Post 145.

You may be surprised to know that the most verbally abusive person in my life is my three year old. Or, perhaps, if you are a parent, you are not surprised.

Aside from disclaiming me as her friend whenever she’s resentful of my authority, Ziya also has suddenly begun to articulate, with American Psycho meets Voldemort darkness, all the ways she can think of maiming me.

‘I will hit you on your head with a tree’, she threatens. ‘I will push you and make you fall down and get hurt’, she promises. ‘I will mash up your face’, she swears, channeling The Godfather. At this point, I began to get concerned.

She was always physically assertive, wrestling me in the nights when she wanted to fall asleep breastfeeding and I was pushing her off, flinging both legs and arms like a Tasmanian Devil in infrequent though full-scale two year old tantrums, lashing out when she was vex at her dad or me and then having to apologize for hitting.

That’s average, if annoying. What’s terrifying is when her little brain starts to use her expanding vocabulary to imagine and detail infliction of harm and pain to assert dominance, exact revenge or register resistance.

Stone and I never throw words at each other. In fourteen years, he’s never insulted or become angry enough to say mean things to me, and vice versa. We don’t put each other down and we don’t put Ziya down. We also censor Ziya’s television consumption, precisely because of its violent content and overall unhealthy transmission of values about gender, race, class, sexuality, nation, capitalism and so on. Between Dora, Dinosaur Train, Martha the talking dog, Curious George, Word World and the Wild Kratts with their focus on animals and ecology, where did Ziya learn to negotiate relationships by being so vocally vicious?

During play, at school.

Since she’s started school, her conversational give and take, her social skills or lack of them, and her handling of conflict and power have had to step up. It’s at home that she re-enacts newly encountered situations and tests newly acquired skills. She hasn’t yet figured out, or maybe she has, that there are certain things you should not say and certain things you only say to your friends at school. It’s hard to tell if she doesn’t understand correct boundaries or is deliberately pushing them. As we all know, three year olds are wily creatures capable of sophisticated plotting when they have a point to make.

I don’t know if it’s like this across the country, but it shows how emotional, verbal or physical violence becomes part of peer culture. They’ve been learning to pelt it out since preschool. Maybe it’s the historical role of domination in founding our society, and the fighting words and relations that it has made unnoticeable and accepted. Maybe it’s that we see playgrounds as idyllic spheres of innocence and joy, so schools and families don’t treat such learning outcomes as serious, and don’t seriously and collectively try to transform our children’s investments in violence. Can parents, principals and psychologists cooperate to make playgrounds places where abusive talk isn’t fine-tuned everyday?

I tell Zi that mean words hurt feelings. We discuss how she feels hurt when threatened in those ways. I tell her not to respond when she’s on the receiving end and to say sorry when it’s her.

It’s a developmental stage, but it’s also a warning sign about the world our children will create. What can we do while they are still our fledglings to change such fate?

Post 144.

Reporting government ministers to the police is something few women do.

There are always risks. Your sexuality is tried in the court of public opinion, and judgment inevitably reflects a sexual double standard that more greatly punishes women. Your respectability is questioned as if only the wrong kind of woman would find herself in that kind of position or the kind of woman who wants to vengefully victimize a man. If you got a car, job or house, and sexual transactions with more powerful men were involved, you have to prove you didn’t cause it or manipulate the situation or can even be believed. Rarely, will you entirely escape blame.

The press gets into your business, your beliefs, your past and your vulnerabilities instead of turning the lens on the wider issue or the legislation or policies that can create change, or the institutions or associations that knowingly enable or turn a blind eye. Don’t mind these things are happening everywhere, the story is reduced to the individual woman, isolating her from other women, the quiet ones, the respectable ones, the grateful ones, the ones who know better than to make front page news.

You can be the wife or the outside woman, rich or poor, a ‘gold digger’ or a flight attendant (or both), a lesbian, a sexually active teenager, a sex worker or a CEPEP worker. Whatever the mix of consent and coercion or power and powerlessness, it’s your right to speak out about exploitation, harassment, discrimination, violence, intimidation or any other treatment you feel you did not deserve, especially from someone more institutionally, politically or economically more powerful than you. It’s your right to go the police for justice. Rather than gossiping, it’s our responsibility to examine the gender and power relations that your broken silence should turn our attention to.

