Black Looks - Including an African LGBTIQ+ Archive

Feminism, Gender Violence, Haiti

Walking on Fire

Walking on Fire” — Stories of survival and Resistance from Haitian Women” by Beverly Bell with a forward by Haitian writer, Edwidge Danticat, Cornell University Press, 2001

I have a fairly good knowledge of Haiti. The only successful slave revolt led by Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, independence in 1804, the Duvalier years of fear and repression, Aristide’s first tenure, the fear and violence of the military years, Aristide’s return and most recently his kidnappying and forced departure by the United States and of course the thousands of refugees landing on the shores of Miami.

“Waking on Fire” is a narrative of Haitian women’s lives. Lives of violence, courage, poverty, sisterhood, resistance and survival. The word “violence” is so often used I think I should explain what it means to me as a woman. 

Violence exists at many levels and can take multiple forms. Violence is abuse of power, it is about humiliation and disrespect for persons, their property, their environment, their right to life. Violence distorts our lives and causes chaos, panic and fear. The Draft Declaration on the Elimination Against Violence Against Women defines violence against women as follows

“any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life”

However to fully understand the impact of violence against women we must listen to the definitions of women themselves rather than using a prescribed set of rules in judging whether violence has or has not taken place. Violence against women does not happen in a socio-political vacuum. Rather it is a reflection of the unequal relationship between women and other groups within society. For example within a militarised society such as Nigeria, violence perpetrated against the poor, those who are seen as worthless, voiceless and invisible, by agents of the state who have total licence to abuse without fear of retribution, does not need to be hidden. Acts of violence can be conducted in a public space to increase the humiliation of the victim and her community and also used to reaffirm the perpetrators power. Nigeria (though not alone) is a representation of a culture of violence that is woven into the fabric of a society ruled by military dictators for 30 of its 40 years of independence. Colonial powers and multinational corporations have undoubtedly contributed to and facilitated the culture of violence in Haiti, Nigeria, and other African states but my focus here is on the implementers, that is the national governments.

My initial reading of “Walking on Fire” tells me that Haitian society is similar to the Nigeria in so far as violence is a reflection of social and gender relations.
The acts of violence narrated by the women of Haiti in Walking on Fire are awful and depraved. They range from gang rapes of women and children, murder, torture and slavery. Domestic violence, state violence, structural violence. The latter is particularly pertinent when discussing violence against women as it relates to the status of women in a society. The responsibilities of Haitian women are highlighted in this paragraph….

“Women carry on their heads, their family, household economy, local economy, and culture. While women assert that they are the central pillar of society they are also quick to point out that they are the most marginalized within the marginalized class. Women’s current socio-economic status is the by-product of Haiti’s history — especially how power has been apportioned and applied throughout.”

From the stories or rather Istwa as they are called in Kreyol, it is clear that the life for the majority of women is harsh but despite this, the women’s stories are full of resistance, sisterhood and courage. Reading the testimonies you can feel the dignity and power behind the paper words.

The chapters are divided into 6 sections each one focusing on a different type of approach to resistance. Resistance in Survival; Resistance as Expression; Resistance for Political and Economic Change; Resistance for Gender Justice; Resistance Transforming Power and Resistance as Solidarity.

Acts of resistance are both the ways in which women endure and survive the oppression and madness that fills their day to day lives on a personal level as well as formal acts of resistance through organising and collective action. In each of the 6 sections women tell us the herstories of their lives, the violence they suffered whether it be rape, beatings, being on the run from the Macoute or the FRAPH death squads, organising politically against all odds, demonstrating for women’s and human rights or the daily search for food for their children to avoid starvation.

As the author states in the final chapter the message in these stories is to “Read it and act” and come together in solidarity with the Haitian women learning and building on their and our strength and resilience.

Eliva has increased the peril to her own life by telling us her story. But she has not taken this risk for nothing; she is asking us for something in return. She is asking us to take a stand, as she has. She is asking us to speak out, as she has. She is asking us to take risks, as she has.” Medea Benjamin