The Haitian Woman as “Poto Mitan”…No, Thank You

This post is also available in: Kreyol

This post was originally written in: Kreyòl

We are women, we are people who move and shake every day, we are not pillars cemented in place to the ground.

Haitian women are brave!

Haitian women are strong!

Haitian women are the POTO MITAN— pillars of society!

When people speak of Haitian women, the expressions that come to mind are ones having to do with strength and bravery. “Poto Mitan” is one of the most common phrases used to praise the Haitian woman. The term poto mitan comes from vodou, it is the column or pillar that stands in the middle of the sacred temple, it is one of the central elements of every ceremony. In our society and others in the Caribbean, people use this phrase to describe women, to describe their hard work and important role in society. Although unfortunately, many times patriarchal societies do not recognize or value the role women play in the development of communities. Beginning from childhood, a woman is taught to be a strong woman, a dynamic woman, a woman willing to do anything for her family. This means:

A woman who works without complaining.

A woman breaking her back for everyone else, while forgetting herself.

A woman who takes life’s blows without tiring.

A woman who suffers but must smile through it all.

A woman who sucks it up when she feels pain, and must never fall sick.

A woman who will not ask for anything because she only has herself to count on.

The list of qualities a woman is expected to have is exhaustive, and it sheds light on why the title of poto mitan can be problematic. Some women embrace this title, they see themselves in it, and take it as a compliment. There are others, on the other hand, who do not benefit from carrying such a title.  First of all, not all women have the ability to always be strong, or to be a poto mitan or pillar. This may be because they cannot, or they simply do not want to. For a woman to be a poto mitan, it suggests that she must give or be responsible for other’s lives. With this, it implies that you must be prepared to be a “respectable” mother, or to take on the role of a mother. This aspect automatically excludes a large group of women. The world does not give women a chance to say no, or the choice to say that they would prefer to be the poto mitan of their own lives, and nobody else’s. Making such a decision would not make one less of a woman.

If we look back on times of slavery, article 13 of The Code Noir stated that children would take on the condition of their mothers; meaning if a mother was free, her children would be free, and if she was a slave, her children would be slaves. This was because, in those times, mothers had all the responsibility when it came to children. A fathers’ role in the family was only to impregnate the women, and nothing else. Today, we use the phrase “poto mitan” to remind ourselves of the principal role mothers played and continue to play in the Haitian family. While this phrase does congratulate and recognize women for their positions, poto mitan places a heavy burden on women’s backs, especially in the home. The consequences are difficult because placing the responsibility of being a poto mitan on women removes a lot of responsibilities from men. It can cause men to think that whether he fulfills his responsibilities or not, there is always the woman there to fill the void he leaves in his wake because she is trained to do this. When a man is absent from the family, society reminds the woman that she is the poto mitan, she is there to keep the ball rolling. Society does not allow women to express the pain of the harsh realities they are living, or to denounce the abuse they have undergone. They are silenced, quelling all the best characteristics that make up the Haitian woman. Let us not forget, just because a person is able to withstand a situation does not mean they deserve to live it.

This label assigns a certain strength to the Haitian woman, but it also strips her of elements of her humanity. It is as if society has asked her to place a muzzle on herself as her emotions and frustrations boil inside of her because a poto mitan does not have time for such things.My womanhood, your womanhood, all of our womanhood within the various contexts of our lives remains constant without having to hide who we are, what we want, and what we feel. Nor should people define or value our womanhood based on how we are able to fight against life’s difficulties. We are women, we fall, we rise, we laugh, we cry, we love, we hate, we smile, we throw tantrums, we thrive, we fail. We are women, we are people who move and shake every day, we are not pillars cemented in place to the ground.

Photo credit: Frederic Gircour
Doris Lapommeray

Doris Lapommeray

Doris Lapommeray (Pommeris) is a Haitian architecture student studying in Barcelona, Spain. Doris is a creative and lover of the arts, a painter, drawer, and jewelry maker. She playfully describes herself as a cousin of Basquiat, and niece of Erykah Badu. She is the Creative Director of Woy Magazine.

1 Comment
  1. I personally do not agreed with your understanding of poto mitan. In Haitian society the women is the one that hold the family and society together. Being a poto mitan does not devoy the male responsibility nor does it mean we hold our pain or misery to the breaking point. To me it simply mean taking a personal stand for family and home not allowing anything or anyone to useor abuse it. The sacrifice that one make for home is never a waste. So i stand proud to be call a poto mitan

Comment on this article