If it were not bad enough that Minister of Health Bheri Ramsaran insulted a woman in the most degrading way on Monday, in the process putting his utter contempt for the female sex as a whole on full public display, two days later he divested himself of similar remarks when addressing Regional Health Officers. It is true he was reported as having ‘apologised’ following the Monday incident which took place outside the Whim Police Station; the problem is it did not qualify as an apology at all, since he had the effrontery to blame the victim for what had transpired, since she had ‘provoked’ him. In any case, even if one were to give Dr Ramsaran’s ‘apology’ the most elastic of linguistic interpretations and concede it was some kind of expression of regret, it was completely cancelled out by what he said on Wednesday at the Main Street Plaza Hotel.
And what he said on Wednesday, as on the earlier occasion, left all decent citizens aghast. Expanding on his Monday comments where he said he would slap Ms Sherlina Nageer for the fun of it, he can be heard saying on the Wednesday recording “…We have these miscreants, who sometimes are supported by the international community because they are rights activists—right to come spit in my face but not collect two slap! You understand?” Ignoring the crudeness of all this, it must be emphasised that at no time did Ms Nageer spit in the Minister’s face at Whim; in other words, he added mendacity to his list of transgressions.
It might be mentioned in passing that the PPP seems to have an unhealthy obsession with slapping people, not excluding the President himself, who told an Amerindian critic that former President Jagdeo would have slapped him had he been present. Subsequent to that, the man was actually slapped by a member of the Presidential Guard. In addition, the ruling party is very liberal with its characterisations of citizens as ‘stupid’ or ‘idiots’, the Head of State favouring the former term, and Dr Ramsaran the latter – although in his typically coarse style he went further than this.
Leaving that aside, however, no matter how unbelievable Dr Ramsaran’s slapping statements were, they were exceeded, if that were possible, by what he said initially about having Ms Nageer stripped in public. Even in Guyana’s debased political culture, that threat exceeded all the known boundaries of what is permissible.
Nevertheless, the Minister seemed totally oblivious to the impact his comments had had on public opinion, since on Wednesday, he warmed to his topic further. He told the Regional Health Officers that one of his ladies who love him could have “wreck her [Ms Nageer] up,” since his name is “Bheri Best and all the ladies like me… Suppose one of my big strong women seh, ‘Wuh yuh do we doctor? Wuh yuh do dis innocent lil man?’ Wacks! Wacks! …Then she’s going to become a hero. Some of us will mek sure we give her a medal.”
The first question to be asked ‒ as Ms Nageer indeed did ‒ is who are these women who are prepared to strip another woman in public, and in addition, it now seems, beat her up at the behest of the Minister of Health?
What is clear is that the Minister harbours attitudes reminiscent of a bygone era when men viewed themselves as dominant and superior and believed that women should know their place. It seems too that he adheres to the view that a suitable ‘punishment’ for recalcitrant females is humiliation of a kind which has sexual overtones. For all their shortcomings, there is no politician on the stumps today from any party who has publicly expressed views on women that reflect such backwardness, perversion and ignorance – in the Guyanese sense of that word.
The first thing to be said is that in a self-respecting democracy any minister in such circumstances would have resigned the day after his Whim remarks became public, and if he didn’t do so, he would have been fired. But as of the time of writing, Dr Bheri Ramsaran still held the portfolio for health. Furthermore, there was an ominous silence for days before either the PPP or the government had anything to say about the matter. The party’s prime ministerial candidate, Mrs Elisabeth Harper, who has been rightly touted as educated, articulate and sophisticated, did condemn the comments soon after they were publicised, but she is neither in the PPP nor in the current government. Former President Jagdeo, when asked about the matter by reporters did respond that the remarks should not have been made, but then he too is not in the government, added to which his own record is far from unblemished.
It was not until Friday that President Ramotar spoke out, strongly reprimanding Dr Ramsaran, according to GINA. “The statements and behaviour of the Minister do not reflect the high-standards I have set for Ministerial conduct nor the public’s expectations of an office holder. It is outright disrespectful and improper. I intend to have further discussions with the Minister on this matter,” he was quoted by the agency as saying. There was not even a hint, however, that the Minister would be asked to surrender his portfolio.
The women’s arm of the PPP, the Women’s Progressive Organisation also issued a press release on Friday, in which it said it was “extremely disappointed” with Dr Ramsaran’s “recent utterances,” and that it was “dismayed” that he allowed himself to react to provocation in the way that he did. Somewhat contradictorily, however, it also lauded the Minister’s “support for women’s empowerment” and the fact that he had always been “prepared to provide assistance to women.” Unfortunately for them, however, the Minister has allowed his private views to become a matter of the public record, and those private views are totally out of consonance with his supposed official stance. As such, therefore, he cannot cling on as a minister of government, and neither, by extension, should he sit in Parliament again.
The most disturbing statement, however, emanated from Freedom House itself, also on Friday. The main thrust of their position was that this was an “unfortunate incident… blown out of proportion by the opposition media…” It went on to state that the PPP had the greatest respect for the women of Guyana, and had “always championed the cause of women ever since its formation some sixty-five years ago.” Mrs Janet Jagan’s “sterling contribution to the cause of women” (there is no argument about that) was then pressed into service, and the fact that she was “verbally abused and humiliated by the PNC and other opposition elements during and after the swearing-in ceremony as the first elected woman Head of State in the 1997 elections.”
The “deafening silence” from the opposition media and “so-called human rights activists” at the time was also deplored, the crux of the statement being that those who claimed to represent the concerns of women were guilty of a double standard. As an almost throwaway remark, however, the release did manage to squeeze in that “the response by Minister Ramsaran to what he thought to be an act of provocation appeared unwarranted and cannot be condoned.”
At least now we know why the ruling party took so long to respond: far from being shocked by Minister Ramsaran’s comments, it was trying to find a way to demonstrate that human rights activists had “humiliated” a great PPP women’s advocate, and therefore were guilty of hypocrisy when it came to the matter of Ms Nageer. In any case, the statement would seem to suggest, the Minister was provoked. Suffice it to say that heckling is quite legal in this country, and Ms Nageer’s questions in any case were limited to matters related to Dr Ramsaran’s portfolio. In any event, there is no provocation which would justify what the Minister of Health said.
As for the feeble attempt to draw an analogy between the events of 1997 and Whim, it simply makes the party look ludicrous, since there is little correspondence between the two events. Worse than that, however, it lends credence to the accusations of those who have said that the Minister’s comments were themselves a reflection of an aberrant and unhealthy culture in respect of women within the PPP itself. What other explanation could there be for going to such lengths to avoid a condemnation of remarks which all decent people have found reprehensible?
In a reference to Ms Nageer, Dr Ramsaran was recorded on Wednesday as saying, “That woman needs psychiatric help.” Actually, she doesn’t; and neither we must presume, does the Minister. But “Bheri Best”? Well, that is another matter entirely.