Culture Clash: The Flexibility of Activism

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on June 28, 2017

As social justice issues become more mainstream, the number of activists, advocates, and allies is steadily increasing. People are more involved in conversations about gender, race, class, migration, and a variety of other issues with social media as a go-to resource for a broad range of news and commentary.

Access to information, opinions, and public action is at our fingertips; we can immediately respond to and participate in them. By becoming vocal, visible, and active, people feel more connected to existing movements, and see themselves as activists. Recently, there has been debate about who can call themselves an activist, and how the title is earned. Activism is more than social media posts and profile picture ribbons, but is it productive to discount the efforts of people trying to make a difference in whatever ways, however small, they can?

The work of activists is not trite, easy, or passive. Risks are assumed, positions are clear, and actions are taken. We all know activists are often demonised and ostracised because of their methods of participation and the challenge we bring to old ways of thinking and being. We are often painted as extremists — dangerous and unreasonable people.

In recent years, we’ve seen changes in this dynamic with people taking centre stage, refusing to be sidelined. In many cases, activists have created the agenda and an environment where the option to ignore or refuse to participate does not exist. Leading dialogues and taking control of both narratives and outcomes have always been critical, and the possibilities have increased along with appreciation for the work, and more people want to be a part of it.

Measuring and Validating Activism

While some take offence when others use “activist” to describe themselves, having a narrow view of what it means to embody the term, activism today takes many different shapes, and can be performed in a variety of ways. As people of marginalised communities fighting against oppression and actively disputing ideas of the monolith, it is unreasonable to expect activists to fit a mold. It is also far from productive to alienate, rebuke, or silence people who are, at the very least, allies.

There is no official list of qualifiers to determine whether or not a person is an activist. Even if creating one, it is important that our own values and abilities are not imposed on entire communities, expecting them to measure up to attain activism status. In fact, dictionary definitions of activism prioritise political causes, giving social issues a backseat. Clearly, activism has grown beyond the definition, and as we continue to be creative and provocative in our work, activism will continue to be dynamic, ever-changing.

Before taking action, most people assess their qualifications, skills, and living situation. Do they have the knowledge to write an informative article? Do they have the charisma to deliver a speech? Can they afford to leave work to protest? With such varied points of assessment, no one can use their own activities and choices to define activism for all. It is as diverse as the people who practice it and, perhaps more importantly, the people it is meant to reach.

Traditional and Social Media Activism

In years gone by, activists were known by their public deeds, from impassioned speeches to protests and petitioning. Today, it is difficult to differentiate activists from non-activists when they claim the term in thought, word, and deed. Do all activists protest? How many times does one have to protest before becoming an activist? How can a participant in (or beneficiary of) an oppressive system be an activist?

How can we give room to people who may not protest, but are active on social media, and have conversations in groups others among us may not be able to access? Their efforts may not be public-facing, but they can answer questions in our stead. We have to be able to value work that may not look like our own, but helps to lessen the burden we carry, saving us from the emotional burnout that can come from engaging both peers and the general public.

What is the value of people on social media sharing articles, giving different perspectives, posting pictures from public events, and directing people to more information? An active social media presence is not always as easy as it may seem. Online harassment continues to be a deterrent from using platforms like Facebook. It is often the less visible and less politicised figures who are able to engage in heated debates and escape relatively unscathed. How do account for the danger activists face just by the nature of the work, and avoid discounting their efforts because of the precautions they must take?

Diversity of Movements

Movement membership and participation are important, regardless of the shape they take. Some people march while others write think pieces. Some people start petitions while others send the link to their friends lists. Some are talk show guests while others wrestle with detractors on Facebook. In movements — large and small — fighting to end injustice and restore peace, there is room for everyone. A variety of personalities, skill sets, qualifications, knowledge, and experience make for a more robust, multifaceted movement.

To reach people in other spaces, movements need people with different experiences, and members of the dominant culture are needed as allies. While people on the frontlines take the brunt of the criticism and abuse, supporters need to be ready to defend fellow activists, dispel myths, and drive conversations forward, using more traditional actions as a springboard. The truth is there is always room for more in social and political movements, the need for people power and passion never diminishing. The differences in audience and approach are strengths, only increasing reach and impact. Recognising the value in our varied approaches will enable us to better work across disciplines and areas of focus, propelling us toward the version of The Bahamas we are all working to build.

Culture Clash: On Cyber Crime in The Bahamas

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on April 19, 2017

Everyone wants to be entertained.

