Navigating tricky waters
I knew I would need to adjust my “Westernized” perspective about feminism, gender, culture, and tradition while living in Guyana. What I hadn’t realized was the difficulties and the cost of adjusting my ideals to fit in to this country.
I naively took for granted that I would be able to use my voice to advocate and continue to speak out about equality and the importance of diversity. However, as I immerse myself in this culture it feels like someone has slapped tape over my mouth. There is little to no dialog about gender equality here, unlike the conversations happening in the West (albeit divided).
Being a woman who has been socialized in the Western ideals of female empowerment I find the experience of being a woman in a developing country shockingly different. Here I feel utterly invisible and mute. So I turn to a medium where I do have a voice; my writing has come to be a welcomed solace as I navigate the numerous challenges in a developing country.
I see the importance of not imposing my values and beliefs on another person, or using my lens to judge another perspective, but when does it become impossible not to judge or see repressive beliefs and practices as unjust and in need of evolving? Is it possible to be culturally respectful and also encourage a different perspective?
To provide a bit of context… in Guyana there is a pervasive accepted belief, firmly rooted in tradition and culture, of women occupying a submissive role in society. I have spent some time talking with various women and teenage girls here and there is a pervasive acceptance of women being the lesser, weaker, and less intelligent gender. Sadly there is a resigned acceptance of verbal abuse, physical violence and widely sanctioned practice of men having one or more side-chicks within their primary relationship. There certainly is no reciprocity in women having side-dicks. That would be impolite, and whorish, a term still used regularly. When talking to a group of teens, they informed me that cheating is normal. “It’s just the way men are.” I sat there utterly dumbfounded and before I could stop myself I blurted out “ it’s the way men are HERE but not everywhere.
The irony of cheating in such a deeply religious and traditional landscape confounds me. Women here are resigned to the fact that it is likely their man will stray and there is nothing to do about it because all men are the same. I’ve refrained from standing up and screaming “NO IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE!!!!” I want to share our Western secret that you can ask, demand, and require so much more but the ridiculousness of these sentiments here lay wasted like the discarded rubbish that lines the streets of Guyana . It saddens me that most of these women and girls will realistically never have the opportunity to see what it’s like in a different part of the world; where the grass IS ACTUALLY greener.
Back in my old life, I simply took for granted that many men in the West are a part of the conversation. Yes it can be contentious at times but at least we have the space to debate and express our views. Sure, it’s taken decades of hard fought actions by undeterred women and men but at least there is the space to explore concepts of femininity and masculinity and the great divide. I realize in the West, men are at least starting to participate in the dialog.
In the past couple of years, we have reached a critical mass that the feminist ideals cannot be silenced any longer. There have been shifts in women's movements demanding to be heard, and to be seen which will not disappear any time soon. Here, however here there is no fruitful dialog. In my limited experience, if you try to speak of such foolishness as gender equality, you are ridiculed and laughed at- BY BOTH SIDES. Steeped in such concretized gender roles it appears absurd to consider women being equal.
Discussions are about maintaining the traditional roles and men and women and how important it is for girls to act proper and to know their place- in the home, in the kitchen, and in the anoxic space of a traditional marriage between men and women. Despite acknowledging their unhappiness, women are largely resigned to the status quo.
Forget about recognizing sexual diversity here in Guyana; being gay here is still considered a criminal offence. There are certainly small grassroots organizations that are vying for gender and sexual equality, but the challenges they face in changing the deeply rooted traditions and beliefs are steep.
Moving about my daily business of work and meandering through the markets trying to find produce I recognize and know what to do with, another plight of being a woman here- as all women deal with is the catcalling. I was warned numerous times about the common occurrence of catcalling here in Guyana and simply laughed it off, indicating that I had a thick skin. Truth be told, I never have really understood the harm of catcalling- I once thought it was jovial, harmless fun of men and it was no big deal. But NOW I GET IT!!! It goes beyond the hollers of “baby doll, sweetie, marry me, hunny… Its more than the kissy noises or hisses aimed at getting a woman’s attention. It’s the words accompanied with the objectifying and predatory leering. It’s often the non verbals that makes me the most uncomfortable.
It’s the way some men here look at women- truly like a treacherous shiver of sharks surveying their lunch. It’s the unapologetic leering as you walk by, not by 1 or 2, but by all men in the group. It’s the intrusive and blatant gawking as I walk by.
In these frequent moments I want to shrink, I WANT to be invisible and I pretend I am. I make no eye contact, I engage with no one and I maintain a hard and steely veneer. I feel its the only way to protect myself. I take to heart all of the ‘victim blaming’ tips women are fed about keeping themselves safe. I practice all of them and try to take personal responsibility for my own safety because I do not dare believe that there will be a mutual respect. I ask everyday that I will be kept safe, that my guardian angels are watching over me because barring that, there is NOTHING I can do.
Maybe there are outliers here, men who honour, respect, and celebrate the divine feminine but I certainly see little evidence of such men here…yet. My heart hurts for women here, locked in a country of such antiquated misogyny. My heart breaks as I watch teenage girls trying to find themselves in a country determined to keep them in their rightful place. I listen silently, as they tell me how they strive to be a modest, proper and traditional woman so they will make their husbands and parents proud and not inflict shame on their lineage. I want to take them under my wings and show them what’s available to them away from their homeland. But in saying this, I am torn with the idealism of “we know better, and just need to show them the way.” I disagree with these sentiments, and am deeply torn with how to accept such harmful beliefs and remain silent alongside the girls and women here in Guyana.
At the moment, I have little faith that there is a space to create the dialog while I am here; to encourage women to find their voice and speak up. Maybe that view will change, while I am here. I am fighting to keep my determined and optimistic spirit alive. However, the essential quality of a dialog is that there are two willing and open parties engaged in a discussion. From where I sit, through my western lens, I see a pervasive mentality of “what’s in it for me.” And the only “ME” that counts here is the one that has a XY in their genes.