Matado

Dispatches From Martinique

7. Matado

 

My favourite word in Creole so far is matado, which comes from the Spanish matador (bullfighter), meaning ‘a strong woman, a woman who won’t take any shit, a woman whom no one fucks with’. I tried out my rudimentary Creole scratchings on a twinkly old mustachioed man who drove me home from my adopted St. Lucian grandmother’s 79th birthday lunch. He is her neighbour and ‘can’t refuse her anything’, he says. He was impressed I spoke French and Spanish as well as English, and so I tried the little Creole I’ve managed to glean up: ‘Yo ka kriyé mwen Mariella. Man ni venndé an. Man se moun Londres.’ My name is Mariella (literally, ‘they call me Mariella’), I am twenty-two years old, I come from London (I am a person from London’ – no Creole word for London that I know of, so using the French there). And then: ‘Man matado!’ I am a matado!

His twinkly eyes looked up at me in surprise. ‘Oh mon Dieu!’ he laughed. ‘Matado!

It is true that living here has allowed me to get in touch with my inner matado, who was somewhat muffled for the past few years by anxiety-ridden surroundings and the bloom of self-doubt. I wish I could say it has ‘allowed me’ this only because of the sassy bravado of the women and men I pass everyday that is often positive, often translated into overt displays of warm friendship and camaraderie, helping strangers, calling people out for bad behaviour, even in public, which would not be dreamed of in London except by those considered unhinged.

No, it is not that. It is because every time I walk down the street, I am harassed and disrespected by men that I do not know.

Every day I walk out in public and hear

hey sexy

hey sweetheart

damn look at that fine thing there

give me a smile beautiful

come over here

one question

one coffee

hey whitey

you are beautiful

What a compliment.

I was told, when I came, by two women, that it was better to just smile and walk on rather than ignore this completely, because the men might ‘insist’ or get aggressive. It’s normal for people to say bonjour when they pass by in a smaller community, a town or a workplace, so when I walk through my local bourg and a young guy says bonjour, that could be totally fine – it depends how he says it. I will say it back, and if he’s saying it in that tone of voice and that eyeing eye, I will say it without smiling, and that’s that. But that is not what most of it is. Most of it is about power. Ugly power. The power to snatch power away from me as I walk by, existing.

Guys passing by, guys driving by, guys leaning out of their car windows as I walk by, guys slowing their cars down beside me as I walk, guys stopping their cars in front of me as I wait for the bus, guys in groups, guys alone, guys hissing, guys making kissing noises, guys telling you with their eyes and sleazy tone of voice what they’d like to do to you. This is always in broad daylight, because I don’t go out at night unless in a group. They never do it when I am in a group or with another man. They only do it when I am walking alone. What ‘manliness’. What a compliment.

Despite what I had been advised, I decided to start assertively ignoring them. I mastered the mask of derision, my eyes covered by sunglasses, a crinkle in my forehead from a finely sculpted frown. When a car called out to me, I’d glance, keep my face blank, and glance back. There was nothing for him to do but feel embarrassed and pissed off, there on the street in front of all the town’s inhabitants, and drive on. When a guy called me sweetheart as I was walking by, I looked at him briefly, contempt vaguely simmering in my features. ‘Manawa,’ he called me. Manawa means whore. I swore at him matter-of-factly in Spanish, ‘Véte a la puta mierda, cabrón.’ Go to fucking hell, asshole.

Another time I was called manawa was when I was walking through my neighbourhood. A car was coming, so I walked closer to the sidewalk, and a man sitting on the curb reached out and grabbed my hand as he said bonsoir. I pulled it away like he was covered in slime. ‘Manawa,’ he called me as I walked away.

The only other time I’ve been called something similar was when I was walking through my home town in London, when a scowly old man who was possibly losing his mind passed me and almost spat out the word, ‘Tart!’ Someone asked me afterwards what I was wearing, out of interest. But what I was wearing is of no interest or importance, nor was it to that old man.

Cat-calling has always enraged me. It happens to me a lot at home, too, though it happens less than here in the dragueur culture of the Caribbean, where I am obviously a foreigner. Béatrice, my host when I first arrived, told me that being white would attract more attention, but ‘Even if you were black,’ Nicole says, ‘If they can tell that you’re a foreigner, they try to see what they can get away with.’ Same all over – they’re not our women. But, then again, my colleagues tell me that they are also treated this way, regularly, in their own country. Same all over.[1]

I remember the first time I was openly disrespected in this way by unknown men. I was fifteen and jogging to my local park, and a car full of teenage boys drove by, yelling, ‘HEY SEXY!!!’ I raised my middle finger and they cackled. Then I heard the sound of the car coming back and thought, shit, shit, shit. They didn’t. But I remember that fear, that red burning fear that stuck into all of my nerves and wouldn’t let my heaving lungs and beating heart go for a long time.

