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Jamaican Women:

Their Politics, Economics, Roles, and Religions

Thalia S. Stone

Women have been oppressed in many places and in many different ways over the years, but in Jamaica this continuing trend is finally to be broken. "Sexual or gender inequality represents as essential and integral feature of social relations and culture construction in Jamaica, where for the past four hundred years colonial and imperialist exploitation has governed the development of economic, political, and sociocultural patterns and structures."(Harrison: Women in Jamaica's Urban Informal Economy pg. 12)

Women have different roles in politics, economics and religion than their counterparts. It is important to know not just the general role of women, but it is also important to know where they come from. Women have not played a big role in politics, have been oppressed economically, and have not received equal pay. In the Rastafarian culture women are subservient, this is slowly changing. Where does this leave Jamaican women? A race looking for strong women role models.

"Black women do not lack heroines or role models. They do though, need to rescue them from the shadows of selective history." ( /marymain.htm) Throughout the history of Jamaica there have been great women leaders and musicians, such as, Nanny of the Maroons, Queen Omega, Mary Jane Seacole, Marcia Griffith, Judy Mowatt, and Sister Carol. Currently it is very important today in Jamaica for young girls to have role models. Not only has Jamaican society and Rastafarian culture suppressed women, but other countries have as well.

Going way back in history to the 1700's one can find a strong woman who is still talked about today. Nanny of the Maroons lived in the 1700'sm when people living in Jamaica were slaves. At the time Jamaica was captured by the English, and a number of slaves were set free by the Spanish to prevent them from falling into the hands of the English. These were the Maroons. Nanny was a strong woman who helped to rescue many slaves and to bring them to a safe place, which was called Nanny Town. Nanny Town was in the hills in Portland, Jamaica, which is now Moore Town. Nanny fought for many years beside these men. Back then she was treated as an equal. They fought side by side for their freedom and land. Nanny was a leader, she led her people to victory by using her mind. Nanny soon became known as "Mother of the people" Because she did so many unselfish acts. Nanny is also known as Grandy Nanny. The Maroon men fought while the women planted and grew food. This shows how far back gender biases go. This was the traditional role of women in many societies in history in many countries. Men were always the hunters and women the gatherers. Nanny and the Maroons lost Nanny Town for a short span of time to colonial forces, but they were able to recapture the town by using guerilla warfare. Nanny was later forced to have her people sign a peace-treaty with the English, and met an untimely death by the English around 1734.

"Both legends and documents refer to her (Nanny) as having exceptional leadership qualities. She was a small wiry woman with piercing eyes. Her influence over the Maroons was so strong that it seemed to be supernatural and was said to be connected to her powers of obeah. She was particularly skilled in organizing the guerilla warfare carried out by the Eastern Maroons to keep away that British troops who attempted to penetrate the mountains to overcome them. (

Nanny was a strong woman who fought for freedom and independence, and was able to conquer the land for her people. Nanny of the Maroons proves that women are strong and powerful people, but they seem to be ignored when history is being taught. You only learn about the strong men who won wars and fought for independence. There are so many great women leaders such as Joan of Arc and you there is very little taught about her. Nanny was a great political organizer and military leader according to Professor Dr. E. Kofi Agorsah of Portland State University. She is the only woman among many men to be considered a founding father, and is among Jamaica's national heroes. "The woman who became one of Jamaica's founding 'fathers'!" (David Meyler) She is a strong woman in Jamaican history that should not be looked over. "The spirit of Nanny of the Maroons remains today as a symbol of that indomitable desire that will never yield to captivity."(

Another prominent woman in Jamaican culture is Queen Omega. She was Haile Selassie's wife, and the Ethiopian queen. Queen Omega is a role model to many Rastafarian women and has gained respect from Rastafarian men. Rasta women were finally given a little bit of respect that they deserved. This is because the men were told to treat women as they would treat Queen Omega. Unfortunately her reign was cut short by her early death, and so was the importance of respecting women. "I and I" a frequently used term is referring back to Queen Omega and identifying with her, it is also supposed to mean that no one is better than anyone else. This is a contradiction because in the traditional Rastafarian beliefs the women are subservient to the men.

