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The Evolution of New Rastafari

Georgie Greville
4-20-98

 

Introduction: Women and Rastafarianism

Rastafarian philosophy prides itself on having equal love and respect for all people, hence the Rastaman's message"to bear the peaceful music of love of black men, love of black women, love of black people and love of all people."(Lee, 1982, p.40) The Rastafarian movement from the early days of slavery to those of freedom and spirituality is often described as an intense liberation movement. In the midst of the"old Rastafari"liberation movement, many post-colonial barriers were knocked down and Jamaican people emerged as free Rastafarians. Although the Rastafarian and Jamaican people had finally gained their rights to freedom and equality, they did this without changing their old and oppressive views on women. When analyzing Rastafarian and Jamaican history, it is an obvious question how, within Jamaica's supposedly progressive culture, can the apparent contradiction of the treatment of women still exist?

Among the many critics of this issue, Becky Michelle Mulvaney states that"Rastafari's capitulation to mainstream patriarchal attitudes, and its spiritually imbued glorification of subservient women's roles work in direct conflict to Rasta's own stated purpose."(Mulvaney, 1990, p.2) This quote accurately illustrates the contradictory problem with the Rastafarian struggle for equality in the world. This power and equality as a people will never be reached if Rastafari views on women do not change.

The gender discrimination against Rasta women can be dated back to the early days of slavery. Evidence shows those early Kenyan tribes such as the Mau Mau recorded unequal treatment of women and the resulting rebellions of slave women and men who refused to continue being treated so poorly by their slave masters. After slavery was abolished, these primitive forms of gender discrimination remained in Jamaican society. In terms of race and human rights, Jamaicans have, for the most part, risen above their previous position. However, they have done this without their women, and Rastafarianism has emerged as a male philosophy. The women associated with Rastafarianism immediately took on a subordinate role in the Rasta culture and society. Rastafarianism's traditional and oppressive gender roles have limited Jamaican women from achieving an equal identity in Jamaican society.

Today, it is evident that Jamaican women are establishing themselves as equal, self-sufficient individuals in all areas of Rastafari society. From publishing books and articles to expression through reggae music, black women artists have been spreading the word of equality and the emergence of the"new Rastafari"which consists of both men and women taking on equally respectful roles.

In order to fully understand the roles of Rastafarian women, it is helpful to examine the evolution of Rastafarian women from the early days of slavery up to the current situation in Jamaica and around the world. The standards and philosophy that the"old Rastafari"held for women continue to limit Rasta women today. However, with the help of certain influential female leaders and music artists, the old Rastafari society has evolved in to the Black feminist movement shaped"new Rastafari"society. Feminist Rasta's written, spoken, and musical expression has universalized their goal of being a direct concern in Jamaican society towards the Rastafarian progression. In Teresa Turner's words,"New Rasta has come from the recognition that central to the struggle for women's rights is the resistance of black women, north and south, against"the gendered, racial and racially-gendered hierarchies of slavery, colonialism and today's super-exploitation. (Turner, 1994, p.19) Therefore, from the days of slavery up to today, the old, gender-oppressive philosophies still remain and continue to limit black women. In order for this history of oppression to finally come to its end, people must open their minds to the understanding of the origins of gender discrimination against women as well as accept the inevitable positive future of the new Rastafari.

A History of Oppression

The historical and cultural context behind Rastafarian philosophy provides a clear understanding of the origins of patriarchal treatment of black women. In order to fully understand what has shaped the identity's of the Rasta women of today, one must examine the roots which stretch back to the early days of Jamaican slave culture, the Mau Mau slave rebellions, and the development of African-derived Jamaican customs. Together, these historical events have all contributed in shaping the African-Jamaican identity and pride at a crucial and oppressive time. The identity's formed by the Rastafarian people's history has changed in many ways, yet the subservient roles of women have somehow survived.

Black people have been focused on the fight for freedom ever since the first days of slavery. By the 1700's, the Caribbean was used only for farming capital and Africa only as a producer of human labor (Turner, 1994, p.19). The British settlements in Kenya gave inhumane workloads to their African women slaves. The slave's responsibilities consisted of long day's farming/cultivating coffee, tea, and pyrethrum with little to no pay at all. These women were scarcely given enough land with which to grow their own food to feed their children. In order to survive Mau Mau women also practiced prostitution and sold farm produce in the cities. The Mau Mau slave revolt's in Kenya is one of the most widely known female slave uprisings.

