Post 191.

Syed Abdul Aziz’s story intrigued me.

Not only because he was my great, great-grandfather, not only because he changed destinies in that crossing from Calcutta, but because he was known to have come from Afghanistan.

I was intrigued by how little is documented about Afghans who dissolved into the homogenous identity now known as Indo-Trinidadian, who nonetheless appeared with insistent counter-narratives amongst handed-down family lore in the Muslim community.

Who were these Afghans? Why did they come? What routes did they travel? How could we, as their descendants, tell a tale from the new world to challenge contemporary global stereotypes?

What was the significance of the fact that Aziz sent his daughter, Ayesha, my great grandmother, to school in the first decade of the century, raising her to be literate in Arabic, Urdu and English? What is the significance of her living, working and praying in her orhini, never in hijab?

This daughter of an Afghan born, Muslim leader in Trinidad could tell us about an authenticity and tradition different from modern fundamentalist versions. And, what would that mean for me, and for other family who long defined ourselves by this legacy?

As I traced Aziz’s steps, seeking proof in colonial documents, each finding led to more questions, and I began to think less of his migrations than of my own rollercoaster of emotions as the old photos I hoped to scour were in some unidentified location in the Princes Town Regional Corporation, or as I finally, in sha’allah, reached the knowledge trove I sought.

Euphorically, I sat in Maulaana Mustapha Kemal Hydal’s balcony, my insides fluttering in Freeport’s breeze as much as the photocopy he held of Aziz’s auto-biography, written in Urdu, more than possibly in Aziz’s own hand, and given to Kemal by his mother’s uncle, Aziz’s son Yusuf. In all my searching for any of Syed Abdul Aziz’s own possessions, finally, this single page.

It says that Aziz was born in the Hazara district in the ward of Mansehra in India, said Kemal, who translated the page himself.

I was aghast. The planned book project falling from my fingertips like crystal shattering.

Yet pieces that had made no sense immediately fit together, such as why Aziz’s indentureship record said he was from Lahore, and why he held a post in the British army, with a monthly pay of 14 rupees, meals and uniform, in the second Anglo-Afghan war.

The family is Husaini, extending through 30 recorded generations to the Prophet Mohammed, said that single page. They left the Arabian peninsula in 728 C.E., settling in what was then India and is now Pakistan.  No, said Kemal decisively, Aziz was not Afghan.

Marveling that one piece of paper could so dissemble my constructed sense of self, and wondering at how I spectacularly failed to anticipate this risk of journeying into the past, I struggled to accept that every reference I found, in books, on websites and in theses, all confirming the Afghan connection, was based on repetitive citations of an original misrepresentation. But, how could this be the first time we are hearing this, my mother skeptically asked, and why then did Ayesha herself talk about her father as Afghan?

Again, answers begetting questions.

That same day, as I was about to become more Indian than ever before, I learned that my father’s great grandfather, who came from Hyderbad, said his family was originally from Afghanistan. So too, an ancestor of my father’s mother.

Now wary of oral and published histories, even official records, I’m left with Afghan origins on all sides which I’ve no idea how to verify.

Could I be more Afghan than Syed Abdul Aziz himself? How ironic, even absurd. Such plot twists are not for the faint-hearted as I pursue this story’s final word.

*May 12, 1862 is Syed Abdul Aziz’s birthday, 153 years ago today.

Post 190.

Election season. Hard-to-meet politicians on the street. Shaking hands and influencing people.

You decide you won’t let it be that easy. Too much injustice out here. You want to know exactly what this politician promises to do. You’re clear on your issues and you’re clear that these issues deserve serious answers.

So, you not staying quiet. Let politician skin teeth some next time. You rewriting the campaign script to show what people really saying. Families bawling. So you not feeling to be nice, but you plan to be powerful, not impolite. Now is to hear the people, not hush them, to earn each vote with honesty and humility. You not going to be dismissed because you defending rights.

Anyone who has ever been frustrated by long-term, avoidable, injurious governmental failing can surely identify with being so fed up and angry.

Now imagine that that same politician starts feeling badgered by you because he won’t answer your question, and it’s clear you not giving up or getting intimidated.

