HAITIAN WOMEN AT THE CORE AND THE OUTER PERIPHERY: THE POTO MITAN
BY: GABRIELLA KHAWLY
“We are women, we are people who move and shake every day, we are not pillars cemented in place to the ground.”
The Poto Mitan, a Haitian Creole phrase that translates to ‘center pillar,’ stands in the middle of the sacred temples where Haitian Vodou ceremonies take place. This phrase is also often applied metaphorically to Haitian women to denote them as brave, selfless beings who support the family and, in more broad terms, the country. Although women generally accept this title with honor and pride, this paper argues that the use of the term and its designation almost exclusively to women perpetuates gender-normative roles in Haitian society and justifies pushing women toward the social and economic periphery. Drawing from Robert Fatton’s model of the world system and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality, the purpose of this paper is to analyze the ironic juxtaposition of women as a ‘center pillar’ with their marginalized position in Haitian society and how this positionality is exemplified by their roles in the local and global economies. An institutionalized patriarchy hides behind the female role of the Poto Mitan. The investigation of this social role as a façade to cover up a deeply-rooted, masculine-favoring society will shed further light on the unique struggles and experiences of Haitian women, the agency that they exhibit in the face of discrimination, and a specific intersectional feature contributing to the Haitian female experience.
Keywords: Poto Mitan, intersectionality, gender roles, positionality, periphery, informal economy, neoliberalism
POSITIONALITY AS A PRODUCT OF INTERSECTIONALITY
Intersectionality is a theory created by Kimberlé Crenshaw that is often employed in feminist discourse. It refers to the interconnected nature of the various marginalized identities that a single individual may possess. Put simply, when examining the condition of a group, especially one that is marginalized such as women, their other identities, such as race, sexuality, and socio-economic status, are essential to consider as compounding elements.
Crenshaw (1993, 140) argues that “because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated”. In an attempt to discuss the state of the Haitian woman, it is important to consider how this intersectionality contributes to their positionality within Haitian society as well as Haiti’s place within the global system. The role that women are expected to fill and the resulting positionality they experience serves as an intersectional component of the Haitian female experience (see Johanna Sacks).
Positionality is defined as “the way in which a group or individual is defined by others” (Franks 2002, 42). Concerning women, it is important to clarify that their positionality is determined by those outside of the female-identifying group. It must be acknowledged that “the notion of positionality is important as a counterbalance to the possible over-personalisation of standpoint within liberal discourse as if it were always the outcome of choice” (Franks 2002, 42). This highlights that women do not choose their marginalized position within society or arrive there by lack of agency; they have been pushed to the margins by a patriarchal society and the gender roles that they are expected to fulfill. Any defined group existing within a structure can be discussed in terms of positionality.
Global positionality, according to Immanuel Wallerstein (2004), can represented by the world capitalist model, where he places core countries at the nucleus surrounded by the semi-peripheral countries, while on the borders of this sit the peripheral countries. These three strata of states attempt to explain the global power structure as well as capitalist “patterns of exploitation” between the three (Fatton, 2014). In his world system model, Haiti would be classified as a peripheral nation since it is plagued with political unrest, economic instability, and exploitation by the core countries.
Robert Fatton argues that Haiti does not fit into Wallerstein’s model, and that it belongs even further outward than the periphery in what he coins the ‘outer periphery’. He uses this title to argue that Haiti has historically been exploited by the core countries and is thus confined to the outside of the world system. This is not by choice or as a consequence of Haiti’s own actions but by the conversion of Haiti into a ‘virtual trusteeship’ only meant to serve the interests of those at the core (Fatton 2014). Race and history are important intersectional features to be called to attention in this case to explain how Haiti’s current positionality came to be. Philogene (2015, 104) postulates that “the idea that Blacks rose up from their enslaved conditions and fought whites for their freedom struck fear into the hearts of those who profited from enslaved Black bodies”. In response to the formation of a previously ‘unthinkable’ Black Republic, those in power ensured that Haiti was othered to delegitimize this victory. Painting Haiti as ‘the other’ serves as a justification for the core nations’ unrelenting exploitation of the country. Haiti’s positionality has always been determined by foreigners who make the decisions and prevent the country from exercising autonomy. Women in Haiti experience a similar phenomenon.
