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#1357: Two Haitian Feminists Speak Out

From: Tara Hefferan <heffera2@msu.edu>

W  I  N
December 1999

                   By Marie M.B Racine and Kathy Ogle, Haiti 

The following is an excerpt from "I Am a Feminist," a chapter in Like the
Dew That Waters the
Grass: Words from Haitian Women, published in 1999 by EPICA (The Ecumenical
Program on
Central America and the Caribbean) based in Washington, DC. It is being
reprinted with their
permission. To order the book contact EPICA [email] or see their web site at
http://www.epica.org Jenann Woche and Franswaz Metelis are lawyers,
activists, and consultants
to womenís organizations in Haiti. This interview was given on February 20,
1998 immediately
following a conference on the legal rights and responsibilities of women,
where Jenann was a
presenter and Franswaz was rapporteur.

Franswaz: ...Apart from a few women who state clearly, "I am a feminist,"
and who know very
clearly what that means, we find a large number of women who donít have a
clear awareness or
analysis of the problems that are related to their gender -- that is, of
the discrimination they suffer
because they are women... 

Jenann: There is a pattern in society, and the way that women see women is
often not very
different from the way men see women... Women have been taught that their
opportunity in life is
tied to getting a man, so we feel competitive. Society has molded women in
such a way that a
woman who sees a man oppressing another woman may say, "Oh, she deserves it
because she
was too much of a show-off." Women tolerate this mentality, and it
continues because it is
women who raise the children. We are the ones who transmit that sexist and
mentality -- the mentality that puts men at a higher level and women at a
lower level. We transmit
that to boys and girls and it leads to a very serious problem of
alienation. Alienation means that a
victim does not realize she is a victim, and she works in a way that
assures that she will continue
being a victim.

Franswaz: From the 24 to the 26 of November 1997, about 80 womenís groups
were involved
in setting up the International Tribunal on Violence Committed against
Women. There, we
participated in a series of reflections with various womenís organizations,
and we raised many of
the thorny issues that prevent us from advancing. The phenomenon of
alienation is something we
work on a lot when Jenann and I do our trainings. 

Jenann: Womenís issues are on everybodyís lips these days, especially after
the Tribunal. You
can now hear men say, "Be careful, because the women are going to complain
about you." But as
Franswaz said, there are not many women who are willing to call themselves
feminists. There are
many women who support the womenís struggle who are also victims of social
violence, that is
they are the victims of their husbands. Their husbands, on the other hand,
may be the victims of
another kind of violence. 

For example, people who have been victims of the coup regime talk with
certain bitterness or
certain anger against the political system in the country. In the same way,
there are a number of
women in the womenís movement who are victims in their bones. They are
physical victims as
well as victims in their way of thinking. Some have to see psychologists
and psychiatrists to
recover. These women talk with anger against the male-dominated sexist
system. That is quite a
normal thing but serves as a pretext for men to say, "These women detest
men. They are always
badmouthing men." 

When people used to criticize the dictatorial system that existed, there
were also some people
who used to say, "These people are part of the dechoukay -- a violent
movement where people
rose up and killed the makout [short for Tonton Makout. A term derived from
the mythical
Haitian bogeyman who captures children by putting them in his bag. In 1958
it became the
common name for the armed militia of dictator Francois Duvalier, which
terrorized the population
for years]. They acted as if everyone who criticized the dictatorship was a
member of the radical
groups that were determined to burn people to death. That was not true. But
some of the people
who were unfairly accused of being violent political radicals are the same
ones who today accuse
women of hating men and pushing them aside. They know that is not true but
they say it that way.

Women fall into the same trap. Some women think that we want to live
without men as partners,
but that is not true either. We just think that we must find a way to live
so that we can all be on
the same scale. Some women stand at the side of the movement and say,
"These women are
extremists," or "They are women who want to be promiscuous," or "These are
women who hate
men," so they donít get involved.

Franswaz: When we go throughout the country and meet with women, we see
that men often
perpetrate violent actions against their wives. The situation is truly very
difficult, so we talk a lot
about it. That makes men say that we are just against them in general. 

You may also have a situation where a woman has to take her husband to
court. And if, for
example, the judge says that heís going to put the man in jail because the
man broke the womanís
arm, the woman might say, "No, donít lock him up!" Then the judge says,
"Lady, you need to
know what you want." And the woman answers, "If you put him in jail, who is
going to bring in
the money to feed our children?" 

