“Girls should be seen and not heard.”
“Dress the way you want to be addressed.”
These are some of the ways we control and class women and
girls, blaming them for acts of violence against them before they even occur.
With a constitution that gives men greater citizenship that
women, laws that fail to protect married women from rape by their husbands, and
policies that put women at a disadvantage, misogyny is alive and well in The
Bahamas, practiced by many on a daily basis. The nationwide hatred of women has
become so commonplace that many do not bat an eyelash at blatant acts of
violence against them. Moreover, people boldly defend the acts of abusers,
casting blame on women by assigning them tiers and levels of womanhood ranging
from cutta to lady.
In recent social media news, a woman presented her father with
a purity certificate on her wedding day, attempting to proven her virginity and
the keeping of a promise she made to her parents. This family thought it was appropriate
for the father to be more than a little interested in his daughter’s hymen.
While it is a woman’s right to choose to abstain from sexual activity, lauding
it as the best option for everyone and putting her on a pedestal based on that
decision is a way of belittling and devaluing those who make other choices. It
perpetuates the idea that women who are virgins when they marry are more
valuable and, therefore, worthy of the happily ever after so many deem marriage
We are quick to make judgments of women based on their
appearance, style of dress, location, network, and perceived sexuality. “Cutta”
has become a common term used to demean women for their engagement in sexual
activity. Men assign this term to women who engage in casual sex. They joke
that these women are willing to have sex in exchange for a cheap meal,
specifically identified and obtained from a particular takeaway. This “joke”,
like so many others, serves to devalue women, erasing the rest of their
stories. It does not take into consideration that women head 47% of households
below the poverty line, and suffer a higher rate - almost 2% more - of poverty than households headed by men. No
thought is given to the financial position of a “cutta” or her responsibilities
and she is reduced to an object, a joke, and a low-tier woman. No one is
concerned about the children she may go home to feed with the thigh snack so
many find it easy to laugh about. A new television show even dedicated an
entire episode to the “cutta special”. Competitors were challenged to prepare
the meal, but it didn’t stop there. The episode was littered with tasteless
Respectability politics is a tool for victim blaming. It seeks
to place blame squarely on the shoulders of victims of injustice based solely
on the way they present themselves. Skirt lengths, pant waist locations,
pedestrian coordinates, hairstyles, and use of language are used to assess and
repress minorities, especially women and people of color. Respectability
politics prompts us to strip ourselves of individuality, preferences, and
style, eliminating “bad” traits to create a more homogenous society. It often
requires us to find ways to do things that are unnatural and/or unachievable
for us. It is personified by police officers who chase young black men out of
the downtown area because, assuming they have no business there and asserting
that they do not belong. It is exercised by school administrators who send
children home for having unapproved hairstyles. It exists within institutions,
both formal and informal, and in our personal lives.
In the case of gender, respectability politics is treated as a
common sense clause to existing as a woman.
Don’t want to be
harassed? Don’t wear revealing clothing.
Don’t want to be raped?
Don’t consume alcohol in public.
Want to get a job? Wear a
suit, straighten your hair, and put on makeup.
Don’t want to be called a
slut? Don’t have sex. With anyone. Ever.
Respectability politics makes judgment easy. It makes casting
blame a natural response. It keeps people in boxes, makes them more cautious,
and is meant to police their actions. When a woman refuses to follow the rules,
the worst among us rate her respectability. If the level isn’t high enough, it
tries to make her pay. Such was the case when an investigative journalist broke
a story that wasn’t pleasing to a particular group of people. All of a sudden,
her sexual history became the topic of discussion. Detractors attempted to
discredit a professional by playing on the negative connotations society
attaches to the sexuality of women. Respectability politics moves the focus
from pervasive and systemic issues, diverting it to the personal lives of those
who threaten systems that benefit the powerful.
As has been noted on many occasions, there is a double standard
when it comes to sexuality and the way it is expressed by men and women. Women
are expected to be demure and innocent, refraining - or at least seeming to
refrain - from sexual activity. Men, on the other hand, are encouraged to
exercise their (hyper)masculinity by dominating women in various ways, not the
least of which being sexually. Women are told that they gain mileage while men
are told to get as many notches in their belts as possible. The question in
this heteronormative society, however, is where are men to find these notches
when the women are supposed to remain pure?
We make it too easy for people - misogynistic, racist, sexist,
and classist people - to manipulate us by slight of hand. We’re too busy
focusing on the distraction they create to recognize their motives. We focus on
the cellphone a black student was using in class instead of recognizing being
flipped and dragged by a white police officer as an act of violence against her
and an example of institutional racism. We pay attention the waist of a young
man’s jeans instead of the unfounded harassment by police, the clothing of a
young woman instead of the threats of violence against her, and the appearance
of the poor rather than their lack of access to resources. We are being
distracted by our own pretentious, elitist, sexist, racist ideas of the way
people should look and behave, missing the obvious issues. Privilege is not
considered. We’re so busy trying to meet unreasonable standards, all in an
attempt to blend in, that we lose perspective. We contribute to this
patriarchal, misogynistic, racist, classist society by trying to measure up,
and evaluating everyone else, many of whom did not buy into this losing game.
When will we see the truth?
It’s been said a million times before, but this may be the time
someone finally gets it. There’s nothing respectable about respectability
politics. It only keeps us from paying attention to the things we’re not meant
Wallace is a Bahamian writer, blogger, and social and political commentator. She
holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from St. Mary's University,
Halifax, NS. She is a women's rights activist, passionate about public
education, community engagement, and the empowerment of women and girls.
Alicia is the Director of Hollaback! Bahamas- part of a global movement to end street harassment - and Co-founder of the Coalition to End Gender-based Violence & Discrimination. She serves
as the Youth Ambassador for The Bahamas to End Sexual Violence, and is one of 60 recipients of the Queen's Young Leaders Award in 2015. Alicia lives in Nassau, Bahamas. Connect with her on Facebook.