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#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.

On Emotional Labor as Women’s Work

We carry heavy burdens that, often, do not belong to us. We seek answers for other people’s questions. Find solutions to other people’s problems. Forage for salves to heal wounds not our own. Pray for miracles to reach other homes. Cook to warm foreign souls. Speak life into other vessels. Give our pennies to outstretched hands. Bow our heads in thanksgiving for someone else’s blessing. Lift the names of others in adoration. Chase helium-powered dreams, jumping for the strings, only to hand them to someone else. Then stare at our own shadows, wondering why nothing else is there.

We are spent. We have been spent. We spent ourselves.

We carried, sought, found, foraged, prayed, cooked, spoke, gave, bowed, lifted and chased. We moved so swiftly that our own wind extinguished our fire — the energy we thought was indefatigable. And here we find ourselves, writhing on the cold floors of our mother’s bathrooms, curling into balls, empty of everything but the air we need to cry out for redemption. Saving. Mercy. Grace. Help. To be carried.

Who will fight for us? Who will save us? Who will say our names to the higher powers that all but forsake us in our hour of need? Who will boil the leaves of bushes we do not know by name, but by sight, and hold the cup of their bitter waters to our lips that we may drink with both thirst for wellness and disdain for the taste of our misfortune?

Who will stand in the gap, filling the space we leave pregnant with emptiness while our physical feminine beings are out of service? Who will render the service we no longer can because we have walked too many miles, sang too many hymns, ladled too many bowls of soup, listened to too many tales, doled too many apologies, swept too many tiled floors clean, built too many pedestals, tightened too many ties, patted too many shoulders, smiled at too many inappropriate comments, swallowed too many fitting retorts, caught too many fragile, falling egos, wailed over too many bodies, and covered too many secrets with the dirt from beneath our fingernails — the only compensation for this endless work — like palls over caskets?

Who will fill the spaces we leave when we finally learn that we are enough? That we have done enough. That the world we’ve been fighting for isn’t enough to hold us. That gravity is no match for our spirits that tire of being anchored, and will cut themselves free of this landscape, taking us with them to do what we were born to do. To soar.

Who?

Who will stay here, tell stories of our magic, binding patches of our histories and works into quilts of mythology, wrapped around the babes who hope to one day wield wands of “women’s work” to greater compensation than we have ever imagined? Who will intercede for them, that they will not repeat patterned pasts, but will stand in the power of all that runs through them by virtue of their blood being the same as ours? How will they know that the work of their feet, their hands, their tongue is worth more than thank you, more than love, more than endless praise, and that true appreciation in the capitalist world comes in the form of paper they can take to the bank?

What must we do today to protect their dignity, secure them financially, elevate them socially, empower them politically, strengthen them mentally, and lighten them emotionally that the labor they undertake not only benefits their communities — and them by proxy — but is in balance with their direct compensation?

For faith without works is dead, and work without pay must die. If not before us, then with us. But how?

We are responsible for the continuation of emotional and unpaid labor, started long before us; hence, we are responsible for bringing about its demise. If our feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit, our labor will be paid or it will be left undone.

We will not be left undone.

We will not be left.

We will not.

With our spirits, we will rise, and the rest will learn to fend for themselves. Our responsibility is us, and those like us who we usher into this world, changed by our refusal to let it be as we met it. This has been our duty, it is our power, and it will be our victory.