So we see that the women do not wish to leave their husbands. It is not the
men that they do not
want. It is the torturers inside the men who are beating them that they do
not want. So we say,
"We do not want the torturers in our lives... We want the man, the human
being, to love him, to
cherish him, and to raise children together with him. We believe that
children are not to be raised
without their father. But we want the man to respect us when he is with us
-- to respect our
worth. So the struggle we are waging against violence on women is the
struggle against the
torturers of women. We believe that society is made up of women and men and
that we must
walk side by side and not give people different levels of worth. Thatís why
we are trying to bring
both men and women into the struggle. 

There has been a great deal of progress in that sense. In the Tribunal,
many men and women
worked together. They said that it was necessary for women to take the gag
out of our mouths.
We have cases where a woman, maybe even a professional woman, has a husband
or a man
who is beating her at night. And when you see her the next day, you see her
face swollen, and
she tells you, "I fell down." She refuses to accept the fact that she is in
an abusive relationship
because she is ashamed. So, in addition to being victims, we carry the
extra burden of shame!
Society makes us carry the weight for this abuse as if we were responsible
for it, as if we are the
ones who are bad and are bringing violence upon ourselves. 

Since the Tribunal, more women are saying that they will speak up when
abused. If a man hits us,
we will denounce him... And we will take him wherever we need to take him
because we refuse
to remain silent in a situation where we suffer violence. 

Jenann: ...We lend a hand in training women or organizing events such as
the Tribunal. But our
activism is not limited to "womenís issues." We participate in the entire
movement to change the
bad living conditions in the country. We just emphasize womenís issues
because there is a
tendency even for the men who are carrying the banner for a new democratic
society to forget
women. They may talk about democracy, but inside their homes they are the
torturers of their

I would say that now Haitians are more sensitized to womenís issues than
before. Weíve been
able to raise controversies over the issues where some people say "I agree"
or "I disagree."
When you have some people appreciating your position and others criticizing
it, that means that
the question is being talked about. However, as regards to real structures
in the country that
might support and ensure the security of women, a lot of work still needs
to be done. 

On the legal level, there are many things that need to change. For example,
in the penal code,
there is still a section that allows a man the right to kill a woman if she
has committed adultery. It
is as if the code legalizes the idea that the woman is considered the manís
property. If the woman
dares to give his property to someone else, he has the power of life and
death over her. That is
totally unacceptable. 

Another example is the issue of abortion, over which people are still
dragging their feet while
women are being raped all day long. Women get pregnant by zenglendo
[criminals operating on
their own or recruited to carry out all sorts of acts of vandalism. They
act mostly at night in
civilian clothing and are armed with heavy weapons] and they have to face
this problem. The
woman has a right not to be willing to carry that child. And the fact is
that men also have a history
of getting women pregnant just so that the women will be more dependent on
them -- so that they
can put their foot on a womanís neck with more ease. 

Rape is not yet recognized as a crime. That is, the code does not define
rape well. It is necessary
to prove that rape has occurred by obtaining a medical certificate issued
by the state hospital.
This is terrible because the medical conditions in Haiti are deplorable.
And in Haiti, it is only
considered rape if there was penetration, and it is only considered rape if
the woman was a
virgin. If the woman was not a virgin, the mentality is, "She had sex with
a man and now sheís
complaining." Or they may tell a woman that she was wearing a short skirt
or that her pants
showed off her behind too much. Which means that she provoked the man. As
if a womanís
body is there to be taken by any man who wishes to do so! 

In addition to the legal issues, we struggle to keep gender-specific issues
on the forefront.
Womenís issues have become fashionable, and people here know that it is of
interest on the
international level. So some people, particularly men, have begun
organizing women in groups to
go ask for funds to deal with the economic conditions of womenís lives,
particularly the
impoverishment of women. But they leave out the real gender-specific issues
of women like those
we mentioned. So although there has been progress, we still have a long way
to go. 

Marie M.B Racine, originally from Haiti, lives in Washington, DC where she
language, linguistics and culture at the University of the District of
Columbia. Kathy
Ogle is co-coordinator of the Ecumenical Program on Central America and the
Caribbean based in Washington, DC.