Unrelenting: Haitian Feminism on the Front Lines
“Olmene listened to her attentively while trying to reconcile the mother with the market vendor, with the woman she was discovering. Ermancia realized this and, just before she closed her eyes, she told Olmene that not everything should be revealed. Especially not to men. “Even if he offers to shelter you and care for your children.” Silence is the safest companion. The only one that would never betray you. “Never, you hear me?” she repeated. Olmene huddled against her mother and laid her head on her stomach. To travel with her across these silent lands where no man had ever penetrated except with the conqueror’s ignorance. Where, despite his vanquishing, he would never know to venture.”Lahens, Yanick. Bain de lune. Sabine Wespieser éditeur, 2014.
Haitian literature is an invaluable resource for analyzing gender relations, women’s struggles – often not self-defined as feminist – or discourses on Haitian feminism. Whether it be the US. occupation (1915-1934) or the Duvalier dictatorship: these historical moments called for clandestine practices and a reigning in of the imaginationHartmann, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 26 (2008): 3. (as Saidiya Hartman theorized) as a methodological tool seems essential, especially when silenceAlexis, Yveline. “Mwen Pas Connait as Resistance: Haitians’ Silence against a Violent State.” Journal of Haitian Studies 21, no. 2 (2016): 269-288. is used as a weapon of resistance. For feminist struggles, on the other hand, the task at hand is foiling silence (“Dejouer le silence,”LAMOUR, Sabine. “Déjouer le silence: Contre discours sur les femmes en Haitii.” (2019). Sabine Lamour). A century of existence, struggle and resistance for Haitian feminism, which reinvents itself in response to challenges raised by internal and external wars.Putnam, Aric Evan. “Black belt millennium”: Rhetorical moments inblack anti-colonialism during the Great Depression. University of Minnesota, 2006.
October 2018. Nice Simon, the mayor of Tabarre (a suburb of Port-au-Prince) files a complaint and organizes a press conference where she states, armed with photographic proof, that she was beaten and kidnapped by her partner, businessman Yves Leonard. An arrest warrant is issued against him. He is not arrested, and although photos of him in public locations across the capital make the rounds, he doesn’t seem all too worried. January 2019. The arrest warrant against Yves Leonard is recalled and the assault is reclassified as a simple infraction. Following a Nice Simon interview with online media outlet Ayibopost, Mr Leonard announces that he’ll be holding a press conference to “shed light on Nice Simon.” But one won’t understand Leonard’s confidence in his complete impunity without one key bit of information: the latter is a close friend of current President of the Republic Jovenel Moise as well as Prime Minister Jean Henry Ceant. As a matter of fact, he owns the villa the President rents as his official residency. The subject of constant and lively rumors of illegal activities, the origins of Yves Leonard’s wealth is shrouded in mystery.
Cases of domestic violence are a high-stakes obstacle course in a country where litigants’ chances of getting justice are near zero. Feminist activist Pascale Solages, speaking on the local podcast Medam Yo Ranse!,Podcast on Haitian feminist issues hosted by Fania Noel and produced by AyiboPost. noted that a case’s evolution depends on “who complains against whom”. In other words, in a context of widespread corruption a trial isn’t played out in the courtroom, but among your connections. To this must one must add the social, family and religious pressure that deters women from bringing these cases to justice. A sadly commonplace situation in many countries, but one that is tenfold in Haiti where you have to pay clerks out of pocket or else they don’t take charge of proceedings, or where your lawyer can be bought off by the opposing party to sabotage your case. Moreover, according to Ms. Simon, Yves Leonard boasts quite publicly of driving in a government vehicle with 3,000 US cash on hand to grease the palms of police officers who would be compelled by a sense of duty.
