Lessons from Phibbah

October 12, 2007

September 11, 2006

Dear IRIE-FM, 

I have been listening to IRIE-FM via the internet for a few months now, and it has functioned primarily as background noise for me.  So, for the past few days, I have been quite surprised — pleasantly so — to hear such discussion about the essay competition on Phibbah.  But, today, while listening to the host on the radio — I don’t know what her name is; broadcast around 1:30 pm — it became apparent that she did not fully understand the real impact and import of Phibbah’s experiences, or how to translate important dimensions of that history/knowledge for a contemporary audience.

The trajectory of her commentary went as such: she attempted to translate the formal history into Jamaican Creole by synthesizing the known history of Thistlewood raping Phibbah in the following way – “im musse did tink sey a’ ‘im ooman but ah rape im did a rape ‘ar”, and “memba di name Thistlewood, so if you si anybody wid dat name you can sey hmm…is im generation dem”. 

The host then went on to that while listeners might want to blame Phibbah for putting up with being raped, they needed to recognize that she had few options because she was a slave (owned by Thistlewood); however, she was able to buy land, etc. etc. once she took the money he gave her to and became a free woman.  Immediately following, she referred to community activities in Westmoreland to build/renovate a center for adolescent mothers, and mentioned a monument to be built for Phibbah. The segment ends with the song “Woman you get standing ovation.”

Now, it is itself remarkable that this is the first opportunity that we have had as a nation to use the historical experiences of Jamaican women to generate productive public discourse about the ways that rape and sexual terrorism continue to limit the lives of Jamaican women and girls.  However, it is not simply a moment to glorify Phibbah for eventually ‘getting on’ with her life.  While that recovery is important, it is even more critical to take stock of how power inequalities in the society based on gender and class continue to make the lives of many women and children so difficult that their lives more closely resemble that of Phibbah’s than they realize.  That is, too many women and children are enslaved by their dons, babyfathers, husbands, boyfriends, fathers, stepfathers, and do not see many options beyond waiting it out.

The psychological and physical trauma of sexual violence robs our society of women who could otherwise make important contributions, without waiting for the “ded-lef” of the men or the bankrupt social policies that traumatized them in the first place.   I believe that we as Jamaicans have a collective responsibility to deal with this issue in an intelligent and creative fashion.

Downplaying the horrible experiences of rape — whether historical or contemporary, as the host did, only allows the stigma and the violence to flourish.  Women and girls can convince themselves that they can get on with their lives eventually, that there is really no harm done, and really, it is their business, not a reflection of the collective experiences and daily lives of the women who live in that society.  Men can convince themselves that since it’s their wife/girlfriend/cousin they really didn’t’ do anything wrong. 

Misrecognizing rape as a historical and contemporary reality of WOMEN – not just Phibbah and not just the latest victim reported in the Gleaner — allows us to “feel sorry” for the poor ting who this happen to and to ask “wha ki’na man woulda do dat?”  By so doing, we ignore the ways in which our institutions — like IRIE FM — often conspire against women through their reluctance to call sexual violence against women for exactly what it is.  There are hundreds of Phibbahs among us today, and few will get such a lucky break in a time when “owners/slaveholders” come in many stripes these days.

By ignoring or not recognizing the opportunity before us to condemn sexual violence and to generate new, vibrant debate and solutions about dealing with sexual violence in Jamaican society, we are conceding that rape and sexual violence is not really a problem.  In fact, it is the hidden crisis; just because the Ministry of National Security and Mr. Police Commissioner have shown little or no interest in it [can we report sexual predators to Kingfish?] doesn’t mean that this form of violence does not also need national attention and resources.  I know that, with effort and awareness, IRIE-FM can do much better to honor Phibbah’s legacy.  Myself, and all the Jamaican women who want an end to sexual violence, are counting on you.



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