Anger and fear, anger and fear. That’s what it means. Because we live in a world where one in five women in the USA are sexually assaulted or raped in their lifetime,[2] and two-thirds of women in the UK have been sexually harassed in public, including the vast majority of under-25s.[3] There are so many statistics that I can’t begin to fit in here,[4] but what really hits home, when you’re growing up, are the stories you hear from your friends.

All girls grow up to learn the fear. I remember it started to creep into my life as I heard of friends of friends who had been raped. I remember it seeping in when I was fourteen, as I lay in my friend’s bed while her older sister was having a massive drunken party, and I heard a girl and two guys outside. She was crying and kept saying, ‘Please don’t touch me, please don’t touch me, please don’t touch me,’ and the two boys were laughing, until one said, ‘Shut up,’ and when she wouldn’t, yelled, still half-laughing, ‘SHUT. UP.’ And she did. And I don’t think I ever told anybody, until now.

The fear already had me gripped by the throat by the time I heard that my friends had been assaulted and raped. And then, one day, there I was, the same person, but one corner of my mind had me cornered with fear. If I wanted to travel the world, it wouldn’t be the same as it had been for my brother – it was different for me, I had to be more careful, I couldn’t go places alone, I couldn’t camp alone, I was a girl. When I walked home from university at night, I had to be more careful. Once I walked home and, turning on to a residential street, walked past a group of men. They parted so that I had to walk between them. As I passed, one made a sound like ‘mmmmm’. Either it didn’t occur to him that I would be thinking of the possibility of gang-rape, or he was, or he wasn’t thinking of anything at all but himself and his image in front of all his friends.

So yes, the fear, and the anger. The anger, always, but always unexpressed. We don’t talk about it often. When I’ve told male friends, they’ve been shocked. How could they know what it’s like, being male? How could they know if we don’t talk about it, if they don’t ask? Why don’t we talk about it? Well, often we are listened to without really being listened to. I said once that having a guy grab your ass at a club could ruin your night, and a well-meaning male listener said, ‘Does it have to ruin your night?’ He was thinking of my well-being, but this kind of invalidating talk is the kind I can’t stand.You don’t know. I do. Maybe it doesn’t have to ruin my night, but why not ask, ‘Does he have to do that?’

We have to put up with it or be gripped by anger, and anger is not something we’re supposed to do. Anger is aggressive, destructive, unpleasant for all around. So better to just keep silent and let it go. What good does it do to get upset? When we get angry, people get uncomfortable, especially the country where I grew up, and no one wants that. So, instead, ‘Why are you letting it get to you? Why are you getting so upset?’ or, even more insidious, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way,’ never, ‘I’m sorry you’re being made to feel that way,’ or, ‘I’m sorry I made you feel that way.’ The responsibility has to be ours. And from here, how far is it to, ‘But what were you wearing? What had you been drinking? What did you do to make him act that way?’

I wake up at six, make tea, get the bus, do my work, buy groceries, walk down the street.

hey beautiful

hey there pretty thing

don’t worry sweetie you can trust me

come over here, just one question

Just one question: what the fuck are you thinking? Answer: very little. The instinct is taught by generations of people, male and female, who said, To be a man is to desire a woman and to act upon that desire. If I assert my desire, I am a real man. It’s not about the woman or the woman’s desire in the slightest. Gloria Steinem describes it as letting women know that this is not their world. When I read that, I felt it pierce. Yes. That’s exactly what it feels like.

But it’s meant as a compliment, some people say. It’s a compliment only to the man, his virility, his manliness. He says, look at that, but he means, look at me, I could tap that if I wanted to.

But they don’t mean it like that, some people say. Not all the time, no. These values have been spelled out in millions of tiny and big actions and words surrounding them all of their lives. They were drenched in it before they had any choice. But today they are men, not children, and they have the choice.

But that’s just men for you, some people say. No, I don’t think so. My standards are far higher. I expect far more of humans, and in every corner of society it is the perpetuation of abysmal expectations that have repeatedly allowed abysmal standards to persist, which is why young people who grew up in social care keep getting into trouble, which is why marginalised communities keep keeping to themselves, which is why children who think they are worthless will never have the confidence to fulfil their potential.

