Lost in Paradise: A Look at the Oppressiveness of Religion through the Experience of Caribbean Women (November 2001)

My paternal grandmother is one of the most religious women I’ve ever known. She’s practically run every parish church she’s ever joined. An avid Seventh Day Adventist, she always tries to inveigle me into going to Church with her. As a child, I often gave in just to keep the peace. My refusals, as a headstrong, open-minded college student, have put a serious strain on our relationship.

The discrepancy between her beliefs and her actions sometimes confused me as a child. On the one hand, she claimed to have a direct line to God’s ear through the church, yet she never hesitated when it came to spreading gossip about anyone she didn’t like, including me when she supposed I was out of earshot. As an avowed Adventist, she insisted on the evils of eating meat. Yet she always found ways to filch pieces of chicken from my plate. I was often confused, but I soon learned that asking for clarification was not a good idea. Or a Godly one.

My grandmother came by her inconsistency honestly. She was born and raised in Trinidad, the southernmost island in the Caribbean archipelago. As a child, she herself was well indoctrinated into the double standards that pass for religiosity in that part of the world. Religion is probably the best-selling commodity in the Caribbean. It has Caribbean peoples in a head-grip so fierce that generations of the influence of education have not been able to loosen its hold. It is a powerful force of oppression.

Both men and women are affected, but women far more so. They are the progenitors of the faith, the keepers of the mustard seeds. And they hold such positions with resolved pride. Ask most Caribbean women if religion is an oppressive force to them or anyone else and they will laugh in your face and quote you a psalm. For them religion actually represents veritable freedom. It is this dialectic that I would like to explore.

As a child, I had many questions about my grandmother’s faith. But because I was a child, my questions tended to be straightforward and egocentric. Why did the church make her deny her own desire to eat meat? Why couldn’t she get her own chicken and stop yelling at me about the dangers on my plate–while waiting impatiently for me to stop eating so that she could polish off the rest? Why did she try to baptise me each and every year I visited her? Why, during a visit, couldn’t I go outside and play with my friends on Saturday afternoons? And why was getting to heaven so stressful for her and for me?

My mother was herself the product of similar Caribbean parenting. But in her case, the influence of education took root and her mind discovered freedom. It wasn’t an easy task. Her most vivid memory as a child is of her grandmother forcing her to go to Church the night before the 11-plus, a major exam that all 11-year-olds on the island had to take, and which literally determined one’s fate and future. But my maternal great-grandmother did not care. She wanted to go to Church and my mother had no choice but to accompany her. Somewhere around 10 pm, it dawned on the Church leader that my mother, who by this point could barely keep her eyes open, was probably around 11 years old. And so he asked what she was doing there, didn’t she have the big exam the next day? And that’s how my mother got to run home and go to bed, and wake up next day refreshed enough to sit the exam and pass for the best school on the island. And seven years later, she was the first member of her family to leave the island to pursue tertiary education in North America, which is where I was born and which is why my mind is free.

But if you were to ask a Caribbean woman about her mind, she would say that it is free, thank you very much, and would you like to join her in reading Genesis chapters three to eleven? And if her husband were to beat her and she were to go to the priest or pastor for help, he would tell her that marriage is ordained in heaven and that what God hath put together, no man should put asunder. And so she would go back home and take the licks in the name of God.

There are many religions in the Caribbean. In fact, these islands are an interesting hodgepodge of religious choices. The Catholic Church, once a dominant force, is in decline. But it has been replaced by a growing Pentecostal movement that encourages its followers to sing and dance and clap hands and praise the Lord. And it is mostly the women who do the dancing and the singing and the clapping and the praising. In fact, they often spend all Sunday doing nothing but that. I do not exaggerate.

But the Catholics lashed back with the Charismatic Movement, which encourages its followers to receive gifts from the Holy Spirit. Except that the Spirit seems to commune largely with women. Or adolescent girls, like the ones who see the bleeding statues of Mary or get visited by her personally. Again, I do not exaggerate.

And then there is the influence of Islam, which has found fertile soil among the poor and disenfranchised, and which requires its women to remain covered from head to toe. And the women do, despite the hot Caribbean sun and the non-existence of Saharan sandstorms.