On January 17 the turnout is quite a surprise: about twenty Solidarite Fanm Ayisyen (SOFA) and Neges Mawon activists have showed up, banners at hand, to Yves Leonard’s press conference. In a conference room at the Plaza Hotel in Port-au-Prince, the women are greeted with threats and slurs. The small group of feminists from Neges Mawon, led by Pascale Solages, arrived first. Wearing yellow t-shirts, Yves Leonard’s supporters, mostly young men but also three women, try to intimidate them. But for the Neges Mawon activists, this isn’t their first rodeo. When the usual insults hurled at feminists are shouted at her, artivist and actress Gaelle Ben-Aimé remains stoic. Slurs and other excuses for domestic violence came raining down: “bouzen” (whore) “madivin” (dyke) “rayi neg” (man hater)…
When SOFA activists turn up in their purple T-shirts, the ring leader among Leonard’s supporters let loose an “O, non ! Medam SOFA yo.” (“Oh, no! It’s those SOFA chicks.”) and signaled his troops to quiet down.
A Century of Haitian Feminism
While Neges Mawon is a new feminist organization using diverse methods such as demonstrations, art or one-on-one support for victims of gendered violence, SOFA is among the veteran feminist organizations. Founded on February 22, 1986, a few days after the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship and the departure into exile of Jean-Claude Duvalier and his family, SOFA is the most important feminist organization in the country. Its members’ reputation is based on 33 years of work and activism, as well as an important network, notably thanks to the drop-in centers throughout the country that provide legal support to women victims of sexual, domestic or economic violence. This crucial facet allows them to develop an analysis that integrates class and rural issues based on women’s experiences within their communities, all while leading large-scale legal and political struggles.
Attacks against feminist movements and their representatives in Haiti never question the legitimacy of their existence, but challenge instead their politics, unlike France where, for example, self-identified anti-colonial/decolonial movements sometimes imply that feminism is an issue for white people alone.
The legitimacy of the Haitian feminist movement lies in its century-long rootedness but also in the heart of its politics. As early as 1915 many women were active in the Union patriotique contre l’occupation americaine (Patriotic Union against the US. Occupation) (1915-1934). In 1934 the first officially feminist Haitian organization was founded, the Ligue feminine d’action sociale (Women’s League for Social Action). This league focuses its actions on the working class: “evening courses for working women, a people’s credit union, talks across the country, opening of libraries, a worker’s home, lobbying authorities to open girls’ schools, demands for equal pay for equal work.”Côté, Denyse. “Luttes féministes en Haïti: aléas d’une conjoncture mouvante.” (2016). The Duvalier dictatorship did what totalitarian regimes do best: oppress movements for freedom and against the patriarchal order, and push them to the margins and underground. Among these figures was Yvonne Hakim Rimpel, founding member of the Ligue feminine d’action sociale, who was also a journalist devoted to exposing abuse committed by the Tonton Makout.Duvarlier’s milice. She was the target of brutal state repression on the night of January 4 to 5, 1958. After abusing her two daughters, she was kidnapped, beaten, tortured, and left for dead on a street in Petion-Ville.Suburb of Port-au-Prince.
NGO-ization and Depoliticization of Feminist Issues
The fall of the dictatorship led to the re-emergence of feminists on the political scene. As a result of General Raoul Cedras’ military regime (1991-1994), rape as a weapon of political repression takes center space in their struggles. The year 1994 marks the lasting presence of “peacekeeping” military troops following the arrival of tens of thousands of US Marines. This new context brings its own conundrums, as while these are forces of foreign interference, they at the same time allow for wider political space, an openness of discourse and invitation to democratic practice, emphasizing the need for a plurality of actors and a strong civil society, notably through capacity building programs. Namely, in 1994 the women’s movement secures a ministry: that of the status of women and women’s rights (Ministere à la Condition Feminine et aux Droits des Femmes – MCFDF). The first woman to lead this ministry was a feminist and founding member of SOFA, Lise Marie Dejean.