A strong woman in Jamaican history who young women can also look up to is Mary Jane Seacole. Mary Jane Seacole was a Jamaican nurse and a heroine of the Crimean War. Born Mary Grant in 1805 of Kingston, Jamaica. Mary's father was a Scottish military officer and her mother a Jamaican mulatto. Her mother was also a nurse and ran a boardinghouse for officers recuperating from the war. Soon after Mary was married her husband died, and she took over the boardinghouse from her mother in Kingston, Jamaica. She was a well-educated nurse who wanted to help wounded soldiers, but she was denied on three separate occasions because of the color of her skin. She went on her own and established the British Hotel on her own to help and feed hurt soldiers. She also went onto the battlefield to help wounded soldiers and ended up being bankrupt at the end of the war because she spent all her money on others. Mary published a book called The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, which talks about her life. She had many achievements in her life and spent the rest of her years traveling around the world.

"Without a doubt Mary Seacole was a pioneer in every sense of the word. Her life and work touches a chord within everyone who comes to know her." ( Mary Seacole is one of the many women in Jamaican history that has proven to be strong, and who has gone against the grain. When told that she could not do something, she turned that into a positive. She kept pushing and pushing the limits, and when most would have given up, she knew that she had to depend upon herself to succeed. All of her hard work paid off in the end, and she was able to help make an impact on many people's lives. Mary Seacole is still an important role model today. She is proof to Jamaican women that you can succeed and step out of traditional gender roles. "Mary Seacole was a black woman of remarkable will and courage who certainly never thought the words ‘can’t’ and ‘no’ applied to her ambitions. Indeed she appears to have used them as spurs to get to her chosen destinations." (

Jumping into the twenty-first century there are many women who make an impact on Jamaica through their music. Sister Carol, Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt, and Marcia Griffith come to mind. Their great lyrics and strong wills have made them fantastic women leaders. Women in the reggae movement have almost been tossed aside and been told their music is not as good as the men's is far from the truth. If we want to continue the trend of great women reggae artists it is important that women have role models such as these women.

Sister Carol a great reggae artist grew up in Kingston Jamaica in the ghetto. She was faced by many challenges from growing up without money, but that did not stop her. Music surrounded her when she was young and was like an escape for her.

"In all that I was surrounded by, the music to me was like my favorite treat. I was never down I was never depressed, I never knew there was poverty. I didn’t realize all these things existed, because I was really concentrating pon the music. The music brought me so much joy that I felt that I had to be part of it." (interview with Sister Carol

When Sister Carol was a young girl she moved to the United States with her family, and to attended college there. The first record that she recorded was "Liberation For Africa," followed by the hit "Black Cinderella". This song had great importance to her life and impacted many others. It is great to see a Jamaican woman be a strong successful person in America as well as Jamaica. Music is a great way to reach many people, her words touch many women. Music is what inspired Sister Carol, and hopefully she will continue to inspire people as well.

"Well, back in Jamaica growing up as a youth, whenever I recognized things that I'm against, like there's a lot of political crime in the area, sometimes shooting involved with politics, things like discrimination and racism, things that I identified in my youth that I didn't like. I immediately saw them as the stepsisters or my stepmother, relating back to the same story as the book. I always felt like Cinderella, not being able to have the chance to do or to have certain things I might have desired as a child. I was never really seeking a Prince Charming, per se, to redeem me, I was more looking for something to happen by the Creator. And I knew that it would always be music. 'Cause as a youth, that's what brought joy to me, the music, every time. So as a youth, when I first heard this song, when I was 12 years old, I heard this song by a brother called Errol Donkley, he used to sing this song, "Where Can I Find My Black Cinderella?" And I was having this feeling, like I was a Cinderella. When I heard him singing that song, I said, "That must be me!" And when I start singing, I took that name on, as Sister Carol, Black Cinderella." (Interview with Sister Carol, entertainment/ska/library/1999/aa110399b.htm)