If women, all women, suddenly stopped keeping secrets, stopped fearing the shame we wrongly bear, stopped preferring to hide rather than stand out as the ‘troublemaker’, men’s privilege to repeatedly treat women as they can, as they choose, as women can’t treat them or as they can get away with would not be so free and easy. But, so many of us stay silent, unprotected from the public costs, reduced to protecting the powerful, the predator and the problem.

To this, feminist Audre Lorde says, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood…My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you…What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We can sit in our corners…mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted…and we will still be no less afraid”.

I was sexually harassed one night in a television newsroom. When I told my boss and she asked what I wanted to do, I felt there was nothing to be done. I was new and young. I was temporary, I may have been disbelieved or blamed or further harassed, and there were no laws or policies to protect me. Going public would only have felt like greater vulnerability.

So, to the journalist who asked me, yes, Rondelle Laidlow, Sacha Singh and Patricia Singh are setting powerful examples that young women need. It’s irrelevant whether we like, agree with or approve of them. They, like all women, need speaking out to become less risky.

Post 143.

Once upon a time, awoken from stillness and feeling lonesome, the sea crept up to the sand to tell it some jokes. Bubbling with mirth, it mischievously edged back, predicting sand’s response, and thinking itself really very funny. Maybe sand would laugh. Sand smiled quietly, but kept tranquil and cool.

Knowing sand was hard to impress, sea already had a comeback and waves of fresh lyrics. It tumbled about with irreverent banter, curious, confident and lively. Sand gently pushed sea back, blushing, and murmuring backchat.

‘Hmmm’, sea thought, its attention caught, ‘a challenge’.

Sea rolled in and tousled sand’s tight ringlets of seaweed and grasses. This teasing was sea being playful, sand guessed, wondering if sea acted without thinking or with too much thought or just had its own idiosyncratic ideas about what constitutes sweetness and charm. Sea pulled back and admired sand, its length and perfect fit, and it sighed happily. Sand looked at their arms interweaving, indulgent and amused.

And so days and darkness passed, sea approaching with tales from far-flung coasts, sand dancing at the shoreline. Eons of pursuit, visits and farewells followed, early pleasure creating an inevitable ebb and flow.

In between there were rougher encounters, when sea grumbled or became thunderous, when it was full of confusion or when it wouldn’t listen. Sometimes, sand turned away, saying nothing but holding its ground. Sea would meet a rocky shoulder, not calm and warm embrace. There were periods when sand refused to let sea’s breath fill it under its skin, which sea loved to do again and again, coming close with deep draws of air. Exasperated by this, sea would swear to stay away. It would stare icily at the sand, holding back from reaching for its soft shore. Who needs jokes or touch or breath or teasing, sea would insist, withdrawing with great effort and growing distant without a backward glance.

Watching this melodramatic back and forth, the birds and the fish would roll their eyes, impatiently explaining about fate and the moon, and, moreover, about acceptance and attachment, contentment and connection, and life. A old and socratic starfish, sitting right where both sea and sand could hear, was elected to give them advice.

It asked the sea, ‘can you help but meet the sand?’ Sea could not deny, it was at the mercy of the winds and tides, but also its own restless nature. The starfish asked the sand, ‘can you help but meet the sea?’ Sand wondered at its own motivations. It wanted only to offer the solace of its shore and to let the sea come and go. ‘Can you help but meet?’, the starfish concluded, shrugging and stretching its arms. Without sand’s boundaries, sea could never know itself, and sand would become mere desert bereft of the sea’s longing. Wind blew, full but fleeting. It would be infinite, but unpredictable, they knew.

As the starfish hoped, both sea and sand grew a little wiser from then on. Sea couldn’t imagine not drifting up to sand, sharing stories or kisses or gifts, before leaving sand shaking with laughter. Sand no longer wished to contemplate its reflections without sea’s conversation. On still nights, they would merely touch fingers and tongues, and the whole world would seem to be listening to the wind singing and the trees’ hum, as each wandered off to sleep.

