Post 231.

Global emphasis on women’s economic empowerment has taken centre stage. The UN is talking about it as are Commonwealth countries and top women execs. Headlines on this goal are set to become more common. What do they signal?

Feminist goals regarding economic power build on a century of analysis regarding women and work around the world. ‘Economic empowerment’ is an idea with long history: from the complexity of women’s experiences of sexual, reproductive and labour exploitation for colonial plantation profits to contemporary women’s subsistence agriculture or informal economic activities and housework hours remaining uncounted and unvalued. The idea has filtered into decades of focus on micro-finance, small-scale saving, sustainable income opportunities, fair trade, and public policies to support work-family balance.

Caribbean women have deep knowledge of the intricacies and challenges of economic empowerment. Our grandmothers were raising families, theirs and sometimes others, while also taking in sewing work, selling cakes and pastelles or marketing their garden produce. Many Caribbean women labour in the informal economy, manage small savings through sou sou systems, and take risks to start their medium-scale businesses. Yet, it’s only been in the last decades that women have shattered glass ceilings in middle management. They have yet to do so among top CEOs and in areas like finance.

Caribbean feminists have added an important dimension. For them, economic empowerment should not be reduced to women’s entrepreneurial survival and success. In other words, empowerment isn’t only how well you do at business nor is business logic the best way to ensure equity, rights, freedoms and a good life.

Rather, economic empowerment is when women, including the poorest among us, can collectively and powerfully influence states’ macro-economic policy, and push through legislation and protocols that effectively stop waste and corruption, which ultimately emaciate social sector spending. Have women secured such influence in Trinidad and Tobago today? If more women became successful business leaders, would they be more likely to take on these issues?

Economic empowerment is when women’s experience of labouring in both the public sphere and private businesses occurs within the context of all the policies that they need. It is when market vendors can shape agricultural trade policy or when domestic workers can get the government to ratify International Labour Organisation Convention 189, which enshrines their right to decent work.

Women’s economic empowerment isn’t just about jobs, financial services, property ownership and legal rights, though those are important. It’s more than increasing the numbers of individually wealthy women. It’s certainly about more than their charity and greater ability to help others. It’s about more than increasing the numbers of women in the workplace, for many of those jobs may be dead-end, like hotel cleaners at a Tobago Sandals resort.

Strong, women-led, social movements, which successfully hold the state and political-economic elites accountable for our economic conditions, are the best example of women’s economic empowerment. These movements recognize the unequal burdens and intersecting sources of subordination as well as the forms of dignity and value that characterize women’s labour. They collectively challenge ideologies and institutions that sustain existing inequities in power and patterns of control over economic, natural and intellectual resources. They compel investment in public infrastructure, for example in drinkable water and safe transportation, that affect women’s home-based and waged-based work.

Will the current focus on women’s entrepreneurship advance such movement-building? Will it sustain commitment to cross-class solidarities among women, or a trickle-down form of feminism?

Indian feminist, Srilatha Batliwala, writes, “in keeping with the insidious dominance of the neo-liberal ideology and its consumerist core, we see the transition of empowerment out of the realm of societal and systemic change and into the individual – from a noun signifying shifts in social power to a verb signaling individual power, achievement, status” (OpenDemocracy 2007).

Yes, there should be more equal numbers of wealthy women to wealthy men. But, there should also be less extreme economic inequality between wealthy and poor. There should be access to justice for all regardless of their place in the economy.  Such justice must include the legitimacy and influence of movements to end gender inequalities.

Given all that women’s economic empowerment thus means, we wait to see what emphasis on women’s entrepreneurship actually achieves.

Post 231.

Imagine my amazement that Zi would be familiar with the playlist of songs currently topping charts, by everyone from Rihanna to Taylor Swift to Meghan Trainor. These were songs I didn’t know and don’t play. Yet, she was singing along to chorus and sometimes verse. Where did such socialization happen?

First, older cousins who opened her eyes to the Disney channel world of tween pop music and culture, playing the role that older, adored cousins have somehow always played for little girls.

Then, friends. I overheard one playdate asking for Zi’s Barbies, and describing the details of how many she owns. Given that she has none herself, Zi pulled out some White, blond doll someone gave her, and it passed the test, preserving her street cred.

