By NOELLE NICOLLS
POLITICAL parties are parading their female candidates around town trying to appeal to women voters, who this year comprise the large majority of voters. It is transparent strategy in as much as it is a bad strategy, because female politicians in the Bahamas have proven, they no more stand for women's rights and women's empowerment than they stand for principled politics.
I say this because we lack a kind of principled politics in which politicians and political parties have a discernible ideology that guides their actions and thought processes. How I see it, the only thing Bahamian politicians stand for is favourable weather conditions. In other words, they move with the wind. What else would account for the immense failures over the past 10 years in advancing landmark legislative initiatives that would advance the rights of Bahamian women?
The men and women around town, with few exceptions, are real politicians, but not real women's rights activists. They support women's issues when it is politically prudent, and they morph into enemies of the women's movement with graceful abandon when it suits them all the same.
Take Melanie Griffin for example, Progressive Liberal Party candidate for Yamacraw. She boasts of her contributions to bringing about the Domestic Violence Protection Orders under the PLP's leadership, and yet she still can't make up her mind about supporting an amendment to the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act that would define the crime of rape between spouses. She needs more time to think: perhaps consult with the weatherman. These contradictions reveal wavering politicians for what they really are.
I can only speak for modern history, of which I have been an active observer, but Loretta Butler-Turner, Free National Movement candidate for Long Island, stands out as the most consistent politician on women's rights, and I only hope that win or lose, she continues to stand up for principle, not party, where women's rights are concerned.
But when she stood for the spousal rape amendment, there was not one other sitting member of parliament, not even Vernae Grant, the only other woman in her own party, who made any public commentary or backed her unwaveringly. She was offered as a lamb out to slaughter by her fellow FNM members of parliament. It makes me wonder who in the cabinet even supported the amendment?
Democratic National Alliance (DNA) candidate in Elizabeth, when she was spokeswoman for the faith-based group, Kingdom Women in Business, was a vocal advocate of the spousal rape amendment. Now that she is a "candidate for change", she has changed her stance in support of the DNA party's position, which is to strengthen the law governing sexual assault by a spouse, but to leave the definition rape as is, with its exclusion of married women.
During the debate over the Animal Protection and Control Act, observers remember Branville McCartney, DNA leader, being a strong advocate. Mr McCartney spoke passionately about the inhumanity of dog breeding, where bitches are locked in cages with their tails forced erect for the easy access of dogs, and now he minces words when it comes to women's rights. One observer said: "I love animals, but where was that passion for women."
The breeding of a bitch is an apt analogy for how many in our society perceive the relationship between men and women.
A group of campaign workers encountered a household while canvassing, where the man of the house, a self-professed, born and bred PLP, refused to allow the campaign workers to speak to his wife, saying that while she lived under his roof she would vote according to his instructions.
"We are still considered to be the window dressing. It is fashionable to promote women, because we know the majority of registered voters are women. Sometimes you hear people playing to it, but the reality is, we are still window dressing, and that is the core," said a female political activist.
"When women are empowered they not only empower their families, but they empower their communities and men are afraid of that because they want women to be beholden to them. More and more, men are beginning to see a glimmer of light, but it is an uphill battle," she said.
Perry Christie, PLP leader, pitched the argument last week that Bahamian women should vote for the PLP because it was the PLP who ushered a woman, Cynthia "Mother" Pratt, into the second seat of power, Deputy Prime Minster, a feat for which no other party could boast. Now Mr Christie must be smoking a pipe to believe Bahamian women have such a flimsy concept of their own empowerment.
Mother Pratt was recently quoted as saying: "I don't support (the spousal rape amendment). I don't understand how we will be able to prove spousal rape. I am not saying it doesn't happen, but how do we prove it. I don't think it's an issue that is complained about on a large scale; maybe an issue here and an issue there. You can easily set up a man for various reasons; I just don't see how you can prove a marital rape, who would be the witnesses? I am a Christian and I believe in the Bible when it says 'wives submit to your husbands' and that includes the bedroom, the man and woman becomes one when they get married."
These are not the words of a woman who knows the first thing about women's rights. She may have the right body parts and wear the right clothes; she might even utter the right words on occasion, but at the core, she has it all twisted.
Mother Pratt's thinking represents the kind of woman, who thinks more about the main man in her life than she does herself. No matter how much abuse a woman has to take, no matter how many sweethearts a man might have, no matter how much disrespect a woman has to contend with, such a woman would rather have her man than her dignity.
Her thinking represents the woman who stood up in St Agnes Church Hall, where Archdeacon I. Ranfurly Brown presides, and said she would rather her husband come home and ravage her, whenever and however he wanted, than have him go out and consort with another woman.
This is the nonsense our nation's leaders, politicians and otherwise, stand for through their self-proclamations and in their own silence.
A part of me understands why Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham withdrew the spousal rape amendment (although I do not support his actions), because women cannot be counted on to be their own advocates. I only hope he has not washed his hands completely of doing the right thing in support of women's rights, because there are still women out there who know what women's rights are all about.
Women's rights are based on a set of basic principles that true believers are guided by, politics aside. Many of them are articulated in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), otherwise known as the Women's Bill of Rights, which the Bahamas signed in 1993. They include a principle of equality and non-discrimination.
The International Alliance of Women articulates the principle of equality in the following way: "That men and women are born equally free and independent members of the human race, equally endowed with intelligence and ability, and equally entitled to the free exercise of their individual rights and liberty." Therefore, any act that would subordinate the individuality of a woman, as the current definition of rape in the Bahamas now does, based on false theories of superiority, inferiority, subjectivity or false allegiance, would be abhorred by a real women's rights activist.
Equality does not mean equal to men. Women's rights activists recognize that men and women were made differently in the sight of God for a reason; they recognize and appropriately value difference, whether biological or socially constructed. But they also understand that the differences between men and women often result in asymmetrical experiences of disadvantage and disparity.
Therefore, the principle of equality establishes a core standard of equality of opportunity, equality of access in law to the resources and institutions of a state for men and women. Any man or woman believing in women's rights from this principled position, would find no incongruity with supporting the citizenship amendment proposed ten years ago or the spousal rape amendment proposed three years ago.
The principle of non-discrimination calls us to "discard the distinction between the private and the public spheres, by recognising violations of women in the private sphere, as violations of women's human rights," as states the CEDAW Knowledge Resource Centre. "It recognises the negative impact of social, customary and cultural practices which are based on the perceived inferiority or superiority of either sex or on stereotyped roles for women and men."
Central to all of this is the elimination of violence against women; the economic empowerment of women; the full participation of women in all spheres of life and the harnessing of the leadership potential of women. These principles are universally upheld by women's rights activists and are no secret.
We go wrong when we start to let religious ideologies, political strategy, and damaging notions of gender supersede women's rights. Every man and woman has a right to do as they see fit, but some of us know better than to be hoodwinked by those who pay lip service to women's rights while advancing a contrary agenda.
"The natural relation of the sexes is that of inter-dependence and cooperation, and that the repression of the rights and liberty of one sex inevitably works injury to the other, and hence to the whole (human) race," states the International Alliance of Women.
Are we not already learning the hard way?
Can any party or candidate claim to stand up for women's rights? Hardly. Sometimes the wind blows in the right direction, but living in a Hurricane prone zone, the weather can be a fickle ally.
Pan-African writer and cultural scholar Noelle Khalila Nicolls is a practising journalist in the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. Her Watchwoman column explores genders issues in politics and culture from a feminist perspective. Read the Watchwoman every Tuesday in the Tribune's Women's Section, and follow Noelle online at Twitter.com/noelle_elleon.