By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
TARGETING the “racist and misogynistic” statements made by Anglican Archbishop James Palacious last week,
Noted Bahamian attorney, author, and United Nations expert Marion Bethel called for the elevation of women’s voices and institutions to push back against the predominant misogynistic and discriminatory climate in the country.
Mrs Bethel cautioned community leaders against taking the easy route by using uninformed, inflammatory and offensive statements to garner sound bites as it is unproductive, leads to a real misunderstanding of their intentions, and hinders progress towards possible solutions.
She reacted to “inflammatory” statements made by public figures on the Majority Rule Day holiday, and reports that women have been denied the right to register to vote due to their attire, during an interview with The Tribune on Thursday.
To the reports of women being turned away at voter registration sites, she said: “It really has to just stop, period, end of story. I feel as though this is part of the result of the climate created during the (equality) referendum around women, our dignity, our bodies, the choices that we make, it’s part of the same continuum for me.
“I don’t think that we’ve really addressed it and I think more women’s voices need to be raised and women’s institutions need to speak to this violation of ourselves and our integrity. It’s not going to get any better until we actually stand up and say no more,” she said.
On Tuesday, Archdeacon Palacious admonished black and poor people for having children that they cannot afford as he underscored the need for Bahamians to take greater personal responsibility for social ills in the country, and its development.
Addressing a crowd of supporters at the end of a march to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Majority Rule, he declared that “black people breed too much,” and explained that “unless we can control our reproductive process we will always be recycling poverty.”
“I’m really offended by the words ‘black people breed too much,’” Mrs Bethel said. “It relegates me and black people in this country to animals and it echoes for me certain aspects of slavery when we’re talking about breeding people, which is totally disgusting and obscene.
“In this country, black, white, Asian, we all live in social institutions as human beings with human relations and social relations that are different. If we want to effect change of understanding of reproductive capacity, then I would call on the church, and I would call on the school, and other institutions that are really concerned about the issue.
“This is something that we as human beings need to address, young people and adults, we all need access to information about our reproductive health, about our sexual rights, so we can make informed decisions about our bodies and how many children we want and when we want them,” she added.
Father Palacious’ call to “control the reproductive process” follows comments made by Montagu MP Richard Lightbourn, who also attempted to broach the subject of family planning by suggesting mandatory and state-sponsored sterilisation of unwed mothers with more than two children as an anti-crime initiative. Mr Lightbourn made those comments during the Free National Movements convention last July, and faced strong backlash from many people, including Father Palacious, parliamentarians, and local advocacy groups.
At that time, the archdeacon condemned Mr Lightbourn’s proposal as “completely repulsive”, but acknowledged that the country needed to engage in a national family planning programme to prevent the “madness” of multiple children being reared in undesirable circumstances.
Archdeacon Palacious reiterated this point last Tuesday, telling crowds that while Mr Lightbourn’s comments were “most unfortunate,” he agreed with the principle of what the Montagu MP was trying to say.
“You have children on the lunch programme right now mothers,” Father Palacious said on Tuesday, “and you going having some more, come on man. Give me a break, give yourself a break. God didn’t put you here as any baby machine, he put you here to be a productive citizen of this country.”
Father Palacious also said that he is “dismayed” that the 2016 gender equality referendum did not prevail, and disappointed that on the 50th anniversary of Majority Rule, that the majority of Bahamians still did not have some fundamental rights under the Constitution.
During Thursday’s interview, Mrs Bethel also highlighted disparaging statements made by Dame Joan Sawyer at the We March demonstration also staged on the holiday.
Dame Joan urged Bahamians to be more critical as citizens and consumers, and criticised several government initiatives like value added tax and Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival. She also zeroed in on the morality of the carnival event, which she described as a festival where women make themselves “exhibits”.
“You call that upward movement?” she asked.
“No way, no time, must we as a people forget what our foreparents struggled for. You do not climb to the top on your back, women.
Dame Joan said that women who engaged in such actions had no right to demand respect.
“It seems to me that whenever we’re talking about social mores it comes down to women,” Mrs Bethel said, “it doesn’t come down to men. It comes down to women being this way, or immoral, or lacking, it’s nothing else. It really is a climate right now where women are being scapegoated for all kinds of social ills.
“It’s women and men who are really downgrading women, and men are not subject to this type of analysis of morality. It’s always a woman’s morality that is the problem or issue. We have a lot of work to do in changing this kind of gender bias, that’s fundamentally what it is, the double standard of morality,” Mrs Bethel said.
“I’m not surprised there are women that support what Father Palacious has said, just like there are many people that supported what Richard Lightbourn was saying. It’s no matter whether you’re black or white, that doesn’t make it better, more accessible, or less racist. It’s entirely misogynistic.”
Mrs Bethel noted that while it was easy to give sound bites and lambaste the public, she personally desired leaders to be a part of the solution by using their platform to espouse productive, helpful and informed views. She added that according to officials from the Bahamas Association of Sexual Health and Rights, teenage pregnancy was trending down in 2016.
Mrs Bethel said: “I really want to see a primary and high school curriculum that speaks to these issues, and of gender stereotypes that may make young women feel that they should have children for esteem.
“This is a part of socialisation that we have made happen so we can change it. It’s not just about young women and our capacity to bear children but about a very comprehensive approach to the integrity of our bodies, the choices of our bodies.”
Mrs Bethel said: “The question is bigger and larger than what Father Palacious is putting forward, his view is not informed in my opinion and it’s not a helpful view. It doesn’t take us to the next stage of understanding the issue of reproduction, taking care of our children, being responsible citizens, these are larger issues than the way he is framing it.”
“You must not throw out words that are inflammatory, that are not productive, that lead to a real misunderstanding of what you’re saying. Don’t start off with that,” she added, “for me that shows what you really think, but as a leader you ought to be better informed about the issues.”
Mrs Bethel is among 11 experts elected to serve on the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
She is also the wife of Progressive Liberal Party leadership candidate and former Attorney General Alfred Sears.