She listens in on the sidelines of school conversations and figures out what information she needs to know for next rounds, then comes home and asks me for the Hastek sisters’ cover of Spice Girls’ songs. I tried to show her the global girl power version, highlighting rights to education, marriage after childhood and more. She just said, no mummy, that’s the wrong one.

Stone thought I shouldn’t have looked up Lego Friends when Zi wanted to see who the characters were in Lego’s girls’ line of products, which is annoyingly pink and purple, but also features one of the few black girls with curly hair in any of their collections. Ha! Another friend came over and was already into the series of short, addictive videos that the company produces about the characters. All I did was route her to being in the know.

As I buy clothes in bigger sizes, she complains about the ones that look like boys’ T-shirts, refusing black, greens and blue, and insisting on pink. It’s all to match the outfits her best friends have. It’s all about their approval. So and so will like these shiny gold shoes. So and so and I can wear our pink skirts together next time.

My sister, who is with us, and went through stages from Goth to army surplus store chic, was just as amazed at how important approval and belonging had become, on narrow, gendered terms. There’s only so much a feminist mom can do when hyper-feminization of girlhood is part of the life stages of patriarchy. Six year olds wear shoes with heels. She wants nail polish because other five year olds wear nail polish on weekends.

I bought dinosaur-themed birthday materials. In all seriousness, Zi asked if I thought her friends would want to go home when they realized that it wasn’t a princess party. My choices for her get evaluated by these standards of hip. This is how you know your sapodilla is no longer a baby. Girl culture, in all its stereotypical colours, obsessions, conversations and criteria, has taken over. It was always going to happen. I just didn’t think it would happen so early.

My sister asked me why I give in to the colours or videos Zi has decided she’s into. I don’t know that I have much choice. Did you want to be that kid, among your peers, dressed in your parents’ ideological warfare against the world? Moms tell me that they give in because their girls are going to get exposed to whatever others are allowed anyway. They play jazz, like I do, but also Justin Bieber. They give them make-up to pretend, but they also sign them up for football.

Any mom will tell you, each stage is a new negotiation. This one is when the world takes socialization from your full control. You catch up and keep up. Stone might decide there’s no way he’s playing Katy Perry. I’m going to have to know all the words. That’s what moms I know do. You also start those conversations about what it means to decide for yourself who you are and what’s cool.

Why does any of this matter? Any anthropologist will tell you that the micro reveals the macro. We should pay attention to the British Prime Minister’s gender politics, but insights as legitimate come from observing globalized sub-cultures shaping terms and options for a new generation of our girls.

 

Post 230.

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Our school children marked a milestone this week. Some survived the experience of SEA. Some became the ones about to enter their time of preparation and pressure. Some, like my sapodilla, finished just her first year of primary school.

Up to December, she would cling on with both arms and both legs when I tried to leave her at assembly, and her tears would follow me to my desk at work. I’d rue all the constraints faced by mothering workers, and sit staring at my computer screen, bereft even though I knew Zi was likely to be onto a different emotion moments after I left.

Children are resilient. They both can and have to figure out on their own how to be all right, but that doesn’t mean that the desire to be there all the while doesn’t persistently tug on your heart.

I spent the year hearing about the seemingly daily making, breaking and making back up of best-friendships, and which boys got into trouble with Miss. Over this time, Zi came home talking about honesty, hygiene, hydroponics, homophones and much more. She learned those hand-clapping, sing-song games that generations of school children have taught each other, away from parental socialization, constituting a peer culture that crosses the region. Shy in front of strangers, she came third in her school calypso competition. She didn’t even blink about going up on stage. In the end, we underestimated her capacity to be brave.

A little person grew up just a little. Might other parents feel this way at the end of a school year? Nothing profound about it, just that milestones were crossed, while we’ve watched, trying to figure out that balance between being there and letting go.

Both Stone and I met Zi at the end of her final day of this first year. Ten years ago, when we were young, I was a poet and he was a DJ. I wrote him a song whose lyrics were plain and certain: ‘We are on every quest together. Our nest can withstand any weather. We live best with love as our shelter. Two little birds of a feather, who are blessed. I love you so endless. Endless’. Now, we are three.  We make up her nest, and these chances for togetherness don’t come again.

