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Culture Clash: Eight Years On The Same Debate With The Same Answer – Rape Is Rape

We need to talk about consent. Most of us understand it to mean permission. Parents and guardians signing forms to allow children to participate in extracurricular activities probably comes to mind. We don’t think about consent as a way of controlling and protecting our own bodies. Instead, we view the bodies of women and girls as public property.

When we force children to show affection to family members and friends without prejudice, we teach them they do not own their bodies. When we tell teenaged girls, “Dress the way you want to be addressed”, we are telling them other people’s perceptions of them are the most important thing. We have many ways of making each other less than human, stripping away rights and dignity. We find ways to blame one another for any violation experienced, conditioned by and continuing the perpetuation of rape culture.

Rape culture is prevalent in our environment and allows people to believe there is something women and girls can do to prevent sexual assault. We can dress differently, travel in groups, ensure we are always accompanied by men, refrain from consuming alcohol, get home before dark and ignore our own sexuality. Even further, we can purchase a number of products like special underwear that only we can remove and nail polish that detects date rape drugs in our drinks. The onus is continuously put on us, women and girls to protect ourselves by being less visible and investing in products specifically designed for us. As if this is not enough to bear, our law does not recognise us as full people after we marry.

According to the Sexual Offences Act, once married, women are no longer entitled to (not) give consent to their husbands and are expected to engage in sexual activity whether we would like to or not. The Act says we cannot be raped and, by marrying us, men have unlimited rights to access our bodies.

What if this were the case for murder? If a man owns his wife’s body to the extent he can penetrate her vagina without her consent, what is to keep him from thinking he can kill her without consequence? If we stick to the “two become one” argument, we set ourselves down a slippery slope. Married women can vote, but not say “no” to sex and have the right to press charges if her husband rapes her. Married women are human beings in some ways, but property in others.

There is no reason for women to be denied the right to choose what to do with their bodies, in marriage or otherwise. The narrative of false accusations is completely baseless at best and foolish at worst. If we create legislation and policies based on potential for misuse, we would likely be forced to go without. Anarchy, anyone?

People talk about the great fear of the lying woman. Won’t married women lie on their husbands, just because?

People sometimes lie — not women; people. Cases sometimes go to court and the defendants are innocent. Sometimes it is difficult to prove the crime. We see this happen every day. This is the reason for courts, judges and juries. It is the reason evidence is required. The justice system has its issues, but so do society, the church and the institution of marriage. Are we really satisfied to doom married women to live as the property of their husbands, able to be lawfully violated? Are we happy to have even ten women suffer in silence, with no legal recourse, because one might lie on her husband? Do we really believe men are entitled to sex on demand when they marry a woman?

To be clear, rape is not sex. Sex can only occur with clear, continuous consent from all parties involved. When anyone is forced to participate in sexual activity, it is assault — a violation. If a person is underage, they are not able to give consent. If a person is intoxicated, they are not able to give consent. If a person is unconscious or asleep, they are not able to give consent. Consent must exist for a sexual act to be lawful. It must be explicit and cannot be coerced. There is no such thing as sex without consent; that is rape. It does not matter whether or not the people involved are married. Consent is not granted in perpetuity, regardless of licences and vows. We have the right to say yes or no.

In July 2009, then MP for Long Island Loretta Butler-Turner tabled the marital rape bill which would have amended the Sexual Offences Act to omit “who is not his spouse” so that marital status does not enter the definition of rape or impede access to justice. Eight years later, we are having the same conversation on the same level, seemingly with no better understanding of or appreciation for women’s rights as human rights. We listen to political and religious leaders and allow them to guide our thoughts on opinions far too often. We forget Members of Parliament and Cabinet Ministers work for us and should be acting in the best interest of the Bahamian people. Laws and policies should be made to protect the most vulnerable among us; not putting them at higher risk or further marginalizing them from the rest of society. Religious leaders should not be interfering in governance of the country, or imposing themselves and their views on the citizenry. They should be rebuking the consistent, dangerous misuse of biblical text to support misogyny.

Those who support men who rape their wives often use biblical text, mostly in fragments, to compel others to do the same. A favourite is Ephesians 5:22 which implores women to submit themselves to their husbands. Those quoting this scripture conveniently neglect to mention verses 23 and 28 which call on men to love their wives as Christ loved the church and “as their own bodies”. A true, practising Christian would surely look at the full scripture and, upon seeing “love,” refer to I Corinthians 13 for its definition and characteristics. According to Paul, love is patient, kind and protective and is not self-seeking. If a man loves his wife, would he not be patient, kind and protective, and willing to put his own desires aside instead of being self-seeking? If a man loves his wife as Christ loved the church — for which He gave His life — what limit would there be to what he would give up for her? Why aren’t we holding men to the same standards we demand women meet?

A married woman is still a woman, and a human being. Married women, like unmarried women, have human rights. These include being equal in dignity and rights, the right to security of person, freedom from slavery or servitude and recognition everywhere as a person before the law. In addition to being protected from sexual assault and understood to be human beings, women deserve to have access to justice. We need to look at the Sexual Offences Act and its definition of rape. We need to look at the way we view marriage and, in particular, the privileges of men within the institution. We need to understand that rape is rape, no matter who is involved. Perhaps more than that, we need to look at the positions we take and the arguments we use and ask ourselves who we are trying to protect – and why?

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on December 20, 2017

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Culture Clash: Where Next For Legislation On Gender Equality?

Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis announced last week the current administration will amend legislation in order to allow Bahamian women to automatically transfer citizenship to their children at birth in the same way Bahamian men already do. At present, children born to Bahamian women and non-Bahamian men outside of The Bahamas must apply for Bahamian citizenship between the ages of 18 and 21, and registration as a Bahamian citizen is at the discretion of the Minister.

