Post 241.

Between sexual violence statistics and the slow pace of legal progress for domestic workers, feminist activism often feels like running in the same place or, worse, pushing a boulder uphill each day only to start again at the bottom the next.

The loudest and most prevalent voices seem to oppose, misrepresent and resent. When you are visibly, vocally and consistently challenging any idea that inequality between the sexes is natural, ordained or evolutionary, you see how the backlash to women’s rights, and the demonization of feminism as a movement to achieve those rights, is real.

You have heart-wrenching understanding of just how much the state is failing women in terms of policy, plans, legislation, services, sexual and economic empowerment, and commitment to changing beliefs and values. You see how homophobia means more to people than letting women and men be valued simply for being human, rather meeting feminine or masculine ideals, and letting them love whichever soul they choose.

But, there are surprisingly encouraging moments. As I sat in AMCHAM’s Annual Women’s Leadership Seminar last Friday, I looked around at the room full of women and thought that feminism was actually less of a marginal voice than it seems. Far from it, this movement to replace subordination and stereotyping with fairness and freedom was on the mic and in front, and women in positions of authority were invested in and advancing its potential transformations.

There were numbers and power here, representing a majority that I had underestimated. I reflected on how much more I had to learn about how that majority, and those women increasingly, even if slowly, occupying leadership positions, were allies I had not sufficiently connected to or appreciated.

I had not noticed that women entering the corporate sector had created such shifts in relation to women’s rights, perhaps because their work fell under my radar, or I had considered it partial, classist and mainstream, or because their relative invisibility, as a majority which is nonetheless negotiating within patriarchal constraints on professional life, made me miscalculate their solidarity.

Amongst speakers, there was Charmaine Gandhi-Andrews, Chief Immigration Officer (Ag.) in the Ministry of National Security. Her leadership on issues of trafficked women was inspiring. This is exactly what an immigration division should be doing, not just raiding, arresting and deporting, but accounting for the political and economic gender inequalities that they meet face to face. Gandhi-Andrews was unapologetically badass, and is doing deeply relevant and necessary work for incredibly vulnerable women. I hope to be like her someday.

Teresa White, Group Human Resource Director at ANSA McAl, talked about the sexual harassment policy the company has in place. She said every right thing I wanted to hear about such policies – that they are not just protocols for victims of sexual harassment, rather they are meant to entirely eliminate it by changing the rules, culture and responsibilities of the whole institution. I have much to learn from those managing such policies in practice, precisely because they are a global feminist strategy to not just empower individual women, but to transform the entire waged economy.

In conversation, Anya Schnoor, Managing Director of Scotiabank Trinidad and Tobago, told me that the bank had signed onto the UN ‘He For She Campaign’, meant to encourage men to speak out for gender equality. She added that they also had a ‘She for She Campaign’, which made my heart sing, as I never imagined a bank would prioritize solidarities among women, even though it’s an area women always emphasise as a challenge, desire and need.

The event also featured AMCHAM T&T’s support for the ‘Leave She Alone’ campaign, premised on men as vocal allies in ending violence against women. And, CEO Nirad Tewarie, gave exactly the speech guys should give: men have to do the work to create gender parity and have to be open to learning from women and feminists about how to do better along the way.

Optimistically, there may just be a feminist majority to collaborate with and learn from; women and men in corporate life pushing barriers in a myriad of ways I had not realised. The next step for all Caribbean feminisms’ yet unachieved goals? Recognise an opportunity and strategize.

Post 240.

On International Women’s Day, one radio call-in discussion debated whether women and men’s biological differences meant that they are supposed to be unequal. As if equality requires biological sameness or, for women, that they be like men. As if our differences as women and men legitimize the status quo of unequal value, power, status, rights and authority.

This backhanded involvement in engaging women’s rights issues is worrisome, yet common, and often unchecked. For example, Single Father’s Association of Trinidad and Tobago (SFATT)’s march is themed men against “all violence from all to all others”, which seems common-sense, valid and laudable. For, who isn’t against all forms of violence, and who isn’t glad to see men taking action?

