CREATIVE SPACE #10 OF 2022 (Uploaded May 17th 2022)
CREATIVE SPACE is an award-winning series spotlighting local (Antiguan and Barbudan/Caribbean) art and culture. As a brand, it dates back to 2009, published exclusively in LIAT’s inflight magazine. It was revamped in 2018 as a blog series and syndicated as of 2019 on Antiguanice.com. Its publishing partner, as of 2020, is the Daily Observer newspaper. It has its first print run in the paper every other Wednesday, with the online extended edition with EXTRAS running here on the blog and full interviews and extras on AntiguanWriter on YouTube. In 2021, the two–part CREATIVE SPACE mini-series on marine culture placed third in the OECS clean oceans journalists challenge. CREATIVE SPACE is created, owned, and written by Joanne C. Hillhouse – Antiguan-Barbudan/Caribbean author, journalist, producer, and freelance writer, editor, and trainer.
Here’s a link to the issue as it appeared in the Daily Observer newspaper on May 18th 2022:
Below is the extended online edition (not a duplicate of the edition with publishing partner Observer Media) with EXTRAS.
CREATIVE SPACE: LIFE IN LEGGINGS OR WHEN LEARNING TO “SMILE AND WAVE” ISN’T ENOUGH
Ronelle King, founder and executive director of #lifeinleggings, recently won the Island Innovation Awards‘ Future Island Leader Award. IIA is a partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative that recognizes transformative people and programmes in island (not exclusively Caribbean island) communities. Watching the April 29th 2022 awards ceremony, I cheered Ronelle’s win and knew I wanted to interview her. Her cyber feminist campaign against sexual violence began in November 2016 and has transformed itself in to boots-and-heels-on-the-ground gender activism across the Caribbean.
Ronelle is a Barbadian and her story begins like this: “I was walking to work and I experienced a guy slowing down for me at the bus stop. I am unfamiliar with this person but, you know, in Caribbean culture some body slowing down for you when you’re walking, it probably is somebody that that you may know, so I just take a quick look in to the vehicle to see who it is but I did not recognize the person and I declined the ride and they proceed to try to drag me in to the vehicle. I took off running…went to a friend’s house and they convinced me to go to the police and make a complaint … (as expected) they didn’t even really get to the part of hearing if I had any information, they just dismissed it.”
She packed it away as she had her previous experience of sexual assault. But that November “there were a lot of conversations (about sexual assault) and I could say it was very triggering.” What was triggering wasn’t just the experiences – femicides, incest and child sexual violence, sexual harassment – but how “every woman who started a conversation…was being shut down.”
Activists are the ones who step in to the moment, and, with #lifeinleggings (a full year before #metoo, a hashtag originally used by African-American survivor and activist Tarana Burke, blew up following the 2017 reporting on Harvey Weinstein), Ronelle shifted from survivor to change-maker; literally, her push has been to change the narrative beginning with sharing stories using the hashtag.
“It was always seen as like this isolated incident…and I was like ‘no it’s much deeper than that, it’s systemic’…we don’t exist in an environment where it is supportive of women who come forward with these experiences, we don’t have a culture that is supportive of women who try to achieve justice for themselves.”
Point blank, period. Whether it’s covering our arms and legs to enter public buildings, or reproductive rights, or the right to say no (married or not), or the right to move on from a relationship without violence – issues that make news on the daily here in Antigua and Barbuda and across the region, the culture requires women to negotiate our existence in a way not required of men to the same degree, and not be angry about it.
“We broke our silences,” Jonelle said explaining how #lifeinleggings pushed through the culture of shame, gave context to the statistics, and created a community along a spectrum of experiences and across the Caribbean.
The movement’s first on the ground activity was a solidarity march, March 17th 2017, in Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago, Dominica, The Bahamas, Guyana, Jamaica and St. Lucia. It asserted women’s right “to take up space” – to be in spaces as a right, not a privilege and without harassment. This isn’t just about street harassment, of course, but street harassment is indelibly part of the culture anywhere from pubescence to “mammy”-dom and sometimes on either side of those life stages; which makes the hashtag’s use of leggings (an article of clothing that is gendered, ubiquitous, often criticized, useful as a scapegoat for the defense that women are asking for it by the way they dress), inspired. “We wanted to start a conversation that this violence affects women in all facets of their life and has absolutely nothing to do with what they’re wearing.”
