Near the end of November 2012, approximately six months after the PLP’s return to office, a joint session of parliament was held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bahamian women attaining the right to vote.
It was a good show. The value of equality was heralded. There were the usual grand speeches. The PLP’s female parliamentarians beamed with pride, though, curiously, a number of male parliamentarians on both sides of the aisle seemed bored.
On cue, Prime Minister Perry Christie strutted, boasted, and emoted. Given his performance in the House of Assembly on the occasion, one would be forgiven for surmising that he is a great champion of gender equality. He promised constitutional equality for women before the 40th anniversary of independence in 2013.
A joint resolution was passed promising an end to constitutional discrimination against women, “so as to fully and irrevocably engage and utilise the indomitable spirit of Bahamian womanhood in nation-building”.
Here we are three years later. There has now been a fifth and counting postponement of a referendum on gender equality. Many have concluded that such a referendum is unlikely during the PLP’s current term.
Fifty years after women attained the right to vote and over 40 years after independence, Bahamian women are still not constitutionally equal. This sad reality speaks not only to the lack of equality for women.
It speaks to a deficiency in the body politic, entrenched misogyny and sexism, a feeling of inferiority among some women, a betrayal of Bahamian women by the Progressive Liberal Party, the political home of Dame Dr. Doris Johnson.
It speaks also to fear mongering and paranoia, and the adolescent notion that gender equality is a zero sum game, that the advancement of women comes at the expense of men, instead of the reality that we all benefit from greater equality.
Relatedly, the four Bills presented to Parliament by the government ahead of a referendum would, as an observer wrote, “correct two instances where the Constitution discriminates against women in matters of citizenship, and one instance where it discriminates against men, also in a matter of citizenship.”
A mirror into the sad state of affairs in terms of gender equality was the brutish remarks in the House of Assembly about domestic violence by Tall Pines MP Leslie Miller. South Andros MP Picewell Forbes split his guts laughing with glee at Miller’s remarks, initially seeing no reason to apologize for his buffoonish sexism.
Not a single man, PLP or FNM, rose then or afterwards to fully challenge Miller’s gross remarks. The collective silence seemed like consent. Seemingly cowed by the aggressive and at times vicious language of Miller and the misogyny within the party, not a single female PLP parliamentarian publicly countered the bile spewed by Miller.
The silence and the stammering evasions after Miller’s violent outburst stood in stark contrast to the sentimentality and bounty of words of many of these very same parliamentarians during the 50th anniversary commemoration.
The silence on or opposition to a complex of issues associated with gender equality, such as marital rape legislation and other pressing concerns, stands in stark contrast to the easy nostalgia and the often all too flowery remarks celebrating the past accomplishments of the struggle for gender equality.
This is the context within which this struggle continues. It is a context in which the enemy of progress is – ambivalence. There is a general ambivalence and a belief by many that because much has been achieved in the struggle for gender equality that constitutional equality is merely icing on the cake and of relatively little importance.
There is ambivalence by many women who should be natural allies in the struggle. There is ambivalence by many young women not yet conscientized that they remain unequal under the supreme law of the land.
There is ambivalence by generally well-meaning men who have not added their voice nor lent sufficient energy in this cause, including moderate religious heads of leading mainline denominations.
It is safe for many politicians, religious and civic leaders, men and women, to remain ambivalent on this issue, a sad indictment of where we are as a country. Too many simply do not care enough, are not angry or outraged enough.
This is not only an issue on which women must aggressively campaign. Energizing the efforts for constitutional equality requires the voice of male leaders within and outside the political realm. The voices of such men may help to reach many women and men ambivalent about the issue at hand.
On the matter of constitutional equality, ambivalence has spawned gross opportunism and as gross extremism laced with fear. Many politicians have not moved aggressively on constitutional equality because they recognize the ambivalence of many Bahamians on the issue. Sensing this same ambivalence certain demagogic misogynists have been full-throttled in their opposition to equality.