Annoyed, he calls you “an idiot” and “a little piece of shit”, and threatens, for others to hear, that he could “slap her ass…just for the fun of it”, that he could have you stripped by “some of my women”, because you keep interrupting his media interview with your demands to know what he’s going to do about so many mothers dying from childbirth.  He tells you to “shut up” and “eff off”. His later press release claims you provoked him into such violence. Shame.

Now imagine your name is Sherlina Nageer and you are confronting Guyana’s Minister of Health, Dr. Bheri Ramsaran, to hold his government accountable for providing safe, professional and respectful sexual and reproductive health services to women, a struggle being fought for decades and not yet won. You see exactly how fighting for women’s rights risks abuse, threats and intimidation.

Now, imagine this story is yours. Maybe because the tragic loss of first time mother, 24 year old Keisha Ayers, who died days after a C-section in Mount Hope hospital was finally too much. Maybe because it finally happened to someone you love.

Wouldn’t you then hope that the way that the politicians deal with ordinary citizens, the way that powerful men speak to women, the way that mothers are mistreated in the health system, the way that women’s deaths fail to provoke high level public recognition and response, is seen for what it is, drawing solidarity from all citizens across our region?

In 2013, Barbados had two maternity related deaths. One in 1100 women faced risk of maternal mortality. Jamaica had 40 deaths, but 1 in 540 women faced risk of maternal mortality. Trinidad and Tobago had 16 deaths, and a 1 in 640 chance of maternal mortality. Guyana had 40 deaths, with 1 in 150 women facing risk of maternal mortality, the highest rate in the English-speaking Caribbean. It matters that those numbers are falling, but that matters less than the women still unnecessarily dying.

Amidst our own wrong-and-strong election season, Sherlina Nageer, Trinidad and Tobago sends our solidarity to you in Guyana. As the petition written by young Caribbean feminist organisations, Code Red for Gender Justice and Womantra, stated, “We call on our state managers to denounce acts of violence wherever they occur. We caution our politicians throughout the region that their silence on these offences against its citizens speaks volumes to their commitment to gender justice and the rights of women. If they will not speak out due to a lack of political will, we will speak out in the knowledge of what is right.”

Sign the petition at: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/petition/All_Caribbean_people_Solidarity_with_Sherlina_Nageer_all_womens_human_rights_defenders/

On Wednesday 29 April, Ramsaran was fired: http://www.stabroeknews.com/2015/news/stories/04/29/ramsaran-fired/

Post 189.

Was it history, luck or fate that led me to 93 year old Abdul Hamid Razack?

I arrived at his gate after a meandering trail ended on the Naparima-Mayaro road, where indentured Indians once held panchayats underneath a seventeen foot wide sandbox tree, amidst ganja smoke and a heady mix of old world origins and languages.

Mr. Razack’s grandfather, Cariman, had left Persia and travelled through Afghanistan, the Silk Road and Hyderbad as a trader, finally arriving on our shores on the first ship from India in 1845, the Fatel Rozack, thus establishing his family name in Trinidad.

I hoped Mr. Razack could tell me about my great, great grandfather Syed Abdul Aziz, who was 21 years old when he arrived at a Macoya estate in 1883, having himself travelled from the Afghan region of Hazara where he was born to Peshwar to study, then later to Lahore and Calcutta before boarding the ship Lee as an indentured labourer.

For me, as I travelled south with Felicia Chang, whose company Plantain is producing a book from our findings, it had been a long day of encountering loss, and not just mine. In the small, lovingly assembled room of decades-old household implements and Qurans, the curator of the Charlieville ASJA museum sorrowfully told us of how many families had discarded or misplaced their ancestors’ papers, photographs and books, not seeing history in our own homes, and how many had passed on before sharing precious, irreplaceable descriptions and stories.

Such immeasurable loss had swept over me as I stood on the demolished site of Abdul Aziz’s home on Princes Town’s main road, remembering the house where my mother would carry me to visit his daughter, my great grandmother Ayesha. Its clean wooden floors, blue-bird coloured walls, light-filled kitchen and back door opening to a sloping hill.

All around me as a child may have been his handwritten kutbahs to Trinidad’s Muslim community, his letters to colonial officials advocating for the registration of Hindu and Muslim marriages, and his own records regarding the East Indian National Association, the Tackveeyatul Islamic Association, the Anjuman Sunnat al Jammat and friendly societies such as the Islamic Guardian Association.

