Women's Issues In Guyana

Verbal sexual abuse

Posted in Commentary by wiig on October 20, 2007
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Stabroek News Editorial – October 20th 2007

A dialogue in this newspaper’s ‘Letters to the Editor’ column recently, focused on the dynamic in male-female relations. It started out with Naicelis Williams welcoming the initiative by the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security to have the laws governing rape brought into the twenty-first century.

She went on to write about the verbal abuse of women by men, which is a related matter and has become quite troubling in recent times. In particular, she mentioned the vulgar, sexually explicit and homophobic lyrics that pervade the airways and that were being blasted at GuyExpo and the unsolicited vulgar remarks and obscene suggestions that thrown at women on a daily basis by men they do not know.

She compared it to verbal rape and asked how men and boys might be persuaded to change this behaviour, which embarrasses women and could lead to men taking even more liberties with women. She threw the question out to readers.

Unsurprisingly, another woman, Sharmillah (Penny) Narine, responded that she did not mind being on the receiving end of what she termed cat-calls from men. (Incidentally, most English dictionaries define the cat-call as an expression of derision or disapproval.) Ms Narine posited too that “lots of females like the attention”. She referred to Ms Williams as being “too thin-skinned” and basically advised her to get with the programme.

Another letter writer, and this time it was a man, Bernard Rollins, agreed that women are subjected to too much vulgar abuse and that much of it comes from lyrics of songs. However, since it was his belief that it was up to women to demand the respect and the changes necessary, he called on women in Parliament to take up the cudgels against this pervasive evil in society. And herein lies the problem.

On the one hand, unfortunate but true, are the women and men who believe that it “is in men’s DNA” – to quote Ms Narine – to behave in this manner and that women must learn to accept it. On the other hand, there are those who believe it is the politicians’ problem and that they must fix it. Both are wrong.

Yes indeed, men are usually aggressive. If a man sees a woman who he would like to get close to, he pursues her. But the pursuit of a female has been transformed over the years. Thousands of years ago, history has revealed, if a man found a woman attractive, he would simply grab his club, clobber the woman over the head, toss her over his shoulder and take her off to his cave. That was pursuit then; women had no choice in the matter.

Things have changed drastically since then. Proper pursuit of a woman today usually involves a man seeking an introduction, or finding a way to have his path cross hers. If both parties happen to be interested, the relationship evolves from there. True, there are men who (wolf) whistle at women who they find attractive or cat-call them making a hissing sound with their teeth. Most women seem to find this practice annoying, but generally manage to ignore it. The verbal sexual abuse is different; it is difficult to ignore as it is demeaning and insulting.

And yes, women in Parliament should speak up about this form of abuse, but this will not stop it and should not be seen as the remedy. Laws governing all crimes from robbery to murder, rape and domestic violence do not stop them from occurring. The hope is that the penalties mandated by the laws might act as a deterrent to those bent on committing these crimes; they are still committed every day though, which is why the prisons around the world are overflowing.

Two other female letter writers – Dionne Frank and Diane Lee – disagreed with Ms Narine’s take on the situation and one of them referred to the power relations inherent in those remarks. Ms Williams returned to the debate to note that women’s seeming acceptance of the “verbal rape” was really a sign of self-contempt. But unlike what she hinted at, this is not only evident in Guyana or the Caribbean. One only has to listen to the lyrics of hip-hop and rap music and to watch the music videos, most of which come out of the United States, to realize how pervasive it is in that country.

This was highlighted in the US earlier this year when American radio talk show host Don Imus made derogatory remarks about the black members of a women’s college basketball team and then sought to justify what he said by referring to the lyrics of popular music. There was almost national outrage at the remarks, particularly among Blacks in the United States, but people were then forced to admit that indeed the lyrics of many hip-hop and rap songs were just as bad or worse. Since then, many of the more established musicians in these genres have moved to clean up their acts. The process is ongoing.

It has been suggested that we as individuals aid this process by ignoring any music which degrades women. Guyanese import American music wholesale, as well as all of the fads that go along with it. But we can do more. We can as individuals, parents and mentors work with children to teach them to respect each other so that when they become young men and women this would already be ingrained in them. As with all learned behaviour, the best way to truly eradicate it is to cut it off at the root.


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