“Is this where she was killed?” We were walking around the Savannah, my journo friend and I, our shapes reflected in elongated shadows, like the trees in warm gold light, when abrupt darkness descended. No, it’s further up. Here? Maybe beyond that cricket pitch? Our thoughts mingled.
That Japanese pan player Asami Nagakiya was strangled somewhere in the savannah grass during Carnival 2016 haunts women. Strange how despite all the big talk of protecting women, the international outrage, after Asami Nagakiyas’ murder, nothing changed (the police claimed her perpetrator was shot dead on another crime scene) and the rape and strangling of Gabriella Raphael of Diego Martin, a 24-year-old mother of five, a few weeks back, has barely registered.
Our woman Police Commissioner Erla Harewood-Christopher, by rating her own performance as “excellent” days after Gabriella Raphael’s murder, shows that, like the rest of us, she is numb; the police are numb. Frozen. Wouldn’t you be if you were informed of 600 murders in 2022? There is only so much butchery anyone can process.
The CoP did say last year that the “only way to stop surging murders and crime was to hit gang leaders in their pockets by dismantling their financial empires.” You and I know nobody is “investigating” gang leaders who have moles in the police service for fear of a bullet in the head. Only God (as the CoP implied) and international action can stop our current sacrifice of young men (1.6 murdered daily).
But innocent women. Why are they being raped, strangled at home and in public spaces?
Dr Ishtla Singh, a Trinidad-born psychoanalytic/psychotherapist (member of the Cambridge Society for Psychotherapy), revealed that numbness is “a symptom of delayed trauma”. Other symptoms of trauma include detachment; anxiety, fear, survivors’ guilt, anger, sadness, helplessness, disorientation, denial, nausea, muscle tremors, elevated heartbeat, and raised blood pressure. Citizens of T&T, put your hand up if you haven’t felt any of this.
We have not “turned” into a violent society but are inheritors of it. Citing findings by Grenadian psychologist Lennox Thomas, Dr Singh says the violence and trauma Caribbean people daily experience was built on the colonial systems of slavery and indentureship.
“It’s not surprising that the social model is replicated in the home … whip, punch, kick, strangle that’s how it worked with the overseer on the plantation,” (who took out his own frustration, impotence) “with mother, wife, sister, daughter which fed back into the macro level, so we live in a constant loop of reinforcing violence.”
Dr Singh says women are “fair game” to perpetrators.
“Women’s bodies are seen as public property. People think they can comment on how thin or fat you are, whether your skirt is too short, choose to get married or not, enjoy sex or not, have children or not.”
The female body is seen as a public space. As a result, Dr Singh says, “Men feel free to flash women in a park, violate and kill with impunity. Women can be controlled and punished for being too much or too little. Whatever we see at the micro and macro levels mirrors one another.”
The Cambridge, King’s College, UWI-educated academic Dr Singh says, “Intersections are worse if you’re poor, single, or dependent. Gabriella Raphael was a single mother, possibly at the lower end of the income scale or influence, which can account for the lack of interest in bringing her perpetrators to justice.”
Dr Singh says one of the first steps to healing is to accept we have turned numb to the pain of our fellow citizens, normalised brutality. This is not normal.
The solution begins, she says, by creating physical spaces where all women can feel safe and supported by councillors, therapists, and mediators who help process grief.
That’s just stop-gap measures. Dr Singh says we need a government that buys into social and educational reform and “investment in preventative and curative services to help people recalibrate how they think.” Next time a woman is blamed for being attacked based on how she is dressed, we must remember she is a human whose body is autonomous. Why can’t she wear her shorts? Why can’t a woman’s body be hers?
After taking part in the civil rights movement in the US, the legendary singer Nina Simone crooned with palpable pain in her beautiful voice not just on behalf of the activists fighting against systemic racial discrimination but women, who seem to be the lowest on every pecking order, “Oh, how I wish I knew how it feels to be free.” Today it is the piteous lament of women throughout T&T.
This is something we all hope the CoP keeps in mind when violence is perpetrated against a woman. As a woman CoP, does she have the courage not to be corralled by unequal male power dynamics, and the empathy to dare to ask on behalf of every woman under her care, “Why can’t her body be hers?”
Ira Mathur is a Guardian Media journalist and winner of the non-fiction OCM Bocas Prize for Literature 2023.