It’s been a long time since I was last a schoolgirl, rolling up the waist of my dark blue, A-line skirt to make it shorter, scraping my hair into a ridiculously tight bun with the aid of copious amounts of hair grease and water. There were at least a couple desks bearing futile attempts at immorality and infamy through etchings noting that I was here once, and naturally, my form class was the best and baddest. Now, secondary school and its accompanying experiences almost seems like a whirl. The schoolgirl though, forever occupies a significant space within the Caribbean.
She is still ever watched over and lectured to, and her comportment and decorum in the streets — particularly in uniform — are still lamented over. We always hear more about the ills of schoolgirls than the schoolboys. Under a video shared on Facebook of a line of teens, seemingly on the balcony of a school getting wined up on, the caption considered whether this is what young girls are being sent to school for. Nothing is said though to the young men receiving those wines.
Education is one of the pillars of West Indian cultural identity; it’s a social marker in our respective islands and a vehicle for possible socioeconomic class movement and in migration, it’s wielded as a veritable cultural staple of who are as a people: people who utilize the benefits of and understand the need to “beat book.” Many West Indians abroad are beneficiaries of post independence educational offerings like government scholarships which allowed our parents to study and helped some of us to be the second ones in our families to go away for university. We project a lot onto schoolgirls through the ways we revere education and its possibilities, with the hopes and dreams of generations getting stuffed into their book bags and saddled onto their backs. And because they are little women in training, everything expected and demanded about good womanhood is also heaped upon them early as well.
The schoolgirl fighting videos, which are plentiful and nearly endless: a flurry of hair pulling and shouting and cuss-outs and blouses askew and fists and legs flying, feed into the public’s haranguing over them. The fights are problematic for true, but are the boys not fighting as much, or are the girls just showing out more? At times, it seems we’re so captivated by being voyeurs of messy schoolgirl violence that no one stops to enquire what else is behind what’s taking place. No doubt a plethora of factors contribute to the filmed altercations, but the path of decent womanhood means containing anger. Women with broughtupcy aren’t supposed to thrash about and rage.
I can only make assumptions about why it appears as though that girls fight more these days, and they fight for an audience, and they fight to assert themselves and eke out an identity that is against what society, for a long time now, expects school girls to be. Though school-aged boys do occasionally appear in parent shaming videos, school-aged girls are far more prominent. They are shamed and violently berated and hit for twerking and being sexual among other reasons. A schoolgirl got peed on by R. Kelly once. Some schoolgirls ceremoniously pledge their virginity to their fathers assuring the sanctity of their hymens. This shows the sexual violence, dangers and sexual gate-keeping afflicting all kinds of school girls.
In dancehall and reggae, the schoolgirl intermittently appears and nine out of ten times, she is a kind of cautionary tale and invariably, in need of guidance of some sort. Sometimes, it’s already too late, and although Vybz Kartel gallantly decides to stand by her side, in nearly no way, shape or form is schoolgirl pregnancy considered acceptable by most religiously informed West Indian societies. When not directly prefaced by “school,” she is a girl, no doubt of school age, who is referenced in song who will “never stay at home”, and has “been with many men since she was only ten.”
She is Richie Spice’s “Ghetto Girl;” she is also I-Wayne’s wayward woman who began to “bruk out at the age of seven” and “nuh know de Maths, English nor de spelling so fine.” I’ve always thought the “ghetto girl/gyal” ranged from secondary school aged to unmarried women struggling through all the hurdles of adulthood. They are carrying traumas from girlhood and grapple with them today. The ghetto gyal is problematically praised in Beenie Man’s classic edict, heralded by Inner Circle, and she is singled out for dancing honorific in QQ’s “Ghetto Gal.”
Of course not all schoolgirls are working-class or ghetto girls, but there is something undeniable about the ways in which the dancehall badgal aesthetic (with nods to Riri, who is undoubtedly, likewise inspired) is directly connected to the ghetto girls and baddises who inform, remix and actively create dancehall women’s culture which seeps into the region and throughout the world — from Patra, Lady Saw, to Spice come right down. The issue with respectability though, is that those same attributes in addition to where they are rooted, are unacceptable to some people. Which leads me to Ishawna. After a slew of delectably raw and danceable bangers like “Need Love” and “Everybody Ago Know,” among others, Ishawna’s cautionary, big sister love note to school gyals everywhere last year, encourages them to wine, wine, wine to Kartel and Alkaline, and get a good education at the same time.
Rather than pretending that schoolgirls only have to choose between being sanctimonious, or exemplary good girls who don’t enjoy wining to some of dancehall’s most popular DJs, she is considering possibilities for a multifaceted schoolgirl who is “street smart”, “never absent” and can attain ten CXC passes. She is also virtuous and only has chemistry with her school books. The song epitomises the struggle for the dancehall loving, wining executing West Indian school girl. Annoyingly, the older we get, it is a dichotomy that never goes away as the hastag #ICanBeBoth shows. Global black feminists have long known that for black and brown women, the expression of overt sexuality comes at a particularly steep price for us which is further impacted by class, skin shade, size and phenotype, and it’s a lesson ingrained from when we are young. Inside the English-speaking Caribbean, our societies aren’t prepared to respect and embrace openly sexual women.
For Ishawna, the song also scores respectability points for an artist who is resolutely chastised on social media for the messages she sends women and girls, for her sexy outfits, her t-shirt line and her topics in songs, almost as much as she is celebrated for some of those same things. One commenter on Facebook declared her, “The whore of dancehall, influencing young ladies to fuck a man only if she’s getting money in return.” There are many such salty comments on her profile in some places. Ishawna is a survivor whose publicly acknowledged dealings with intimate partner violence means that some of her most popular tracks come from a place of painful personal experience, so I’m not surprised that she, too, knows the struggle of being a schoolgirl tussling with the expectations of respectability, schoolwork and the attractions of the dance hall.
It is very revealing that Ishawna’s ex in his rebuttal, exactly exemplifies that bind, between openly admitting to physical abuse and outside women, he seemed chuffed to observe that Ishawna’s career and its attendant sexuality will be constrained by the “morality” of Jamaican society. And this is because she is a young woman expressing sexual lyrics and being sexy; no man’s sexually explicit lyricism would be guaranteed to hinder his career.
The schoolgirl in me, who just barely sensed the possibilities, knows now that there are a multitude of ways to be an authentic woman; it’s something I wish for all schoolgirls: a knowledge of self that can be safely explored and attained and belongs wholly and wonderfully to them alone.
This post is part of the CODE RED for gender justice #Black Feminisms Blog Carnival.