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Culture Clash: Consent

I’ve seen and heard about people lamenting the ongoing discussion about women’s human rights specific to our bodies. While it can be exhausting to engage in seemingly endless conversations on a popular topic, or even observe them, it is far worse to be repeatedly violated, taught to accept it, and face attempts to dissuade you from believing your own experience. We have to talk about sexual violence, particularly against women and girls, for many reasons. One of the most obvious is that it continues to happen, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable among us.

Conversations about sexual violence against women and girls are frustrating. It is emotionally draining for those of us who have experienced it and continue to experience it. There is a burden on us to talk about some of the worst things we have ever gone through, We are expected to participate in story-sharing campaigns, little thought being given to the psychological effects of reliving the trauma, or worrying about who may find out and treat us differently. It makes people uncomfortable — even those who consider themselves “good guys.” The black and white of sexual violence and rape culture scares people to the point that they are desperate to believe and convince others that a gray area exists. There can be no gray area when we are talking about people using their power to exert control over another person’s body. Whatever form it takes, it is a violation without explicit consent.

What is consent?

It’s difficult to address these issues without defining consent. In the simplest of terms, it is permission, a yes, and confirmation of willingness to participate from a person who is over the age of consent, conscious, and sober. Consent cannot be assumed. There can be no guesswork here. Certainty is a must, and that can only exist when an option has been offered, and the other person has been given the opportunity to accept or decline on their own terms. Silence does not count; consent has to be explicit.

Once you have consent, know that it is for the activity and time agreed upon, and remember that consent can end. It is not granted forever, and people can change their minds. You need continuous consent. It is possible to consent to something, start an activity, then decide not to continue. You may not like it if someone does this, but consent is mandatory so you need to accept it.

What isn’t consent?

Consent for one thing does not mean consent for another. You may think one activity “naturally” leads to another, but you need to check in with the person to see if they want to move on to something else. Consenting to kissing is not the same as consenting to kissing followed by digital penetration. Be honest about what you want to do, and respect the person’s right to decide whether or not they want to participate.

It is important that consent is recognized as a necessary step that protects all participants. It is not difficult, and it is not a hurdle. It is not a contest or a conquest. Coercion voids consent. No is no, and no amount of bullying, begging, or wearing down will turn that a no into an enthusiastic, continuous yes. Doing any of these things takes away the person’s choice, and creates a situation where the only answer is yes, and that is not consent. It is a violation on its own.

What is sexual violence?

Sexual violence is a term to describe sexual acts against someone who has not given consent. It’s a spectrum with harassment toward one end and rape at the other. Many people find it difficult to see sexual harassment and rape in the same category, largely because harassment is considered harmless. Street harassment, for example, has been so normalized that some refuse to acknowledge its affects on those experiencing it. An unwanted interaction can begin verbally, and has the potential to escalate to following or physical assault, regardless of the initial response.

Like rape, harassment and every other form of sexual violence is about power — not sex. Conversations about sexual violence are most often derailed by perpetuators of rape culture. These are people who believe the victim is somehow always at fault. They use respectability politics in attempts to put women and girls in our place, and hypermasculinity to excuse men and boys for unacceptable, predatory, criminal behavior. At Hollaback! — a movement formed to end street harassment — we challenge people to think about what could happen in the dark if we excuse harassment as appropriate behavior. Events like Junkanoo and Carnival give us an idea.

Law Enforcement Says

In December 2017, the Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF) foolishly made a victim-blaming post, warning women to “dress appropriately” to avoid sexual violence at Junkanoo. After significant backlash, the post was deleted. Unfortunately, some saw fit to defend the RBPF, suggesting that sexual violence is a response to certain styles of dress. This, of course, is incorrect, victim-blaming, and suggests the inferiority of the men and boys through perpetuation of the idea that they have no self-control.

Earlier this month, Trinidad & Tobago police took a different approach. Carnival quickly approaching, they advised the public that wining on someone without consent could be considered assault. Rather than addressing women and attempting to restrict their movement or choice of dress, they spoke directly to potential perpetrators. While this was lauded by women’s rights organizations and activists, some took exception the message. In particular, soca artist Machel Montano told a crowd to ignore the police advisory and “find somebody to jam.” In response, Police Public Information Officer ASP Michael Jackman said, “I want to make this clear that is important to respect any female’s right to say no to any physical touching in or outside the Carnival season, and that is the position of the TTPS.”

The police in Trinidad & Tobago clearly have a better understanding of the right to body autonomy, the mandatory nature of consent, and the appropriate group of people to address about sexual violence.

