our country. Our collective experiences paint a grim picture that essentially amounts to every woman knowing at least one other who has been violated by a man. Conversely, almost no man we know admits to violating a woman or knowing any man who has.
The disconnect is glaring and points to a ‘Bro code’ that is iron-clad and pervasive in perpetuating a masculine norm that continues to damage the girls and women in our country. Invariably, there is disbelief and victim-blaming, and the conversation around women “using” men. But how much is a woman’s life really worth, and can a life be bought?
We claim to “love” women in Jamaica, but what does that really mean? It is a toxic love steeped in ownership of female bodies, contingent on compliance and constant yes. It is a love that teaches girls to remain silent when they have been abused and that tells women it is their lot to accept male aggression because there is no assurance of the law actually working to protect women.
It manifests itself in men failing to call out other men who prey on young girls, who speak in derogatory ways about women, and who chuckle at the implication of harassment. Sadly, it is also in many women protecting those men and sometimes aiding them in the abuse of other girls and women. When does it all stop? It is a love so indistinguishable from hate that we would rather not have it.
Give us respect instead. Respect us enough to honour our right to say no, to change our minds, and to take the bus to school or work and make it home alive. Can we at least have that?