“When Norman and Bustamante Manley and the citizens of Jamaica used to bust Rasta men’s heads and throw them in the gully, it was the Rasta woman who had to hold down the family and the community. There is no Rastafari without woman.”
The Rastafari movement started in 1932 in Jamaica, by Leonard Percival Howell. Jamaica was still under the colonial stronghold of Britain and Howell started the movement to help uplift those struggling. Marcus Garvey’s declaration to “look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned; he shall be your Redeemer,” became the founding tenet of the movement. Rasta ideology places a high value on Black consciousness and self-value. Using Judaism and the Old Testament as guides, the Rastafari religious movement was created.
In the early days of the religion up to the 1970s, Rastafari men and women were heavily persecuted by the Jamaican government. Their knotted locks and way of life were regarded as unclean and as such, many men and women were beaten by the police. Rastas lived a tumultuous life and rallied the repatriation to Africa cry. Facing much difficulty, Rastas settled in the hillside communes like Bobo Hill, Buff Bay, and Pinnacle; they created self-sufficient communities. They were self-sustainable farmers who lived off the land and sold handmade crafts and crops at markets. Rasta camps were regularly raided and dislocated by the authorities.
Women in Rastafari – In Theory
A Rastafarian woman is a ‘Queen’ and must keep different standards and values than the women in “Babylonian” (western) society. A Rasta woman is easily recognized in society by her grooming standards; sans makeup, head covered, modest dress with knees and shoulders covered (skirts and dresses only) and no chemicals in their hair. Rasta women cannot use any form of birth control, and abortion is not an option, as it is seen a murder. A woman following Rastafarian culture is expected to nurture the community, but know “her place.” Her role is secondary to that of a man, and she cannot hold a leadership role in the community. The Bobo Shanti is the stricter order when it comes to women’s roles. They adhere stringently to the Old Testament principles. If a woman is menstruating, she cannot be around the brethren.
Many Rastafarian marriages are common law. A woman’s role is to be a vessel for carrying children, housekeeping, child rearing and pleasing her King. Jealousy is not a welcome emotion in Rasta women. If her King sees fit to take another woman, she must welcome this, but she cannot commit infidelity.
In an interview with the Jamaica Observer, Rastafarian Sister Minnie admits that while she has no regrets, it was a hard road following Rastafari. She states:
“As a woman, we had a hard time in it. You want to know the truth about it? We were just children-carriers… we were to (only) bring children for our brethren until we could stand up and talk for ourselves. Some of them now call us men,” she said.
Her friend, Sister Mitsie, said in the same interview, “At the time when we were trodding through there was nothing fashionable about locks. It wasn’t Sister locks, fashion locks; it was nothing like that. You were targeted for discrimination, victimization, persecution, everything. So, it was a challenge for me as a mother, but I couldn’t do it any other way.”
The Modern Rasta Woman
According to the 2011 Population and Housing Census, over a 10-year period, Jamaica has seen a 20% increase in the number of Rastafarians. Persons claiming Rastafari as their religion increased from 24,020 to 29,026. Of that figure, 3,701 were females.
Clearly, the numbers show that Rastafarianism is a male-dominated movement. The movement represents empowerment of Jamaica’s youth who question the system and the predominant Christian faith.
Filmmaker and Rastafarian, Kassa Hynes vehemently opposes the statistics, “No government can give any information on Rastafari.” He doubts that census takers ventured to those hard to reach rural areas across Jamaica’s mountainous interior to get a proper count.
Hynes’ modern-day take on the Rastafarian woman differs from the historical concept. “Rasta women are at the forefront now, more than ever,” he says.
“Old school Rastas took away women’s voices because of the Bible. My generation slaughtered that concept. From my generation onwards, we focused more on the teachings of Haile Selassie and Garvey.”
Hynes noticed the shift in the 1990’s when women and little girls were included in playing drums and voiced opinions in reasoning sessions.
As for the dress code, staunch Nyabinghi and recording artist, Queen Ifrica is frequently seen in the media wearing pants and make-up. She is in the company of many Rastafarian women who reject subjugation in the movement.
“When Norman and Bustamante Manley and the citizens of Jamaica used to bust Rasta men’s heads and throw them in the gully, it was the Rasta woman who had to hold down the family and the community. There is no Rastafari without woman.” Hynes says.
The modern-day Rastafarian woman is not an oxymoron.
“I wear some makeup, get my nails done, I sometimes show my hair, I wear skirts all the time, and I acknowledge His Majesty Haile Selassie,” says Rochelle Brown, a 40-year-old Rastafarian living in Brooklyn, New York.
Brown attests that it is a different time for the Rasta woman these days. “Things are shifting within the community. It’s about educating and shifting perspectives,” she adds.
As for that time of the month, she notes that it is her sacred time and she needs her space. “I don’t cook during my cycle because my system is not at peace. I am cleansing and energy affects food.” Brown says it’s akin to when your mom cooks food with love and when you eat food from someone’s whose heart wasn’t in it, there is a difference. Brown’s king gives her space during her menses to honor her and let her experience her cleansing in totality.
There is a tug of war between the traditional Rastafarian woman and her finding place in modern Jamaican society. The feminine energy is rising especially in the wake of the #metoo movement. Women who were once seen as secondary and voiceless are stepping forward in the movement.