Gendered Violence and Reparatory Justice: The Past is Here
By: Dr Halimah A.F. DeShong
November 28, 2023
What does it mean to refer to rising levels of violence and violent crimes in a region like the Caribbean out of which state formation was effected through settler colonial regimes? How/why do we measure and assess violence away from these histories? Further, what does it mean to create state policies, laws and actions to prevent and address violence, with little to no reference to the historical operation of race, gender and class in producing specific felt harms in the lives of women, girls and gender non-binary people in our region? My work as a feminist sociologist centres on the analysis of gendered violence. I have observed that much of the empirical analysis of this violence separates the examination of contemporary data from Caribbean labour histories and the violences of the making and remaking of the colonial state. Yet, these extractivist regimes demanded the sexual exploitation of women and girls.
In the context of British slavery in the Caribbean, the objectification of enslaved Africans as chattel/property was codified in laws used to justify forced labour. Feminist scholars and historians like Lucille Mathurin-Mair, Rhoda Reddock, Verene Shepherd, Dalea Bean, Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Hortense Spillars, Nicole Phillips, Carine M. Mardorossian and many others have connected ongoing manifestations of sexual and gendered violence, in post-colony societies, to a history of the violences of whiteness and the plantation world. What we now observe as ‘contemporary’ enactments of gendered and sexual violence that appear at the interpersonal, community and state levels, are deeply interwoven with ongoing processes of social, political and economic organisation of state, inter/intra-state and global relations.
In settler colonial regimes, the inheritance of a binary logic of gender¹ is never unconnected from race; or as Xhercis Méndes notes, gender never travels away from race in societies with histories of settler colonialism. This is most vividly demonstrated by feminist historians who describe divisions of labour on plantations in which women outnumbered men as forced labourers in cane fields (a kind of ungendering), but were expected to reproduce and nurture the labour force – particularly after the end of the slave trade in 1807 – a kind of (re)gendering. Slave codes which categorised enslaved people as chattel did not protect women and girls from everyday sexual exploitation by white plantation owners and overseers. The 18th century dispassionate diarising of Thomas Thistlewood of his perpetration of sexual violence against women and girls on the Egypt plantation in Jamaica, and his brutal physical violence against enslaved people in general, demonstrates not only the unconscionable violences of slavery and colonialism, but reveals the violent excesses of racial capitalism and white supremacy.
The reparatory justice movement remains urgent and critical to our sense of nonlinear time, exposing the reach of history into Caribbean futures. It is a movement in the region which dates back to the emergence of the European colonial project itself. Once this system of racial capitialism became entrenched, the profits amassed relied on the dehumanisation of indigenous people, Africans and indentured labourers, for shoring up European economies and societies. In making the case for reparations for the British Caribbean, Hilary Beckles argues that Africans and indigenous people have always been clear about the actions of the British as genocidal, enslaving, immoral and criminal. He further argues that the refusal of enslavement by Africans and indigenous people, the demand for a return of their lands and their calls for freedom and justice, mark the emergence of a Caribbean reparations movement. Today, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Rastafari for reinvigorating a view of reparations as critical to enacting just livities in our region.
Historians are among those most keen to adopt a sense of the present, the future and the past as inextricably bound. It is not enough to say that resonances of the past are with us in some straightforward march of history. The past is here! Racial capitalism survives, thrives and marks the flesh of the racialised. For racialised women, the materiality of gendered and sexual violence is embedded in histories of colonial violence. Opening up reparatory justice organising, as Verene Shepherd has shown, requires a reckoning with the coloniality of both gender and violence.
To illustrate, I refer to two related instances of violence against women and girls in our region. Countries in the Caribbean, for which there exist prevalence data on gendered and sexual violence, are recorded as having higher levels of these harms when compared to global averages. This is the case for both data on lifetime prevalence of intimate partner violence against women and sexual violence against women and girls. While global data suggests that one in three women will experience intimate partner violence in her lifetime, prevalence data for Guyana puts this figure at 55%, 48% in Suriname, 44% in Trinidad and Tobago and 39% in Grenada and Jamaica. Further, three Caribbean countries appear in the top 10 nations globally with the highest reported cases of rape against women, and for 48% of adolescent girls across nine countries in the Caribbean, their first sexual experience is reported as either forced or coerced. Researchers and activists in the Caribbean and the US have consistently demonstrated that Black Caribbean and African American girls are sexualised with a greater intensity and rendered developmentally older than their white counterparts, creating arrangements in which Black and Brown girls experience not only higher levels of sexual violence, but are less likely to be believed and to be supported when reporting this violence. Further, reporting violence to official arms of the state often creates situations of further harms against women and girls.
In the case of intimate partner violence against women, researchers in the Caribbean and North America have shown how women from groups racialised as black and brown are often constructed as fighting with their partners, as creating the conditions under which they are violated, or as capable of ‘managing’ the gendered interpersonal violence they experience. In their engagement with the state, Black women in particular, are often dismissed as ‘strong’ Black emasculating matriarchs, whose actions are responsible for their exposure to intimate partner violence. The work to redress and prevent violence has not sufficiently reckoned with, not only the violences of the state in its engagement with women and girls, but also how these gendered and sexual harms remain embedded in the ongoing histories of violence against women.
Situating gendered and sexual violence against women, girls and gender non-binary persons requires a keen awareness of how race, gender, sexuality and exclusionary economic systems circumscribes the lives of specific individuals and groups. As we continue to name the materiality of colonialism in our lives, and to further articulate a vision of reparative justice, joint-up thinking and cross movement solidarities are critical. It means making connections across movements led by Caribbean indigenous women at the frontlines of calls for climate and environmental justice (many of whom have paid with their lives), with women’s and feminist activists, with LGBT and queer activists in the region and with activists working to secure disability justice. Across these spaces, activist-thinkers continue to expose the coloniality of gendered violence.
The past is here. Confront it we must. We are and will be brave
1. Binary logics of gender rely on understandings of masculinity and femininity as oppositional and tied to male and female bodies, respectively. In this schema, behaviours and ‘traits’ associated with masculinity are prioritised and those associated with femininity are accorded lesser value. An example of a binary gender category is that of the breadwinner (masculine) and the homemaker (feminine). These binary logics inform both ideological and material relations of gender, as Eudine Barriteau has shown. However, gender relations, which are relations of power and difference, are far more complex and are connected to other relations of power. As demonstrated in this essay, race (which emerges as a category at the same time as the emergence of European colonialism) complicates this binary gender logic.