Sister Carol is very interested in education. She earned her degree from City College of New York while in America. As a Rasta woman she felt that she needed to educate people and inform them. She is a very positive role model, showing that education is power. "A Rasta is obligated to edify and to educate the people, and to bring about a sense of awareness, just bringing people together, always preaching peace and love and unity. You're charged to do that from when you say you are a Rasta. It's like, that's literally your job. It's not about seeking fame and fortune and getting guys and girls. When you say you are a Rasta, you have a job. You are charged to do something positive." ( ?rnk=r&terms=history+of+Jamaica)

Marcia Griffith is another female reggae artist that has had success and hits. She had number ones in Jamaica, and as well as internationally. She started The I Threes that sang back up for Bob Marley on his tours. She continued to have many of her own hits like, "Electric Boogie", and "Stepping out of Babylon". Marcia Griffith has also been in a movie called "Caribbean Nights" and this may lead to her doing more films. It is great that Marcia Griffith was able to step out of the shadow of the great Bob Marley. She proved herself a great woman reggae singer, and she will continue to inspire other women.

"It is a cliché to say that some Jamaican signers would have sold millions if only they had been born in the USA, but it's undeniably so in the case of Marcia Griffiths, who no doubt earned more money as one of Marlely's I Threes than for all the gems gathered here." (Reggae, The Rough Guide. Pg.71) The gems gathered here related to a list of all of her songs. Why is everything measured in money? Marcia Griffith has success because she enjoys what she is doing, not because she made a lot of money. She is a great role model for women because she is singing and sharing her voice with others, and because she gets to do something she loves. Success comes from within not the size of your bank account.

Rita Marley is another strong female reggae artist. She worked along with Marcia Griffith and Judy Mowatt to form The I Threes in 1974. She too was solo before and after The I Threes, and has had many successful hits such as "One Draw". Even though Rita Marley was married to Bob Marley she was able to stand on her own two feet. She produced her own songs, and was able to do what she loves without the help of her husband's name.

Judy Mowatt the last of The I Threes also went solo again. She went on to sing "Only a Woman". This song says it best about the treatment of women.

"Why treat us inhuman

Just because we're only woman?

Don't treat us inhuman

Just because we're only woman.

We're not weak

We are strong

We've been held back

For too long...

We've got our God-given talents just like you

Open the door and let us through..." (

Lana Finikin is head of the Sistren Group that was started over twenty years ago. This organization is geared to help in the upward movement of women. There was an anti-government protest in Kingston, Jamaica on April 22, 1999. Women led the protest, it was over the government decision to raise petroleum product taxes by over thirty percent. "Women of every social class in the country marched the streets throughout the unrest, making an impact whether it was negative or positive. They came from the middle-class and the inner cities. There were wives, single mothers, housewives, and looter. In most instances they had a common goal." (

Women are the backbone and the support of the households and the country. This increase in taxes greatly effects everybody. Many women thought the rally was unproductive, including Lana Finikin. It is very important that all of the women can get together with a common goal and try to get thing accomplished. It is the idea of being process-oriented. The process of getting to the goal is more important than the goal itself. It is important that all women feel like they count and do not feel like they are marginalized. They need to know that their opinions are worth while and can benefit many people.

Lana Finikin was quoted saying "What I would have liked to see was an organized forum, no marches, where women could come together and find alternative solutions. The rally will have no significant impact because none of the speakers said anything constructive. It was just another political march." It does not matter that a huge impact was not made, it is important that there was enough of an impact to bring women together. There needs to be more rally's more gathering where Jamaican women can come together an talk and try to make a change in the way that they are treated.