Yet, behind this seemingly progressive engagement is unchecked denial of women’s empirical realities and long-sought transformations.

In one comment on the march, Rondell Feeles, head of the group, wrote, “So why are so many PUBLIC ADVOCATES intent on separating the issue to deal with domestic violence against women only, when statistics have shown that both children and men are victims of the same. Are we saying violence in the home is unacceptable to one party but acceptable to everyone else in the family? A HOLISTIC Issue warrants a HOLISTIC Approach”.

First, public advocates don’t “separate” the issue of domestic violence against women, they bring an analysis of how our notions of manhood and womanhood shape power and vulnerability, and take into account the fact that women suffer serious injury and death in disproportionate numbers at the hands of male partners. This means that while both men and women may be violent in domestic relationships, the consequences are different, requiring recognition and specific strategies.

Second, statistics show that girls and boys also experience violence in gendered ways, not only in terms of physical and sexual abuse, but in terms of perpetrators and silencing. Third, no one has ever said that violence in the home is unacceptable for women, but acceptable for everyone else. This is a ‘straw woman’ set up solely to knock down.

Women are being murdered in increasing numbers, with the majority related to intimate partner violence. Women and men have been calling for an end of violence against women, not only in relation to domestic violence offenses, but also in relation to violence as it daily affects women traveling by taxi, on the street, at work and in other public places. Violence is committed at very high levels against women because they are women.

What’s gained in presenting activists as exclusionary? What’s at stake in calling for a focus on psychological and emotional violence, for example, when severity of injury and death show women’s inequality in terms of harm from their relationships? What’s at stake in focusing on violence by all when all are not equally perpetrating violence, nor are the harm and increasing rates of murder from DV offenses equal? Finally, what’s at stake in SFATT insisting that men are the “greatest victims of violence in Trinidad and Tobago”?

The overwhelming murders of men, which occur primarily by men, are horrific and must be stopped. Men also face violence in heterosexual relationships and it can be hard for them to report it and seek help.  Yet domestic violence by women and men also show distinctly different patterns. For example, women’s violence to men usually ends when the relationship ends. Male partner violence generally escalates and becomes most dangerous then.

SFATT has been arguing that women are as violent to men as men are to women, citing CAPA data which shows that, between 2010 and 2016, 56% of the Domestic Violence murders were of women and 44% were of men. However, this data doesn’t say those murders were at women’s hands, and it can’t be assumed.

CAPA data also shows that, between 2010 and 2016, women reported 100% of the sexual offenses, 80% of the assaults and beatings recorded, 82% of the breaches of protection orders, 66% of threats recorded, and 72% of the cases of verbal abuse. The data suggests that women experience fear, threat, injury, severe harm and death to a greater extent where they should be safe in their families, relationships and homes.

The bait and switch at work here goes like this: It’s separatist to focus on violence against women. So, let’s focus on violence against all. However, let’s emphasize where the real violence is. It’s not against women. Men experience the real sexism and are the real “victims”. Too much attention has been given to women. It’s time for that “discrimination against boys and men” to end. It’s time to focus on men.

It’s a myth that sufficient resources have ever  been put to ending violence against women. Activism by men’s organisations to end such violence remains welcome and necessary. What we hope for in these efforts is true solidarity.

For a fuller discussion, see my presentation on IWD 2016 at the SALISES Forum: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pTVhzYKF88

 

 

 

 

 

Post 239.

Organised by Christina Lewis, the first International Women’s Day march in Trinidad was held in 1958 . This year’s IWD march, which will be held tomorrow, almost sixty years later, speaks to continued work over these decades to make gender equality and equity, and women’s rights, a reality.

Come to the Savannah, opposite Whitehall, from 3pm tomorrow, and see a new generation of young women and men, from organisations as diverse as Womantra and the National Council of Indian Culture Youth Arm, take their turn in this long history.

The years between 1958 and now were not perfect for the women’s movement, and the women who continued the struggle were their own fallible and imperfect beings, but their commitment to a vision for the world, that was larger than the ups and downs of both patriarchy and collective efforts to resist it, was real.