Poto Mitan: At the Core or the Outer Periphery?
To parallel Fatton’s statement about Haiti’s global positionality, women in Haiti experience a similar form of exploitation and take a comparable economic and social position. Forced into the margins, Haitian women need to make a living in an economy from which they are excluded and are thus left to find livelihood in the unregulated sector, known as the informal economy working jobs, such as market vendors and housekeepers. As such, women’s lack of a defined presence in Haiti’s formal economy underscores their positionality in the economic ‘outer periphery’.
In contrast, calling a woman the Poto Mitan places her at the core of Haitian society by alluding to the indispensable role she plays in supporting her family. Although women are given this central role, it is expected that the Poto Mitan invest all her time and energy into others, while placing little importance on herself. Her priority is to be a good mother and a good wife (see Johanna Sacks).
On the surface, Poto Mitan seems to be an endearing name of praise that places women at the core of society. However, its use perpetuates gender roles, places many of life’s burdens on the backs of women alone, and pushes them to the outer periphery demonstrating that the term is simply a façade—a scape goat. It appears to be lifting women up, yet it more likely ties women down.
“A woman who works without complaining.
A woman breaking her back for everyone else, while forgetting herself.
A woman who takes life’s blows without tiring.
A woman who suffers but must smile through it all.
A woman who sucks it up when she feels pain and must never fall sick.
A woman who will not ask for anything because she only has herself to count on.”
If women truly are at the core, it is convenient that this title alleviates male accountability. This can be compared to the core countries exploiting Haiti for their own self-interest. Women with regard to their position have been coined as ‘the second sex’ and the ‘Other’ (De Beauvoir 1949) in Haiti’s patriarchal society just as Haiti has been labeled on the global scale. The designation of a woman as the Poto Mitan binds her, like a center pillar cemented into the ground, to a defined gender role, where she is confined to the outer periphery just as Haiti is. This social role that is attributed to women is an intersectional feature that should be given attention when studying Haitian women and their experiences navigating society. She is not painted as an individual with agency, as it benefits the rest of society to keep her in the margins as a silenced laborer upon whose shoulders Haiti is built. In this regard, she is at the core, yet she is also in the outer periphery.
WOMEN AND THE INFORMAL ECONOMY
Women’s contribution to the local Haitian economy has evolved over time. In the first half of the twentieth century, sixty percent of women surveyed participated in agriculture as their main source of income (Dartigue 1938, 35). In the later years with a mass urban migration (see Pía Molina), women have found themselves working predominantly as market vendors or in the domestic sphere (N’Zengou-Tayo 1998). These jobs are classified under the informal economy, as they are not well-regulated and leave little room for upward mobility.
Often, women are forced to seek jobs within the informal economy because few receive a formal education, and they lack experience with owning property (Felima 2014). In a society like Haiti where men are expected to do little to none of the unpaid household labor, women, the Poto Mitan, are restricted in their ability to pursue an education and other employment opportunities even when available (De Ruyter et. al 2012). So much responsibility is placed on Haitian women that they are inhibited from breaking the chains that bind them to low-paying jobs and the informal sector in an effort to achieve gender equality in the workplace (see Natasha Joseph).
In 2012, it was reported by the IDP’s Population Analysis that 32% of households were single-earning and female-headed (International Organization for Migration 2012). These women are responsible for earning enough money to support a household on their own, yet their peripheral economic position compounded with the role that they are socially expected to take on results in their earning very little. In fact, “the ratio of female-to-male earned income was only 0.37 in 2007” (UNDP 2009). With women already at this disadvantage along with the increased household responsibilities they must endure, they have resorted to increasing their involvement in the informal sector (Padgett & Warnecke 2011).
