By ALICIA WALLACE
Monday marked five years since the 2016 referendum on citizenship rights and sex-based discrimination.
The four constitutional amendment bills were:
• to allow Bahamian women married to non-Bahamian men to pass on citizenship to their children born outside of The Bahamas
• to allow Bahamian women to pass on citizenship to their non-Bahamian spouses (through the right for them to apply for citizenship)
• to allow men to pass on citizenship to their children born outside of marriage
• to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex.
Yes votes on those bills would have affected Articles eight, nine 10, 14, and 26. Sixty-one to 71 percent of voters said no to each of the four constitutional amendment bills, so the inequality in citizenship rights remains and there is no protection against sex-based discrimination in Article 26.
Since the referendum, there have been a few conversations about what happened, but more than that, there have been frequent comments about the outcome and the reason for it, most of them incorrect.
Many people place the blame for the results of the referendum squarely on the shoulders of women. They claim “women voted against themselves” and suggest women do not want equal rights. It is true women voted and it is true that some - maybe even most - women voted no on one or more of the bills that would have expanded our rights and moved us in the direction of equality. This is not, however, synonymous with “voting against ourselves”. To frame it this way is disingenuous, overly simplistic and misogynistic.
Just as it is in general elections, there is more to the vote than where the X is placed on the ballot. We all know, for example, that we vote parties and leaders out far more than we vote them in. Why oversimplify the referendum results and women’s participation except to generalise and minimise womanhood and characterise our gender as a weakness?
It is quite telling that people are quick to blame women for the oppression and discrimination we experience and task us with the solving the problem for ourselves. What is often ignored is we are living within the systems that created this patriarchal, misogynistic environment. As a result, we have learned to operate within oppressive systems and, in some cases, conform to and actively participate in them. For many, it is a way of survival.
We sometimes convince ourselves there is a certain way we must be. There are people who believe they will not experience intimate partner violence if they submit and perfectly play the role of a wife, whatever that means.
There are people who believe they will not experience sexual violence if they dress conservatively and limit their social interactions.
There are also people who believe they will have easier lives if they live by the rules set by patriarchy. That could mean regarding their fathers as their owners until their fathers give them away to husbands, thinking of their bodies as belonging to husbands whether or not they have husbands at the time, and accepting men as default leaders.
These ideas and behaviours do not come out of nowhere. They are learned by merely existing in this environment and trying to survive. Some of us unlearn the misogynistic and patriarchal ideas that suggest we are less than men. Of that group, some are frustrated and are unwilling or unable to take action while others push against oppressive systems and refuse to conform. It is not a particularly easy way to go, so it is no surprise there are not more women taking this path.
There will always be people who are comfortable enough to just let things be. They may not be comfortable, but they are comfortable enough. It may be more accurate to say they are not uncomfortable enough to do something about it. These people are all around us. They show up every day for jobs they do not like, not bothering to look for anything better. They stay in relationships, romantic and otherwise, that they do not enjoy. They accept the incorrect food order and eat it whether they like it or not. There is nuance to all of this.
There are other reasons people stay where they are, usually related to socio-economic needs and fundamental beliefs. This kind of “stickability” has been celebrated, either because we do not know what is beneath the surface of what appears to be good enough or because we place a high value on people enduring bad situations.
In the case of the referendum, there were people who wanted to see the constitution amended for gender equality and there were people who are committed to the status quo. Of those committed to the latter, some were women who could not see how they would benefit from these changes and did not care that others would continue to be at a disadvantage if the changes were not made. Some of them were women who were insulted by Vote Yes spokespeople who were rude and dismissive when challenged. Some of them were women who truly believed making these changes would have negative effects.
Some of them were women who were confused and took that to mean it was all too complicated and anything that complicated cannot be good. Some of them were more inclined to listen to people in closer relationship to them than experts and rights-minded people encouraging the yes votes.
My own experience as an activist who participated in an educational campaign specific to the referendum made it clear the referendum was not a simple yes or no vote on four questions. We will not be able to make the necessary changes through a constitutional referendum without facing the real issues that came up between the announcement of the referendum in 2014 and the vote in 2016.
The issue has never been women. We are dealing with systems of patriarchy and misogyny that have been internalised by women, being all we know until we know better. It is unfair and wrong to simply blame women for the outcome. We can talk about how women voted, but we also need to talk about why women voted in a particular way. What lies beneath the votes are what we need to attack, not women.
One of the main issues was misinformation and the main group spreading it had the consistent attention of many people. It was a group of church leaders who were regularly referred to as “the church.” It was not every church leader or every denomination, but it was a group of them who were as loud as they were wrong.
Unfortunately, church leaders in support of the referendum were not as loud or consistent. There is also, of course, the issue of the media, all too happy to give coverage to people and institutions with sensational messages, however harmful, sometimes failing to bring balance by getting comments from people on the other side. The opposition is well aware of this and takes full advantage, making inflammatory statements that affect public opinion.
The Bahamas Christian Council has been consistent in one area—impeding progress and the expansion of human rights, particularly for women and LGBTQIA+ people. Save Our Bahamas—a name that would be laughable if the actors were not so dangerous—has followed suit, showing up whenever there is an opportunity for the rights of the most vulnerable among us to be recognized, protected, and expanded. They do this regularly by using their influence for fear mongering, issuing directives, and inciting hate and, by extension, violence.
Last week, a press release from the Bahamas Christian Council responded to the US Embassy’s flying of the pride flag on its properties at the embassy itself and the residence. It is, of course, no surprise the Council would take great exception to this act of acknowledgement, celebration, and solidarity with LGBTQ+ people in The Bahamas. It referred, quite laughably, to the flying of the flag as “diplomatic bullying” and said the US Embassy is “over-reaching.” It went on to say the US Embassy is “[imposing] their ideology.”
Reading the press statement was quite the experience. It made it clear the Bahamas Christian Council is well aware of what it is doing to Bahamian society, politics and the station of vulnerable people, especially women and LGBTQ+ people. It was quite capable of accusing the US Embassy of stepping outside of its role was a diplomatic entity while itself operating outside of its role to lead its followers to “bully” the Embassy. It believes it should be allowed to say and do whatever it likes, and everyone else should be forced to operate under its control, based on questionable, dangerous interpretations of its religious text.
The Bahamas Christian Council needs to know its rights do not supersede those of others. It is clearly quite easily threatened. The mere flying of a rainbow flag led to a sloppy statement that could easily be used to indict the Council itself.
There is no shortage of issues for the Council to direct its attention and resources to create positive change - like hunger - yet it chooses to speak out against inclusion. It has chosen to stand against acknowledgement of and solidarity with LGBTQ+ people in The Bahamas, just like it did (and consistently does) against women. It is a terrible example of Christianity and is far from exemplifying peace and love through Christlike behaviour. Yet, it continues to be given platforms and its following remains plugged in.
We may not be able to pull the plug, but we can call on equality advocates and justice-minded faith leaders to step forward and show there are other ways of interpreting biblical text, possibilities for acting for social justice and better ways to participate in national dialogues. Model it to give the Council an example and to show the Bahamian people that “the church” is capable of rejecting hate and being on the side of justice through the promotion of human rights. It can assure women and LGBTQ+ people that they are deserving equal rights, whether or not they share the faith. If they start now, we could be a better position when we have another opportunity to amend the constitution and move closer to gender equality.