In 1948, the first rebellion started with the strike of the Olenguruone agricultural settlement women who restrained from farming the land unless they were given rights to the land. The Mau Mau women also fought in various other ways in that they provided"intelligence, runners, food, refuge, medical supplies and care, and at crucial seasons, refused to pick tea and coffee."(Turner, 1994, p.34) Unlike the men, enslaved women not only had to fight for freedom; they also fought for freedom from sexual enslavement (Turner, 1994, p.13). Eager to return to their lives before slavery, the Mau Mau and Kikuyu women"organized the provision of hospitality and the efforts to re-establish the way of life which Kikuyu had known before the armed Mau Mau phase."(Turner, 1994, p.35) This way of life the so fondly remember consisted of equal gender roles and shared responsibilities within the tribe. Unfortunately, neither the Mau Mau nor any other African tribes ever returned to this peaceful way of life.

Out of the war with Britain, Mau Mau women had to fight even more gender struggles in the households. Generally, the Mau Mau women were strong and competent despite the challenging familial and societal circumstances; they fought for their rights and held a prominent position in the Mau Mau military wing. Both married men and women could farm and grow their own crops, but only the men were allowed to sell theirs for profit. Even when the men made money off their farms, the only access the women were able to get to it was through extensive begging. Men were seen as the heads of the household, and"women's labor [was] assumed to be an asset to the male head of the household."(Turner, 1994, p.42) Because of these unfair circumstances, women were forced to farm their own crops, and take on other small jobs in order to feed themselves and their children.

"In the cities, prostitutes used their establishments as safe houses, and provided the Mau Mau Land Freedom Army with money, intelligence and especially with weapons."Women also played a major role as the main arms dealers and as freedom fighters in forests. (Turner, 1994, p. 33-34)"Through selling food, domestic services, sex, changa (alcohol) and ganja the Mau Mau women bided their time and struggled to educate their children."(Turner, 1994, p.37) Because of the separation of men and women through power and money, these women were forced to lead very demanding independent and self-sufficient lives.

Although Kenyan women's accomplishments were seldom recognized, it is important to acknowledge the apparent gender discrimination that they had to live with. In general,"women worked harder, produced less, had less control over their own labor process and less control over family decisions."(Turner, 1994, p.42) This gender ideology has been referred to as a direct result of the"capitalist male deal", which was presented by British colonial officials, white settlers, and African politicians in 1959.

The male deal was a way to domesticate and exclude women and children farmers in order for men to rise into higher economic and political power."Only through marriage could women get access to land which was registered in the names of men. Formal politics was [also] an arena for men as was the protection of the judicial system."(Turner, 1994, p.36) Implementation of the male deal limited African women such as the Kikuyu and the Mau Mau in countless ways. Not only were they completely excluded from the work force, they were also forbidden to take part in any"medical, curative, or spiritual activities."These circumstances left women with very little opportunities other than living under the poor treatment of their husbands.

In the early sixties, African women began to fight for themselves and their children. Starting with the Mau Mau revolts in the early fifties, farmer women"simply lost their incentive to produce, and started to withdraw their labor. As these women"gave precedence to spending time on their families' subsistence needs, the cotton crop failed"as did the coffee and pyretheum crops as well, which were also mainly female produced crops. These revolts mark the beginning of African women fighting against a history of oppression for their own equality.

The Transition from Old to New Rastafari

Through poems, music, and literature, Rastafarian women have expressed their anguish and oppression that has been so much a part of Rastafarian culture. These means of expression have made great progress in the struggle for gender-equality in Jamaica. In her poem, I Am That I Am, Sista Faybien Miranda expresses her strength and pride as a new-Rastafari woman:
"I am not your Venus de Milo
Perfectly sculptured from marble to be carefully pedestal placed.
My name is not Eve. I offer you no temptation
I am not your concubine by night
Transformed to memory by day
I am not the milk you thirst for
Now dry in your mother's breast
Nor could you call me queen
For I have no dominion over beast, earth, or man
I am not a receptacle for the seed
You indiscriminately cast in the wind
I ask no sacrifice of Lamb's blood for the stain would be mine
Do not toss gold trinkets at my feet
They do not shine for me
I am no slave to a promise written in ink
Where there is no master there are no chains to be broken
Bondage is no glory
I am woman
Bone of you bones, flesh of your flesh
When I lay sleeping in your rib
You called me no name
I AM THAT I AM"(Faristzaddi, 1987, p.9)

