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Reaching across the divide: confronting a culture of violence

Difficult, but necessary, questions need to be asked in the wake of Asami Nagakiya’s death, and the misogyny that makes attacks like hers so common

ANOTHER WOMAN is killed. Flung to the top of a mountain of murdered women so high her gold bikini lights up the sky. Broken body upon broken body, raining red waterfalls upon us. Down the streets, across the land, inside our homes and into our lives. Violence unrelenting, pain unrelieved, fear unassuaged.

Asami, strangled in the Savannah. Marcia, stabbed and burnt in her bed. Pixie, raped and strangled with her school belt. Baby Amy, raped to death at home. Shanese, gunned down in Mt St George. Candace and Karen, raped and stabbed in front their children. Keyana, 6, raped, battered and stuffed in a barrel. Grandmother Norma, raped and beaten at home after church. Shakuntala, raped and strangled, her nude body striped green among the stalks of the canefield.

Names unforgettable, rolling off the fingertips of easy recall. But still, only the tip of murder’s all-girl roll-call.

It wasn’t the clothes they wore, or the way they walked, or how they talked. They were not easy women, just easy prey to brutish strength intent on having its way.

In this society configured by force, murder is merely the jagged outgrowth of a bedrock of violence so ingrained that we know it as culture, accept it as life and extoll it as uniquely ours.

It is in the violence against children that we celebrate as disciplined parenting, in the callous treatment of the poor and powerless in hospitals, jails and across service counters, and in the enduring view of women as property to be owned, controlled and policed. The culture underpinning our relations with each other is embedded in our language, it conditions our attitudes, informs our judgment and, when required, emerges in action.

Mayor Tim Kee’s statement galvanised our outrage because of its obvious crassness and prominence under the glare of media from the high seat of his office. But we cannot be so naïve as to believe that the view is not widespread among both men and women.

Just consider the Prime Minister’s equivocation as he danced between the politically correct thing to say and the political implications of being asked to deliver a PNM mayor’s head. Note, too, the silence of Ayanna Webster-Roy, minister with responsibility for Gender Affairs in the PM’s office. Not even the media seems to have considered a comment from her.

So, yes, while Mayor Tim Kee’s comments constitute a clear-cut case of blame-the-victim, let’s also understand that the culture accepts that it is perfectly valid to blame the victim. Indeed, an entire government once counted on this culture in demonising an Opposition leader as the child of a rape victim.

This culture is also what keeps us blind to police brutality in high-crime communities and encourages us to empower abusers. ‘See what you make me do?’ is a common refrain of both men who beat women and parents, including mothers, who beat children “out of love”.

In announcing his resignation, Raymond Tim Kee offered an unreserved apology. But it would be surprising if he wasn’t still genuinely mystified about why he has had to go. It might also surprise us how many agreed with his views and how the values we believe we hold in common might not be. This is the yawning gap in understanding that leaves room enough for misunderstanding, division and, yes, mischief.

We need tools to negotiate this space, to reach across to the other, to share experiences and build understanding. On social media this weekend, some women have put personal stories that all of us, but especially men need to listen to.

If she holds your eyes with hers and speaks straight to your ear, will you listen?

If this controversy has taught us anything it is that when it comes to gender issues we do not stand on even one acre of common ground. Our beliefs are deeply individualistic and at great odds with the public face we wear. Only our willingness to listen stands a chance of starting the conversation that’s needed.

As the controversy over the Mayor’s comment evolved over the past couple of days, it developed a very interesting dynamic related to class and colour. For us in the media, it raises a question: If the victim was a jouvert masquerader heading home to Laventille, would her death have merited a question to the mayor? And if it did, and if Mayor Tim Kee had responded true to form, would we have been motivated to rally on her behalf?

We would all like to think we would, wouldn’t we?

As citizens of a modern world we assume that we stand on the side of enlightened thought, that we have nothing in common with the barbarism that, say, would shoot a girl to stop her from becoming educated. But even the celebrated Malala Yousafzai became the object of derision among her people who blamed her and her parents for knowingly risking Taliban wrath.

Do we not see that this is what we are doing to our women when we place the onus on them to keep themselves safe from predators? Which woman does not already know this? We walk with this knowledge like a second skin, alerted from early, too early, to the risk that comes with being female.

So, don’t tell us what we already know. Tell us what you- the police and the government – are doing to make our land safe for us.

Guest Contributor

Sunity Maharaj is the Managing Director of the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies, and the former Editor-in-Chief of the Trinidad Express, News Director of TV6 and Group Executive for Editorial & Content Development at One Caribbean Media.

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