By ALICIA WALLACE
It is rare for a news item to bring concerned pause. Our positions are usually clear; we care or we don’t care, and then we choose a side. On issues of social or political concern, we generally have an opinion on what is and is not right. Something was different about the way we saw and responded to last week’s news story on The Bahamas Christian Council’s proposed Sanctity of Marriage bill. I saw scores of people share the article, but none of them added a caption. Some of them used emoticons, but no one made a clear statement about the council’s drafting and submission of a Sanctity of Marriage bill.
The draft is meant to serve three purposes. It is to provide for the reinforcement of the sanctity of marriage, a marital duty of care and strengthen the institution of marriage by ensuring “informed participation”. It also focuses on tax reduction for married people to enhance the value and serve as incentive for the maintenance of marriage.
It seems The Bahamas Christian Council and the loud voices we have come to know as “the church” are obsessed with marriage. They simultaneously promote it as a necessity for everyone and an exclusive good reserved for its community. We are clear on the church’s position on who should and should not have access to marriage. It was amplified by the 2016 referendum and its statements on the fourth proposed constitutional amendment bill which sought to add “sex” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination. Its opposition was rooted in homophobia which was framed as a “protection” of marriage, as though the legalisation of same-sex marriage would be the destruction of marriage.
For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I will say only that the fourth bill was not about same-sex marriage, its passage would not have automatically led to the legalisation of same-sex marriage, and this issue is far from the top of the list of concerns of the LGBT+ community.
It was made clear the church believes — or wishes to make the public believe — it has a monopoly on marriage, and it is only a religious institution. This is not the case. It falls to citizens to remind the state of this fact, and respond strongly to the church’s attempts to control public goods and services and the private lives of citizens on the basis of its doctrine which we are free, constitutionally, to recognise or not.
The Sanctity of Marriage Bill as drafted by The Bahamas Christian Council raises many questions. There is very little we can point to and identify as right or wrong, but none of it is necessary, and most of it seems to be linked to a larger plan we cannot see. This group of religious leaders has submitted its own recommendations for amendments to the Sexual Offences Act. Has the admission that rape is rape, regardless of the relationship between people, led The Bahamas Christian Council to worry about the state of marriage?
Is the Sanctity of Marriage draft bill a strategy to influence engaged and married couples on issues including sexual assault? How does it intend to lead the proposed Marriage and Family Advisory Council in educating the public on marriage, and what do they know that we have yet to learn?
If this is another strategy to control the legal contract of marriage, it is beyond time for us to pay attention.
The marital rape conversation has not been much different than the one about the referendum. Religious leaders came forward to quickly and loudly to express their displeasure at the very existence of the conversation. Victim-blaming has been normalised in many ways and, sadly, it is what we have come to expect from many men of the cloth.
Why would a woman choose not to have sex with her husband? What’s a man to do?
These religious leaders reframe the conversation, taking our attention away from abuse and power. They distract us with the concept of submission as the primary duty and characteristic of a good, christian wife. They erase married women who do not identify as christian, some of whom did not even marry in the church. A broad brush is used, and the attitude seems to be if we choose to marry, we commit ourselves to the standards and obligations meted out by the church. Is this what the Sanctity of Marriage draft bill would enforce?
Marriage, in The Bahamas, does not seem to be a good idea for women. Sure, it can bring financial security, confidence in commitments made, and a reduction in judgment, especially for couples choosing to live together and have children. Unfortunately, it can result in a loss of physical security and legal protection. It is a challenge to get police to respond to domestic disturbances. I know because I have made the calls and driven to police stations to make reports. I’ve heard, “Them two again?” I’ve been told, “Miss, we don’t have time for that.” It is, as we have seen in recent weeks, difficult to convince people that married women are still human beings and have human rights.
Why should women get married? Perhaps the Sanctity of Marriage draft is The Bahamas Christian Council’s way of preempting the inevitable — the refusal of Bahamian women to get married, giving in to the the societal and religious norms that continue to be reinforced by the law of the land. Maybe it sees the need to incentivise marriage while locking us in additional obligations through its guide.
I had the unfortunate experience of listening to men talk about marital rape in a barber shop a few days ago. I chose not to argue, but to listen to everything they said and observe the responses of other people in the room. Someone in the room, well aware of my work, expressed surprise at my silence. I continued to hold it.
They talked about how ridiculous it would be to make marital rape illegal. They shared strategies for “taking it” from their wives. These ranged from waiting for her to sleep to slipping something into her favourite drink. They argued about whether or not it would be fun without her participation. They laughed about how confused she would be when she woke up aching, or realized he hadn’t “asked for some” in a while.
These men commented on the views of the religious leaders who have been outspoken about the issue, and talked openly about raping their wives, completely without fear or the slightest reservation.
It didn’t matter that there were people in the room whose positions they could not know. It didn’t matter that there was a woman in the room. It wasn’t until a religious leader entered that they ceased to share their marital rape strategies. Before, all that mattered was their hyper-masculinity and the need to express it and assure one another they would get what they wanted, whatever the cost.
After all, raping their wives is not illegal, and some of the most revered and respected men in the country are fighting to keep it that way. Just not the one who last entered, and his position was respected.
This is the danger of the reckless influencer. They have the power and the platform to present, repeat and sometimes enforce their points of view, frequently without challenge. I sometimes think about the churches full of women who practically empty their purses into collection plates, but led by men who do not regard women — especially married women — as human beings. How do women sit in those churches, listen to those sermons, fund those activities, and not think about the ways they and so many others are affected by the dangerous rhetoric spewed week after week in what they perceive to be a holy place?
I have to remind myself they have been conditioned for years to believe they are less than men and that religious leaders are a trustworthy authority. I saw for myself that religious power silences, scares, and controls people of all genders. It’s up to us to prevent it from disempowering us — not as citizens, nor as a nation.