The extreme NGO-izationMoallic, Benjamin. “Sur «l’ONGisation des mouvements sociaux»: dépolitisation de l’engagement ou évitement du social?.” Revue internationale des etudes du developpement 2 (2017): 57-78. of Haiti after the 2010 earthquake led to a mutation of feminist issues: NGO funding on gender issues mirrors Western imagination and femonationalist imperialist policy.Farris, Sara R. In the name of women s rights: The rise of femonationalism. Duke University Press, 2017. Three processes took place simultaneously: the depoliticization of poverty through the focus on micro-enterprise projects, the decontextualization of gender-based violence despite it being tied to poverty in Haiti, and the development of a discourse of Haitian women’s passivity that obscured the history and accomplishments of the feministLAMOUR, Sabine. “Déjouer le silence: Contre discours sur les femmes en Haitii.” (2019). movement, in favor of marketing poverty to donors and a Western public eager to “save” Haitian women. During this period, part of the feminist movement was unwavering it its denunciation of rapes committed by soldiers in the Mission des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en Haiti (MINUSTAH – United Nations Mission for Stabilization in Haiti). This mission was moreover labeled an occupying force by the Coordination Nationale de Plaidoyer pour les Droits des Femmes (CONAP – National Coalition for Advocacy for Women’s Rights).
Nine years later, donors cut the taps and the vast majority of NGOs have left Haiti. As expected, their actions left no significant impact. Haitian director and producer Raoul Peck’s film, Assistance mortelle (Lethal Aid) does a good job of illustrating how the bulk of funds return to the “helping” countries, whether through purchasing materials, agricultural products, very generous salaries, risk premiums, and consulting fees.
Enemies Without, Enemies Within: Fighting against Corruption and Interference
Hunger riots, electoral crises, mass exodus of young people to Brazil and Chile, corruption, Hurricane Matthew… far from the spotlight, crises follow back to back, fatigue and resignation in their wake. And just when you think fatalism has settled in for good – surprises happen. In 2018 of one of the greatest mobilizations of the last thirty years emerged: the PetroChallengers movement.
In a video for AJ+ in French, journalist Ralph Thomassaint Joseph explains how this movement, which started with a picture taken by filmmaker Gilbert Mirambeau Jr. asking “Kot kòb PetroCaribe a?”,”Where’s the PetroCaribe money?” PetroCaribe is an alliance between Venezuela and Caribbean countries whereby Venezuela sells oil to the latter with preferential payment terms, with profits derived by countries like Haiti to then be reinvested in social and economic development projects. The PetroCaribe fund in Haiti is estimated at US $3.8 billion. has rallied an entire generation.
It’s young people born after 1986 who make up the heart of the movement. Among them many young feminists. Like the fight against poverty, the fight against corruption is led with equal fervor by the flagship feminist organizations. Endemic corruption is made possible by successive governments in broad daylight, on an alarming scale and with total impunity. The PetroCaribe case is the (giant) straw that broke the camel’s back, for a generation that sees no viable future but does not want to emigrate. The Haitian feminist movement showed true political savvy by never falling in thrall to the siren song of the depoliticization of poverty nor those of the disempowerment of the state in favor of a simplistic anti-imperialist discourse. Haitian youth organizing articulates claims against interference among its battle, condemning the US support of Parti Haitien Tet Kale (PHTK), the political party of former President Michel Martelly, also that of current President Jovenel Moise. On January 31, when the first court-audited report on the PetroCaribe funds was to be made public, the American ambassador Michelle J. Sisson and the French Ambassador Jose Gomez dropped by the Haitian Parliament for a “courtesy visit” in the midst of political maneuvering around Venezuela. The timing of this meeting raised many questions in Haitian press.
The New Generation of Feminists
Neges Mawon (founded in 2015) is probably the feminist organization most invested in challenging the misuse of PetroCaribe funds, whether through demonstrations or organizational alliances. Its social media-savvy members were mostly born after 1986, which creates a generational affinity between the organization and the movement. Pascale Solages, organizational spokesperson, is one of the important figures of the PetroChallengers movement. Gaelle Bien-Aime, also a member, uses her creative works whether it be her live shows or her AnrivanSatirical humor series on political and social issues produced by AyiboPost. series to engage and organize.
Within organizations like SOFA or Kay Fanm we also find leading Haitian sociologists, economists and researchers – such as sociologist Sabine Lamour, SOFA coordinator. It complements the network of community activists and organizers in rural areas who develop the feminist practices of organization and struggle.
Neges Mawon’s membership is mostly young artists, students and professionals often based in Port-au-Prince. This newer generation of feminists have made strategic choices: instead of replicating the know-how of older organizations, they have chosen to be more complementary. They can’t provide legal support to women victims of violence, but offer a support system. Neges Mawon has set up a peer support network for women victims of violence who are starting legal proceedings whereby activists make sure to be in daily contact for support. In organizations such as SOFA or Kay Fanm, there are leading Haitian sociologists, economists and researchers, who’s work complements that of a network of activists and community organizers in rural areas, rooted in feminist practices of organization and struggle. Neges Mawon, founded in 2015, is probably the feminist organization most invested in challenging the misuse of the PetroCaribe funds. Its members, mostly born after 1986, are very present on the internet and at demonstrations. Pascale Solages is one of the important figures of the PetroChallengers movement and the artist Gaelle Bien-Aime, also a member of Neges Mawon, uses her creative works and shows to engage and organize. The membership is composed mainly of young women artists, students and professionals often based in Port-au-Prince. This newer generation of feminists have made strategic choices: instead of replicating the know-how of older organizations, they have chosen to be more complementary. They can’t provide legal aid to women victims of violence but develop a support system; thus, a peer support program for women victims of violence who launch legal proceedings has been set up and activists ensure daily contact.
There are several artists among these young feminists. Anyes Noel is an actress, director and poet from Guadeloupe who has been living in Haiti for 4 years. That famous morning of January 17, she squeezed in a stop at Plaza Hotel to stand up to Yves Leonard before running off to rehearsal. That same evening was the second performance of a play that she was directing, “Gouyad Senpye”, (Saint Peter the Gyrator), by playwright Darline Gilles. A play on the living conditions of women in Haitian prisons but also on the judicial system. The troupe is made up in part of professional actresses, but also amateur actresses who are former detainees. The work was funded by the Bureau des Droits Humains en Haiti (BDHH – Office of Human Rights in Haiti) and the performance took place at the Fondasyon Konesans ak Libète (FOKAL), the Haitian branch of the Open Society Foundation. The almost non-existent state budget for organizations makes them dependent on private sector sponsorship, which means censoring all political content. Funding by foundations, embassies and international organizations comes with separate issues how how actions are “framed”, even when the grants are at the most minimal.
In countries like France, even radical feminist organizations that aren’t state funded can rely on other means like crowdfunding, since there’s a critical mass that can contribute. In Haiti the middle class is more a mirage than a reality. Therefore up and coming feminist organizations can’t rely on those rare representatives of the bourgeoisie.
What We Can Learn From Haitian Feminists
The third edition of the Neges Mawon feminist festival took place in September 2018. The theme that year was “Rev boukannen” (“Scorched Dreams”). One of the highlights was the staging of the play written by Joeanne Joseph, a member of the organization but also an actress, playwright and shop owner. The play, which was performed in theater but also in the open, draws a subtle and forceful portrait of the physical, sexual and social violence suffered by women street vendors in markets which, left in a state of disrepair, are at the mercy of extortionist gangs. The work also discusses how these women vendors produce the wealth drained by the bourgeoisie which controls all commodity imports, such as consumer goods, and finally the violence in their own homes.
Late 2018, in La Saline, the largest market in the capital, the continuous violence reached its peak when 24 bodies were found on a pile of rubbish just a stone’s throw from the Parliament. As I sit writing this, no information has been released on the identity of the victims, the motives and means of the crime, or even when they died.