Roberta Clarke, a feminist foremother to this younger generation, like so many other women, observed: “I remember when IWD was a handful of women marching (single file) in Woodford Square in Trinidad. We felt compelled to be visibly commemorating the day though we perhaps internally and silently wondered at its impact. Praises to CAFRA (the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action), Working Women, WINAD, DAWN (Development Alternatives for a New Era), the National Union of Domestic Employees and so many others”.

Many won’t know of or remember these organisations, but without them we wouldn’t be marching tomorrow, because, for a baton to be passed on, it has to be carried. We are supported by the Office of the Prime Minister (Gender and Child Affairs), which is the legacy of a global women’s movement pressing states to create a bureau that would advance gender justice, with the first being established in Jamaica in 1975. And, help coordinating simultaneous marches on Saturday across five Caribbean countries was provided by the Caribbean office of UN Women, itself a creation of a visionary women’s movement. Even the IGDS, which could bring the kind of support that universities should provide to social movements, is a result of twenty four years of feminist women and men labouring so we could have the resources, experience and fearlessness we do today.

My first IWD March was in the mid-1990s, just when the world and its governments were being galvanized by the Beijing World Conference on Women. There were hundreds in the marches in those years, with state branches such as the police and defense force represented, Muslim women’s associations and women leaders in their communities; men against violence against women (MAVAW); and towering figures such as Joan Yuille-Williams marching right next to Hazel Brown and the women of the ‘Network’.

I was younger and more fiery then, always buffing the gender bureau for doing too little. Time has taught me greater appreciation for those years, and the challenges which ministries of gender across the region face in being a feminist voice within the state, actively pressing against the status quo to end gender-based violence, transform our notions of manhood and womanhood, and insist there cannot be development for all, while sexism, homophobia and their dehumanizing effects on women and men persist.

This year’s march is in solidarity with the Life in Leggings movement, started by two young Barbadian women, to break silences around sexual violence. It is in solidarity with the goal of  equal pay for work of equal value, equity in terms of women and men’s participation and leadership in business and politics, and women’s economic empowerment. It is also in solidarity with the issues each of us sees as a denial of women’s rights and the solutions we want to see implemented.

We are inviting the nation’s religious, sports, youth, school, cultural and other groups; families and communities traumatized by the murder of girls and women in their midst; and individuals, who want to add to the people power we need, to “bring your message and come!” Women’s rights are everyone’s responsibility and this march is to gather our strength to boldly pursue changes we need.

Over years, I’ve learned that every effort does count, and you will be surprised who notices and feels less alone. I’ve learned to work across our differences, including with the state, for we need every ally we can get.

Tomorrow, a coalition of almost twenty organisations is giving momentum to another generation. Join us from across the nation. Together, we can make the future better for girls and women.

Post 238.

Mas may have mostly left the masses now that bikini and beads revelry runs the road, but the public still comes out in the hope of seeing art take to the streets, to come to them as witnesses, and in homage.

For, mas must come to people and be for them, exciting something in spectators’ waiting and watching hearts in their next intake of observation and breath.

Anyone who has ever played mas that embodies design, skill and character knows this public love for mas portrayals which turn ordinary materials such as chicken wire and cloth or nondescript beads sewn into intricate patterns into otherworldly representations. People are hungry for public creativity and Carnival is when they line sidewalks and crowd corners hoping to catch sight of a moving figure that releases all our pent-up imaginations.

Tuesday found me amidst revelers and spectators, carrying on my shoulders a swollen white skull, connected to dragging tendrils, its mouth open in silent screaming horror. As our small swarm of post-apocalyptic sailors moved through the streets, people repeatedly stopped us and asked, ‘Which band dis is?’, nodding knowledgeably when we told them it was a Minshall mas with Exodus Steel Orchestra. Minshall had said as much in an earlier interview, hoping that this mas would “make a lot of old folk feel very good inside with a sort of satisfying sigh. ‘Ah, yes, well at least I see that again before I dead’”.