Today, we think that science understands why the sea always returns and why the sand never leaves, but science can only account for gravity, not the powerful pull of difference, desire and delight, without end since the beginning of this story.

 

Post 142.

On Tuesday, print and television news called me for a ‘gender perspective’. Chandresh Sharma story, Sat Maharaj statements, how is this hitting the government, violence against women as an issue.
I declined to comment on Sharma’s mess. I didn’t know all the facts. Men having multiple women is well accepted. It’s practically a male rite of public life. However, if our political parties and country had sexual harassment policies, regardless of how the situation began or ended, it would have been less likely. Men would face more rules regarding mixing sex with politics and leadership.
That’s why if I was Prime Minister, one election promise would be a National Sexual Harassment Policy, particularly to protect young women from men who have more institutional, ideological, economic, political and physical power. We have to challenge older, predatory males’ sexual license in our culture.
Glen Ramadharsingh was out of control and out of order, but I don’t think he planned to sexually assault. Still, a woman felt disrespected and threatened enough to file a complaint. Rightly so, she had to protect herself and her job from a more powerful male.
Beyond the violation of marriage, Sat Maharaj should have sided against any violence against women, domestic or not. I declined to comment because I think his sexist opinions get too much media attention.
I recommended both reporters talk to the Hindu Women’s Organisation. For years, they have been attempting anti-domestic violence work through their temples. Their campaign didn’t resoundingly spread because of pundits’ resistance. The organisation’s strategy may have prevented these kinds of incidents from happening by already shifting the social environment for Indian men’s relations with women. Press can help them.
It’s all hitting Campaign 2015 hard. The PM must be damned vex. Whatever your criticisms of her, she’s not worse than any of those men. She has risen among them, and now they are cutting her down, left, right and centre. Just handling them and their egos, entrenched public sector corruption, and gender and sexual inequality is more than anyone else in our history has ever done. As Sunity Maharaj also says, our systems need transformation or all individual leaders will inevitably fail. Whatever the PM’s shortcomings, I think she’s more competent than people say. Nonetheless, expect mistakes.
At any rate, individual politicians are not news. Dead fish by the thousands is our front page. When they start to die, how long do you think before we start too? Fish resources and ocean health are amongst our best economic resources for the future, and the poorest among us need to most rise up in defense of their descendants. It is the wealthiest who can pause their charity to influence protective legislation.
The struggle of the Highway Re-route Movement is also more important. I was surprised at a newspaper editorial chastising them for being a nuisance. That’s the point. Development is about democracy and transparent decision-making, not just big buildings. The HRM is rightly resisting that unaccountable vision. And without justice, why should there be peace?
On reflection, my one comment should have been support for Sacha Singh whose private photos became revenge-porn on the internet. There’s nothing wrong with sending sexy photos to your man. Women shouldn’t be punished for that. What’s shameful is publicizing them. It’s dutty and a form of mass-mediated sexual violence. On this count, Sacha has my absolute solidarity.
My failures to comment are often misrepresented as feminist silence about ‘Kamla’, a shallow cliché, but it was midnight when I finished work and finalized my thoughts, too late, though now I knew what I’d say.

 

Post 141.

The bliss of snaking through Manzanilla’s coconut trees was enough to make the drive worthwhile, but the community spirit that I encountered in Mayaro was, unquestionably, the highlight of the day.

I was there to give a talk for International Women’s Day, being celebrated for the third year in this little corner of South-Eastern coast, adding to the other events happening all over the country all through March, and continuing to honour an agreement made by over 100 women from 17 countries in 1910.

Always socialist in its politics, International Women’s Day originally aimed to strengthen women’s protests against exploitative working conditions, their participation in politics to advance their rights, and their knowledge of those women who came before, who unapologetically resisted regardless of what was expected of them because they expected more for themselves.

