A Rastawoman lives in a unique spiritual place: she possesses the tools of virtue, humility and respect to enter celestial Zion while being armed with a political nature, historical knowledge and the experience of a multiple of oppression to effectively dent the system. In addition to the manner in which race and class oppression have affected Black women, so have the admittance of gender oppression and urban biases furthered the entrenchment of women’s subordination. Black women’s liberation is often stilted by the time they realise that their oppression is somehow tied into their relations with their own brethren. Their cries and protests are supported by Black men as long as they are aimed at the white middle classes.
However, when the subject of gender oppression is surfaced and the Black man himself is implicated in this oppression, the tones become hushed and criticism then levelled, yet again, to a white construction of reality unsuitable to Black cultures. Unfortunately, it is the nature of man to expose eloquently the manner is which he is being disempowered by the rich white men but his sharp mind becomes dull and disoriented when he attempts to understand the manner in which he disempowers his own wife in their domestic surroundings. The Rastaman can be said to be of this category, hating the Babylonian system of exploitation yet relegating women to a submissive and backward position. There are too many accounts of Rastawomen restricted from work or forced to chose gender-specific employment because it is digestable for the man. In the Caribbean, a Rastawoman is viewed sceptically if she does not have a number of children running around and tugging at her skirt hem. The opinions of many non-Rastas is that Rastawomen are present primarily to breed and have little control over their fertility. And most conscious in the minds of many Rastas and non-Rastas alike is the manner in which many Rastamen advocate the desire, even entitlement for more than one woman. Is this type of quasi-polygamy in fact a form of exploitation against woman and how can a Rastawoman overcome such a foundation?
Among the many tenets of Rastafari which have been transported and cultivated within African society, the much-contested unwritten social order of polygamy within Rasta has taken root as hungrily as germinating seeds seek out the nourishment of the earth. As it stands, the complexity begins with the very use of the term “polygamy”. The basis of the rejection of this terminology by many Rastas is two-fold. Firstly, the term “polygamy” is largely viewed as a western definition for a system barely understood by those not borne into it or those who don’t embrace it on religious grounds. Secondly, polygamy for many, is loaded with negative connotations, blasphemous consequences and imprisonment in some countries. Understably then, Rastas do not wish to have any aspect of their life defined from a western perspective and dislike having to defend actions which are supposedly sanctioned by the scriptures and ignited from love. The picture that then emerges is one fraught by differing terminologies – many Rastas would deny that they are polygamous although they are involved openly with more than one woman. This stems only from a disagreement with the term itself and they might very well be in congruence with the concept of polygamy itself. Critically and theoretically speaking however, while polygamy has its roots in an economical justification which is supposed to provide wives with an certain degree of independence, in too many cases it has been co-opted by worldly desires. The study of Islam where polygamy is permitted, requires that a man be financially equipped to support all wives and the authority of the first wife to accept or reject junior wives is also important. In light of this then, do South African Rastas practice exercise polygamy in theory or in practice?
Certainly, the combination of unequal ratios of men to women, the cultural backdrop of African society where polygamy flourished under, in some cases, the migrant labour system and the general psychology of (wo)man to seek out different sources of love, can be like a grain of sand finding its way to the oyster to birth a unique pearl. This, of course, does not bear fruit within a vacuum but within the spirit of the ultimate intentions. The subliminal understanding of relations between men and women within Rasta has been internalised by many Rastas worldwide, attacked by others as carnal and severely criticised by feminists as gender subordination. Certainly Rastamen everywhere appear to gravitate towards this perception of freedom with ease, from the hills of Jamaica to the inner cities of London and Birmingham. Even within the fragmentation of Rastafari, this need to interact on a spiritual, emotional and physical level with many sisteren, is a common thread linking many brethren worldwide. Could it be that Rastamen are enjoying the kind of expression most men dream of but which cannot be realised in a world where most men are constrained by notions of fear and control? Is the Rastaman to be victimised because he is open about what most men conceal from their wives and even themselves?
A commonly held view to the resistance to polygamy within Rasta has been heaped on Rastawomen, the latter of being told that if only she would submit to the scriptures and to her King, a balanced domestic and social order could be established. However, Rastawomen dwell within a unique contradiction – as Black and Rasta women they are acutely aware of their roles as support structures to men within the struggle, while remaining mindful of the need that their own liberation is an end in itself. Often, a Rastawoman’s emancipation translates to a shift in the design of her home and her relationship, sometimes encountering resistance from her King. Hence, forever mindful of the oppression already experienced by the Black man, she does not risk further disintegration of the Black family and increased alienation of her man and thus allows her life and works to be dictated. Within this kaleidscope of constructed realities, anthems from every conceivable movement worldwide and the ignorance of self, it is increasing difficult for women to truly know if they are lovingly liberated or shrewdly subjugated within this “loving” but patriarchal system.
Lisa-Anne Julien is Trinidadian-born and currently residing in Johannesburg. By profession, she is a gender researcher. She is also a freelance writer and has written for a number of publication, which include Y Mag, Bl!nk, Sunday Times, New African to name a few.