Even today women are treated with little or no respect in Jamaica. My friend and I made a trip to Negril Jamaica in 1998 for spring break. Unfortunately we were unable to experience all of the culture of Jamaica because of our location. The culture that we did experience was horrendous towards women. It might have been because we were white Americans and stuck out like soar thumbs, but we were harassed daily. Walking down the street we would get yelled at, honked at, and whistled at. I felt that this behavior was inappropriate, especially when I was in a store buying bread, and my bottom got grabbed. My friend whom I was with was begged by a man to sleep with him. I know that American men are rude and can be disrespectful, but I have never seen anything like this before.

While in Negril we also experienced the little respect that the Jamaican men showed toward Jamaican women. We were exposed to an awful situation when we were at a restaurant. There seemed what to be a family enjoying lunch and a women accidentally spilled some food on the mans' tee shirt. He screamed at her and said something a long the lines of 'you damn woman you can not do anything right, and you will need to work extra to pay for this shirt.' She got up and left immediately and soon after she returned with a new shirt. I was so surprised by her subservient behavior. I heard that this happens, but it is strange to actually see a women bend over backwards to make a man happy. Women are gaining more power and respect, but it takes a lot of time to change the thoughts and beliefs that are embedded in everyone's heads. It is very important that there are strong women role models whether they are musicians, nurses or war leaders. Women need to know that they and their opinions are very important, and without all they do the culture and economy would fall apart.

Since in Jamaica female workers receive considerably less than males do, third world women represent a cheaper than cheap segment of the international work force. This may seem like a normal occurrence because it is a third world country, but why do people actually think that? Even today some men think that women are inferior. Women should receive the same amount of money that men do in all areas of work. Unfortunately it is the same situation in the United States, women receive less pay for the same work. "Since the consolidation of the capitalist mode at the turn of the century, Jamaica, like many third world countries, has been unable to offer secure and stable employment opportunities for most of its working-age population." (…?Harrison.Women.htm). This causes high unemployment and poverty.

The problem is with the lack of jobs available for both men and women. There is a high unemployment rate in Jamaica. Unemployment for Jamaican women is thirty-nine percent and is twice higher than that for men of sixteen percent. This means that there is 167,900 unemployed women and 79,200 unemployed men according to the Department of Statistics. Many women work as housewives and homemakers or they are street vendors also known as "higglers". "Under capitalist social conditions, a large proportion of women, particularly housewives who have been displaced from that are socially defined as productive economic roles, constitute a reserve labor force, whose surplus labor power is absorbed into the domestic domain of the social economy." (Ibid) This is why the wages are so low, because there are so many people that want to work and will accept any wage, so they can be paid very little for a lot of work.

Women are a neglected component of the labor force in Jamaica, they do not have the benefits of wages, but they represent a huge portion of the population. According to the book Family Structure in Jamaica by Judith Blake the work force is made up of forty-seven percent women. Women who are the breadwinners of their families must operate in an insecure workplace where they have to forge for their young children who are dependent upon them. Many upper class and middle class women also hire helpers, such as cleaners and maids from the lower classes for very low wages. This in turn keeps women working, but for wages that are so low it is hard to get by.

According to government data for the late 1970's and early 1980's the tertiary sector is where seventy percent of Jamaican women were working. The tertiary sector are service as well as commerce jobs, for example restaurants. While men were only thirty-two percent in this sector according to the Department of Statistics. Also the difference can be seen in the manufacturing sector where it is fourteen- percent males and only seven percent females. The great spread of where different genders work is abundant. Who is to say that maybe the females like working in those sectors and do not like working in the manufacturing, and that accounts for the huge difference in numbers.

There is another sector of the economy that is an integral part of Jamaica, that is marijuana trade. "An important and fairly stable component of Jamaica's illegitimate economic sphere is the production of and trade in ganja, or marijuana. While the local and national trade is important, the international distribution of 'herb' is even more economically significant." (Lacey) This part of Jamaica's economy is quite strong and is what has pulled Jamaica through tough times during the economic crisis in the seventies. Marijuana was a 1.1 billion-dollar business and was the economic lifeline of Jamaica after other parts of the economy had failed. Males also run this area of the economy.