We walked over to the field where I played when I was exactly Ziya’s age. She climbed on the metal jungle gym, and swung upside down, as I had climbed on thirty-seven years ago, with scars to prove it. The saman tree still stood overhead, and I wondered if Zi would have the same childhood fantasies I did, imagining that fairies lived at the mysterious, unreachable top of the trunk.

A few weeks ago, she started talking about how she wished her toys would come to life. For me, it was Enid Blyton and the Faraway Tree series. Today, it’s Doc McStuffins. As I stood under the saman’s shade with her, I felt like I was in a strange time loop; the same age, same space, same metal jungle gym, same uniform, and the same galaxy of branches overhead.

Four decades separated our crossing of childhood milestones. There was no way I could have predicted the circuitous path that led me back here, and looking at the time between us, I cannot begin to fathom the twisty route that she will travel over her own forty years.

Our children’s test marks signal how well they did that day, not how hard they worked or where their passions and skills will lie, nor the extent to which they are truly blossoming, but at their own pace. We should be proud of them for trying, following through, and learning the myriad minutia that children have to.

These little persons navigate untold complications of adults’ world, grow up a little along their own circuitous routes, and enter and complete new challenges we all know are not easy. That last day, I made sure to be there because endless love and pride is all that I think one such little sapodilla wanted from me.

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Post 229.

I spend a lot of time asking questions about numbers. The low numbers of women in political leadership and why such inequity seems to matter so little. The high numbers of women in low-waged, insecure, nonunionized, informal work, and why such clustering seems to change too slowly or barely at all. The low numbers of women who own property in their own name, only about 15% in Trinidad and Tobago, and how that limits their options in life. The high number women who experience any form of violence, from sexual harassment on the street to death at the hands of intimate partners, and the explanations that seem sufficient amidst popular perception that equality has been already won.

Those numbers reveal clear realities. Equality has not been won. Decades of women’s work has been allowed to have only partial effect on dismantling institutionalized male domination and the status afforded to dominant ideals of manhood. The pace of securing rights and justice is indefensibly slow. We desperately need transformational leadership to stop us from repeating these mistakes of the past.

What makes such leadership transformational is not simply its individually empowered or empowering qualities. It is that it is committed to working to end all hierarchies on the basis of sex, gender or sexuality, and their role in reinforcing asymmetries of access to or allocation of status, power and material resources. It is that it recognizes these asymmetries are deeply entrenched in political parties, elite business culture, the economy and households, as well as in law, religion and media.

Transformation doesn’t mean strategizing to get to the top, but using whatever power you get to lessen the pains and losses of the majority in public life. It means recognising that class doesn’t protect any of us from destruction of the commons, whether in relation to public drinking water, public hospitals, public safety or an ecology that our children are systematically being denied. All of us, in the end, live downstream of the poisons, whether social problems or environmental pollution, that we do not fix today.

I’ve become impatient at how little social, economic, environmental or gender justice we seem to achieve. How infrequently those with the most power act decisively to democratize this small place, in the widest sense of what that means to each of us. I struggle to remain optimistic while watching influential anti-feminist discourses, which first denied women’s right to choice, freedom and authority because of ‘tradition’, morph into more contemporary anti-feminist discourses, which now deny that women need more choice, freedom and authority than they have.

Masculinism is the currently popular, if empirically wrong, position that “men are in crisis and suffering because of women in general and feminists in particular”, with the solution involving “curbing the influence of feminism and revalorizing masculinity”. We have seen this in “ongoing attempts by institutions and individuals to maintain conditions of women’s inequality”, from successive prime ministers to successive adult men married to girl children under sixteen.

More girls are graduating from UWI? More women are managers? Didn’t we have one woman Prime Minister? Aren’t women the backbone of political parties? These numbers tell us little about why legislation, draft gender policies, budgets and gendered bureaucracies haven’t become transformational leadership tools in women’s hands. They also tell us little about why manhood remains defined by privilege when it is everyone’s work, not simply women’s, to make the world less violent, less exclusionary, and less unfairly waged for women.

As Caribbean scholars point out, “Ongoing projects of nation-state building that promote allegedly gender free notions of nationalist cohesion should be contested and unmasked as skillful projections of modern masculine political power”. Note, secondly, “a welfarist modus operandi of ