“Famn se chatenn, nonm se fouyapen dou”

 I attended the conference of this two day festival, which took place last month at SOAS. The conference was entitled “Fanm se chatenn, nonm se fouyapen dou”, (“La femme est une châtaigne, l’homme est un fruit-à-pain” in French, “Woman is a chestnut, man is a breadfruit in English), in other words when fallen from the tree a ‘chatenn’ is hardy and grows back, whereas a ‘fouyapen’ is soft and will turn rotten. Proverbs marking Caribbean woman’s role as ‘poto-mitan’, the stereotype of the resilient woman who can bear or support anything, have been passed down through the generations and underscore the contemporary image of what Mirza (1997) calls the ‘Super Black Woman’. From traditional folktales to modern day music videos, the Creole woman is depicted as strong, pillar-like, financially and emotionally independant, diligent, virtuous and altruistic. Whereas the Creole man is often represented as unreliable, missing and philanderous.

On the theme of gender stereotypes within the African diaspora in the Caribbean and the UK, the conference included academic and non-academic papers, performance and film from both men and women across the African diaspora dealing with questions of: How gender stereotypes are constructed? How they are perpetuated within the region and across the diaspora? How are they maintained or suppressed? Who yields the power to change prevailing attitudes to gender?

Highlights of the day for me were Stéphanie Meylon-Reinette’s paper on matrifocality and the integration of Haitian diaspora in New York. The discussion was on family patterns in black society, with particular focus on the intrinsic connection between resiliency and matrifocality. Of particular interest to my research was Stéphanie’s analysis of the dichotomy of Haitian society, which revealed the difference in development of family patterns between rural and urban communities on the island. Traditionally in the countryside where Creole and Vodou culture have been of greater importance, families tend to be enlarged and the informal union of ‘plasaj’ is commonplace. Haitians from the city, on the other hand, tend to be more assimilated to a French family pattern, a European-like Judeo-Christian family, where only the nuclear family is recognized.  Much of what Stéphanie discussed seemed relevant to my research on gender within and beyond Vodou in Anne Lescot’s and Laurence Magloire’s documentary Des Hommes et des Dieux (2002).

Other standout presentations included that of Rukayah Sarumi, a SOAS graduate who was recently counted among Powerful Media’s annual Future Leaders List, a list containing 100 recent graduates of African and African- Caribbean descent who are considered to have the potential to impact and evoke progressive change in Britain. Rukhaya’s talk deconstructed the ‘myth of a black superwoman’. Exploring media representations of the black woman as ‘superhuman’ and ‘agressive’ from as far back as the Creole woman as ‘nanny of the maroons’ to present day depictions of Michelle Obama, her argument highlighted most notably the pressure for women to remain defeminized on an intellectual level, while assuming the role of a ‘lady’ in the popular imagination.

 The conference closed with a screening of Trinidadian director Jimmel Daniel’s documentary The Power of the Vagina (2009). The film explores the issue of women’s sexuality and sexual politics in Trinidad and Tobago, examining opinions and assumptions about the various ways in which women use their sexuality—and the ways men respond. Daniel’s interviews with a wide range of Trinidadian society illustrate the shifts in attitudes and interviewees are shown to be relatively comfortable  discussing issues surrounding sexuality. As Neigeme Glasgow-Maeda noted at the end of the screening, Trinidad was a genderless society until independance and colonial resistance meant that discourses surrounding race were of greater concern. The specificity of Trinidad’s history, it’s ethnic and religious mix has ensured a uniqueness to how attitudes towards sexuality have been constructed, very different from say the island of Haiti or the French Caribbean. It is this nuance and attention to historical and cultural specificity which for me are crucial to the film as the audience is left with an impression of a society that is far more tolerant and less conservative than often perceived.

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