We pay for cable television, go to political rallies and engage in Facebook banter on hot topics for days.

Sometimes our jokes are on other people, but nothing is as disturbing as the pleasure many get from recording, watching and sharing explicit content without consent of the people involved.

Too many people prefer to make assumptions, stating them as facts, to looking critically at common behaviours and the related social ills.

There is no shortage of topics we would prefer to leave undiscussed. We are not interested in feeling uncomfortable, challenging norms or risking existing perceptions of ourselves to have necessary conversations.

No one wants to talk about sexual violence. It is not pleasant. Rape is not a safe table topic, but women are not safe from predators either. Why not? Who is to blame? How have we contributed to rape culture, ensuring that victims are blamed for violence enacted against them and made to feel shame and guilt?

Every few months, a new story makes the rounds on social media. Videos are quickly shared, exposing traumatic, humiliating moments for the entertainment of the general public. We have become voyeurs, cultivating an insatiable desire for violent content. When people are excited by images of car accidents, footage of people taking their last breaths, children being abused and women being raped, it should be an alarm. This growing obsession is a definite indicator of desensitisation to acts of violence and loss of humanity. Unfortunately, it seems this has been normalised, and few are willing to challenge it.

For the past few days, video of a rape has been circulating on social media. Not only has evidence of a crime been widely shared, but people have requested the video. They are asking contacts to share a video of a woman being raped for their entertainment and to enable them to join the troubling conversation, complete with graphic details.

Why was this video recorded? Who recorded it? Why has it been shared with anyone other than the police? Why do people want to watch it? What does it mean when people are excited by the thought of such a video?

In conversations about violence against women, the issue of relationship to the survivor is almost always raised. When men and boys fail to see the problem with various forms of sexual violence, we quickly point them in the direction of their family trees. What if this happened to your mother, sister, or daughter? What if this woman was related to you in any way? Would she be a human then? Would she deserve to be protected then? Would it still be her fault?

The same distance exists between viewers and individuals in the videos. Something keeps us from seeing people we do not know as human beings. The same deficiency renders us incapable of empathy. Entirely separate from this is the sense of moral superiority that comes with viewing such content. People like to see and position themselves as better than others. It is a pleasure to point out all the things we would have done differently to ensure a different outcome.

What did she drink? Who did she get it from? Did she ever let it out of her sight? Why did she drink it? Didn’t she notice it tasted different? Did she know these people? Couldn’t she fight back?

I wouldn’t have drunk anything. I don’t know anyone who would do that to me. I’m a better judge of character. No matter how drunk I am, I can fight back. I’m smarter. Stronger. Better.

These questions are easy to ask. These actions are easy to premeditate. Judgments are easy to make. In all of this, we centre ourselves and forget about the people who are impacted by the content shared without their consent and the unfiltered public commentary. We give no thought to the impact of our self-aggrandisement on victims of cyber crime. We rarely even think about our perception of rape.

It is easy to think of rape in narrow terms – dark alley, stranger, screams. In reality, rape is not limited to specific circumstances. It can happen day or night, inside or outside, with or without an audience. For the perpetrator, it is an exercise of power and control. When consent is not given, it is rape. Consent must be voluntary, explicit and continuous, and can only be given in sobriety and adulthood. It is never implied and is always necessary. When lack of consent or the end of consent is ignored, the act is a violation. In this most recent video, the young woman was incapable of giving consent. She was sexually violated and that has been multiplied by the cyber crime of recording and sharing the video.

Certain assumptions can be made about people who send and receive videos like the one being discussed. Sending such a video suggests the sender has reason to believe the recipient is like-minded. It implies there is nothing wrong with sharing this kind of material, and no consequences are expected. If you are in receipt of the video, it may be time to ask yourself a few questions. Who sent it to you? What is your relationship to the sender? Why would anyone feel comfortable sharing the video with you? How do you respond to people sharing this kind of content with you? Have you shared the video, or content like it? Are you a cyber criminal?

If we are not prepared to consider the impact of our actions and speech on others, to refrain from criminal activity or to correct family and friends when they commit harmful acts, are we ready for the revolution we say we want to see?

If we cannot govern ourselves or see the humanity in one another, we are not prepared for fight for democracy. Are we ready to study, debate, and decision-making on the road to May 10, 2017? Until we respect and protect the least among us, we cannot rise together for effective leadership and civic participation in our country.

We must think beyond ourselves and our personal relationships, working to understand and promote human rights for all, if we are to build a better Bahamas for Bahamians.

