Calls for violence against women have been on the front burner in Guyana for at least the last five years or so.
But violence against women as part and parcel of acceptable societal interaction, of course, has been around for so long that its proponents refer to justificatory texts going back 4000 years or more. We have a ways to go in the Caribbean before it will not be ‘okay’ not to see women as punching bags.
The Calypso is seen as the emblematic indigenous Caribbean form of social commentary. In fact the government has been spending quite a bit of money during this Mash season to revive the art form. Calypsos offer an ‘insider’ view of how Caribbean men view the topic of violence and women.
We can do worse than begin with the 1930’s calypsonian Atilla the Hun, who gave men this bit of advice: “I’ve discovered a new philosophy/of how to live with women happily./ What Socrates and Zeno and Plato didn’t know/ I’ll explain to you in Calypso/ (Chorus) Every now and then turn them down/They’ll love you long and they’ll love you strong/ You must be robust, you must be tough/ Don’t throw no punches but treat them tough.”
By the 1950’s Mighty Sparrow had updated the philosophy into an even more ‘robust version’: “Every now and then you have knock them down/They love you long and they love you strong/Black up they eye bruise up they knee/Then they will love you eternally.”
By the nineties, as women began to assert their right to be treated equally, the calypsonians still insisted that what they actually needed was a bit of the Atillian philosophy. Specifically with a sexual twist.
In 1994, the female politician and MP Hulsie Bhagan of Trinidad protested the rerouting of a highway in her constituency by lying across it and daring the government to continue.
The calypsonian Cro Cro addressed Bhagan specifically as a female when he belted out “If we really want a woman leader for true/ Definitely Hulsie it would not be you./The police should have gi’ you a good cut-tail/ Whipping. And get the rest from a big, strong fella in jail.”
By the new millennium, the misogyny of the calypsos had been softened – but then as an art form it has also declined. It had been replaced by rap and Jamaican dancehall which take misogyny to new depths. The lyrics detailing what men should do with women are now so graphically violent and degrading that they cannot be published in a family newspaper.
But maybe all of that might be changed after the mind-blowing success of the “One Billion Rising” worldwide effort by women to call attention to the horrifying statistic that one in three women, that’s one billion, will be beaten or raped during her lifetime.
The campaign has been run all year by Eve Ensler’s now 15-year-old organisation, V-Day, which is most famous for activating people’s feminist imagination through Ensler’s groundbreaking play, The Vagina Monologues.
It is hopefully a sign of the changing times that women groups in Guyana joined others from Albania to Zambia (a total of 203 countries supposedly participated) in the public gatherings to take a stand against this very entrenched scourge.
They are facilitated by the communications revolution coupled with tireless efforts of Ensler’s group coming together at a moment when the cumulative efforts over the last few decades have jelled.
What is most significant in “One Billion Rising” is that it was led by women, with men playing a supportive role. As with all other efforts to remove oppressive structures, it is only when the oppressed group takes charge that real change will take root.
It is our hope that women will be empowered through their participation in this consciousness activity and continue with the quotidian efforts at all levels to ensure that there is no backsliding.
While they have risen in dance maybe they should write their own songs.