Wed | Dec 2, 2020

Merlyn Hyde Riley | That laugh, Mr Chuck ...

Published:Friday | July 3, 2020 | 12:28 AM
Merlyn Hyde Riley
Merlyn Hyde Riley

There is a Jamaican proverb that says, “What a joke fi yuh a death to mi”.

Words cannot describe the horror, disbelief and shock I experienced when I heard Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck’s comments on Thursday, June 25, during the sitting of the joint select committee around a discussion on the Sexual Harassment Bill. I thought of the pain and the convulsion of the bodies of the many victims who, by that chuckle, would have been reminded of the grunts, pleasure and chuckle of their abusers while they silently or otherwise screamed in pain.

While noting the subsequent apology by Mr Chuck, the incident raises for me a number of issues which go beyond that particular incident and begs for ongoing conversation.

There is need for continued dialogue around power and privilege and, in particular, the power men hold in society, especially over the lives of women. That laugh was a laugh bathed in power and privilege, seemingly unaware of the depth of vulnerability of victims of sexual harassment, male and female. What was even more alarming was that this could have come at a time when the world is being forced to reckon with intersecting systems of oppression steeped in power and privilege, a time when issues of racism, misogyny, classism, xenophobia, homophobia are no longer sleeping dogs which will be allowed to lie.

This comes at a time when so many are chanting “I can’t breathe” in solidarity with those who were never allowed to experience justice, and I dare say life itself due to the crippling effects or even the death-dealing impact of power and privilege, but to move on, to not speak is to be complicit with the institutions, social and cultural practices which privilege some people. The existence of patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity in our society continue to be deeply entrenched and silence allows for the roots to extend deeper, undermining human dignity.

Inasmuch as many are still at a loss about why some are still making a big deal about the legacies of slavery and have expressed the view that we should just move on, so, too, victims of sexual harassment are pretty much being told to just move on by the powerful and privileged. Whatever the critique of the #MeToo movement, it has gone a far way in helping victims to feel less alone and in raising public awareness of the problem.

GUILTY OF SILENCING

Everyone should be able to tell their story, and some stories take a much longer time to be told, especially when it comes out of an experience of dehumanisation, exploitation, oppression and pain. So much gets deeply buried, sometimes coming to the surface, becoming exposed only after many years, as a result of the culture of silence, victim blaming and threats of ‘don’t tell’. We are sometimes guilty of silencing when in subtle or not so subtle ways we suggest that a certain set of voices are unwelcome. A delayed voice is not a less authentic voice, and further, what many succeed in doing is decentring the conversation so the victimisers become the victims.

An acceptance that people come to the conversation around sexual harassment from different contexts, with different experiences, and see things through different lens in ways we may not even be fully conscious or be prepared to acknowledge is a helpful place to start.

There needs to be greater solidarity with women who dare to break the silence. Women are often punished and made to suffer through aspersions cast on their character, becoming the subject of smirks and derision and are doubly victimised and retraumatised, while men laugh.

The structures and institutions that empower the oppressor need to be dismantled, and legislation is an important tool in achieving this end. Mr Chuck has inadvertently lifted the profile of this matter and our eyes will be wide open as this debate moves through the various stages.

There should be compulsory gender-sensitisation training for all elected officials in Jamaica. The need is blatantly obvious.

I further call on the leaders of both political parties to ensure greater representation of women in politics even as we approach a national general election.

Rev Merlyn Hyde Riley is a minister of religion and gender specialist. She is the immediate past president of the Jamaica Council of Churches (JCC) and first female president of JCC. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com