Now, only grass swayed at my feet as wind explored the emptiness.

Like the Lee’s missing ship records only for the year my great, great grandfather sailed or the British Army records that failed to list the names of Afghans who had served, as Abdul Aziz did at fifteen, a search for photos of the house, at the library across the street, left me empty-handed.

Finally, I sat across from Mr. Razack, feeling like searching through the past is not walking a path backwards, but collecting bits of broken fossil, and rejoicing when just two pieces connect, whether because you despair or dream of putting together the whole.

Such was my unexpected joy on Saturday afternoon. It was Mr. Razack’s grandfather who had heard of Abdul Aziz’s Islamic education, and who had helped to arrange for his indentureship to be ended two years early so that my great, great grandfather would be free to become imam at one of the first mosques built in Trinidad, by Cariman, in Iere Village.

There, Mr. Razack and I were sitting together just as our ancestors once had, as they created the trail of artifacts and memories that I fatefully followed right back, 130 years later.

I can only hope more documents remain with my and others’ families than I know. Like Abdul Aziz’s original indentureship record in Port of Spain’s national archive, which one day Zi can touch for herself, such dusty papers are a richer inheritance than gold.

Post 188.

Last Thursday, my Men and Masculinities in the Caribbean students were out on campus learning through engagement with pro-feminist men’s movement-building. These were students who never imagined they would choose to publicly critique homophobia for hurting both gay and straight men. Students who never imagined they would become passionate about raising boys, not to be men, but to be good people, considered to be nurturers just as naturally as women.

Students who never imagined they would commit to the idea that men’s issues are best addressed through men and women’s solidarity to dismantle and transform men’s unequal privilege and power. Older men who never imagined they would play Midnight Robber breaking down patriarchy and younger men who never imagined they would say that this is what a feminist looks like, referring to themselves.

You might think this kind of movement-building is not possible, or too feminist for folks of all religions, races, ages and creeds to connect to. But, it’s amazing how students change once it clicks that patriarchy and the culture of male domination both benefit and hurt boys and men. For, different men occupy different positions of power and status that give them uneven access to resources, rights and respect.

While students saw men’s issues as their higher rates of suicide and alcoholism, high rates of prostate cancer, high risk behaviours, lower investments in schooling, and greater silence about experiences of child sexual abuse, they also understood women’s experiences of male domestic abuse, sexual violence and sexual harassment as men’s issues.

Such movement-building creates greater consciousness of the idea that men, not just women, are responsible for advancing women’s rights to equality and equity in politics and the economy, challenging women’s sexual vulnerability to men, and breaking the interlock between femininity, housework and care of children. It sees women’s full freedom to choose whatever happens to their bodies as a question of justice in which men should invest. For, what kind of manhood is proudly invested in injustice?

Such movement-building aims to end notions of manhood based in the beliefs of men’s natural headship of families, religious communities, the economy, the public sphere and the state. It reaches out to male allies willing to end sexism and homophobia, both of which teach that manhood is and should be nothing like womanhood, leading men to seek refuge in a macho, heterosexual ideal, despite the stigma, shame, and fears of harm it creates among men who don’t measure up, regardless of their sexuality.

Recognising men’s feelings of emasculation because of shifting relations between females and males, such movement building engages men in a conversation with women and amongst themselves about the long struggle against sexism in which men need to get involved.

In this conversation, the misleading ‘men’s rights’ myth that men are now marginalized, meaning oppressed by women and excluded from power, is questioned. Girls are not wrongly be blamed for boys’ choices regarding school work, women for earning qualifications to compete with men in the legal job market, mothers and wives for men’s resort to crime and violence, or feminists for “too much equality”. Students know that ending women’s subordination would end the pressure men face to avoid appearing too feminine or too ‘gay’, enabling men to be valued for simply being human beings.

What are men’s issues? What are our most creative, interactive and analytically sound strategies for tackling them without reproducing a battle of the sexes? And, what will a Caribbean men’s movement look like after a thousand students have learned how to explain why pro-feminist movement-building is necessary? In the decade ahead, watch and see.

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Post 187.

Universities are special. So too are university students, often the young, poised to choose from between the old and new.