Women are less involved in the ganja trade then men are, there is about double the amount of men working in the trade than women. "These two illegal spheres seem to reflect a division of labor by gender, in that although women are indeed active in the production and exchange of ganja, the trade is a domain in which males are predominate."(…?Harrison.Women.htm). Not saying that most women do not use ganja and that they are all straight arrows. There is also prostitution, but it is organized by women and there are few male superiors, for example pimps. This is not a good thing, but women run it, which gives them power. Women are sometimes forced into these positions because of their economic standing. If they were offered better jobs and better wages they would not have to lower themselves to these degrading so called jobs.

"Male dominance has gained further legitimacy and was imposed on the society by established churches, school, laws, and a system of job segregation and wage differentials." (Ibid) Western culture was thrown upon Jamaica and here women were not as important as men, and that is what was taught in the schools and churches. During slavery there was barely any domination by men. Women and men were both slaves and the family structure was broken up, therefore there was no father authority. For hundreds of years colonial and imperialist exploitation has governed the development of economic, political, and the culture of Jamaica.

"In the mid-seventies, a government redevelopment agency charged with upgrading housing, utilities, and social service in the Oceanview vicinity conducted a survey in order to identify the neighborhood's leadership on the basis of reputation. These 'area leaders' were then to form an advisory committee that would aid in implementing the government program's objectives. Out of the twenty-three persons identified, only one was a woman. In a locality where women are quite visible in the economic arena and where their membership and work keep alive and active local level political party groups and branches." (Ibid)

Why were there no women in this group? The people were chosen based on respect level, personal influence, and skills. The women were denied recognition, and this is not unusual in the political arena. Many women are in fact committed campaigners during elections, and activism. Women's power is confined to the lower levels of the political ladder. Some women are degraded in order for them to obtain and hold their positions. Women are pressured into being "friendly" with their superiors to gain access to important information. "Another women, who never joined a party association, used her acquaintances and intimacy with a part broker and a police officer to acquire favors which were crucial in securing and expanding her ganja trade business."(Ibid)

In other situations women have had to resign because of the harassment that they have received. This is outlandish. Women should not be treated as objects and have to use their bodies to get where they want to be. They should be able to use their brains just like the men. They should be given the respect that they have earned and deserve. "While women may sometimes gain power, influence and control over resources through their relationships with male brokers, this dependent access to political capital leaves them vulnerable to manipulation and abuse." (Ibid) This abuse of power needs to stop. Women are realizing this, but the men are the ones who need to open their minds. Women are finding powerful positions in the informal fields, such as, churches, schools, and markets. The sexism that the women encounter hinders the political development of the entire country.

There is anther movement that does not allow for women's mobilization and empowerment, this is the traditional Rastafari movement. The issue of patriarchy among Rastafari highlights the sexist attributes in Jamaican culture. Recently women have been making an effort to be more involved, but in the traditional Rastafari beliefs women are dependents. Rastas organize most everything around male dominance, and women being spiritually and economically dependent on the men.

Women are marginalized in the traditional Rastafari beliefs. Rasta is not only a belief system, but a religion that is very prominent in Jamaica. They believe that a man takes a woman, and there are no Rasta Women, this is ridiculous. No man has the right to take a woman. This belief has changed over the years, but it is hard to change people's ideas when this is what they have thought for years. Most of the members of the Rastafari movement are males, women play an important role, but a majority are followers of their husbands according to the book The Rastafarians. The main role that women play is to sell products, many sell things like knitted clothing, baskets, mats, brooms, and artwork.

"The Rastafari beliefs regarding the female are clearly based on the Bible and fall in line with the premise that Rastafari is a patriarchal movement 'Reasonings,' the traditional way of sharing information, cementing views or interpreting the Bible, take place primarily among the males." (The Rastafarians) Women's roles in Rasta life are very restricted.