The teenagers in my classes give me great hope. The girls and boys there are so intelligent, so creative, and many of them have kindness shining through them. They have the internet, which means that they have trolling and YouTube comments, but it also means their culture is a global culture, and their generation has different expectations. At school, girls and boys have friendships with each other, they laugh and talk together, and so they learn through each other. I’ve seen a couple of boys who are openly, flamboyantly gay, which would have taken serious guts at my high school, even though it was sheltered, middle-class and international. From what I can see, they are accepted and loved for it by their friends. ‘Manliness’ is a dream dreamed up by people that these kids don’t have much relation to, or at least less, perhaps. Hopefully. But they are still being failed by the silence, shame or misinformation that persists where genuine education – about sex, about their bodies, about gender identity and the differences between genders – should be.

In one class, we’re talking about the differences between men and women, and the conversation turns to cat-calling. ‘Ah, ouaaaai!’ some boys call out and laugh, gesturing to each other like, you know what I’m talking about! They demonstrate the hiss.

‘Yep,’ I say, ‘That’s the one. So, who thinks that cat-calling is a bad thing?’

Several girls and one boy raise their hands.

‘And who thinks that cat-calling is a good thing?’

I wait for the laughing boys to raise their hands – but they don’t. They look a little sheepish.

I know these boys are not bad. They are good kids; they respect me in my class, and appreciate what I do. They don’t think that they have power over me. Maybe one day they will hiss at girls in the street, maybe they already do. They don’t realise what they’re doing, because no one tells them. Or they tell them, directly or indirectly, ‘If a girl says no, she’s just playing the game. You need to convince her. If you don’t, you’re not a man. If she doesn’t want you, you’re not a man.’

Now it’s time to tell you about Marvin. When I first got here, I was waiting for the bus at seven in the morning, bleary-headed, and a guy my age began talking to me, clearly interested. He didn’t seem macho, but shy, maybe nice. A bit daft, definitely – when he found out my age, he said, with genuine shock, ‘No! So am I! Wow! Imagine that! And I just met you at the bus stop! If I’d come out of my house a little later, I never would have met you!’ Right, that’s correct, well done. When he asked for my number, I thought, ah, why not. I guess I should be open to that kind of thing? [Note to self: ‘Should’? No! No no no!] I lied and said I didn’t have a mobile yet, got his email instead, just in case. And thank God.

After a tiny amount of online talking, I decided very firmly that I was not interested, and said so. Unfortunately, I said so in the way I would at home, with an attempt not to hurt feelings, sorry, I’ve just come out of a relationship, etc. etc., it’s me, not you. ‘Don’t worry, we can just be friends,’ he said. ‘You’ll still have your chance with me later.’ Winky face. ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’

After a few more attempts to not completely ignore and block him, I completely ignored and blocked him. A month later I saw him on the bus. ‘Why did you block me?’

Not wanting to embarrass him on a bus full of people, and not ever having had such a conversation in my own language, let alone a foreign one, I mumbled something and moved on to the obligatory, ‘Ça va?’ When I got off the bus, he got off at my stop, apparently living nearby. I was carrying nine litres of water, and just wanted to get home and away from this person. We passed my house and I stopped. He stopped also, still talking to me. ‘My house is just over there, come over and I’ll show you,’ he said.

‘No, I just want to go home, cook and sleep,’ I said.

‘Here, let me take that for you,’ he said, reaching for the bottles.

‘No, I’m fine.’

‘Do you want to go out tomorrow?’

‘No. I don’t want anything like that, I told you.’

‘Just as friends!’

‘No, I don’t think it’s a good idea.’

‘Why?’

‘Because you want more, right?’

‘We can just take it slow.’

The weight of the water was digging into my arms and middle and I kept adjusting them to keep them from falling on my feet. He reached for them again.

‘No, I’m fine,’ I said. He went on. And on. On the spur of the moment, I thought I’d better lie to cut it short: ‘I met someone else.’

His face changed. ‘Then, why did you say all that stuff about not wanting to be in a relationship?’

‘Well, I met someone else and it was different with him.’

‘But why?’

‘It just was!’

‘Just tell me why.’

‘There is no why, that’s just the way it is!’

He was always with this soft, mumbly voice, like a little child. He gave me a little smile. ‘I’m going to fight hard for you,’ he said. Oh, Jesus.

‘No!’ I said. He went on.

Eventually I turned and went. ‘Until next time?’ he called at my back. When I said nothing, he said it again, louder. ‘Until next time?’ I didn’t answer.

