Women and Culture By Gayle Gonsalves
Guyana Chronicle
October 27, 2002

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CULTURE is the way we interact with people and our surroundings. In the Caribbean, our culture reflects the joie de vivre of its people. We wear colourful clothes, our arms dangle with bangles, we like the latest fashion, we talk fast and sweet, we constantly create new slangs to reflect the latest craze, we gyrate to calypso, we know how to joke, we are emotionally bonded to our politics, we believe in bacchanal and we enjoy our rum. People around the world acknowledge that we are a passionate people and admire our zest. This is a tribute to our culture.

Yet, despite a culture that has a positive outlook on life, it is dominated by the male perception. Our culture is heavily biased to reflect the stronghold of the male. It is in the way that we socialise from the sports that are male-dominated to our day to day activities. It is an invisible force that has created a society of misogynist who continually seek innovative manners to erode the female self-worth.

Our music is filled with constant negative references to the female - we are always the culprits, but our men never take ownership for their actions. Every year at Carnival in Trinidad, a male calysonian will create a song based on a woman ‘horning’ him, but we never hear about his actions. Yet, Caribbean men are renowned for their infidelity and inability to make commitments. Men cheat, they lie but culture allows them this right. Men use the excuse that culture is part of their genetic coding and thus it is instinctive for them to have poor attitudes towards women. This is not true. These words are nothing more than a poor excuse to account for ones actions. Some men say that after being in power from time immemorial, their genetic coding has desensitised them to the female needs. This is a falsehood created to keep these old traditions alive. They don’t want to acknowledge their shortcomings and be accountable for their actions.

Human beings are sentient. They are not instinctive animals, but many times they choose to allow their instincts to dominate their decisions because it is the easy route. Culture can become part of that instinct and make us forget that there is a sentient side to us.

A very popular Trinidadian calypsonian recorded a song ‘We like it’. This calypso pays tribute to the Caribbean culture. However, there is a verse that says it is not uncommon to see a man beating his woman and no one was outraged by this remark. This type of action should not become a cultural default, but an act that must be stopped. We must be concerned because statements of this nature are heard by the masses and become part of the social fabric. No culture should boast that it is okay to beat their women.

Culture can be comforting, it is part of our learnt behaviour but we must understand that culture is not static but a changing force that reflects the evolution of society. The people from the Caribbean are all supplanted people. What had been once our ancestor’s culture has been erased and we created one. Each generation experiences change in the way we live and perceive life. In our diaspora, men experienced changes as the vestiges of colonialism were discarded and they partook in political power and economic gain. The role of the female has not been propelled into the spotlight in the Caribbean because of the cultural restrictions of our society that views us as a lesser species despite the economic and education inroads we have made. We are still enduring the constant double standards characteristic of our society.

Recently, in some of the refugee camps in North Africa, a number of families were given refugee status and rumours circulated that female circumcision was illegal in their new homes and many of the refugees circumcised their daughters before migrating. Girls as young as two underwent this surgery. The perpetrators of this crime are women passing on an ugly legacy to their daughters and the practitioners of this circumcision are females because of the cultural belief that allows a woman to become a more attractive and submissive partner for the male.

Those girls will immigrate to a new country that has outlawed a practice that is part of their social fabric. The new society will be different and their anomaly will force them to understand the impact and devastation that old cultural norms have on their female self. They will grow up in societies that will allow them to question cultural norms and many will reject practices and beliefs.

As women, culture can have a subjugating impact and we must never let culture define our existence but take what is good from it and acknowledge that it must continue to evolve to erase inequality. At school, I was told that a woman would have a successful role being nurse, secretary or teacher. Those were not progressive positions. I know that would never have been taught at an all-boys school. I rejected that cultural perception and exercised my right to think and become my own person.

I offer that challenge to every woman who reads these words.