Every summer that I’ve visited Jamaica for the last ten years has been a process of comparing the state of the current surroundings to how I had once remembered it. During each visit, I sub-consciously and consciously note the changes at the airport, on the drive to my community, how much the taxi fare is, whether the patty shop is in the same location, and whether the same man in the taxi park is still exchanging US dollars at a better rate than the bank or cambio.
I noticed quite a few changes in the summer of 2017: the town square was vibrant and livelier than I’d remembered it. Music was playing loudly, close to 10 pm. The US dollar was now at $120 to one Jamaican dollar, $122 if you found the right person. There was a drone flying above the netball game being played in the taxi park while dusk covered a humid Sunday gathering. As I made my way about town I noticed a woman driving. I didn’t think much of it, just made a note as I had of all the other notes. As my trip continued and I went into Ochi and St. Ann’s Bay, I noticed more women driving here and there, sprinkled in between the heat and hustle and bustle. At one point, I even noticed a woman operating a taxi. This, I hadn’t seen before. Maybe, I was just a farriner who hadn’t been as observant as I should have been.
Growing up in rural Jamaica, I didn’t see many women driving cars. As a matter of fact, there weren’t many men driving cars in my community, either. That kind of cashflow wasn’t commonplace. While in primary school, I knew two women from my community and surrounding areas who drove; one was my Auntie Chummy who was notorious for driving barefoot. The other was my primary school principal. On of one of my trips when I was in my early teens, a woman in a neighboring community who lived up the road from my aunt, I discovered, drove a Toyota RAV4 SUV.
Without context, it wouldn’t be outlandish to think that more women driving cars is representative of a cultural shift where society would be poised towards a new norm of embracing women in private and public life; after all Jamaica has been named as the country with the most women managers in the world. And while the aforementioned statistic has been embraced as true, it hasn’t been representative of a cultural paradigm shift.
Before the resurgence of #MeToo and the creation of #Timesup, the #TambourineArmy had activated. Activists in Jamaica assembled to start a public conversation about gender-based violence, which included publicly naming accused sexual predators. The backlash included the Tambourine Army organizer being arrested under the Cyber Crimes Act for using a computer for “malicious” intent. Jamaica did not experience the wave of firings and fallout that occurred in the US and the United Kingdom following #Metoo.
For the latter part of 2017, I’ve been observing responses to the uptick in crime from different social media users. There has been restlessness and uneasiness across the board. However, women have been particularly anxious about their safety, especially while traveling in taxis. Women described acquaintances and friends who had been kidnapped, robbed, and/or sexually assaulted while going about their day-to-day activities.
On January 18, Prime Minister Holness declared a State of Emergency in St. James parish in response to the increasing and destabilizing effect of crime in the parish. In this reactionary, militarized response, there is a missed opportunity. There will be photos of weapons seized, drugs confiscated, and homes searched, but what of all people who have been harmed? Is there room in Jamaica’s response to crime for restorative justice? What of all the sexual predators who have not been named, tried, or appropriately addressed. We haven’t had our #Metoo moment yet. The burgeoning national conversation on sexual violence was squashed days after it sprung up— unlike lottery scamming, kidnappings, and shootings.
Starting in the Spring of 2019, complaints were made to the media, alleging a string of sexual assaults and a laisse faire attitude at the University of West Indies, Mona. A month earlier, a female professor at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, corroborated students’ accounts of repeated sexual harassment by a longtime lecturer. In the fallout, up to twenty students shared allegations of sexual harassment. In one instance, a special committee’s investigation found the lecturer acted “unprofessionally” but “did not sexually harass” the student. The recommendation was that he be reprimanded. We do not know what unprofessional means in this context. The three most senior positions at Edna Manley College are filled by women.*
In Jamaica, women are driving cars, and are well-represented in the highest professional positions, but this has meant little in relation to our overall safety. There is still a persistent culture of hypermasculinity that is arguably best represented in the recent uptick in crime.
The MP for my area was photographed two years ago seated on the road barrier walling by my district’s Cross Road sign. The weathered concrete post highlighted the two divergent paths. Women were driving cars, but at the same time woman nuh siddung pon wall suh. But there she was, doing it anyway. Our national conversation on gendered violence hasn’t been fully actualized as yet, but very bold women have been laying the groundwork for this to happen. It won’t be long before a woman driving a car filled with tambourines shows up to another church, school, or office to demand perpetrators be held accountable.
Image credit: Jamaican sprinter Elaine Thompson in action. courtesy @fastelaine instagram feed
*This paragraph had inadvertently been left out of the version sent by the author and has been inserted at her request.
Tiffany Walton is a twenty-something Jamaican. She is interested in the intersection of politics, history, feminism, food, and culture. As a self-described country gyal who lacks a green thumb, her quest to learn farming and gardening basics has been a decade in the making. Her current professional work is in education in community engagement and partnerships. At the moment, she is three books deep in Buchi Emecheta’s catalog. She can be found on Twitter @facestygal.