Feminism in the Third World: Women in Haiti

Myriam J. A. Chancy

( adapted from chapter 1 of her recent book:
Framing Silence : Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women )

The token inclusion of Third World women in Western feminist discourse has long resulted in a global and cross-cultural homogenization of women's experience. This undermines every woman's ability to proceed with a political agenda consonant with her own social and cultural exigencies. These social factors will differ from country to country and will further be mediated within any particular social context by issues of race, sex, sexuality and class. Contrary to Western feminist myths, feminism in the Third World is not an isolated effort focusing only on issues of women's access to wealth, health and legal rights. Third World feminists also focus on the disruption of patterns of hegemony which bind whole groups of people to poverty, illiteracy, and lives filled with violence.

A case in point is Haitian feminism which presents itself as a defiant strain of Thrid World feminism in the West hinging on socialist reform, a belief in the universalization of human rights, and a steadfast dedication to the uplifting of women in nationalist and global agendas. Faced with finding solutions to such diverse issues as well as to the problems of limited education, inaccessible careers, voting rights, and protection under the law at the beginning of the twentieth century, Haitian feminists could not affort to be narrow in their vision. Their efforts demonstrate Third World women's tacit understanding that the liberation of women on multiple fronts will result in the emancipation of all.

Perhaps one of the reasons why the existence of feminism in the Third World has been contested is that women's lives generally and women's political activity specifically have been largely undocumented in these contexts. Nationalist agendas, focusing as they do on the generic "people," have, by and large, been gendered as male even as they espouse gender-neutral politics. In Haiti, the neutering of nationalism frm the onset of Independence in 1804 contributed to the general exclusion of women from the nation's historical record. Our ability to reconstruct the forging of a feminist politic in Haiti is thus always a piece meal endeavor, filled with gaps. Nonetheless, what evidence survives points to the on-going involvement of women in Haiti's internal struggles to remove from itself the remnants of colonialism.

For instance, women were instrumental in organizing against the U.S. Occupation of 1915-1934. A report made in 1927 by the U.N. Women's International League for Peace and Freedom revealed further that U.S. troops hade been responsible for innumerable "war crimes" against women, including execution by machine gun, beatings, torture and burning at the pyre. It is not surprising, then, that an active women's movement arose at the end of the Occupation, as the U.S. hold on Haiti diminished.

In 1934, the Ligue Feminine d'action sociale was formed among women of the upper classes. According to Haitian historian Madeleine Boucherau, Ligue members chose to move away from their usual model of inidvidualized patronage to a more communal one of inter-class cooperation which would attack Haiti's greater social problems. The Ligue founded the "Association des Femmes Haitiennes pour l'Organisation du Travail / Association of Haitian Women for the Organization of Work" in 1935, a foundation for homemakers in 1937, and an organization working on behalf of children's rights in 1939. The latter pursued legislation for the protection of children and published a journal entitled l'Aube [Sunrise]. A fund for social assistance was created in 1939, following a successful lobbying campaign in 1934 to provide an equal minimum wage for men and women, and three weeks paid maternity leave for women. In 1943, their efforts resulted in the opening of a high school for young women in Port-au-Prince and by 1944, girls were admitted to traditionally male high schools in the capital. In the country, literacy was perhaps the dominant educational issue. A statistical review seems to indicate that the Ligue's efforts contributed to significant growth in functional literacy. Sociologist Errol Miller found that literacy among the general Haitian populace rose from 12 percent in 1920 to 44 percent in 1980-86.

The Ligue's two most prominent achievements were the passing of constitutional amendments in the 1940s, validating women's rights as fully emancipated citizens of the State which culminated with suffarage in 1950, and their promotion of cross-class unity through the literary/political journal __Voix des Femmmes__ (1934-1945). The Ligue took seriously its mandate to disseminate information on the realities of women's lot in Haiti, and internationally perpetuate an overtly feminist politic. In effect, the Ligue's main purpose was to act as a bridge between the global and the local.

Suffrage, however, did not give Haitian women the human face they yearned for; it was a hard-won right, later denied under the Duvaliers (1957-1986) for the purpose of exploiting a vast labor force. Haitian women have since been used as political pawns between male-dominated political factions, their bodies occupying the nexus of racial and sexual oppression. "Before, the military didn't kill women. They raped them and humiliated them. They humiliated them in all forms," says a spokesperson for the contemporary feminist organization SOFA, "they humiliated the women who are more organized than others. In the last few weeks, they have killed many women."

It is just this sort of persecution of women which demands that feminists unite globally to hear the cries their Third World sisters. Though we may not be free of our oppressions, we articulate them through daily acts of resistance and political activism. Contrary to the common belief of many Western feminists, the "subaltern" can speak: it is whether or not others choose to hear her voice, or silence it, which determines her fate, which, in the end, is the measure of us all.

Myriam J. A. Chancy
Associate Professor of English
Department of English
P.O. Box 870302
Tempe, AZ 85287-0302

Books by Myriam J. A. Chancy