5 Ways Jamaican Culture is Secretly Feminist

When most people think of Jamaica, an island paradise comes to mind. But, though we don’t have half the problems America does, it is no paradise. In place of racism, we have “classism”, and in place of race-baited police brutality, we have class-baited police brutality.

This year, Jamaica also experienced an unprecedented surge in violence against women and children. Even in 2014, it was bad enough for me to consider leaving the country. By 2015, I had my eyes set on Europe to escape the distinct feeling of misfortune that often accompanies being the owner of a vagina in a Third World Country.

When I ended up in America instead, I was nonetheless looking forward to enjoying a more equal playing field as a woman. What I found is that though there are more laws in our favour in America, I enjoyed more personal freedoms in Jamaica.

Looking back at the country I left behind, I realised a peculiar thing. When compared with America, Jamaica is secretly ***feminist.

How so? Here are five things that make this true.

1. Female Independence is Expected

Before studying business, I was a liberal arts student. During this time, one thing I learned that would stick with me for a lifetime is that a significant number of families in the Caribbean are matriarchal or matrifocal. The estimate I received in school, and which makes its rounds in the news, is 80 percent.

This is such an ingrained feature of Jamaican and overall Caribbean society, that experts spent decades studying and explaining it. One common rationale is that during slavery, men were not allowed to take responsibility for their families, and families were often separated. The belief is that this trickled down into modern day life in Jamaica.

Another common theory is that men are simply not able to care for their families due to poverty, and so they desert them. This often leaves women at the head of the family. It is then up to women to both manage and provide for the family.

I didn’t accept any of those reasons as valid in 2006, any more than I accept them as valid in 2017. But whatever the reason, it is a norm for women to head the family. Subsequently, mothers prepare their daughters by teaching them to be independent.

2. Career Women are a Norm

As a direct result of this tendency to teach women to  be independent, and let the boys run wild, career women are a norm in Jamaica. Jamaican women also have a much higher literacy rate, and are more educated.

The end result is that women tend to have more traditional careers, and hold 60 percent of the managerial positions in Jamaica. Meanwhile, men are “hustling”. Hustling does not always mean standing on a street corner selling weed. Many are serial entrepreneurs, or take on odd jobs that pay well in skilled areas.

Because of this, female doctors, lawyers, academics, and politicians are normal in Jamaica. Women also make up the vast majority of nursing, and teaching jobs. It is also well to note that most of these women are of Black and Mixed heritage. In America, the concept of Black women dominating in areas of medicine, law, academics, and politics is still a foreign one.

Jamaican (and European!) men praised my academic and career aspirations and achievements. But, in my experience, American men have shown a greater likelihood to feel threatened and to act accordingly.

3. Easy and FREE Access to Birth Control

As more women focus on career and educational goals, birth control plays an important role in our lives. Yet, in America, there is a lot of red tape surrounding birth control for women. There are also a lot of American women fighting to have birth control covered by their health insurance.

In contrast, family planning has been a major focus of the Jamaican government since the 1950s. The Jamaican government has launched many campaigns, almost begging its citizens to have two children or less. According to a Stanford study, so far so good.

The great benefit of the Government’s efforts is that there is no red tape around birth control in Jamaica, and I hope there never is. Abortions are still illegal, unless the child poses a serious health risk to the mother.

However, women (and young girls!) can buy oral contraceptives over the counter at any pharmacy, including the morning-after pill. Oral contraceptives and condoms are also distributed for free at local clinics.

4. Keeping Maiden Names after Marriage is Normal

A few weeks ago, an American colleague expressed his dissatisfaction with New Age American Women choosing to keep their maiden names after marriage. He then promptly told me that if any woman he chose to marry insisted on keeping her maiden name, he would call off the wedding.

This is a common sentiment I’ve witnessed and experienced in America. Sometimes insurance companies, government workers, and banks seem to go out of their way to make my day difficult, because I have two surnames. In Jamaica, retaining two surnames is not a “New Age Women “Movement.

It is not uncommon for women to keep their maiden names and add their husbands’. In this instance, most women hyphenate the name, and any child resulting from the union is given the surname of the father. This practice is especially common among women who:

  • Come from a wealthy or prominent family
  • Possess a bachelor’s degree or higher, before marriage
  • Are former or current academics
  • Work in politics
  • Teach at the secondary level or higher
  • Marry later in life

Virtually all the Jamaican women I know in my age group who are married, retained their maiden names.

5. Our Country has Been Governed by Women

One prominent woman who retained her maiden name throughout her career is Jamaica’s former Minister of Youth and Culture, Lisa Hanna. She was also crowned Miss World 1993: the third Jamaican to ever lay claim to the title.

Perhaps even more prominent of an example is former Prime Minister, Portia Simpson-Miller. She served as the 7th Prime Minister of Jamaica from 2006 to 2007, and then again in 2012 to 2016. While I am not a supporter of her party or her political work, I am nonetheless proud of the fact that Jamaicans were confident enough in a woman’s abilities to vote her into office, regardless of her sex.

Even more prominent than Hanna and Simpson-Miller is Queen Elizabeth II. If you’re wondering what this has to do with Jamaican politics, then it’s a good time to note that Jamaica’s Head of State is not our Prime Minister; it’s the Queen of England.

In America, when it comes to women in politics, there are still women earning “firsts” for political positions. America has also yet to vote a woman into the White House. You might now be wondering: aside from Jamaica, which other countries have already been served by female presidents and prime ministers?

India, Germany, the Philippines, Haiti, Britain, Poland, Greece, the Bahamas, Norway, Denmark, Thailand, New Zealand, Peru, Australia, Finland, Slovakia, Trinidad & Tobago, China, Madagascar, Croatia, Bangladesh, Ukraine, Guyana, Canada, Israel, Pakistan, South Korea…

Like most countries, Jamaica has a long way to go in the bid for social equality. A good place to start would be with the lack of laws in place to protect women.

There are still no laws against sexual harassment: no penetration, no crime. And efforts to put in place a law allowing women to file charges against husbands who had forced them into non-consensual sex, was met with outrage. The police blatantly refused to enforce it.

In spite of all this, every time I find myself perceived as a threat by men because of my intelligence, level of education, career goals, and travel adventures; every time my names are called into question; or I witness the vilification of female politicians and career women (especially mothers!) in America—I am forced to recognise and accept the secret feminism that rests in the heart of Jamaica.

***When I speak of feminism, I speak of the actual meaning, not the version sensationalised by the media. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, feminism is “[t]he advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.”

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