That conversation moved from the streets to the Barbados Museum and Historical Society with 2019’s ‘Insurgents: Redefining Rebellion in Barbados‘.
The exhibition attempted to redefine activism – positioning digital activism and cyber feminism as legit, debunking notions of historical passivity which Ronelle refers to as a “colonial” narrative, and inspiring others to see themselves as “instigators of social change” rather than waiting for the ‘designated group’ (whether Womantra in Trinidad and Tobago or POWA in Antigua and Barbuda) to take up the charge. “Everyone needs to kind of find their role in supporting the movement.”
For those looking to get involved in this work, whatever island they’re on, though, Ronelle’s tip is, “Reach out to the community, liaise with the community, because you can do more harm than good if you advocate on their behalf without seeing what their needs are.”
There are two demographics the Life in Leggings: Caribbean Alliance Against Gender-based Violence has worked to draw in to the movement. Its Pink Parliament initiative is aimed at the “empowerment of girls, increasing women’s participation in politics” and Redefining Masculinities is involved in the re-education of boys and men. The culture being what it is, “women tend to go through an unlearning process and relearning process and men also have to do the same”.
The Pink Parliament educates girls about issues affecting them and women-led advocacies through the political process – e.g. “Dame Billie Miller re: Abortion Rights, National Insurance Scheme; Carmeta Fraser re: Food Security; Muriel ‘Nellie’ Weekes Re: Amendments to the Bastardy Act, Rape trials to be held in private chambers, Equal opportunities in girls’ education & adequate training in family planning.” With this understanding and these examples, Pink Parliament also works to “build their capacity as well as create platforms for them to add their voices to the national discussions.”
Redefining masculinities, which she said participants have been receptive to, endeavors, yes, to explore with men “how they may have contributed to this problem and holding other men accountable” but also how they too are harmed by “toxic masculinity, hyper masculinity, patriarchy” in the way it limits their ability to define their own masculinity and find community that allows full expression of themselves, including their pain and vulnerabilities. “It’s not that we’re saying men are bad, it’s that we want men to be full versions of themselves but they’re not because of the socialization (and other obstacles) they may have had.”
There’s much to unpack but bottom-lining it: “Just because you’re a woman, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to advance women’s issues…women are also socialized in the patriarchy, women also uphold the patriarchy” and men “need to build that space with men who want to also develop non-oppressive and positive expressions of masculinity”. Seeing the patriarchy as a prison for both men and women, the goal is to free both.
Ronelle and her team are working on setting up a physical space and bringing a more structured approach to the reporting of sexual assault.
“Cases take too long to call…persons are turned away by the police,” she said, recalling recent incidents – one in which the police told the victim “he was too tired to fill out the police report” and told her to “go home and fill out the written statement and bring it back” and “…another laughed in her ear because she was an immigrant.” While she has become a focal point, she wants there to be systems through which persons can seek assistance.
Ronelle, who has already accumulated a number of awards, said the Island Innovations award is special. “One of my dear friends from Dominica is who nominated me for it, so it just kind of made me feel as though my work was seen and truly impacted people, not only in the country but in the region…it was a big vote of confidence in me and my organization as well.” She remains committed to building the Caribbean network of activists.
Follow the Life in Leggings blog here.
Watch my full interview with Ronelle King on my AntiguanWriter YouTube channel.
I wrote about ‘#MeToo in the Caribbean’ – mentioning #lifeinleggings and other regional activist activity – back in 2018 here on the blog.
This Roy Wood Jr. episode of The Daily Show Beyond the Scenes series was playing (unplanned) in the background during my interview prep. And when this comment – “Why is the burden on woman to stay safe than on men to change their behavior?” – jumped out at me, I decided that conversation was a part of this one.
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