Just outside the hospital in town, a woman named Germaine with her little boy, Harmony, stopped to instruct us to play our mas on the stage for her. People were appreciative and discerning, evaluating our portrayal as they stood in front of us, mobilizing familiarity with art history and technique as it has appeared again and again in mas making.

‘Are you a ghost?’, one little girl asked as we waited interminably in Memorial Square as rain fell, sun shone and rain fell again. Indeed, as dystopian ghosts, or spirits of an imagined place of unhappiness, fear and injustice, our towering figures combined sailor mas with robber mas in a band of the dead. We could only be described as a dread mas for dread times, whether because of economic despair, ecological devastation or the recent election of Donald Trump to global dominance.

As we walked, our cloth trails became muddied and stringy, and lengthened out into disgusting tentacles navigating the endless garbage of every kind. I kept wanting to cut them off and return my costume to its opaque whiteness.

Just as I was about to ask veteran mas maker and one of the band’s leaders, Kathryn Chan, she turned to me and said that she loved how soiled they had become and wished she had made them longer. I kept quiet and recommitted to carrying the mas with the authenticity its makers had envisioned. After all, we were rising from the grave, stained by the detritus of humanity, to show an “ominous, empty, vaporized future passing you by” in the present.

Called ‘Spiritus Mundi’ or world spirits, we moved like a whisper of truth through the noise, like a collective soul of the universe containing the memories of all time, somehow both ethereal and material, light and white, yet sodden and unclean.

“No jumping up and dancing on the stage”, Kathryn shouted at us above the cacophony of trucks as she directed the children moko jumbies and flag bearers. We were to properly play our collective character in this theatre, and to show the sobering suffering of the world as a giant mesh representation of the planet rolled ahead of us and a rainbow crowned the hills of Laventille behind.

Minshall himself was sitting in front of his television, impatiently waiting to see another generation of Callaloo Company turn his drawings into life. Just as we stepped on stage, the stations switched to San Fernando, leaving him bereft from an ill-fated director’s decision.

He was inconsolable about missing our enactment and, so, should know that, for those of us that were there, this beautiful and macabre mas was an epic gift, weightless on Tuesday, despite the weight of the world that is our burden now that Carnival has come and gone.

Untitled.jpg

 

Post 237.

Screen Shot 2017-02-23 at 2.01.30 PM.png

On Carnival Friday last year, my sapodilla was on stage singing her calypso competition tune, ‘Mosquito’. Zika was an oncoming threat and we wanted to combine musical commentary on a serious issue with humour, to step away from trends where women and girls are the voices of public lament, while men and boys the kings of humour and word play.

So, her verse, ‘Health Ministry spray/cannot save the day/plus recession biting them too’, was meant to highlight collective responsibility for mosquito-borne diseases, ecological concerns about insecticides used by the state and their impact on insect biodiversity and, at another level, the multiple ways big issues bite both state and society. She came second, promptly putting her prize money in her piggy-bank.

Following this, the song reached the ears of a national park ranger in the US who, just this week, sent Ziya her own Biscayne National Park Junior Ranger badge because her song is going to be introduced into their kids’ camp. In her mailed package, Sapodilla also got a fossilized shark tooth which she proudly put in her treasure box. You never know where calypso can reach.

Today, she’s on stage again, with ‘first-class lyrics for so/ but not about no mosquito’. This time, she’s telling a true story about our dog Shak Shak who, terrified by Old Year’s Night fireworks, ran away and was lost for several days. In the song, she looks for Shak Shak everywhere. She goes by the church, all they tell her is that prayer always works. She stops by the shop owner, but he’s only helping his customers. The police are too busy looking for tief. She calls up the Prime Minister, he tells her to put her request in a letter. She goes up Mount Hololo, which is near us, and even Tobago, which is far, but no Shak Shak.

The end of the song finds Shak Shak hopping a drop to the beach for, of all things a vacation, leading to the double-meaning in the punch-line which observes how ‘Shak Shak reach!’, a local turn of phrase for when someone ends up where you don’t expect, whether in terms of geographical extremities or rapidly improved circumstances by opportunistic means.

