There must have been a malicious Halloween duppy flitting around the Upper House in Kingston, Jamaica on Friday, October 31, 2014. A senior politician, former Minister of Justice and current Minister of Foreign Affairs & Foreign Trade (and also leader of Government Business in the Senate) Senator A.J. Nicholson made a remark that shocked and angered Senators – and many others.
This occurred during a discussion on the “flexi-week” – a long-running debate on flexible working hours – during which Opposition Senator Marlene Malahoo Forte made the point that the proposed legislation might lead to women working late at night being more vulnerable and at risk from physical attack and rape. Security is a huge issue for Jamaican women; far too many are living with the scars and the pain of rape and physical abuse.
Well, Senator Nicholson decided to make what he considered a “joke” – “Rape? Yuh waah flexi-rape?” he muttered. Opposition Senator Kamina Johnson Smith asked the Senate President Floyd Morris to request a withdrawal of his statement, Senator Nicholson blustered some more, saying,”Man caah run a joke again?” – and refusing initially to withdraw his “joke.” This is all as reported by the Gleaner’s parliamentary reporter Daraine Luton. Senator Nicholson eventually withdrew his statement, and the following day released the brief written apology below.
Senator Nicholson’s comment has created a firestorm in the media and among civil society. Many are now calling for his resignation (including the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party’s youth arm, Young Jamaica). I am sharing below his official written apology, together with a statement from the 51% Coalition and a blog post by a fierce human rights advocate, Damien Williams.
We are yet to hear from Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, who has for many years carried the Women’s Affairs portfolio both in Opposition and in Government; nor from her Information Minister Sandrea Falconer, who has taken on some of that portfolio since Simpson Miller took over the reins of government. The head of the People’s National Party Women’s Movement Jennifer Edwards expressed disappointment at Senator Nicholson’s remarks on radio, but I have not seen any official statement. Senator Nicholson also commented on RJR, “I meant no disrespect to women… I should not have done it; I apologise… You won’t hear anything like that from me again, I can assure you!”
STATEMENT OF APOLOGY FROM MINISTER NICHOLSON ON REMARK MADE IN SENATE ON FRIDAY, OCTOBER 31
(MFA&FT Kingston: November 1, 2014)
I wish to apologize most sincerely for any offence caused by a remark I made in the Senate yesterday (Friday, October 31). Some say that the remark was ‘disrespectful’, others maintain that it was ‘flippant’.
Regardless, the fact that I did not mean to cause offence is not now the point; offence has been taken. And I wish to tender my apologies to the entire society.
I also wish to assure the public that deep lessons have been learnt by me as a result of having, unfortunately, made that brief remark.
November 3, 2014
WHEN A “JOKE” IS NOT A JOKE!
Senator Nicholson’s attempt to make light of his sotto voce remark about “flexi-rape” is completely out of order, unacceptable, and disrespectful of all Jamaican women. As a Jamaican man who is also Leader of Government Business in the Senate, he has rightly been taken to task. We hope the Senator reflects on his actions and is now committed to refraining in the future, from any statements or actions that are offensive and insulting of Jamaican women.
We call on every single Jamaican woman to monitor the statements and actions of every single leader in all fields – religion, business, politics, civil society, and call them out every single time they dare to insult Jamaican women. We have to be our own best and strongest advocates for the respectful treatment of all Jamaican women.
We also congratulate those members of the Senate who challenged Senator Nicholson, and demanded an apology. We ask that the remaining Senators, both female and male, also publicly affirm that the Senator’s comment was out of order and unacceptable. We wait in anticipation of these public affirmations.
Alternatively, the President of the Senate could usefully, table an appropriate motion, and get all Senators to publicly support a motion which rejects any such behaviour by any member of the Senate.
It’s time for accountability; it’s time for action.
51% Coalition – (Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Women’s Media Watch, Young Women’s Leadership Initiative, Institute for Gender and Development Studies, Jamaica Network of Rural Women Producers, Jamaica Household Workers Union, Sistren Theatre Collective, Jamaica Women’s Political Caucus, Association of Women’s Organisations in Jamaica, Women Business Owners, Panos Caribbean, Joan Grant Cummings, Dr. Marcia Forbes, Dawn Roper, Joan French, and Carol Narcisse)
A passionate activist on human rights issues has written this in his blog. The link to his article is below.
Dear Madam Prime Minister,
I hope this letter reaches you in the best of health and safety.
