Their catcalls come at us from all sides, across the street, across the room, in the Stadium, in the Oval, in City Gate, at the taxi-stand, everywhere. Their candid remarks about our bodies are delivered without hesitation, with no concern for their impact on us; we might as well be dumb animals.
Their objectification (unabashedly expressed in the constant “ting,” sweet, tall or short, slim or thick, white or black or red) knows no bounds. Nor does their lechery. And it respects few barriers, the major one being the presence of a male significant other.
Nowadays, things are a lot worse than they used to be. Of course, there still are those ordinary, right-thinking men who stand up for what is right and insist on proper treatment of women. But they are, it is clear, outnumbered.
One effect of this growing anti-woman, man-is-boss attitude is that women are unable to enjoy genuine freedom of movement on the streets. We find that we are now constrained to make complex arrangements so that we are almost always accompanied by a male. But, as attested to by the recent flare-up in the debate about whether mace and pepper spray should be legalised, it is not just to reduce our exposure to these unsavoury remarks but to protect ourselves and ensure our physical safety.
However, I find that idea much less uncomfortable than the idea that thousands of women have been socialized into thinking that catcalls and other similar aggressive behaviour are really compliments and, therefore, are completely acceptable. Perhaps, sadly, it is a generational thing. I certainly remember a time when many women would wonder aloud, “Why is it that men don’t understand that I dislike their crude comments?”
“Crude comments.” Say that to the members of the Boys’ Club and they will respond, with a dismissive wave of the hand, that it is “only man talk.”
“Whappen,” they might add, “ah man cyar even make ah joke with ah ooman now?” Don’t be fooled into thinking that that behaviour is confined to the “bad boys” on the street corners; it is an all-pervasive attitude, exhibited wherever men get together.
And that is why there is a need for radical change as regards how women are treated in both public and private spaces, high and low, in Trinidad and Tobago. I do not think the households where the narrative continues to be that “A woman’s place is in the home and her role to rear the children and make sure everyone is properly fed” are defined by level of income or of education. I do not think that men in only one type of environment socialise their male offspring into thinking that “roughing she up” is the manly thing to do; environments across every stratum of the society ooze male dominance and female abuse.
Men’s sense of entitlement as far as women are concerned is deeply embedded in our psyche, making the problem systemic. It will only be solved when we take a systems approach to understanding it and shifting the needle. My continuing focus on sexual harassment is fuelled by the lack of action with a view to embedding a system to help people understand the issue and their own reactions.
When I repeatedly call for legislation, it is with the full understanding that, without clearly articulated consequences for not making changes, the status quo will remain unchanged. When I repeatedly call for policy implementation, it is with the full understanding that the conversation about sexuality and sexual harassment must take place so that people will understand the changing norms and the new boundaries. When I repeatedly call for the removal of a top official still on the job despite being under a cloud of sexual harassment accusations, it is with the full understanding that that person’s actions speak so loudly that audiences cannot hear his words.
On at least one issue, audiences cannot hear their government’s words either. The current Rowley-led PNM Administration continues to be silent on the issue of an independent, transparent investigation into the sexual harassment allegations made against the Chairman of the 30% government-owned Angostura Holdings Limited.
The absence of any action to remove the Angostura Chairman is a message, loud and clear, that, as far as Government is concerned, all animals are equal but only certain cows remain sacred.
So if women continue to be on the receiving end of constant catcalls wherever they venture and are treated like dogs by a substantial part of the male population, for Dr Rowley and his Cabinet, including no small number of women, that is really, as far as I can see, small ting.