In reality, our terrified dog was picked up at the side of the road by a nice couple, whose car she jumped into when they stopped to check on her. As they were on their way to Las Cuevas, Shak Shak went with them and spent several days liming, likely happily, on the North Coast with their family, all while we searched and worried. When they returned to Santa Cruz, and saw the posters, Shak Shak was brought home, looking well rested and well refreshed from all the crisp sea and mountain breeze.

A fireworks-terrified lost dog is such a common story, and the beloved pothound so many children grow up with is such a common memory, how could we not turn this escapade into kaiso? Of course, as kaiso must, Shak Shak gets portrayed in the figure of the wayward quick-stepper, successfully breaking biche before order is restored, for isn’t that what the bravado of calypso requires of even the most timid of real-life characters?

Zi herself is a timid character. She’s produced by her dad, Lyndon ‘Stonez’ Livingstone, whose Razorshop roadmix of MX Prime and UR’s ‘Full Extreme’ is now on radio replay. Still, this singing on stage business, though just in her school hall, is a reach for her as well. Might she come first this year? Given where ‘Mosquito’ and Shak Shak ended up, you never can tell.

Post 236.

Over the last three decades, the rise of bikini mas has been considered a sign of Carnival’s loss of politics.  In this view, gone was the costuming skill and performance that defined mas itself, to be replaced by wining skill and body display, with the heyday of top male bandleaders replaced by bottom and ‘Carnival is woman’.

The feminization of Carnival was an unrepentant fall from high mas, and women’s ‘vulgarity’ was obsessively interlocked with the downfall of decency and order in the wider society. This easily fit the misbegotten myth that all the world’s troubles would be solved if only women never misbehave.

Women disagreed by the tens of thousands.

The past thirty or so years of bikini mas, which is now typical for an entire generation of young women, could therefore instead be thought of as a massive women’s movement taking cultural form, indeed ‘taking over’ Carnival, to continue traditions of self-affirmation, resistance to subordination, and renegotiation of the rules of public space.

Observers of the ‘jamette’ tradition point to the fact that women in Carnival always combined the folk politics of ‘playing mas’ with the gender and sexual politics of ‘playing yuhself’ in ways that were typically disallowed to women, and that women took both these politics into their challenges to the state.

What’s evident over the last decades is that such ‘jamette’ performance has crossed racial, religious and class differences amongst women, becoming national, and therefore even more disturbing for men as diverse as Sat Maharaj, Tim Kee, Keith Rowley and Father Harvey, with their patriarchal passion for women’s responsibility, decency, dignity and prayer.

Women’s annual occupation of the nation’s streets over Carnival, to experience sexual control, bodily pleasure and freedom from respectability, predates anti-‘slut shaming’ or ‘slut walk’ marches in the North by decades. Unexpectedly, bikini mas helped powerfully cultivate contemporary women’s opposition to rape culture, or a society where sexual domination of women and their vulnerability to sexual violence is seen as natural and normal. Though globalized, this creative expression of women’s rights is homegrown.

We saw the force of such opposition when Asami Nagakiya was murdered and the groups Womantra and Say Something called for the resignation of the PoS Mayor. We have seen it in continued ‘not asking for it’ campaigns across the region, in a younger generation of women publicly refusing old men’s bad habits of victim-blaming, and in diverse support for #lifeinleggings’ call to break silences about sexual harassment. It’s part of Say Something’s current ‘Leave me alone’, ‘Leave she alone’ campaign, in collaboration with Calypso Rose, which encourages women to share “experiences of street harassment and violence during Carnival and also of positive moments when you felt defended or protected by your Carnival community…whether as revellers or frontline workers and service providers”.

The rise of bikini mas is complex. Women’s increasing income and economic independence are major factors. Desires to be affirmed as beautiful as black and brown women, not just as ascendant students and workers, is another. Expansion of women’s spaces for friendly sexual ribaldry, such as the maticoor, into the public domain is a third, bringing with it challenges to the hypocrisy of male privilege, which allowed men all kinds of license while keeping women in check.