A (Trinidad & Tobago) “wining etiquette” flowchart has been circulating over the past few days. It is meant to make men think about their relationships with the women they want to “jam” on. Yuh know she? How yuh know she? Based on answers to these basic questions, it advises on how to approach her, whether, usually beginning with a face-to-face interaction. It ends with either “Gih she wuk!” or “Cease & desist.”

One part of the flowchart brings the marital rape debate to mind. From the “How yuh know she?” question, if the person chooses “We currently romantically involved,” the result is “Gih she wuk!” This suggests a romantic relationship gives a man access to a woman’s body, as though consent is automatic and perpetual (or lasts as long as the relationship). How is this different from Bahamian legislation where the definition of rape excludes the married rapist and victim? We still have work to do. All of us need to understand that people are not objects, relationships do not give us ownership, and consent is always mandatory. Whether it’s a wine/wuk/dance or a sexual activity, it is necessary to ask. Otherwise, your actions could be on the spectrum of sexual violence. You’re a nice guy? Great. Respect the other person. Ask for consent.

Published in The Tribune on January 24, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Resistance to Outside Influence

The U.S. has been a major influence on The Bahamas for a long time. Proximity and tourism are not the only reasons. “Foreign is better” has been a dominant idea for decades. Imported apples are redder, U.S.-based network television is more entertaining, and flown-in consultants are more knowledgable. We’ve grown accustomed to looking elsewhere for what we want, whether it’s because of cost, quality, or status, real or perceived. At the same time, we complain about the side effects of these decisions.

Small businesses are suffering, creatives struggle to get financial support, unemployment is high, university graduates accept offers elsewhere, and the country stagnates on various levels. We don’t listen to our own experts, and our governments engage people from all over the world, paying obscene amounts of money to tell us what we — at least some of us — already know. We are outraged when we hear about it, and not just because of the money. Even while we discredit and ignore our own, we are deeply insulted by even the suggestion that someone who does not live here could know or understand anything about our condition or potential better than us. We are compelled to resist “outsiders.”

Who’s Afraid of the UN?

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women’s visit to The Bahamas and declaration that marital rape is the most pressing gender-based issue in the country drew vitriolic response. Dubravka Šimonović was invited to The Bahamas to make an assessment, particularly in light of our bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. It is her job to objectively look at the country and its laws, engage with civil society, and report on her findings.

Ms. Šimonović’s visit was not to force new legislation or amendments, and her position does not afford her that right. Her comments, however, helped to spark a necessary conversation spanning several topics including rape, rape culture, marriage, and religion. It was a springboard for organizations and individuals, and drew attention to an overlooked issue. No matter how we validate her position or explain her visit, Ms. Šimonović is continually regarded as a UN operative, seeking to control The Bahamas and Bahamians.

Religious beliefs and commitment to the protection of patriarchy certainly influenced the conversation, but so did fear. Are we so opposed to external influence that we willingly refuse to acknowledge — or outright reject — statements of obvious truth and recommendations of merit?  It seems as though nationalism as a principle and pride as a restrictive, selfish value prevent us from participating in the processes necessary for growth and advancement as a country. Fear of being dominated or losing ourselves convinces us to dig our heels deeper into the mire that is our current and persisting state. Are we so weak that we could be controlled by mere conversation and suggestions of non-Bahamians?

Bullied by Big Brother

The President of the United States reportedly referred to African nations, along with others such as Haiti and El Salvador, as “shithole countries.” A xenophobe and a racist, his sentiments were clear before this incident, but it demands a response. Governments, organizations, and individuals have rebuked his statement and made it clear that he is not welcome in their spaces. CARICOM condemned his statement, calling it “unenlightened” and “unacceptable.” Since then, the Caribbean People’s Declaration, with 200 signatories, deemed the U.S. president “persona non grata.” It declared that he is “not welcome in any territory of the Caribbean” and confirms that any visit will be protested by Caribbean people with “demonstrations designed to prevent President Donald Trump’s entry into any portion of the sovereign territory of our Caribbean region.”

The Bahamas has not made such a statement and, based on social media posts and comments, many believe our silence is necessary. What would it mean to be on the bad side of the U.S. and its president?

We need to spend more time thinking about ourselves in relation to our Caribbean counterparts. We have been comfortable with a self-aggrandizing narrative, seeing ourselves as superior to the people of other Caribbean nations. Our GDP inflates our egos. We are proud of our proximity to the U.S., pre-clearance, and ease of access to the tourist market. We argue about whether or not we are a part of the Caribbean, often failing to acknowledge the shared history that binds us. In our minds, there is more that separates us from the rest of the Caribbean than connecting us. Contrary to what many Caribbean people believe and often express, we know we are not American, but in many ways, we aspire to Americanness, and it is often our closeness to American values and ways of life that excites us. We do not want to jeopardize it. That said, when issues of rights and freedoms are raised, opponents are quick to accuse advocates of “bringing American issues here,” so we are only interested in certain parts of Americanness.