Culture Clash: On People Power and Functions of Democracy

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on March 22, 2017

As the general election of 2017 – date still unknown – draws near, conversations about democracy are being ignited, but largely limited to one of its functions.

The low rate of voter registration has led the Bahamian people to frame the act of voting as the only form of participation in democracy available to citizens.

While it is a direct action and right afforded to us through democracy, voting is not the only benefit of democracy. Additionally, the creation and maintenance of the political system is not the only function of democracy.

Democracy is a concept, system, and practice that we, as citizens of The Bahamas, need to understand. Many believe it to be limited to elections and voting, but it reaches far beyond such events.

Democracy has four main functions, three of which are often ignored while it is reduced to the first. While it is important to understand the theory of democracy, it is at least as critical to recognise all of its functions and put it into practice more fully and intentionally.

  • Political system

A democratic political system allows people to choose their leaders in regular, free elections.

Free, fair elections require a neutral administrating body to ensure fair treatment of all parties and candidates, allowance for individuals to monitor voting and the counting of votes and independent tribunals to hear disputes.

Beyond that, it allows the people to hold representatives accountable for their actions and inaction while in office. Democracy recognises the sovereignty of the people as government authority is subject to the people’s consent. Political power is only temporary while the power of the people is lasting and flows to their representatives at their will.

For this reason, those elected are to consult with their constituents to ascertain their needs and opinions to enable accurate representation. Through the democratic system, voters have the right to observe the conduct of government business, criticise elected representatives, launch and support campaigns, vote secretly and be free of intimidation as they participate.

  • Active participation

Like its benefits, the democratic burden does not fall solely on governments and political leaders to maintain, strengthen, and exercise it.

The onus is on citizens to be informed of national issues, observe the behaviour of elected and appointed officials, voice their concerns and challenge decisions imposed upon and ideas put to them.

While voting is an important exercise and a right afforded to citizens by the democratic political system, citizens are called to participate in public discussions. The voice of the people must be heard, and serve as a guide for political representatives who are to act in the interest of their constituents.

Participation is not synonymous with spectatorship. To fully participate in public life, citizens must be informed – and this often requires personal effort. Politically-driven narratives seldom give a full picture, and the media is not always capable, for many reasons, of delivering balanced reports. It is necessary to look at multiple news sources, ask questions and engage in conversations with people of varied persuasions. Democracy enables the people to actively participate through:

  1. Questions. Accept nothing as fact without evidence. Investigate claims and try to find multiple sources.
  2. Discussion. Share your thoughts and ideas with other people. Engage with people who do not look like you, have the same background as you, or think the same way as you. The purpose is not to win, or be on the side of popular opinion. Enter conversations with gaining new perspective as your goal.
  3. Challenges. Do not settle for less than you deserve. Make demands of your representatives. Hold them accountable for their actions, demand transparency and insist upon regular reporting to and consultation with the people.
  4. Mobilisation. Be prepared to work together, as citizens, to find common ground, make a plan and take action. Your power is strengthened with activated along with that of your fellow Bahamians.

Participation includes joining political campaigns, protesting, petitioning, organising within communities and running for political office. Involvement in civil society organisations is another way to be an active citizen, and can allow for informal education and mobilisation around specific interests and causes.

  • Human rights protection

Human rights are inherent to all people, regardless of gender, race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, language or any other identity marker.

They are interdependent, indivisible and interrelated. Human rights are promoted and protected by international law, and the standard has been set by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, the UDHR protects against discrimination, slavery, torture, and unfair detainment, and affirms the right to life, freedom of movement, equality before the law, right to trial, right to privacy and right to nationality.

International law grants every citizen human rights that cannot be denied. Citizens are free to speak, practice their religions, associate with people and organisations, assemble, travel and engage in a number of other acts. In a democracy, citizens have these basic rights that cannot be denied.

  • Rule of Law

Democracy is subject to a set of laws. These laws exist for the protection of citizens’ rights, to maintain order in the country and to limit the power of the people’s representatives.

This function exists to ensure that rule is not subject to the whims of an individual or group of individuals. Because of the rule of law, all citizens are equal, none being above the law, regardless of position. It allows for fair and impartial decision-making by independent courts, separate from the government, which is meant to limit the power of representatives.

The people of The Bahamas can only benefit when democracy functions properly, being exercised by the citizens to whom it extends specific rights.