The traditional beliefs of Rasta that are imposed on women are mostly degrading. Originally women were not allowed to be active at public meeting, and if they were there they were not allowed to participate. Women are segregated from the men when they are menstruating, because it is regarded as an unclean state. They are forbidden to cook during this menstrual cycle because it is forbidden in their scriptures. Women were there to have children, cook, and to be servants. This role is awful, this seems that the men have placed the slave role upon the women. "There is no doubt that traditional sistren are not viewed as independent equals in their eyes, or in the eyes of most Rastamen. Especially in the countryside's of Jamaica, womyn are often uneducated, and taught that their sole purpose in life is to serve their brothers, and to be at peace with themselves. Some traditional sistren do get educated, especially those in the cities, but even they remain subservient to the needs of their husbands and children."(

They are not allowed to wear perfume or reveling clothes, because they are not supposed to try to attract men. It is also considered "selling your flesh". Women's bodies need to be covered, as well as their heads. If their heads are not covered it is considered to be dishonoring them. Men are also allowed to engage in recreational sex. This is a complete contradiction. Women are not allowed to sleep around, but men can, this is a double standard. How are the men supposed to sleep around if the women can not? Recreational sex is very degrading towards women unless everyone is allowed to engage in it.

Before 1975 a woman was married to a Rasta, and was told what she could do, wear, and how to behave and now she can be a Rasta woman. The male dominance gave way around 1980 according to Maureen Rowe, a Rastafarian woman. There has been a new step and a new attitude about women in the Rasta movement. "Within the past decade, however, women have become more visible and vocal within the Rastafari movement. For instance, in 1980 three women's organizations were establishes. While 'daughter' claim not to challenge the patriarchal tenets and structure of the movement, their very mobilization and 'reasonings' seem to be generating new perspectives on women and on Rastafari itself." "( /LS401/SU97/Reserve_Re…?Harrison.Women.htm) This is a great start for the women involved in a Rasta lifestyle. These new thoughts will hopefully rub off on the rest of the community, and women will be respected. Rita Marley being a strong Rasta woman has a great influence through her music explains her beliefs on the role of a Rasta woman. She says it is about being strong and believing in yourself. This is a great thing that she spreads to other women.

"There is a line within the faith as far as man and women are concerned. In the early days the man overpowered the women -- because of our humility. But then we realized that God must not have meant to be selfish -- it takes a woman and a man to show the beauty, to create human beings. The woman gives birth to man: she bears and nurtures the fruit...Within the faith, women have been through a lot. I have helped us, I think, to overcome these things. I know I am used as an example for Rasta women. We're proud to be who we are. Its about dignity and self-confidence...Everything is within you. Build on what you do best. The bible says singers and players of instruments shall be there. We have a responsibility, a destiny, a job...its about doing it right, doing it well..." (Interview with Rita Marley.


From the woman's viewpoint the masculine attitude is discussed sarcastically: "Dem tink dat to be man need nothing but drink stout, beat down 'oman, an' leave her wit baby." (Brody) Even though said sarcastically it is depressing that a woman could think that was a man's intent. Women need heroines to show to them that they can succeed. They need to push forward in their economics, politics, and religious aspects of their lives. Some women may be happy with their current status, but they should be aware and educated. As long as they know that there is a movement, that will hopefully end the maginalization of women. "Traditional all sistren also have their lives and roles dictated to them by their men. It is because of this that sistren began demanding equality and liberation, and proving that in order for Rastafari to thrive and expand, womyn must be allowed their rightful roles as leaders as well." ( /doktor/rastapaper.html)

Works Cited

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  2. Barrow, Steve, and Peter Dalton. Reggae, The Rough Guide. Penguin Books, New York, 1997. Pg.71, 131.
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  4. Brody, Eugene B. Sex, Contraception, and Motherhood in Jamaica. A Commonwealth Fund Book, Cambridge, MA. 1981.
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