I don’t know if you have heard as yet (since you want to remain positive and as a consequence eschew the news), but a member of your cabinet, Senator A.J. Nicholson, has been misbehaving. I find his misbehavior particularly repulsive. Here is why I feel that way, Madam Prime Minister.
The senator sought to make funny the issue of rape. This, in a context where flexi-work week was being discussed, yet he found a space to run a joke about rape. This, in a context where many wives are seeking, from the same house of parliament, to remove the conditionalities to marital rape, yet, he found a space to run a joke about rape. This is a context where many men feel entitled to women’s bodies. Unfortunately, the senator (and Foreign Minister) thought that rape is funny. His comments were reckless, crass, and outright WRONG.
I want you to recognize the gravity of his comments. I hope I do not have to point out to you how rooted in patriarchy and misogyny Senator A.J. Nicholson’s comments were (aint it funny that as I pen this letter to you that he remains a senator?). But apart from the misogyny and patriarchy, in making a joke out of rape, Nicholson CHOSE to actively participate in the silencing of narratives of pain, trauma, violation and sense of personal invasion many wo/men experience from rape. You will appreciate that it is no “kikiki” matter. This is one issue on which we cannot “tek bad ting mek joke”.
In the ancient art of war, warriors learned that the most effective ways of reducing and crippling the humanity of their enemies were through enslavement, cannibalism and RAPE. In enslaving the enemies, they were taking from them their civilization, language, religion and will. In eating them, they were reducing them to feces and in raping them, they were ensuring that they destroyed that lineage forever. They emasculated and reduced the men before their wives as they buggered/raped them. They raped the women and had children by them for the very purpose of repeating the act on others. These children will grow up with scarred… divided loyalties… not knowing on whose side to fight. We would not get into the psychology of all that identity issues.
Madam PM, I do not normally call for rolling heads but your administration, whether out of expedience or principle, simply cannot allow Mr. Nicholson to continue either as a senator or minister of state. Even after such reckless comments, he offered a backhanded apology. Perhaps the one he offered to cabinet was a better one than he offered the public and the female senators against whom his crassness was directed. I do not accept his missive as an apology. In fact, what the senator did was to give our collective face a slap. He, up to now, has not acknowledged or admitted that his utterances were wrong. Instead, he charged those of us, who found most repugnant his comments, with being overly sensitive and unable “fi tek a joke.” How dare we not possess his more “sophisticated” sense of humour. A joke Madam PM? Who laughs when their body is sexually violated? Who laughs when they learn that from rape, they became pregnant or contracted an STI? Who laughs when for rape they seek the justice of the courts only to have to prove the legitimacy of their rape to defense attorneys who pull them apart on a witness stand, going through every sordid detail of her sex life – past, present and imagined? These days acts of rape are recorded on smart phones and videos uploaded to facebook, youtube, vine and the like. The victims’ life tarnished. The perpetrators get a forwards “cause a nuh notn. mek wi laaf bout it.” Would you laugh, Madam PM? No? You don’t find it funny, do you? Well, Mr. Nicholson does.
And to add insult to injury, he is issuing threats to the same women whom he violated with his penetrative flexi-rape comments! What vulgarity and shamelessness! You, Madam PM, need to be decisive. You need to send a clear message that an apology cannot buy pardon for the trivializing of SEXUAL VIOLENCE. You have always prided yourself in being a voice for the poor, marginalized and voiceless. This is your opportunity to act on behalf of the many women and girls who have no voice of their own because powerful men like Mr. Nicholson have trivialized their plight and re-presented them as whining broads who “cyan tek a likkle joke and a likkle sex.” You, Madam PM, and not another, need to speak up for the countless women who walk the streets of Jamaica, haunted by the catcalling, grabbing, and description about the fatness, tightness, bigness (and whatever other descriptions he finds suitable to give; especially if she seem unwelcoming to his invasion) of her most intimate parts from men who, like Mr. Nicholson, think “a nuh notn”. They are depending on you to say to Mr. Nicholson (by firing him) that he would not make light of their suffering and tacitly encourage other men, through his utterance to see rape as but a light affliction and something to laugh about (especially not in the hallowed halls of parliament). You cannot simply give him a “naughty boy” slap on the wrist like you have done with Azan, Paulwell et al and say you accept his apology.
Will you side with Mr. Nicholson and send a message that there are no consequences for wrong doing once one has money and access to power? Or will you stand with all those women (and men) who have ever experienced rape and send the clear message that under Jamaica’s first female prime minister, the issue of rape will be taken seriously? A refusal to act decisively and with alacrity on this matter will make you party to his transgression and will place you on the wrong side of history forever.