The Bahamas Nationality Act — not the Immigration Act — speaks to the acquisition of Bahamian citizenship which, in many cases, must be granted by the Minister. By use of the word “automatically” in his statement, it appears Minnis means to amend the Bahamas Nationality Act so there is no application or, at the very least, no interference by the Minister. It is not clear how he intends to do this or the form the new process will take, but it is not “overturning” the referendum vote. Minnis has proposed a completely different action which will not have the same effect as a constitutional amendment.

Recall the conversation about the constitutional referendum of 2016. The Constitutional Commission repeatedly made the distinction between the right to automatic citizenship and the right to apply for citizenship. While bill one — specific to Bahamian women married to non-Bahamian men being able to transfer citizenship to children born outside of The Bahamas — would have made citizenship automatic if it had passed, bill two — specific to Bahamian women transferring citizenship to their non-Bahamian husbands — would have allowed for an application process that would not have guaranteed citizenship. This is an important distinction to make and understand: the right to apply for citizenship is not the same as the right to acquire citizenship.

Constitution vs. legislation

Since 2014 when the constitutional referendum was announced, some insisted the same goal — equal rights to transfer citizenship to spouses and children — could be achieved through legislation. They insisted the PLP administration, if it was serious about gender equality in citizenship, should just use the Bahamas Nationality Act to get the same results as a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum. They did not, however, acknowledge the difference between the constitution and legislation.

The constitution is supreme law. Article two states, “This Constitution is the supreme law of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas and, subject to the provisions of this Constitution, if any other law is inconsistent with this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail and the other law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.” Legislation, such as the Bahamas Nationality Act, fits the “other law” category. This means what is written in the constitution overrides any legislation. That is why it was important to go through the referendum process, making an effort to change the constitution so gender equality in the right to transfer citizenship would exist in supreme law rather than in the Bahamas Nationality Act (which is superseded by the constitution).

What if the Bahamas Nationality Act is amended to allow children born outside of The Bahamas to Bahamian women married to non-Bahamian men to automatically access Bahamian citizenship? In theory, it would be great.

There would be no need for applications to the Minister, more paperwork going through Cabinet, or waiting for the age of 18. What if, however, there is a legal challenge? What if someone, or a group, decides it is not constitutional? If taken to court, based on Article two of the constitution, we know supreme law holds. This means Article nine — which says those “born legitimately outside The Bahamas after 9th July 1973 whose mother is a citizen of The Bahamas shall entitled, upon making application on his attaining the age of eighteen years and before he attains the age if twenty-one years… to be registered as a citizen of The Bahamas” — would carry more weight than any allowance made in the Bahamas Nationality Act.

No change the current administration makes to legislation is the final word. This is the reason the previous administration spent money and other resources on the constitutional referendum of 2016. Is it a step? Maybe. Is it a cure-all? Not at all.

Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)

Many Bahamians were first introduced to CEDAW after the 2014 announcement of the constitutional referendum. CEDAW was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979 and ratified by The Bahamas in 1993. Though we have signed the convention, The Bahamas has made reservations on some Articles including 2(a) on the elimination of discrimination against women in “national constitutions or other appropriate legislation”.

This reservation exists because while Article 26 of the constitution is on protection from discrimination, it does not list sex as a prohibited ground for discrimination and cannot be changed without a simple majority vote by Bahamian citizens.

Article 54 of the constitution states changes to Article 26 — along with many others including 8, 10, and 14 which relate to transfer of citizenship and were included in the 2016 referendum — can only be made following a vote of at least three-quarters of both Houses and a simple majority of eligible Bahamian citizens.

The Bahamas also reserved on Article 9 of CEDAW on equal nationality rights including the ability to acquire, change, or retain nationality and the same rights with respect to their children’s nationality.

Both CEDAW and The Government of The Bahamas recognise the constitution as supreme law and understand the process of changing it. This is at least a part of the reason for The Bahamas’ reservation on the two Articles mentioned here, the decision to go to referendum in 2016, and the response from the Constitutional Commission to the argument that legislation would get the good done just as well.

Power of the Houses

It is critical we understand democracy, governance, law, and power. It is difficult to participate in national discussions without an understanding of the constitution, legislation and how they can be changed. Legislation is being tabled and amended on a regular basis, largely without the public’s attention, much less understanding or agreement. We need to pay more attention to what our Members of Parliament are doing, especially if they are looking to increase their own salaries.

“The People’s Time” can’t just be a snappy slogan; it needs to be a way of life. The people need to set the agenda, supervise our employees, and actively participate in democracy.

It is easy to see Minnis’ announcement as a victory for those of us who wanted a ‘yes’ vote in 2016. It is easy to become distracted by seemingly benevolent actions and to be assuaged by convincing rhetoric. We need to ask questions. What difference will legislative amendments make?

How is this administration acting to shift culture? Does the current composition of Parliament or the Senate reflect an interest in gender parity? How can we learn more about our constitution and existing legislation?

Who is the government, and who is responsible for protecting democracy? Where does the power really sit, and it is being used effectively? How have we contributed to the current political environment? Are we ready to change it?

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on November 9, 2017

Video: Gender Equality

The Gender Equality panel kickstarted Equality Bahamas’ Women’s Wednesdays series, inviting participants to define gender equality, comment on the importance of constitutional equality, and the impact of religious institutions and leaders.

Panelists:
Alexus D’Marco, Human Rights Defender
Carol Misiewicz, Supreme Court Registrar
Natalie Willis, Cultural Practitioner

For more information on the Women’s Wednesdays event series, like Equality Bahamas on Facebook.

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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.