With legislation previously moving forward in the House, extremists and ignorant views within and outside the chamber hijacked the debate. The extremists are able to hijack the debate today because the well of equality was poisoned back in 2002.
Writing in The Tribune Taneka Thompson picks up the story.
“Twelve years ago, on the night of February 27, 2002, thousands of jubilant supporters of the Progressive Liberal Party celebrated on the grounds of Gambier House after it became clear that the Ingraham administration’s constitutional referendum, which aimed in part to obliterate discrimination against women in the Constitution, had failed.
“As he moved through the exuberant crowd gathered at PLP headquarters, then Opposition leader Perry Christie had to fight his way through the gathering as his supporters clawed at him, excited to get a glimpse of the man fated to become the next prime minister of the Bahamas.
“It was just three months before the 2002 general election and the PLP was able to capitalise on voter discontent with the Ingraham administration by hijacking instead of helping the process for reform of our outdated constitution.
“Although Mr Christie and members of his party supported the constitutional bills when they were read and debated in Parliament, the PLP chose to feed into the ignorance and opposition over the process, in a purely political bid to assure a successful election campaign.”
Christie boasted before the crowd:
“Today truth has emerged victorious. It is a bright and joyous day for the Bahamas. ... For those of us that have campaigned so vigorously for the results that have been achieved have a victory for the Bahamian people.” Today, Christie’s words look even more egregious, self-serving and disgraceful.
Had Christie and the PLP followed up on their earlier support and vote in parliament for gender equality in 2002, it would have been a settled issue for 13 years. Truth has not emerged victorious. It is still a dark and sad day for Bahamian women, whose aspirations for equality were defeated by the PLP.
It is mostly because of Christie and the PLP’s naked and shameless opportunism that Bahamian women are not constitutionally equal.
To those who seek such equality, they will have to organize for change on the ground in constituencies, through various media and among natural and potentially new allies in order to persuade citizens and to pressure political leaders on both sides of the aisle.
They cannot rely on the promises and supposed good will of the government of the day. The same PLP which sacrificed gender equality on the altar of gross expediency in 2002 does not today possess the will nor the political muscle to advance the cause.
Despite previously bragging that he had the popular appeal and the ability to advance gender equality, Christie is a vastly diminished figure incapable of doing the heavy lifting on equality.
All of which makes essential the work of groups like Citizens for Constitutional Equality, launched earlier this year. At its inaugural meeting the group was addressed by former Governor General Sir Arthur Foulkes:
“ ... Despite all the talk – some of it bordering on hysterical -- there is really not one good reason why all four of these Bills should not be passed by Parliament and approved by the people in a referendum.
“One argument I have heard against at least one of the Bills is that abuses are likely to occur. Well, of course, abuses are likely to occur. What constitutional right or freedom or privilege do we enjoy that is not subject to abuse by someone?
“Because our freedom of expression may be abused every day and every hour by people spreading false information or slandering fellow citizens does not mean that our freedom of expression should be abolished.”
Sir Arthur emphasized:
“It would be a great shame if we allowed all the red herrings, all the excuses, all the misinterpretations and all the predictions of calamity to prevent us from extending full constitutional equality to all Bahamians, including women.”
Recently, Dr. Mizpah Tertullian, a leading female politician of her generation, passed away. After her death there were the ritual tributes by the PLP.
But during her life the PLP never nominated the highly accomplished Tertullian, also an author and a psychologist, for a winnable seat, though many less accomplished men were repeatedly given such nominations. The PLP continued to run her in Shirlea, a seat the party knew she could not win.
During her last years, there were no major tributes or recognition of her contributions. But in death she is now being praised. Christie and the PLP are adept at providing rhetorical support for gender equality.
But they have not matched rhetoric with accomplishments. Indeed the PLP has done serious harm to the cause of equality, with Bahamian women continuing to pay the price for the PLP’s naked opportunism and ambivalence.