In her poem, Sistah Faybien Miranda makes a direct reference to women portrayed in the bible. This connection is made clear through the fundamental parallel with Rasta's acceptance of"the biblical claim that man is the physical and spiritual head of the woman."(Mulvaney, 1990, p.7) Furthermore, the paternalistic philosophy"To Grow A Daughter"refers to women as"daughters"who must be"grown"by educated Rasta men. This ancient belief has long been a part of Rastafarian gender discrimination as Rasta men are instilled with the belief that women are not capable of understanding"the theological complexities of Rastafari", and therefor do not have"the freedom to take part in the central rasta rituals such as sharing the chalice on her own."(Mulvaney, 1990, p.7) This unequal view of women has been directly rooted to early Rastafarian's belief in the Bible's portrayals of gender roles.

The Bible portrays a clear power differential as women are supposed to submit to their husbands as Gods and that in return the husbands should merely love their wives and not be bitter against them. (Snider) The Bibles vision of gender roles is reinforced throughout Rasta philosophy on women. For example, the story of Adam and Eve is said to"justify the women's unequal place in the family and society"as well as bolstering the idea that"women are treacherous by nature."(Chevannes, 1994, p.29) Aware of this derogatory biblical association Miranda clearly states"my name is not Eve."

Miranda also defends her identity as she describes herself as not being a queen, or one to be put on a pedestal, because she knows that this would undermine her feminist struggle. Common Rastafarian names for women are Empress, Queen, Mother Creation, Mother Africa, Moon Goddess and Queen Omega. These names are often used to greet respected and mature Rastafarian women. However, although they appear to be dubious and highly respected titles, they merely act as cloaks to the true identity that women take on in Rastafarian culture.

In her poem, Sista Faybien Miranda clearly expresses that she does not wish to be given any titles or expectations to live by. Miranda stands for all Rastafarian women as she yearns for a clean slate to identify herself with, away from all of Rastafari's old views on women. One of the fundamental problems of Rasta philosophy of women is that they are either seen as too subordinate to be equal to men, or put on pedestals as queens or gods who are to be worshipped and seen as inhuman. Thus, either portrayal has a negative effect on the roles of Rasta women because they have unequal and unnatural expectations to live by.

Traditional Rastafarian rituals go further to illustrate its fundamental problems in the philosophy and treatment of women. Most non-feminist Rasta women think of themselves as a mere extension of men, with no real purpose in life except to reproduce and support their men. According to Barbara Makeda Lee, author of Rastafari-The New Creation, Women must"acknowledge that Man is the leader of the union with womanly humility and grace."(Lee, 1982, p.45) As women are taught to accept their primary role as housekeeper and childbearer, they are also expected to"help her man to be chief breadwinner and loving father to his family", and"use [their] own womanly intuition and perspective to assist her man, and find her own means of productivity."(Lee, 1982, p.45) In accepting these roles, women are also expected to express their humble existence and patronage to men by their dress and treatment of their bodily functions.

Traditional Rasta customs require all women to dress modestly and conservatively"in clothes which do not reveal the beauty of her body to the casual observer."(Lee, 1982, p.45) Women's heads are to be covered to indicate modesty and obedience, especially when in prayer. Women are also not allowed to wear any make-up, or any other means which would make her desirable, popular, or lustful to other males. This strict dress code is mainly implemented to address the important issue of female monogamy to their men. While men are somewhat free to be polygamous, Rasta women are restricted from even exposing their entire heads in public to ensure their complete subservience to their men.

Menstruation is an issue that has historically frightened men of women's natural powers. During this time, menstruating women are considered unclean and dangerous and are forced to be removed from daily activities such as the handling of food. Women are especially excluded from the handling of food during their menstruation period because men are scared that somehow the women will contaminate the food with their"poisonous powers". It is evident that menstruation poses an apparent threat to Rasta men in that it involves the women functioning independently with something that men cannot control or restrict in some way. This lack of control that menstruation brings upon Rasta men can be attributed to the highly negative associations with women and menstruation. This defamation of women is further codified in Rasta's use of the derogatory Jamaican curse words such as"bloodclaat"and"rassclat"referring to menstruation. (Mulvaney, 1990, p.8) Rastafarian views on menstruation can also be related to many of the other discriminating and oppressive rules for women.

Although Rasta laws preach rules of monogamy and equality for married couples, Jamaican women continue to be exploited in many ways. Rasta faith includes the rule of"one woman per man"monogamy. However, the punishments for those who do not obey this law are much harsher for women than they are for men. While women are unconditionally sentenced to death, men are given relatively trivial punishment, if any at all. These unfair circumstances conclude why Rasta men are so much more polygamous than Rasta women.

Rasta women are also subjected to biased and unfair treatment in the workforce. Not only are men automatically given first choice for paid work, worker women often are paid little or nothing at all. Women are greatly discouraged from working and earning their own money. Instead, they are encouraged to work unpaid labor such as the housework, and raising kids in order to make them fully dependent on men. However, many Rasta women are forced to work on the side anyway because their husbands are so untrustworthy. It is a common and accepted occurrence that a Rasta man will fail to support his wife and family. In assimilation to this reality, women have adopted certain ways, such as farming or selling various hand-made products on the side, by which they are able to maintain a semi-stable income.

Various traditional Rastafarian religious rituals are exclusionary to women, as men automatically assume most of the responsibilities. Instead of being recognized as legitimate followers, Rasta women act as mistresses of songs or secretaries. (Barrett, 1988, p.2) One of the most preclusive practices of Rastafarianism is the rule that women are not allowed to smoke the chalice (marijuana pipe) in the circle of male Rasta's. This ritual is one of the most significant to male Rasta's because it symbolizes the unity of the men sharing the chalice, and the reflection on their spiritual being and purpose as rastafarians together. The fact that women are not allowed to participate in this ritual directly establishes women's secondary place to men in the religion. However,"from the late '70's on, Rastafarian women have become increasingly self-aware and assertive, with changes in appearance coupled with attitudinal changes. With more understanding came a stronger commitment to Rastafari and a greater desire to do more."(Carroll, 1997, p.2) Thus, it has become a common occurrence that practicing Rasta women will conduct all-female chalice circles in response to their exclusion from the traditional all male circles.

In the film, The Land of Look Behind, a scene shows a group of Rasta women sitting together and smoking their own chalice as they philosophize on their roles as women in their male-dominated philosophy. As they talked, they expressed the feeling that they will peacefully accept their subordinate roles in Rasta society, yet they will maintain a certain inner strength and power. These women referred to themselves as"the mothers of creation", as they accepted the knowledge that they are equal to men and that they have the powers of creation inside them. The message that these women indicated is further established in many of the songs written by female reggae artists.

Rastafari Woman Power through Music

Female reggae artists have had a great impact on the recognition of discrimination against women as a central concern to Jamaican and Rastafarian societies. Rasta women's expression through reggae music has been one of the most influential means of expression because they are incorporating the female struggle for equality in to the fundamental Rasta music message of equality and one love for all.

To become a female reggae artist in Jamaica is an incredible challenge. At the time, it was hard enough to compete with the many other aspiring reggae artists let alone tolerate the frequent sexual harassment and violence from the producers. Rita Marley, Marcia Griffiths, and Judy Mowatt were three of the most successful female reggae singers in the world. These incredibly string three women used their power and strength to bring their message together for the Jamaica people by forming the internationally known I-Three's. The I-Three's joined Bob Marley and the Wailers to sing songs of love, hope, unity and struggle which quickly became"the mothership that transported reggae music, the message of Rastafari, and the culture of the people of Jamaica to the four corners of the earth."(Rita Marley, 1997, p.1) Although the I-Three's continue to sing together on occasion, Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt, and Marcia Griffiths have all been very successful in their solo careers. Through their music, women reggae artists continue to inspire Rasta women with their expressions of the history and inequality that has shaped so many Jamaican women's lives.

Various black female artists have helped shape the emergence and worldwide recognition of new Rastafari. Although they are not strictly reggae singers, Sister Carol, Foxey Brown, and Tracy Chapman have all succeeded in universalizing the black woman's message which parallels the goals of the new Rastafari; independence, equality, and unity. Sister Carol is a widely popular and successful dancehall reggae DJ. Along with proving herself and her skills against some of the most popular male DJ's, Carol's independent success through her positive lyrics has been a strong source of inspiration for Jamaican women's pride.

Foxey brown is an American female rap singer who specializes in sexual expression. Through her self-identification as a sexual female, Brown defies the Old Rastafarian views on women as non-sexual beings. Brown also promotes her message with the scant clothing she wears, which reveal both her intense femininity as well as her refusal to comply with any standards. In her songs, she freely talks about being polygamous as well as having the control in her sexual relations. Brown's free sexual expression has been revolutionary to Rastafarian women's roles in society, as they are slowly beginning to step out of their domesticated shells.