The next time was at another bus stop, at Gare Pointe Simon, or the Seventh Circle of Hell, as Florence calls it. I had just come out of Creole class, Monday evening, hungry, tired, time to go home.

Then he’s there. ‘Are you still angry at me?’ he asked.

This time I didn’t let myself get flustered. An old lady was a few metres to my right. ‘Listen,’ I said, calmly, slowly, anger simmering. ‘I already told you – ’

‘Yes, yes.’

‘I was very clear.’

‘Yes, yes, I know.’

‘So what do you want?’

‘Will you teach me English?’

I stared at him. ‘No,’ I said, and turned away. He didn’t sit next to me on the bus that time, but the next time he did, and I had to move place. But then I didn’t see him for a while, and I was able to forget about it.

The months went by, and I had other problems of invasion to deal with. For example, my naked neighbour, who had taken to staring at me whilst naked, looking straight into my room. It was incredibly frustrating having to close my curtain or monitor my behaviour inside my own room – don’t let him see you even slightly unclothed or he’ll think you’re encouraging him, don’t look at him or he’ll think you like looking at him, just don’t look out the window when you see he’s there, just go somewhere else, just leave your room. Then one day, I saw him on his balcony (when he took a few steps forwards onto the balcony, he might put on shorts, as he did this time, as if crossing the open threshold of his door made all the difference). I said bonjour gruffly, looked back down, and heard him say something, I couldn’t catch what, but it was in that all-too-familiar tone of voice. I looked up and he was grinning at me, and he blew me a kiss, and went on grinning. I closed the window.

Surely, he’ll get the idea, I thought. Later that day I saw him, fully naked, and he did it again.

‘Hm, he’s started blowing kisses at me,’ I said to Florence. She stared.

‘That’s fucked up,’ she said. Suddenly, I thought, fuck, you know what, it really is.

‘Maybe,’ I ruminated, ‘He just likes to be naked in his room and he’s gotten the wrong idea.’

‘Mariella, you are being way too nice about this,’ Florence said. ‘That is fucked up.’

Tom and Jane thought so too. ‘How old is this guy?’ Tom asked.

‘Forty or fifty-something. And he’s white French, so he doesn’t even have the excuse of the dragueur culture, whatever kind of excuse that is.’

‘It’s disgusting, isn’t it?’ Tom said. ‘You just wonder, what is he thinking?’

I thought I might have to say something to him, assertively reject him rather than passively, as that clearly wasn’t going to work. In the end I talked to my landlady, Madame Robert. She was enraged. ‘I’ve had enough of that man,’ she said, ‘There are children in the neighbourhood, even with the children!’ They were about to go out to a party when I spoke to them, and Monsieur Robert said, ‘Give her some eggs,’ and she went back in and brought me a Tupperware full of fresh eggs from the neighbourhood chickens. She spoke to both the naked neighbour and his landlord, and so far there has been no more kiss-blowing or naked staring. Actually, once I caught him staring again, ‘But he was wearing shorts,’ I told Florence.

‘It’s the little things,’ she said dryly. I burst out laughing.

Then one day, after months of silence, Marvin sent me a Facebook message. Coucou, he said. Hiya. What the fuck? How can he still message me? Okay, block that shit.

Then it was Saturday, and I was waiting in the midday sun for my bus to go to bèlè class. A bus came – oh, no, not mine – and then Marvin got off of it and came straight to me. ‘Are you still mad at me?’ he said.

Oh, for fuck’s, fucking, SAKE. ‘Look,’ I started saying, ‘I’ve already told you, I’m not interested – ’

‘It’s okay, I’ve forgotten about all that,’ he interrupted, smiling. ‘How are you?’

I didn’t look at him. ‘Fine,’ I said sharply.

‘What are you doing tomorrow?’

My whole face crinkled up in incredulity. ‘Why?’ I said.

He shrugged, still smiling. ‘Just to know,’ he said.

I moved away to another point of the little rectangle that was the bus stop. ‘Please stop talking to me,’ I said. A while passed, and I pulled out my phone to text Florence and Jane, Just to let you know the psycho I met at the bus is here again and it should be okay but im just letting you know because he is persistent to a scary degree

‘I am sorry,’ he said in English. I ignored him and continued texting. He said it again, a little louder, ‘I am sorry – ’

‘MAIS ARRÊTE!’

I yelled, looking him straight in the face, my face drawn into a mask of white fury, eyes sharp as needles, words shooting into him like arrows.

‘ARRÊTE!’