One right afforded to us through democracy is the casting of a ballot in the next general election. To exercise that right, we must take proof of Bahamian citizenship to register to vote. This is an important exercise that enables us to choose our constituency representatives and, by extension, the leadership of the country. It is not, however, the only way to participate in our democracy, and to suggest such is both dishonest and disempowering to the Bahamian people.

Let us encourage one another to exercise the right to vote, but include the other functions of democracy and methods of participation in our conversations for balance, comprehensiveness and strengthening of people power.

#TooSexyToVote: Female Voter Suppression in The Bahamas

Published at LadyClever.com on January 27, 2017

On the heels of the U.S. Presidential Election, The Bahamas is preparing for its general election expected to be held n May 2017. The Bahamas has successfully maintained a voter turnout of over 90% for general elections— one of the highest in the world. A November 2016 report, however, showed that approximately 57,000 people had registered to vote compared to 134,000 at the same point in 2011, ahead of the 2012 general election. Since then, there has been a significant increase in politicians and civic society, through social media posts, radio talk shows, and daily newspapers, urging Bahamians to register to vote. Given this, it was shocking to learn that Bahamian women were being turned away by Parliamentary Registration Department staff, denied the right to register to vote, by reason of dress.

No Cleavage Allowed

On December 30, 2016, The Tribune’s cover story featured a woman who had been turned away from voter registration three times. Deputy Chief Reporter Krishna Virgil asked Parliamentary Commission Sherlyn Hall about voter registration policy, as the Parliamentary Elections Act does not mention a dress code.

Mr. Hall said, “Because you have to take photographs, so if someone comes with half their breasts out and cleavage showing, this isn’t permitted.”

In the same interview, he shared that 75,000 people had registered to vote — less than 50% of registration numbers at the same point in 2011.

While this story was a surprise to some, others had stories of their own to share. Women took to social media to talk about what they were wearing when they were turned away from registering to vote. They ranged from tank tops to sleeveless dresses. Generally, it seemed any woman with their shoulders, upper arms, or breasts visible was denied their right to register.

#TooSexyToVote

Ava Turnquest, Chief Reporter at The Tribune, sprung into action on the day the story was printed. Within hours of her Facebook post and the creation of a secret group, dozens of Bahamian women were in conversation about the suppression of women’s voter rights.While some researched laws and policies regarding dress code, others brainstormed national actions. #TooSexyToVote to vote was born, and the Sexy Voter Registration event was set for January 4, 2017.

Bahamian women were invited to a lunchtime power hour at the Parliamentary Registration Department to register to vote in the attire of their choice. The decision was made not to leave until everyone successfully registered to vote, no matter what they were wearing. The participants included a woman in a crochet top and short, a women in jeggings and a crop top, a women in a fitted dress exposing her cleavage, and a woman in a men’s three-piece suit. All participants were able to register without a problem, though the woman in the crop top was asked to remove some of her earrings. She refused, the photographer consulted a supervisor, and it was decided that her picture could be taken and her registration process completed.

The Fight Continues

The next day, more reports were made on social media of Bahamian women being turned away from voter registration station. It became clear that most of the issues were occurring at two locations. The #TooSexyToVote crew then began plans to respond. While two female Parliament members and the Minister of National Security — who has responsibility for the Parliamentary Registration Department — referenced the issue and Hall’s comments, there were no reports of directives being issued for the Department’s staff to cease its discriminatory practices and register all eligible Bahamians to vote. Hollaback! Bahamas then published an open letter to the Parliamentary Commission, calling on him to do his job in accordance with the Parliamentary Elections Act, or vacate the post.

“It is an affront to Bahamian suffragettes and all Bahamian women that in 2017 — the year we will celebrate 55 years since the first time Bahamian women voted — eligible voters are being turned away because of personal opinions. Hollaback! Bahamas denounces the refusal to view Bahamian women as full citizens, the policing of women’s bodies, and the subsequent perpetuation of violence against women.”

A directive has since been issued, and Hollaback! Bahamas continues to collect #TooSexyToVote stories through its online report form. All data collected through the form will be reported to the media, holding all parties involved accountable.

Next Steps

#TooSexyToVote organizers are closely monitoring social media reports on experiences in registering to vote. It has expanded its scope to include other barriers to registration, like stations not being open during published times. The group is set to launch an interactive flowchart providing Bahamian citizens with comprehensive information on voter registration requirements and procedures to ensure they are prepared when they visit a station. There are also plans to train voter advocates to visit registration stations and assist people who encounter issues with the staff. #TooSexyToVote is committed to encouraging people to register to vote, especially women, who comprise more than 50% of voters.