This Saturday was no different. Carla Walcott, granddaughter of Clotil Walcott, was there, continuing to call for domestic workers to be considered workers under the Industrial Relations Act and to labour under decent conditions of employment. One women’s group spoke passionately about tending to women’s loneliness, donating to those unable to make ends meet, and listening to the ones trapped by abuse. Men spoke about their realizations that full emancipation of a people is not possible without full equality for all. Girls were being mentored so that they develop ambitions that defy the limitations of their gendered and geographical realities. How humbling to remember that it isn’t petrodollars that keep us together, it’s the cooperation and commitment shown by many unsung individuals, who step out of crease for those more vulnerable, simply because they are people who care.

I hoped to tell stories, those of my great-grandmother, grandmother and daughter, those of students at UWI, those of ordinary Indian and African women who had their own ideas about their desires and dreams, and who collectively organized housewives, the unemployed, the hungry, the anti-war, the oil and sugar workers, and the not-yet unionized. Even if only the words leapt off the page, I wanted to name Haiti, Cuba and Grenada, so that we remember not to forget their stories too.

In the end, it wasn’t my stories that defined the evening. It was the story of Pearl, a woman from Mayaro who told me about the trials of raising her daughter on her own, struggling to build her house, and ensuring that her child traveled to St. Joseph’s Convent daily and later could finish her degree at UWI. Pearl’s combination of exhaustion, pride and recognition that, with her daughter grown and gone, she now had to define herself anew is the story of so many mothers, including my own. Pearl wrapped me in a hug as soon as I stepped out of my car because she read my stories each week. Connecting us is what stories do.

This is probably why Suzanne from the Heart of a Sister Foundation told me that she planned to publish her own story, titled Happily Ever After. Not because there is ever a fairytale ending, but because even when there isn’t, we can make do and do well, even encourage each other. I drove away after making Mr. Mutota and the South African High Commissioner promise to tell me their stories of NJAC in the 1970s and mobilizing against apartheid in the ANC.

In the darkness, Manzanilla’s narrow road seemed to hold these histories in its breath, like a flute waiting to be played. Mayaro retreated, leaving me its stories of struggle and community, and its spirited refrain as a call and response to more than one hundred years of International Women’s Day.

Post 140.

When she gets angry at Stone or me, Ziya’s latest response is to announce that she’s not our friend. ‘You can be your own friend!’ she declared before hunching her shoulders and stomping off after I quarreled with her. ‘Daddy is not being my friend’, she accused on another occasion, giving him the look of the wounded and betrayed when she didn’t get her way. Yes, my baby is in school, practicing the complex emotions and skills compelled by social interaction. Friendship, and all that it means, has clearly become a hugely important source of connection and negotiation.

Every afternoon on our way home, as I ask her about her day, we talk about who she played with at lunchtime and what they did together. Young and Restless has nothing on the tribulations of this three year old. Some days, some of the girls include her as their friend, some days not. Some days, she says she played by herself because everyone already had a friend. Some days, she finds someone else to play with. In her circles, friendships are made and broken, alliances established and renegotiated, sides chosen and then switched with the vigor of UN Security Council horse-trading over Syria. Forget high school. If you thought that a pre-school playground was about play, think again. This is where Zi most figures out who she is, how she should or shouldn’t behave, what feelings she should articulate and to whom, and how to survive hurt, healing and tough love, which after all is the way of the world.

There are the good days when the girls make chocolate, almond, ice cream cakes, whipping up their imaginations with the mulch on the ground. They seem to spend a lot of time cooking, rather than pretending to be astronauts or even superheroes, but that’s for another column. Some days, a boy might push Zi and we practice saying no or I remind her about telling a teacher, and affirm the importance of her learning to stand up for herself. She bosses everyone around at home but turns into a mouse at school, and has to become capable of taking her comfort and confidence with her wherever she goes.

I fear for her, as any parent would, knowing that each year she will discover that life is harder than she expected and that she will have to learn to hold her head up on her own. I fear for her, knowing her vulnerabilities and softness, and wanting her to experience the safety of love for as long as she can. I also remember the situations where I had to learn to cope, make friends, go it alone, and feel good about myself through good decisions and bad. For her to excel at those life lessons, despite whatever fears, I have to continuously let go. I can ask, listen and advise, but mostly I have to just let her grow.