JUST STOP! STOP!

A woman walked by and looked at us. I moved to another corner.

And he stopped.

At that moment, I used my anger. I used it as my weapon. I used it with control, with reason, with command. It was both an energy, as Johnny Rotten says, and a power.

For years, I had been afraid of being overrun with anger. I remembered feeling angry, so angry, as a young, troubled child that felt a little unwelcome in her own world. I remembered anger as something destructive, something like poison that could work slow, slow, and not leave your system for years. Something that could hurt other people who didn’t deserve to be hurt. Something irresponsible.

But being angry doesn’t have to mean being needlessly aggressive. It doesn’t have to mean being irresponsible with your emotions. It is a human emotion that happens for a reason, and those reasons need to be looked full in the face and seen for what they are, as with all other human emotions.

And I am angry, I am really angry, about lots of things, but especially about the fact that I have to live in fear of being made powerless because I was born female. Don’t walk alone at night, don’t go to isolated places, especially the girls, they told us assistants, a room full of women in their twenties, as if we hadn’t had to learn and relearn and repeat this lesson since we were little girls. We were silent; only afterwards we went to see a movie and talked. ‘I am so sick,’ my friend Beth said, ‘Of being told what I can and can’t do with my life. Why don’t you tell guys not to attack us?’ But we are already powerless, so we’re more likely to listen. The fact that we will be attacked is a given – it’s we that are responsible for taking risks and baiting that possibility. No one means this when they say that kind of thing, but it’s the message they perpetuate.

But when I shouted at that boy, I realised that that power that was snatched away from me in the street, every day, all the time, I could snatch back. Because I could be a matado, I could tell someone to stop, I could call someone out. I could shout. If I didn’t, they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t even think.

But it’s dangerous, some people say, with reason. What if you say something to the wrong guy, and he gets violent? It’s not worth it.

I won’t pretend it’s an easy choice, or that I am less afraid. But for me, it’s a choice between being afraid and remaining silent, colluding with that fear, or being afraid and taking back a little bit of dignity, a little bit of power, the lack of which peels away at the soul like paint being torn from the walls.

Not long after, I was walking to school and, as I approached the gates, a bunch of guys made comments that I didn’t understand, I ignored them, and right before I passed through the gate, one of them made smacking kissing noises, and I called back, in English, ‘Fuck you!’ They didn’t say anything, or come after me. And I continued on my way to work.

And yes, for a second, I felt that same old adrenaline fear. And I was still angry. But I also felt better.

I won’t swear and use aggression as a first resort, only a last; it would be an utter waste of energy and put me in harm’s way more often than I already am. Instead, to repel these aggressions of men that pretend to not be aggressions even in the minds of the aggressors, I wear my armour suit of confidence. I walk a little straighter these days. There is more swagger in my hips. I plant my hands on my waist when I wait at the bus stop, and still every man who passes in a car will take his eyes off the road to stare at me, but so far, they fuck with me less. The armour says, I am not one to be fucked with.

Perhaps my armour suit will look like a challenge to some men. It certainly won’t stop them completely. But I am ready. It will be a relief to live in a world, one day, where I can put the armour suit away, not just for a few weeks or a few months, but for good. For now, at least I can craft one with my own self, and I don’t need anyone’s permission to do so, nor anyone’s permission to be angry. Because fuck that, no more. My life is precious to me, and I treasure it. My freedom is precious to me, and I treasure it. For that reason I say, no, no, no more. To quote a hero of mine, the indomitable Nina Simone: ‘I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear.’ No more stupid fear. Lay the paint back on the walls.

Man matado. This is my world too.

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Notes

[1] Of extreme importance are the ways in which racial and gender-based harassment intersect, as well as class prejudice. As a white foreigner in the Caribbean, I am a notable target, but where I come from in the UK, it is probable (though hard to pinpoint in numbers because we still don’t have enough research looking into this) that if I were a woman of colour, the sexual harassment I experienced would also be racial, and so I would experience that hatred, doubled. See link at [3], and also Moya Bailey’s term ‘Misogynoir’, discussed in this article: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/oct/05/what-is-misogynoir.

[2]http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/15/health/nearly-1-in-5-women-in-us-survey-report-sexual-assault.html

[3] 2016 YouGov report, discussed here: http://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/news/234/85-of-younger-women-in-uk-have-been-sexually-harassed-in-public

[4] A good primer and excellent collection of essays for more information: Solnit, Rebecca, Man Explain Things To Me, Chicago: Haymarket Books (2014).

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