By DR IAN BETHELL-BENNETT
We remain locked in a male-empowering, female-disempowering gaze that builds along racial and ethnic lines using stereotypes and particular behaviours as moral and social markers of difference.
The black boys diving for coins, the black women “loosely” having children outside of wedlock – now over 60 per cent of households. These images have carried over from colonial othering and continue into a system of classism that systematically discriminates against groups by isolating them from the main. However, policymakers who claim to work on behalf of the people are effectively victimising those people.
As much as the Bahamas claims to have empowered women, there needs to be real empowerment. There were once far more women in positions of political leadership than there are today. And the women who were in those positions did not espouse the violence against women paradigm so common with many of the new female leaders. This should be telling the country and its women something.
My job as an educator is not to simply embrace all shifts and movements as positive, but to be able to demonstrate to students that there is something else happening, if we examine the language carefully. The language of male empowerment over women means that women can be beaten, in fact, they must know their place in society. This is how many societies see women and it is defined as a male gaze.
The male gaze is hegemonic, which means that it is rigid and defined by a particular group in power. They hold the political and economic reigns. There may be many individuals in those power circles who do not hold the same beliefs or gaze through which they define or see women, or even how they treat women, but they do not change the social system that controls how society sees women and the roles they play in their communities. Women’s ability to participate in society is often reduced through structural violence and its resultant poverty, often referred to as a culture of poverty.
As the nation experiences one of the most, if not the most tax-gathering, rent-seeking governments in its history, structural violence is rampant, only we do not acknowledge it. This is not dissimilar to when Margaret Thatcher was in power in Britain and imposed numerous and rigid tax changes that ultimately captured and victimised the poor, especially working class women (often deemed to be invisible except to exploitation and cruelty). A similar style and intent of governance seems to be afoot today in the Bahamas. As this governance model sinks its claws into society, poverty increases, as do inequality and violence.
Poverty has a particular gender implication that most of our community ignores or simply does not see or understand. Women are more likely to be poor than are men, though they are more likely to be sole breadwinners in households. They are also more likely than men to be single parents. They are more likely than men to be paid unfair, unequal wages for the work they do and they are more likely than men to be in charge of looking after parents, children, aunts and uncles. They are expected to play all these roles while working at least one low-paying, insecure, low-benefit job, with a side hustle that is equally unstable.
But where we see greater instability is through the exploration of a culture of poverty where women are forced into poverty through the disregard and misinformation of government intention to address any policies with any gender awareness. When we think of the future of democracy in a system that is more than 50 percent female, we also understand that the kind of economic apartheid the country maintains only works to further marginalise women while socially excluding the men whom they will depend on as partners. While this occurs, violence increases in homes and on streets.
Kaaryn Gustafson’s “Degradation Ceremonies and the Criminalisation of Low-Income Women” provides an insightful study and her analysis holds true for the Bahamas. While some aspects of her study are unique to a welfare state, where there is significant policing of the bodies who receive assistance, here we see a class demarcation that is established in the Bahamas through area or zoning and understanding that women who live in particular areas are less likely to experience success and more likely to experience the exploitation of poverty.
By arguing that lower-income women are a social problem, we see this social cohesion established that perpetuates gender inequality and marginlasises a subgroup: poor, black women. Gustafson shows that “degradation ceremonies help us learn what we know as social facts. Our notions of acceptable conduct and acceptable persons are shaped by these rituals.”
All working-class men and women, then, cause national instability and do not produce anything for the nation. However, the economic and political system in place since colonial days has served only to sharpen the focus on disempowering women who earn less than men at the same job, have fewer rights than men do, and are sexually assaulted and harassed more than men, though men also suffer. Both sexes are tragically disempowered by this system, and increasingly both young women and men respond with violence that then reinforces the stereotypes and encourages further policing.
It is time to acknowledge that a growing number of state practices to which low-income women of colour are subjected to are experienced as degrading. It is also high time to acknowledge that those practices, even if not openly or consciously motivated by the desire to degrade, are nurtured by desires to express disgust toward those considered inferior “others” and are widely consumed and enjoyed as spectacles of degradation.
So, while we claim women, and society in general, are better off, the policies put in place by the post-colonial government that seek to empower the people ultimately do violence to low-income women especially, and men who are viewed as spectacles of degradation, easily exploited and systemically excluded.
Acceptable conduct means that women in positions of power must continue to see other women through the hegemonic male gaze. They must also use language that victimises and disempowers the very women they claim to be helping. The last few weeks, or in fact months, have demonstrated that new policies and shifts have seriously impacted women’s ability to survive economically.
For example, by increasing electricity prices and condoning the huge rises through claims of oil price increases, a fact shown to be flawed. Gustafson’s analysis proves insightful for a country claiming to be getting tough on violence, but ultimately is only increasing the level of violence through seriously flawed performance of governance roles as well as structural violence that totally isolates young, working class women and men who inhabit particular areas of the island.
The spatial injustice and the economic apartheid of these social policies should be clear. In order to truly create gender equity, poverty and inequality— the greatest drivers of violence and crime —must be reduced and policies and attitudes that empower those same old colonial otherings changed.