All a parent can do is trust that their children will figure it out as we all have to, emerging as imperfect beings, able to forgive themselves and forgive others, dust themselves off and, against all odds, optimistically move on. ‘Is it okay to make mistakes?’ she asked this morning as we drove to school. ‘Yes, of course’, I said, ‘if we didn’t make mistakes, we wouldn’t learn. Everyone makes mistakes’. ‘Yes’, she concluded, all mini-Buddha, ‘mistakes are okay’.

And so begins another ordinary day of making friendships and making mistakes. Beyond learning to spell or colour, there are tensions and disappointments as well as resilience and joys to watch her discover.

Post 139.

Girl Guides Rock

It was the Girl Guides who rocked the International Women’s Day (IWD) march, held on March 8 in Arima and organized by Ida le Blanc and the National Union of Domestic Employees (NUDE).

Under midday sun, these young women carried us forward on their songs. Caught up by their camaraderie, all I could see was them making the right steps to becoming the faces of future Caribbean feminisms.

An earlier generation of committed women’s rights advocates was there, women like Jacquie Burgess, Hazel Brown, Rhoda Reddock, Folade Mutota and others. Those younger than me, Marcus Kissoon of the Rape Crisis Society, long time reproductive rights activist Nicole Hendrickson, and UWI students Stephanie Leitch and Sommer Hunte, were in the intergenerational mix. Besides the women, there were men from the OWTU, Shiraz Khan representing Trinidad Unified Farmers Association, and more.

We were continuing the path cut by women like Daisy Crick and Elma Francois, Thelma Williams, considered the ‘mother’ of the OWTU, international socialist and pan-Africanist Claudia Jones, Christina Lewis, of the Caribbean Women’s National Assembly, who first started International Women’s Day commemorations in Trinidad in 1958, and Clotil Walcott, founder of NUDE.

These were women who knew that neither they, nor we, could get weary until labour held the reins of power, legislated the rules and wages that created decent conditions of employment, and transformed the kinds of injustice that affected all workers and especially women, unequal workers in their own homes, in other people’s homes and in the lowest paid sectors of the economy.

Fifty years after our first IWD march, commentators were proclaiming feminism’s demise. Once needed, now obsolete. Once outspoken, now silent. Once everywhere, now abandoned. Such ‘post-feminist’ premature ejaculations should have been kept zipped up. Around the region, my generation and those upcoming are unapologetic about diverse and critical feminist-movement building.

From Barbados, Tonya Haynes of Code Red for Gender Justice and CatchAFyah. Sherlina Nageer of the Red Thread Women: Crossroads Women’s Centre and Vidyaratha Kissoon of the International Resource Network, both working from Guyana. Malaika Brooks-Smith-Lowe of Groundation Grenada. Angeline Jackson of Quality of Citizenship and Tracy Robinson, an LGBT rights scholar-activist, both based in Jamaica. Kenita Placide of United and Strong, St. Lucia. Nikki Johnson of the OWTU in Trinidad. Our own activist teaching with students of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, UWI, St. Augustine. Local LGBT organizations like CAISO and Women’s Caucus.

Alissa Trotz in Toronto. Jahajee Sisters, with their cross-race, anti-violence work in New York. US based scholars like Angelique Nixon, working with communities in Haiti, while challenging sexism and homophobia. Caribbean feminist writers and artists from my generation are fire-starting through words, music and culture. We don’t just work in one organization, but across many kinds. And, we are more. Many more.

We are here. We are not afraid. Our numbers include men as our allies. Our feminisms are rooted in our legacies and in contemporary realities, as defined by the power of the World Bank, yes, but also by those domestic workers marching in Arima.

One day, politicians and Muslims will openly march with sex workers who come out of well-known brothels to demand their lesser-known rights.  One day, farmers and unionists will walk with lesbians, gays and transgender folks desiring equality, because the struggle for emancipation cannot end with inhumanity.

Generation with generation, in spirit and in solidarity, across race and across the region, those Girl Guides need to know that such politics is theirs to carry forward in their power to lead. One day, I hope we will add their names to this long march of history.

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