Because intellectual freedom as the basis for political engagement remains a core philosophy, students can claim campus space in a way much harder to negotiate when they are younger and in schools where rules, discipline and adult authority are more valued.

Here, students have greater freedom to decide what knowledge and power they want to exercise, to practice strategizing about everything from marches to teach-ins, and to publish their own newspapers, speak out through their own radio stations or manage a budget to finance their own social movements.

It was at university that I was first inspired by a global mix of young people who ran a radical campus women’s centre, gave radio waves to lesbian and gay performers’ poetry and music, and were astoundingly well informed about injustices against Palestinians, small farmers’ challenges to corporate control of agriculture or UN conventions on human rights.

Later, at UWI, I’d just decide to set up a tent in the quadrangle and facilitate workshops, for example on masculinities, media, or the global political economy. Gender studies undergrads were there with me then and later on when they led their own consciousness raising workshops and marches on campus, freely and without fear.

Over the past decade of my students’ engagement in creative advocacy, many have used chalk graffiti to write messages, raise questions and create game boards on UWI’s concrete walls and passageways, for where else would they be able to do that legitimately? They’d lie on the ground in enough numbers to represent women killed by their partners or shout out against patriarchal debasement of female bodies, without anybody ever writing to administration or police for permission. University life gives many a first, rare chance to safely practice a politics of public engagement.

Even with assignments and faculty to maneuver, nothing stops students from also pursuing an education in defending rights, justice and peace, and for cultivating leadership in ways that draw on universities’ long history of internationalism.

With such spirit in mind, from today, Thursday 9th April, UWI students and the public are invited to show their solidarity with Kenyan Garissa University students.

Exactly one week ago, from dawn, 148 students were killed by al-Shabab, a Somali militant group, which attacked their campus.

So, from 5.30am, we will have placed a small, simple memorial next to the North gate. The public and students are asked to stop for a few moments anytime over the next week to mourn, and to attach a pen to the fence as a symbol of solidarity

Pens are not just for defending cartoonists, but are a symbol of learning that crosses geographical, ethnic, gender and religious boundaries. Pens are a symbol of budding students’ self-expression and self-empowerment. Mightier than any sword, they allow personal articulation as well as universal representation of outrage. Pens symbolize a wish to prevent erasure.

We can’t but stop to remember a massacre of university students so like our own. We can’t but think about why states’ wars over power, borders and resources, and the inflammatory mix of religion, masculinity and militarism, must be challenged.

Universities exist amidst killings in the name of nation, wealth or God, and amidst pervasive violence that strikes the most vulnerable. Yet, it is not everyday that 148 university students are amongst the world’s fallen, starkly reminding us that injustice can include attacks on schools anywhere, threatening both justice and education everywhere.

Our losses and struggles are connected. Add your pen. Make our memorial and solidarity collective.

For more info see the FB event page: Memorial and Solidarity: For Kenyan Garissa University Students #147notjustanumber.

Post 186.

Though most days I don’t leave work until 6.30pm, my mid-week classes end even later and I don’t get home until Ziya is already asleep.

At that point, the best part of the day is finally having the chance to snuggle close to her, smell her eyebrows, neck and hair, and feel her reposition her warm, soft self all around me, with all the entitlement of familiarity.

In these moments, I wonder if the long hours are worth it, and what kind of sacrifices would be necessary to organize life otherwise.

Something would have to give, but what? Maybe my support to Caribbean feminisms, without which I’d feel empty of passion and meaning, or this diary, which provides crucial oxygen for creativity, or the greater sanity resulting from exercise, which women over forty need to do just to survive. Maybe, I’d just have to choose slower career advancement, with implications both for my worries about making ends meet as well as for my fulfillment of dreams that demanded fourteen years in university.

Truth is, as much as I miss irreplaceable moments with Zi, there are also other identities, as activist, writer and worker, which matter. As we entangle under the covers, I wonder if that’s okay or whether I’m being selfish, whether I’ll regret or defend these choices, even just for giving Zi reason to be proud of me.

I had decided my searching the dark for answers was privileged fluff, best kept to myself, for there are more important issues to talk about, like the fact that police shouldn’t have to engage in civil disobedience to get pay and benefits that are overdue, or the fact that come election day, our choices are between two political parties that have proven records of overseeing and overlooking massive corruption, waste and mismanagement, or the fact that we have a mere six months to make sure that the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources and EMA actually put everything in place for proper, promised national recycling to become reality.

