Family and Community

Despite the Rastafari rejection of the ways of Babylon, for much of the movement’s history their family structure has reproduced the patriarchal system that also characterised the colonial society of Jamaica. The man was the head of family and the woman was subordinate to him. The husband was called ‘king-man’. Women were called ‘daughters’ or ‘sistren’ or ‘queens’. There has, however, been historical variation in the roles of women in Rastafari. At first, women were active in the early groups as they were in contemporaneous Revival movements. Then there was a virtual disappearance of women except as spouses in the 1960s. Women could only be ‘grown’ into Rastafari by a Rastaman. A woman could only be Rastafari through her ‘kingman’. Then from the 1970s, women began claiming space for themselves as Rastawomen.

Prior to the late 1970s, the status of women in Rastafari beliefs was as fallen creatures, echoing their status in the Old Testament. There was a strict division of labour, with women in the domestic sphere and men in the public sphere. Women were often excluded from decision making. A wife must obey her husband, cover her hair, and wear what her husband told her to wear. Women were said to find their salvation through men. Women for much of the Rastafari movement did not participate in public reasonings, and rarely went to celebrations. They did not have the status of an elder in the house. There was an explicit ideology of the subordination of women among the Rastafari. Attitudes to women were the same as those in Jamaican society more widely, and found among the British colonisers the Rastafari opposed as Babylon.

However, the status of women has been changing since the 1970s. Women are coming into the movement independently, rather than being brought in by men. They are present at celebrations, participate in chanting and dancing, and no longer cover their dreadlocks. Women are often the main breadwinners and the main caregivers for children. However, it is often important for men to stay at home with the children and spend lots of time with them. Family life is important and highly regarded. This is a way of addressing the family system in slavery, which was disrupted by the control of slave masters, and often meant that men were unable to stay with their partners and children. Rastafari by contrast focus on a cohesive family with defined roles. Fathers try to be active and positive role models for children, for example by cooking meals and nurturing young children. In Jamaica, some men practised polygamy or secret polygamy (where the various wives were unaware of each other), claiming that it was a traditional African practice. However, this practice was resisted by women and did not take hold. Some Rastafari women observe menstrual taboos, mainly not cooking or attending Nyabinghi while menstruating. There is a difference in the length of time among the mansions; 7 days for the Nyabinghi Order, 21 days for Bobo Shanti, whereas others do not have the prohibition.

Rastawomen joining the movement in their own right rather than as queens of Rastamen have challenged many of the assumptions and stereotypes of women. There is a tension between feminism as a liberation ideology and Rastafari as a liberation ideology that still subordinated women. Rastawomanism emerged as Rastafari women’s ideology of liberation within Rastafari against structures of racial, class, and sexual subordination. The dress code became seen as a way of separating the self from Babylon and modelling African regal dress. Women in Rastafari portrayed themselves as ‘African Queens’ with natural beauty that is not modelled on European standards of beauty. Many claim their right to choose their own dress. They prefer the title ‘queen’ to ‘daughter’ or ‘dawta’. They use the symbol of the lioness who partners the lion. Head wraps became a symbol of militancy analogous to dreadlocks rather than a covering that diminished them. Rastawomen smoke ganja openly and attend Nyabinghi, participating fully in reasonings and playing drums.

Rastafari value community among brethren and are active in community programmes. They represented the lowest segment of Jamaican social classes in the early years when the movement spread in the slums, which meant that community organising amongst the poor has always been an important feature of the movement. However, this sense of community at first was exclusive, as they sought to withdraw from Jamaican society, which they experienced as ruled by whites but built on black labour, while exploiting them and giving them nothing in return. They experienced violence from the Jamaican police and other authorities. This position has changed since the 1970s. Rastafari became more interested in liberating Jamaica, making it the land of the Rastafaris, and so they have become more active in Jamaican society rather than withdrawing from it. For example, Rastafari never voted until a Rastafari elder, Ras Sam Brown, first stood for election in 1961 for his Suffering People’s Party.

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