And did I mention Hinduism which is alive and well in islands such as Trinidad with its population of the descendants of indentured laborers? When clay statues of Lord Ganesh all over the country became thirsty three years or so ago, it was women who fed them milk and marveled at the miracle.

And then there are the Africa-influenced religions such as Shango and Orisha, with their Gods and Goddesses and evil and good spirits and the importance of pouring libation to the ancestors. And it is the women who keep these traditions alive.
Not that the women ever emerge to positions of leadership. They rarely do. They don’t complain because most take the Bible’s messages very literally.

“To the woman He said, ‘I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth your children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’ (Genesis 4.16)”

If you ask a Caribbean woman about this, chances are she will say that the man is the head of the household and should rule over her. And she will quote Scripture to support it too. And she will say that she is free, and the truth is that Church or Temple or Mosque or Kingdom Hall is the one place that her husband will let her attend without complaint. Even when a woman does reach a level of prestige within a church, such as my grandmother’s various important positions of Choir Leader and Vacation Bible School Co-Director, they aren’t really valued partners.

My high school principal in Trinidad was recently awarded a special recognition-of-service plaque blessed by the Pope. In Trinidad this is what is known as “mamaguying”–which is basically allowing someone to believe what they want to so that they’ll cause less of a commotion. So, for the benefit of the few Caribbean feminists like myself, trivial gendered positions such as Choir Directors and blessed plaques are highlighted to show that women are valued and aren’t being oppressed by any religion in any way at all.

The social phenomenon of sexism is directly related to religion’s perpetuation of hegemonic masculinity and its interplay with emphasized femininity. There has been no historic process that birthed a religion that did not provoke gender divisions. The tenets of this process create essential sexism. Sexism is a part of the interlocking systems of oppression, a virtual matrix of domination, which religions have historically had no problems perpetuating in order to serve the interests of its higher ministers.

The Caribbean society, a society that seems to be a virtual laissez-faire paradise to others, is a perfect example of a culture that nurtures gender inequality, a gendered division of labor and emphasized femininity through its various religions. The fact that the Caribbean has been deemed the “true melting-pot” as a result of its various peoples finding it easier to interact freely without incredibly high levels of prejudice and racism, still has not afforded women an equal place in society. This is significantly true due to the concentration of oppressive religions in the West Indies.

Many religions have found ways to penetrate deeply into Caribbean society, especially through the schools. Schools are only prestigious in the Caribbean if they have a religious denomination–and these prestigious schools are incredibly sexist. Other than the conventional subjects, girls do sewing and cooking, whereas boys’ schools encourage technical drawing and woodwork.

Although I was raised in the United States, my mother returned to her island for a few years and I attended high school there. It was an interesting experience. My school insisted on constant prayer–prayer before and after every class, and staying after school to pray for the Pope on the day of his monthly physical. The focus was never taken off of learning–don’t get me wrong–but prayer was seen as an integral aspect of one’s education. And of course our participation in Trinidad’s annual Carnival festivities were strongly discouraged. Catholicism has attempted to eradicate the cultural festivities of the island, and the women tend to be the principal antagonists.

Have there been any changes? Certainly. The Anglican Church in Trinidad now boasts a woman Bishop. The Catholic Church seems to be softening its position on homosexuality. More non-denominational schools are being built.

But the modern ‘political correctness’ that has at least made less apparent the crudeness of sexism has slowly but surely made its way into the traditionalist force of Caribbean society. And so, implied sexism still exists, and many religions have subtly adopted this policy in an attempt to keep the sexist interests of their governing bodies alive.

It is no accident that God is mentioned in the opening sentence of every constitution in the Caribbean. Or that the representation of Caribbean women in the various parliaments remains ridiculously small. Laws and legal documents, backed by the Churches, still insist on the signature of the Male Head of Household, and while a handful of women complain and protest about this, the majority have no problem with their virtual disenfranchisement in this way.

Caribbean women can recognize the implications of having so few women in positions of power. They complain that domestic violence, incest, and rape continue to spoil the lives of many women and children. They know that they are paid less then men for doing the same jobs–even though more girls and women are graduating from high schools and local universities than boys and men. They say that these and other areas of unfairness must be remedied. What they are reluctant to concede is the significant role that religion plays in maintaining the status quo.

Freedom From Religion Foundation