This commitment to being U.S.-adjacent — not just geographically — often keeps us silent. While Leader of the Opposition Philip “Brave” Davis criticized the lack of response from the current administration, Minister of Foreign Affairs Darren Henfield would only say The Bahamas is part of CARICOM and “we speak with one voice,” suggesting the CARICOM statement is sufficient. Whether or not we believe cowardice is necessary, this is certainly a shameful silence.

Neighborhood Watch

On Friday, January 5, the CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana held a town hall meeting to get a sense of the Bahamian public’s opinion on the decriminalization of marijuana. The announcement of this event was like a piercing, loud alarm for those against decriminalization. Without even fully understanding the purpose of the event, furious typing and fast-dialing into radio talk shows ensued. People warned against decriminalization and all manner of impending doom that would result. While there may be valid arguments against decriminalization or, more likely, issues to be considered, accusations against CARICOM were wholly unnecessary and completely inaccurate. Listening to the fearful and the conspiracy theorists among us without seeking accurate information, it would be easy to believe CARICOM is forcing legislative changes on The Bahamas.

That a conversation could scare us is more worrying than being shunned by the U.S., or the decriminalization of marijuana. That we are happy to accept frivolous, seemingly inconsequential imports like clothing and media, and determined to reject expertise or even the facilitation of information sessions is cause for concern. We do not have to accept everything — or anything — being offered. We can demand that Bahamians experts are called first. We can have differing points of view. What we cannot afford is to close ourselves off from the rest of the world, convinced that everyone wants to take something from us or force something upon us. There is nothing wrong with learning from other countries, receiving recommendations from international bodies, or standing in solidarity with sister countries in the face of fascism. These decisions are up to us. Our fight should not be for restricted access to knowledge, perspective, and dialogue, but for seats at the table and participatory governance. We need every engagement opportunity we can get.

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Culture Clash: When Leaders Fail To Lead

We often talk about leadership. It is a hot topic on the radio, at church, within civic groups, in politics, in schools and at conferences and training sessions. Everyone has wisdom to impart on the subject. We are not likely to ever come to a consensus on whether leaders are born or made, but can all see there are skills every leader needs to have and hone.

In many cases, leaders lack the skills to effectively move toward the vision and this can happen for many reasons. Sometimes they overstay and either don’t realise the environment has changed and the culture has shifted, or they don’t care. At times, leaders have been thrust into their positions out of convenience or because there was no one better at the time, so they were never quite ideal or ready for the job. In other cases, leaders don’t share the vision, don’t have buy-in, or fail to communicate effectively.

We see these issues in organisations throughout the country and it eventually plays out publicly, prompting pressing questions. In recent weeks, three leaders have shown themselves lacking in leadership skills, largely because they failed to fully review an issue, consider impact on communities and take an appropriate position. Their missteps and inactions highlight the need for conviction, consultation, delegation and apology.

Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis and the non-position

When the Prime Minister is asked a question, he is expected to have a response. When he is asked a question about heavily debated issue, related to legislation, we ought to demand he takes a position.

Unfortunately and embarrassingly, Minnis lacks at least one of the following: decisiveness, confidence and honesty.

There is no other reason for him not to say exactly where he stands on issues of national importance. When he refused to make public his position on the four constitutional amendment bills that went to referendum in 2016, Bahamians should have paid attention and understood what it meant. Political parties declared their positions, as did individual Members of Parliament and all present were required to vote before the bills could go to referendum. He participated in the referendum. Why did he choose not to state his position?

Even given his refusal to say how he voted in the referendum, Minnis was elected Prime Minister in May 2017. We can’t feign shock now that he has refused to take a position on the marital rape issue. Instead, he said, “As prime minister I don’t have personal views anymore.” Has he ceased to be a human being? This would explain quite a bit, but doesn’t seem likely. Oddly, he didn’t see fit to share a prime ministerial or national view on the issue.

As Bahamians, it would be helpful to know whether or not the Prime Minister of this country believes consent is mandatory, sexual intercourse without consent is rape and married women retain rights over their own bodies.

The same is true of all Members of Parliament. We deserve to know. It doesn’t seem enough to say Minnis’ response was a cop-out.

He said the issue, along with any other new legislative issues, would be taken to the public first, allowing the people to speak. Does this mean a referendum? Will there be wide public consultation? What would constitute, in his mind, fair representation of the Bahamian people?

If Minnis is decisive, he is certainly not confident. He is afraid of sharing his opinion with the public and, if he is afraid of us, we certainly have cause for concern. When a man who campaigned on accountability and transparency claims he doesn’t have a personal view, something isn’t right. He is not prepared to be honest. Equally troubling, he does not see fit to defer to experts on his team. He did not even point to someone who conducted research, had professional experience, or was even in the early stages of public consultation.

