We live in a place in which women and girls are subject to abuse and violence from men and boys who believe that there is some ‘natural’ or even ‘divine’ right to put down and humiliate women in different ways.
In the last week, two groups of women, one group younger than the other, spoke of verbal harassment on the road. One girl talked of walking longer routes to avoid sites where the men would gather. The other group of women – community health workers – spoke of being harassed while working, going about their business of caring. The women talked of feeling frightened, of not responding because the violence gets worse. Some of us men who hear the harassment, we ignore it too, because we are scared ourselves or we believe as one guard at NIS said: ‘She is a lady, she should expect that!”
None of the women in these groups said that they looked forward to being harassed. None of them said that the harassment made them feel beautiful or sexy. All of the women said that they do not talk about these issues because this is how it is and nothing can be done. So it is part of the risk of living in Guyana – of knowing that men are free to express their desire to have sex with you… or not. Many men and boys have no problems shouting their contempt at the women who in their heads are not good enough to qualify for the beauty pageants which the government and the private sector support.
The front page of the Guyana Times of September 30 has a picture of the President and the Minister of Tourism opening GuyExpo surrounded by “GuyExpo models.” The caption though, as always happens with the private sector, carries none of the names of the girls; they have no identity beyond being ‘models’ it seems. Page 4 of the Guyana Times, Breeze in a Bottle, has some men in suits, all named, but the ‘models’ have no name – “Limacol Girls” apparently. No Limacol men or boys. Both pictures: the men in suits, symbols of male prestige and prosperity, named, surrounded by women, not in suits and not named.
So as we embrace capitalism, we have also embraced the commodifcation of women and their bodies. The girls lose their identity beyond the labels and sashes around their bodies – GuyExpo, Limacol, alcohol, taxi, restaurant, hotel, cell phone company, cell phone. The government and private sector-sponsored beauty pageants are used to define the ideas of the beauty and perfection, and models are in demand to help sell products. Sex sells is the mantra.
The media have carried stories of the young women who participate in the pageants. Every month we get an idea of their aspirations and their dreams. The girls say that they are empowered by the pageants. We are fortunate that we live in a free and liberal society. But is it really free and liberal when half of the society cannot feel safe?
The men and women who organise the pageants; the parents and teachers of the children in school; ministers in our government; opposition members – all believe that beauty/intelligence/heritage pageants are the way to go to empower young women. How do we teach empowerment in Guyana? Should our empowerment come at the expense of others – of those who do not win or dance well or sing well or trip up in their saris or their evening gowns? Do we expect that our young women should walk and talk like ‘queens’? What messages are sent by the government and the private sector to the girls and women who choose not to or cannot walk or talk like queens, or who apparently cannot wear their evening gowns or saris or who constantly disappoint the nation by their failure to win ‘major pageants’ ?
One irony recently during the Miss Guyana pageant that was reported in the Guyana Times of July 22, was that one contestant had to abandon the pageant because of problems of “revealing images being circulated.” On the one hand, the swimsuits and the body beautiful are to be lauded and encouraged – “seductive and sultry,” as one reporter wrote about one beauty pageant contestant – and yet, when a young woman decides that she wants to show her entire body – the ultimate it seems – she is condemned by the same system which is setting her up to view her body as a commodity to get by in Guyana’s prosperous society?
At one mandir there is a notice that women should dress decently before entering the mandir; no comments about how the men though.
So this is what we say to girls and women: Dress decently or we will think you are a whore, but we want you to walk around in a swimsuit so we could make comments about your body and how you display it. Dress decently, but if we do not think you cannot walk well in an evening gown or a sari we will let you know what we think of you and your daring to think that you could do so. Be seductive and sexy, but do not post your own naked photos on our own desire; we will decide how much of your body you must show and when it is appropriate. You cannot wear that swimsuit, evening gown to church/mandir because God is in church/mandir, not at the National Cultural Centre; walk properly because if you do not we will ensure that you never forget it; be intelligent or we will laugh at your mistakes and false accents and your inability to answer questions that most of those who are asking you will never be able to answer themselves; enjoy, accept or ignore the abuse and the harassment on the road and in the work place; do not speak up because something must be wrong with you and you are never going to be good enough no matter what you do – you are too fat, you are too skinny, you are too dark, your hair is not straight enough, sometimes you are good, sometimes you are not good. We want you to know from as young as possible that no matter what you do, you will never be good enough.
In this 2011 Guyana, it seems these are the empowering messages that we want women and men to use in forming the ideals of what it is to be female. And like those women who reluctantly talked about the violence and harassment, many girls and women continue to lose out.