“Feminist” is a Dirty Word in Haiti

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So here is an ode to Haitian feminists

Earlier this month, hundreds of thousands of women in the United States, participated in the Women’s March on Washington, to “send a bold message to [their] new government […] and to the world that women’s rights are human rights.” More than a million women marched in sister marches in cities throughout the US and around the world. Many of the women wore pink knit hats, and their protest signs also made reference to Trump’s demeaning comments.

There were no sister marches in Haiti on Saturday, although many Haitians seemed supportive of the Women’s March. On social media, people shared pictures of the marches and wished they could have participated. Some even wondered if such a protest could ever take place in Haiti; forgetting that on April 3, 1986, shortly after the end of the Duvalier regime, more than 30,000 women from diverse backgrounds took to the streets of Port-au-Prince to demand to be included in Haiti’s return to democracy. The 1986 march, organized by more than a dozen grassroots groups, called attention to sexual and gender-based violence, women’s financial exclusion, lack of access to health and education, among other issues. For many women who participated in this march, including my mother, it was the first time they felt socially empowered. Despite a few critics, the event was well-received and marked the renewal of Haiti’s women’s movement; eventually contributing to the creation of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Women’s Rights, Haiti’s participation in the 1995 Beijing Conference, and the ratification of the Belem do Para Convention.

Unfortunately, implementing legislation does not automatically result in societal changes. While Duvalier’s departure, the women’s march, and subsequent legislative gains breathed new life into the women’s movement, they have done little to translate to a change in cultural attitudes and expectations.

In July 2016, an artistic protest organized during the Nègès Mawon feminist festival received serious backlash. While there were some legitimate criticisms of the protest’s lack of inclusiveness, most detractors chose to question the moral character of the participants and police the language used on some of the signs. Ironically, those who took offense to the use of certain words describing body parts, sexual harassment and assault are often quiet when those same words are used daily to degrade and abuse women. Their moral outrage also seems to be absent when a sitting president threatens a protestor with sexual assault or repeatedly and publicly insults a female journalist; when a minor is gang-raped and publicly humiliated; or when in song after song their favorite artists continue to debase women.

From time immemorial, Haitian women have put their bodies on the line to free Haiti. They have done so despite – and perhaps in spite of – a society that praises them as its poto mitan while simultaneously silencing and erasing them; a society that calls them wozo, only to alleviate its guilt as it continually abuses them.

Does the opposition to feminism in Haiti stem from an ignorance of the word’s definition or a perceived threat to the existing patriarchal system?

Thus it begs the question – does the opposition to feminism in Haiti stem from an ignorance of the word’s definition or a perceived threat to the existing patriarchal system?

My great-grandmother did not know the word feminist, and if she did, I doubt she would have chosen to identify herself as such. After all, even now, feminist is a dirty word in Haiti – an insult. One that carries negative undertones of bitter, husband-less, poorly-raised women who hate men. But by definition, the word feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of equality of the sexes. Simply put, a feminist is a person who believes in the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.

Yet, a feminist is exactly what my great-grandmother was as she fought for gender equality and never stopped supporting other women. Most importantly, she stressed gender equality with her children and grandchildren and raised them to value fairness. My grandfather and mother in turn passed these values on to me. If I proudly claim feminism today, it is because of them and because of the Haitian women whose contribution are too easily forgotten.

So here is an ode to Haitian feminists; women like Cecile Fatiman who co-led the Bois Caiman ceremony in 1792; Marie Claire Heureuse, Marie Jeanne, and Sanite Belair who played significant roles in the slave revolution. Here’s to the women who, in 1820, campaigned to change a law that considered them minors and those who marched in the 1930s to call for the end of American occupation. Here’s to the women who earned us the legal and constitutional rights, those who joined the anti-dictatorship movement in the 1960s and 70s. Here’s to the 30,000 women who marched in 1986; those forced into exile, raped, tortured and killed. Here’s to Michele Pierre-Louis, Paulette Poujoul-Oriol, Magalie Marcelin, Anne-Marie Coriolan, Mireille Neptune Anglade, and Myriam Merlet. Here is to the Madan Sara, the women who are up before dawn, working the fields, and running our economy; the women who rule the mountains and the mambo. Here is to my great-grandmother and mother; to women who support other women and to the men who support them. And finally here’s to us, may we be wise and brave enough to not only claim feminism but raise our sons and daughters differently in order to make a reality our foremothers’ dreams of a truly free, equal, and just Haiti.


photo via chokarella.com

Perpetua Chery

A “natif natal” Haitian, Perpetua Chery currently hangs her hat in West Africa. She cares about human rights, issues affecting youth and women, and all things Haiti. She suffers from an incredible case of homesickness, treatable only by sunshine, seafood, and lots and lots of coconut water. She can be found on a beach near you or on twitter: @IamPerpetua


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