Yet, over this weekend, so many other women shared similar negotiations, I was reminded that our collective experiences tell us about the times in which we live, and deserve more than self-conscious silence.

On Saturday, at the Fearless Politics conference honouring Hazel Brown, both Nicole Dyer-Griffith and Khadijah Ameen spoke about the challenge of balancing mothering with public life, especially given politics’ history as male dominated and defined, where parliamentary hours are set by the assumption that someone else is caring for your family and where parliament has no crèche, daycare or breastfeeding space, as if the business of the House is not answerable to the business of the home.

On Sunday, at Zi’s school friend’s birthday party, all the women there were also mothering workers; teachers, administrators, lawyers, web designers, flight attendants and more. Women who leave work at 5pm, spend evenings with their children, and then complete their deliverables from 9pm to 1am. Women who have no choice but to collect their children at 2.30pm and bring them to work for two hours, despite their boss’ annoyance, for between traffic and cost, what else could they do? Women who leave their children with their mother or sister while they and their husbands fulfill their scheduled shifts. Women whose wish to have more than one child came at exactly the age when they wished to achieve their professional aspirations.

It is much worse for more disadvantaged women and I’m not describing dire circumstances here. Just late night recognition that reconciling work and family is less simple than it appears.

Post 185.

HazelBrwownStamp

It’s the stories that I love.

Stories told by women who spent decades pressing for social change, and stories of solidarity by men sometimes almost twice my age. Stories that challenge myths that women of two generations ago were less radical than now and myths that feminist men didn’t exist throughout our history.

I love the stories of activists who came before because they bring our history to life, to their own lives, with laughter and commiseration, with passion and pain, with irony and unexpected twists, making us learn more about successful strategies or forgotten beginnings or our responsibilities to our future.

I love their stories because these efforts, connections and memories are our legacy, as much as the lasting reforms they created, or gains which we must still protect, are our legacy. They are a legacy because too often we think that it takes people who others consider political leaders, or people with university degrees, or those who seem to have more privilege or power to challenge everyday injustices.

Yet, stories by indomitable citizens of all classes and creeds remind us that is not true. These are stories by people who get up and do, working together to provide help or change unequal rules. Such collective love and labour by citizens is also ‘politics’ because it aims to defend their dreams for an emancipated nation and region, and their commitment to equality, independence and rights for women. These stories remind that the struggle for government by the people and for the people is not new.

Fearless Politics: The Life and Times of Hazel Brown is just the conference for those of you who also love everyday stories of those around us who got up and did, just like we do or wish to. The public is invited to attend and participate in this gathering to honour a woman who has spent four decades tirelessly fighting for social change, along with hundreds of others whose names should not be forgotten. But, helping us to remember is precisely what stories do.

Hazel’s own stories include sitting in Port of Spain City Council meetings when she was a child as she waited for the Mayor to sign her report book, because in those days the Council sponsored children’s education. It is here she began to understand government, reminding us maybe we should take our children to watch these meetings as part of their civic empowerment and critical education. Her story of running for election in the 1970s along with women of the Housewives Association of Trinidad and Tobago is a lesson in strategy for those thinking about politics today.There’s hope in working with women to buy, iron, exchange and affordably sell used schoolbooks. Then, heartbreak in her plan for a solar powered radio station that was undermined and never came to be. And there will be more than her stories.

Speaking on Saturday are long time activists in areas from women’s health to community and consumer rights, from sustainable food provision, including solar cooking and grow box agriculture, to women’s political participation and leadership, and from Baby Doll mas to the National Gender Policy.

This conference is for anyone who wishes to know more about struggles for social justice, artists and cultural workers interested in social transformation, activists of all eras and issues, and citizens whose dream for our world remains greater equality, justice, sustainability, cooperation and peace.

Come for stories about roads walked and paths still to be cut, in the spirit of our fearless legacy. This column was published prior to the conference, Fearless Politics: The Life and Times of Hazel Brown. Videos, photos and other conference information are available on the IGDS website and Youtube page. http://sta.uwi.edu/conferences/15/fearlesspolitics/index.asp. https://www.youtube.com/user/igdsuwistaugustine

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