Despite combating a system that is built against them, women have continued to play a major role in the Haitian economy. In 2006, women made up 41.4% of Haiti’s workforce, which is a significantly smaller gender gap than most developing countries have, exhibiting the extent of Haitian women’s agency and tenacity (International Labor Organization 2007). Additionally, this figure is likely underestimating female economic participation, as many jobs within the informal economy may go unmeasured due to its unregulated nature. The market economy within the informal sector has evolved to become women’s territory. Women dominated urban markets by traveling to “coastal and interior towns to deliver produce through an intricate and efficient system that, until recently, provided a large share of the urbanites’ food” (Rhodes 2001). Rural women (see Natasha Joseph) are often seen selling food at marketplaces or Vodou ritual items at social gatherings (Felima 2014).
These are the jobs that most women create for themselves as an alternative to the formal jobs from which they are excluded. These alternatives not only showcase women’s creativity and agency, but they also illustrate the extent to which the Haitian economy has become gendered. If women truly are at the core, they would be given equal job opportunities as their male counterparts, and this evidence shows that this is simply not the case.
WOMEN AND THE GLOBAL ECONOMY
It is impossible to effectively discuss Haiti’s positionality without the mention of neoliberalism. In the wake of globalization, neoliberalism has dominated as a social and economic paradigm in Haiti for centuries and is a defining player not only in Haiti’s global positionality but also in that of women. Neoliberalism refers to “the policies and processes whereby a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control as much as possible of social life to maximize their personal profit” (Chomsky 1999, 7).
It is exemplified by organizations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) whose purposes are privatization of local markets and promotion of world capitalism under the disguise of attempting to improve the Haitian economy. Fatton (2014, 3) asserts that this ‘scourge of neoliberalism’ only serves to exacerbate global and local inequalities and cripple already weak states.
A significant product of U.S. neoliberalism in Haiti is the introduction of assembly factories where Haitian workers are hired to assemble goods to be exported and sold elsewhere. Core countries view Haiti as a source of cheap labor enabling them to cut manufacturing costs. Consistent with the positionality of Haiti in the outer periphery, these U.S.-owned factories are not up kept to the standards practiced domestically. As a result, sanitation in the workplace as well as temperatures have made the jobs of these factory workers, many of whom are women, increasingly difficult.
Women make up 80% of the assembly industry workers in Haiti, which underscores their economic contributions on a global scale (Gibbons & Garfield 1999, 1499). The contributions made by Haitian women to the global economy should merit their positioning at the core, yet they are kept from the glass ceiling, as they are forced to work long hours only to make an average of 1.75 USD a day (Schuler 2009).
While researchers have equated liberalization and capitalism with increased job opportunities for women, many fail to take into account the widening gender division of labor (see Natasha Joseph) as well as the issue of poor working conditions (Padgett & Warnecke 2011, 538).These factory jobs in Haiti are yet another example of the gender gap existing in terms of employment opportunity in Haiti. If women truly are the Poto Mitan, there would not be such an overwhelming percentage of women dominating these low-wage jobs that prevent them from reaching the glass ceiling.
In the pursuit of social change, it is crucial to question language, especially terms that have been normalized by society. Women’s social and economic function are indispensable to the functioning of Haiti as well as the global system. Consequently, women are often seen as a beacon of hope for rebuilding Haiti and historically have proven to invest money and resources into their communities and children more so than their male counterparts. They are the backbone of the country, and while romanticizing their role as the Poto Mitan insinuates central positionality, true recognition for this work is not realized. Women are subject to economic exclusion and rigid social expectations. Social factors, such as this, should be viewed as an intersectional social identity applied to the discussion of positionality of Haitian women in order to effectively combat gender inequities.
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