In 2018, 80% of SOFA’s cases dealt with child support. Sharma Aurelien, a SOFA activist whose research focuses on these issues, said on the Medam Yo Ranse! podcast “women come for help securing child support when they really can no longer support the kids by themselves. But when you dig deeper you see that they’ve suffered violence of all kinds: domestic, sexual, psychological”. In order for women to go through the whole process, organization sometimes has to take on relocation costs to cities outside of the capital, but also manage the basic daily needs for the victim’s family. Scorched Dreams, “Rev boukannen”: title of the third edition of the Neges Mawon feminist festival held in September 2018. The event included a staging of a play written by Joeanne Joseph, member of the organization, actress, playwright and shop owner. The play draws a subtle and forceful portrait of the physical, sexual and social violence suffered by women market vendors in markets which, left in a state of disrepair, puts these women at the mercy of extortionist gangs. It also states quite forcefully: these women vendors create riches for the bourgeois who manage the import of commodities. Finally, it recounts the violence they experience in their very own homes. Late 2018, in La Saline, the largest market in the capital, the continuous violence reached its peak when 24 bodies were found on a pile of rubbish just a stone’s throw from the Parliament. As I sit writing this, no information has been released on the identity of the victims, the motives and means of the crime, or even when they died. In 2018, 80% of SOFA’s cases dealt with child support. Sharma Aurelien, a SOFA activist whose research focuses on these issues, said on the Medam Yo Ranse! podcast : “women come for help in securing child support when they really can no longer support the kids by themselves, but when you dig deeper you see that they’ve suffered violence of all kinds: domestic, sexual, psychological”. In order for women to go through the whole process, the organization sometimes has to take on relocation costs to cities outside of the capital, but also manage the basic daily needs for the victim’s family.
One would be tempted to include Haiti in Clenora Hudson-Weems’ concept of Africana WomanismHudson-Weems, Clenora. Africana womanism: Reclaiming ourselves. Routledge, 2019., which seeks to frame Afro-descendant feminism in an afrocentric perspective, but this would be to ignore the Haitian context and its relationship to race. Haiti is part of a pioneering historicity on thinking of blackness and its antagonism with whiteness.Kaisary, Philip. “‘To break our chains and form a free people’: Race, nation, and Haiti’s imperial constitution of 1805.” (2018). By tying blackness to its national identity from the moment of its foundation, Haiti is the first afrodescendant nation-state. Notwithstanding a shared history of deportation and slavery with Black Americans, the fact that the Haitian nation is attached to a state, which moreover has interests antagonistic to the United States, poses limits and challenges in aligning the political objectives of feminist movements in Haiti and those in the United States but also those in other countries in the region with afrodescendant communities.
What if the Haitian context could serve as a point of decentralization for black feminist movements in countries where they are a racial minority? The identity and political project of the Haitian nation are intrinsically linked to blackness. Can the Haitian feminist movement, as well as the stories of enslaved women during the French colonization of Saint Domingue, enlighten us on how to think about liberation from patriarchal oppression in a context where imperialist (or racist) domination weighs heavily? How does it expand the call for a feminism for the 99%,Fraser, Nancy, Cinzia Arruzza, and Tithi Bhattacharya. Feminism for the 99%. London, England: Verso, 2019. that seeks to use struggles from the margins as a springboard?
“[F]eminism must become a mass based political movement if it is to have a revolutionary, transformative impact on society,”hooks, bell. Feminist theory: From margin to center. Pluto Press, 2000. these words from bell hooks are more than relevant. While the apolitical and liberal peril increasingly threatens black feminist movements in the United States, Canada and Europe, through the obsession with issues of individual representation and transformation, looking towards the feminist struggles of the Global South helps both re-prioritize and avoid underhanded debates around legitimacy.
Although quoting Lenin is always a perilous exercise, his words here are perfectly suited: “[P]olitics begin where millions of men and women are; where there are not thousands, but millions, that is where serious politics begin”. Poverty, prisons, sexual violence, work, fight against corruption… Haitian feminists take up issues that affect millions and seek women where they gather: in the working classes, outside of feminist organizations.
Published in Ballast, a critical Marxist journal in March 2019.
Fania Noel is a doctoral candidate in Sociology, NSSR. She is a Franco-Haitian author and afrofeminist activist-organizer, working on the frontlines to fight Anti-Blackness , misogynoir and to highlight Black internationalism/Panafricanism. She is the co-founder and publication director of AssiégéEs (Besieged) a political publishing project led by women, queer and trans people of color. She published an afro-revolutionary manifesto in 2019 entitled “Afro-Communautaire: Appartenir a Nous Memes,” which aims to inspire a wider political project in France.
Translation by Nadine Mondestin.