By Linden Lewis
On International Women’s Day 2005, a young announcer on the radio wanted to alert his listeners to the observance of this historic day. He implored male listeners: “Fellas, today is Women’s International Day. Be nice to your lady, do something nice for her, take her out to dinner or something”. I was struck by the triteness of this call to action. It presupposed that men were not always “nice” or attentive to their women, and that there was a need for men to make some effort to ensure that women felt special on a day that presumably recognizes them.
Later that day another male announcer made a similar ill-informed pitch to sensitize his male audience to the fact that the world was celebrating International Women’s Day. This time the appeal to appropriate male conduct was even more palpable. “Men,” he intoned, “today is International Women’s Day. Please be kind to your women. Watch what she wants to watch on TV today. You know, you could let her use the remote control once in a while.”
I was totally taken aback by the depth of historical ignorance spewing forth from the radio and wondered if this were the measure of men’s understanding at the popular level of the struggles that women had waged around the world for which this day of recognition was set apart.
What was puzzling was not merely that a significant labour struggle by female garment workers in New York in 1857 for bread and justice and a subsequent march in honor of these heroic women in 1908 by women in the needles trades were being trivialized. Neither was it surprising that there was often little acknowledgement that the proposal to establish International Women’s Day was one that emerged out of the Second International and is therefore the result of a socialist initiative. Rather it was the unbelievably patronizing comments of two male announcers, whose role supposedly was to educate and inform the public, who perhaps felt they were actually making a progressive gesture of recognition of women on “their” day.
It is then this attitude of nonchalance, this sense of not taking enough time to know or understand that which does not revolve around our lives, our interests, or us that we as men must overcome in the Caribbean.
Men in the Caribbean must begin to feel the need to change how we think, how we act and how we behave in relation to women. We need to realize that making such an adjustment is not a sign of weakness, or some signal that we have surrendered to the power of women. It is rather an acknowledgement that the notion of male predominance has run its course, that there is no right or entitlement that is the sole preserve of men. If anything should be clear to men in the Caribbean it is that the old ways of relating to women have generated enormous amounts of tension, conflict, and unfulfilled potential for genuine collaboration between the sexes. Just imagine how much more effective, efficient, and productive the region could be if we had been receptive to the idea of tapping the creative, analytical and technical skills of all of our people, not just those of well-placed, prominent men.
We must unlearn certain conventional ways of behaving and thinking, not simply because we are being pushed to do so by a changing global environment intolerant of inappropriate speech, unwelcome advances in the workplace, public harassment, and sexual discrimination. In their own right, such reasons are sufficient to give us pause and for us to reflect on our actions. We ought to be guided moreover, by a sense of fairness. Men who so glibly boast of upholding democratic principles must recognize that some of the ways in which we relate to women and marginalize some men violate their human rights, including their right to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship.
If we begin to understand our actions in these political terms then perhaps we can begin to collaborate with women to establish a better social environment in which our mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts could live out their full potential. We can only be a better society for so trying.
Linden Lewis was born in Guyana and grew up in Barbados. He is Chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bucknell University and Vice President of the Caribbean Studies Association. This article is part of a series in a media/UNIFEM collaboration.