Tracy Chapman has been associated with Bob Marley in that she is said to be"Bob Marley come back from the dead,"as she sings about revolution and freedom in her songs. Teresa turner best described Chapman's appeal to Black people as she is"the oppressed singing about oppression. She is poor singing about poverty, she is black singing about racism, she is a woman singing about battering, she is a lesbian singing about love, and most poignant, she is an ordinary person singing about revolution."(Turner, 1994, p.48) having this background and identity at the bottom of the"worldwide hierarchy of power"(Turner, 1994, p.48), Chapman succeeds at expressing the same message as the first female reggae singers; to rise up from their history of oppression and gain their equality and acceptance as strong women.

In general, reggae music has done a great deal to motivate and reestablish Black/ Jamaican pride. Although both male and female reggae artists preach the same fundamental messages of Rastafarianism, black pride and equality, the women express a slightly different connection with their female listeners than they do with their male listeners. Instead of hearing female reggae music as simply reinforcing Rastafarian philosophy and black pride, Jamaican women are listening to a more revolutionary sound. For women to sing the same songs and express the same message as Rasta men is solid evidence that women are rising up to the equality of the new Rastafari. Perhaps Sister Carol said it best with"time has stepped up where the woman has to move. She can't stay in the background anymore."(Carroll, 1997, p.3)

Black female singers have held incredibly significant roles in the promotion of women's rights as well as their presence in society. Just as Jamaican women have emerged from their traditional roles in to new Rastafari, their message through music has become a much more aggressive and pronounced expression of independence, pride, and strength in their identity. In addition to this progression, Jamaican women are beginning to find their place in the work force, as well as rightfully gaining mutual respect from male workers and employers.

Conclusion: Personal Statement

Rastafarian women have been moving forward ever since the first Mau Mau slave's rebelled in Africa in response to mistreatment by their slavemasters. However, instead of escaping from the oppressive circumstances of slavery with time, Rastafarian philosophy adopted the white man's Christian views on gender and encumbered their own women with the same oppressive treatment. Thus, long after the days of slavery, women continue to be exploited by sex and capital, with the relics of similar discriminating social devices as the"male deal". This male dominated Rastafarian philosophy kept Jamaican women from achieving equal roles in all areas of society.

American women also have a history of being exploited by capital and sex. Although our country has had a woman's liberation movement, the fact remains that women earn less money than men as well as handle the majority of the domestic and familial responsibilities. Therefor, I can personally identify with the struggle of Rastafarian women for equality, as I am presently involved in establishing myself mentally, physically, spiritually, and economically as an independent, self-sufficient woman.

I believe that Rastafarianism will never be considered a veritable philosophy without changing their views on women. If certain discriminatory practices are changed so that women are no longer restricted in terms of their dress, familial role, sexual relations, and bodily functions, the philosophy will no longer be contradictory. Changing those oppressive rules will enable women to be an equal part of Rastafari, ultimately making the philosophies message of one love ring true to all.
The equal inclusion of women in to Rastafari will transform Rastafarian philosophy in to a non-contradictory religion, therefor making it more universal with its equal gender orientation. One of the main reasons why Rastafarianism hasn't been fully considered as a full-practiced and legitimate religion is because of their exclusion of women. In order for Jamaican people to acquire their freedom as a race and religion, both men and women must come together as a unified whole. Men must allow women the right and responsibility to work beside them. This egalitarian relationship will only render large benefits on both parts of the men and women.

Once Rastafarianism changes their discriminating views on women, the philosophy will promote the progress of Jamaican society. Whereas before Jamaican society only depended on its men for sources of capital, now women will double the numbers and raise them out of their economic stalemate. This shared economic responsibility will also bolster the familial situations because the men and women will share mutual respect as well as mutual responsibilities.

From the early 1970's, new Rastafari has been continuously emerging alongside the Black feminism movement. Although Rastafarian women have truly grown to achieve new identities, the ultimate goal has not yet been reached. In order for new Rastafari to finally take over old Rastafari, women must be considered as equal, self-sufficient, and free individuals who are capable of sharing the same position as men in Rastafarian practice.


Bibliography

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Macmillan, Mona. The Land of Look Behind: A Study of Jamaica. London: Faber and Faber, 1957

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( Rita Marley O. D.- The Queen of Reggae). September 2nd, 1997. HYPERLINK http://www.reggaefest.com/rmarley.html http://www.reggaefest.com/rmarley.html.

Snider, Alfred C. Speech 214 Class Lecture. March 25th, 1998

Turner, Teresa. Arise Ye Mighty People!: Gender, Class, and Race in Popular Struggles. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1994