There are also contradictions. Costs of bikini mas participation mean that class shapes access to these moments of freedom. Many women continue to play within ropes, reproducing historical ways that upper classes cut themselves off from others, while signaling the reality of sexual harassment which all classes of women continue to fear. Additionally, the marketing of hypersexuality over these very decades has reinforced hierarchies of beauty and the policing of women’s bodies in ways that complicate the radical potential of bikini mas to throw off pressures women face, embrace self-pleasure without judgment or justification, and defy nation-state commodification.

Against nostalgic anxieties, bikini mas has enabled serious woman politics of all kinds to take up space in Carnival. It is the largest movement of women to take to the streets in the country, bringing diverse aspirations for an equal place as gendered and sexual beings. And, it has cultural capital, empowering anti-violence activists’ demands that both men and the state better behave.

Post 235.

The PNM’s media machine experienced a disastrous week of damage control in relation to PM Rowley’s words, “I am not in your bedroom, I’m not in your choice of men. You have a responsibility to determine who you associate with, and know when to get out, and the state will try to help, but then, when the tragedy occurs, and it becomes the police, the police must now go the extra mile…”

The AG said that Mr. Rowley said nothing wrong, how the PM speak is how he does speak, and that it was true that a person was “equally responsible” for his or her situation. Fitzgerald Hinds said, without irony, that he didn’t understand gender sensitivity, but he didn’t see any offense in telling women they should leave when they begin to see signs of violence, despite the fact that many women don’t leave because of economic insecurity, children or straight-up fear.

The OPM awkwardly angled the story in terms of the PM offering “empowering advice to our women” so that women could “make smart choices”. Though, these choices do not include safe and legal termination of pregnancy in situations where violent relationships may make women feel another child will mean less ability to leave.

The press release then listed Gender Affairs Division programmes which have long been in existence and are unrelated to Dr. Rowley’s leadership, and pointed to the Community Based Action Plan to End Gender Based Violence in Trinidad and Tobago, which has not yet been approved, and needs adequate resources from F&GPC to succeed.

All Mr. Rowley needed to say was, he understands how traumatized people are feeling about violence against women, he’s sorry his comments may not have been phrased in the most sensitive way, it wasn’t intentional, and he’s prepared to grow and improve in his engagement with gender-based violence, as we all should. All the spin would have been unnecessary. We are all fallible. We can all practice accountability.

Nonetheless, the problem isn’t Mr. Rowley.  It’s pervasive myths about violence against women that feel like common-sense: that women deserve it when they are abused or killed and their bad decisions are where accountability lies.

However, women have no responsibility for male violence. Men’s enactment of violence is entirely their responsibility and occurs in situations where they are taking control of a woman, not losing control of themselves. We should nonetheless consider that male violence takes place in a wider context where male supremacy is considered normal and natural. This kind of gender inequality shapes what boys learn about manhood and power as they become adults, leading to invisibility of male domination and violence except in situations where it becomes severe.

Second, women do not get into relationships with men who are abusive. Abuse develops over the course of relationships and may start when women get pregnant, the more children they have, when they become economically dependent, when they get their own jobs, when men lose their jobs, when women try to leave, and when they take out protection orders.

Third, gender-based violence is a societal, public health and citizenship issue when women’s inequality, and their greater vulnerability to violence defines their experience of belonging to the country. Intimate partner violence is only one kind of violence that women experience by the thousands each year. Yet, state response to violence against women has never been adequate at the level of policing, social services, anti-gender based violence training in schools, and in the court system. The protection order system needs to be completed revised. Programmes for perpetrators or men who want to address their own violence, or its potential, need to be in place.

The fact is that its women’s refusal, whether on the street, in gyms, in offices or in relationships – not choosing of men – that often provokes violence. And, state officials need to be clear that women are at risk at work, in transportation to and from work, and when they become unemployed and are searching for work. Women are already choosing to leave when they can, and being stalked, harassed and even killed because of it. Right now, “empowering advice” from the PM simply is not what all these women need.