by Regina Osei-Bonsu
This article aims to share my experience of the prevalent sexism found within the Martinican culture. Also, to shine a light on the culture shock that westerners or those of more liberal and accepting thoughts may face.
“You need to teach her how she should be in Martinique.”
“If I want to kiss you don’t react, if I want to assault you sexually don’t scream. If I want to objectify, infantilise and bother you: get used to it because that’s life in Martinique for women.”
Those were the exact words hurdled at me indirectly at a street party in Martinique. During this night, I had refused the advances of three men, and they were not particularly happy about it. One of these men labelled me a racist for rejecting him. His words were quite surprising, considering we were both of the same race. This incident went to show the aggression and entitlement of the male ego when women shun their sexual advances here in Martinique. Yet, women should be allowed to show disinterest in a man’s advances without feeling unsafe.
Nevertheless, situations like these are not uncommon in Martinique. What was different this time was the sheer intensity of the remarks by these men. Thus, making it my most serious confrontation so far. This incident confirmed what I had suspected about the sexism problem in Martinique. If men make unwanted advances and remarks towards women, women are taught to brush it off and accept it. The deep-rooted sexism comes as a shock to foreigners who usually come from countries that believe in greater equality, liberation and empowerment of women. The deep-rooted sexism goes directly against my core beliefs. Therefore, this rife masochism and sexism is possibly the most significant culture shock since moving to Martinique.
The idea that women should accept the advances of men without complaint has even been accepted, pushed on us and advised by important women in Martinique. For example, during my assistantship training, the head of L’académie Française tips regarding the sexual harassment faced by women perpetrated by men in Martinique is to say, “no thank you” and keep it moving. She even went as far as to say; we should take sexual harassment and catcalls as a compliment. Sexism is a multifaceted concept that varies depending on the angle at which you see it. I am using the definition that sexism is behavioural conditions or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.
I do not drive so I rely on public transport in Martinique. Therefore, I see a lot of the sexual harassment that goes on first-hand and can vouch for it. For example, I will be waiting at the bus stop in the least provocative outfit, although, how I was dressed should not even need mentioning. I would be stared at and screamed at, on some occasions – nearly dragged and harassed into a car after objecting a hitchhike, and sometimes even followed. I guess hitchhiking is easier for women here due to men’s sexual craze, but it is something you should be very careful about continually doing. What constitutes as sexism is broad and a lot of things can come under the umbrella of sexism. The most obvious being the discrimination of women by men. That is apparent in Martinique; for example, in the recent creole lesson I attended, I posed the question of what people think are the main societal problems facing Martinican culture. Sexism and masochism came up a lot. One classmate even discussed, in detail, what happened when a lady ran for mayor in Martinique. She lost because of people being raised in a society that views women as inferior. Most men did not believe that she, just like other women, possessed the mental stamina to compete against other men or, worse, lead! This shows that sexism does not just exist on a social level, but also on a political level.
Moreover, when we talk about sexism, we must contextualise it in the case of Martinique. Sexism is not overt in Martinique, but it is not subtle either. It is apparent enough for you to know it exists, but people do not always address the problem. I believe people feel that nothing can be done in society to resolve the issue, so there is no point in continuing to talk about it. While their reasoning makes sense, to an extent, I believe the complacency has ingrained the problem further into the already masochistic society. For example, Martinican men are used to saying women should not do this or should not do that. For example, why are you hitchhiking? Where is your car? Do you have a boyfriend? Oh, why is he not looking after you etc. etc. They do not seem to understand why women would be outside the house and not in safety. Some may find this protective or a man caring/ looking out for their women, but it is mostly possessive; it is not allowing women their liberties and freedom.
I must make it clear that men here are not saying women cannot do this and that so it is not overt discrimination, however they are saying they should not. However, the forceful manner discrimination presents itself, stops some women from doing what they want. While for the women who do, are looked down upon and chastised. It is a complicated situation because it seems that the women, in general, and society have either normalised this toxic behaviour, stay silent or even worse given up the struggle to fight against this ridiculous rhetoric.
The reason why I picked this topic is that the French overseas territories are said to embody the values of France as they are seen as “France”, but what people fail to contextualise is the culture residing in the country, and even the geographical location. For example, Martinique is in the Caribbean with neighbouring islands such as St Lucia, Barbados, Dominica and Grenada, which arguably carry the same sexist beliefs of the role of women in society. Therefore, it is easy for these beliefs to be shared and kept when they all think the same. I quickly learnt that Martinique is not merely an extension of French territory; the experiences of sexism here are different from that in France.
While my experience in Martinique so far has been great, the deep social problems can always hinder the almost positive, idyllic vibe given off when spending a year abroad in the Caribbean!
Study Abroad Columnist: Regina Osei-Bonsu, 3rd year BA French and International Relations Undergraduate. Currently undertaking British Council Teaching Assistantship in Martinique.