The entire nation was talking about the very specific issue of marital rape and legislation, and the Prime Minister had no personal view. No conviction.

Rolle and the “private matter”

Minister of Social Services and Urban Development Lanisha Rolle took the position that marital rape is a “private matter”. She also said she does not support any form of violence against women.

Cognitive dissonance is evident here, as well as failure to consult with experts and consultants within her own Ministry. Leaders must be able to self-assess, take regular inventory of resources and determine who is best-suited to do what.

Rolle, however, fails to recognise her own deficiencies and does not lean on the knowledgeable staff within the Ministry who have been there long before her appointment.

When asked for her position on marital rape, she could have easily referenced CEDAW, the Gender-based Task Force Report, or any of the projects in the pipeline for the Department of Gender and Family Affairs, formerly known as the Bureau of Women’s Affairs.

Has she taken the time to learn about the departments within the Ministry? Can she identify key personnel? Does she have a working knowledge of conventions like CEDAW?

Leaders become liabilities when they do not do the work, have values in conflict with the vision, or refuse to admit lack of information and defer to a more appropriate person. Consultation and delegation are not optional; they are necessary.

Palacious and the non-apology

Last week, we saw the Royal Bahamas Police Force expose its own misogyny and institutional rape culture and the RBPF got the backlash it deserved.

Archdeacon James Palacious saw fit to defend the RBPF, and show his own cognitive dissonance. He tried to say no one deserves to be raped while saying women and girls need to dress differently to avoid sexual assault.

Palacious faced fierce rebuke for his irresponsible comments and issued a non-apology. Leaders make mistakes and must learn to make proper apologies. An apology does not include “I am prepared to stand by what I did say.” That is the opposite of an apology. To apologise, one must be sorry, recognising a wrong and acknowledging it to those affected and privy to it.

Further, an apology is not a resume and should not include all of the great things about the person who has done wrong. Admit to the wrong, make amends with those harmed and commit to doing and being better. When a leader is able to make a proper apology, it shows emotional intelligence, capacity to learn, and growth.

When they can’t apologise, ego is ahead of vision and care for community.

Leaders are not irreplaceable. If you are in a position of leadership now, a better person is being trained and will be ready to take over in month. They’ve been able to observe you and people like you and they’ve paired your practice with the theory they’re learning. If you want to stay where you are, you already have the wrong idea, but you won’t comfortably maintain your position without conviction and a proper leadership toolkit.

Consultation, delegation, and apology have to be in that toolkit, fit easily in your hand, and be ready to get to work.

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on January 3, 2018

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An Aspirational Look to 2018

Coming out of a year of sitting around, watching and questioning, 2018 has to be a year of collective action.

From early on, we will not only pay attention to what is being said by whom, but scrutinise those words and hold them up against behaviour and supposed values.

We will find inconsistencies, wherever they are, and call on relevant organisations and individuals to address them.

In 2018, Bahamians will finally move beyond conversation and not just to participate in political stunts. We will be thoughtful in our contributions to national discussions, cautious in our commitments and unrelenting in our pursuit of the common good.

The people have been duped enough times to now recognise the tell-tale signs of liars, opportunists and manipulators and our experience will be put to the test.

Politicians, wannabe politicians, career criminals and those seeking celebrity will continue to use pressing issues to push their own agendas, tying up Bahamians thirsty for change in their webs of deceit. We will do our best to see these people miles away, ask the hard questions and listen to what they don’t say. We won’t have the time to warm seats or fill streets for anything other than a better Bahamas for all of us – and we know this. We’ll be more discriminating in the causes we take up, who we allow to lead us and how far we go without seeing a long-term plan.

This is the year of the sceptic. Conspiracy theorists will continue to buzz in our ears about other eras, curses and outlandish outcomes unnamed people are working toward. Those aren’t the sceptics, or the people the sceptics question. Most of us will become — if we haven’t already — untrusting. Leaders in all arenas will find it more difficult to gain support because we are determined to avoid all forms of trickery. We won’t be easily convinced and we will refuse to get on board without near-absolute certainty of the outcome.

It’s going to be a tough one. While we want to move from talk to action, there isn’t much we can accomplish alone. Unfortunately, we don’t know who to trust. We may be facing the toughest year yet, for politicians, yes, but it isn’t an election year. It’s going to be most difficult for the activists, advocates and civil society organisations that need buy-in.

So many have disappointed Bahamians over the past year it should not be surprising that we’re made to work much harder to gain trust, mobilise and take the kind of collective action that forces change.

Published by The Tribune on January 2, 2018