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What women are doing—with tambourines

Published: 
Sunday, March 19, 2017

“Where Womantra?” Trinbagonian men continue to ask derisively, as if they were looking up agnostically into the Gotham skies for the local superheroines. But, actually, that introit and its companion “Why Womantra eh do something?” Are really ways to lyrically manhandle the arrogance of the upstart group and its young women leaders—my friends Stephanie Leitch, Amanda McIntyre and Khadija Sinanan—in their work of expanding public ideas about both feminism and social protest.

Men in Barbados similarly have made fun of LifeInLeggings, a movement inspired by Ronelle King and Allyson Benn (which, like Womantra, arose online) that has empowered women to speak out cathartically, across class and age, about their daily experiences of sexual harassment and abuse. Men coined hashtags like LifeInBoxers and EggplantEntries to replicate the very dismissive sooting women were naming, and to argue that men too suffer gender oppression.

Womantra and Life In Leggings were both behind domestic marches last weekend commemorating International Women’s Day. They took place in co-ordination with similar events across six Caribbean capitals, including Georgetown, Kingston, Nassau and St John’s (Roseau’s got stormed out). Several reflected a particular national inflection of gender-based violence: murders for Port-of-Spain; taking back the streets for Barbados—and for Jamaica child sexual abuse.

Kingston’s activity was a survivor empowerment march against sexual violence organised by yet another nascent movement of young feminist women—their particular passion the sexual epidemic of abuse of girls, often by clergy, and the chronic impunity and protection perpetrators enjoy.

Jamaican men are not sniggering, though.

The Tambourine Army set out last Saturday from Molynes Street’s Covenant Moravian Church. The collective takes its name from an incident at another Moravian congregation, Nazareth Church, in Manchester, following the arrest of its pastor, Rupert Clarke, 64, charged with having sex with a 15-year-old. At his arraignment, the principal of an area girls’ school, Heather Murray, showed up in solidarity—with the accused. After howls of protest, she served a two-week suspension.

As he tried to bring order to a protest at the church by 14 survivors of childhood sexual abuse, a woman took an instrument to the head of the head of the denomination, Dr Paul Gardner. The blow was a vigilante charge against the leader himself, who later resigned, along with his deputy, as accusations swirled that church leaders knew of sexual abuse and failed to act.

Clarke had powerful defenders. Latoya Nugent (one of the three Tambourine Army founders, along with Nadia Spence and Taitu Heron), who wrote she ought to have used a more harmful weapon, has not. She has picked fights with everyone, including me, pulling out of the panel I travelled to Jamaica for, because I wouldn’t change my presentation. She’s told off older, long-suffering feminists.

Frustrated with the police and courts which, like so many across the Caribbean, have failed to deliver justice for abused women and children, the Tambourine Army has fashioned itself as “a radical movement that was formed organically out of an urgent recognition to advocate differently for the rights of women and girls.” They launched a simple campaign: SayTheirNames. On social media, women began to name their abusers and the abusers of those they loved, with more powerful weapons than Nugent used to avenge her partner.

Jamaican women with powerful voices disparaged Nugent’s violence and disrespect, writing they would not be shaking a tambourine last weekend.

The march came, 700 strong, and media ignored it.

Tuesday police arrested Nugent.

Not for assault. Not for libel—for which truth is, after all, a defence.

Men whose names she had published online launched complaints. And Jamaica’s police charged Nugent for cybercrimes, and took her to the Counter Terrorism and Organized Crime branch.

She suffered a series of seizures in custody. Her well-known doctor was denied access because he couldn’t prove he was a doctor. A friend found her unresponsive in detention, and she was taken to Kingston public hospital. There’s no record in the station diary she complained of illness—or was assaulted during her arrest—Communications Unit Superintendent Stephanie Lindsay said, in response to claims.

Section 9(1) of the 2015 Cybercrimes Act criminalises using a computer to send anyone any data that is obscene, constitutes a threat, or is menacing in nature and which causes annoyance, inconvenience, distress or anxiety to the receiver or any other person.

The UK Guardian published a pithy article late Wednesday. But, outside of Jamaica, Caribbean media have been stunningly silent.

Last month, another woman was charged under the Act after posting her boyfriend was accused of rape and murder.

Immediately following their arrest of Nugent, Jamaican police warned the public that misuse of social media platforms to post “child pornography, images of carcasses, videos of domestic violence, public mischief and false news” on social media...could be dangerous, lead to distress and possible breaches of the law.”

Jamaican writer Kei Miller blogs: “In my own church, where women were expressly forbidden from speaking in church, old Sister Gilzene always brought her tambourine...She could not speak, but she could be loud...the noise of the tambourine was never an elegant sound.”

It’s heartbreaking that so many of us across the Caribbean who can speak so loudly have had so little to say about all these abuses. And all we can ask here is: “Where Womantra?”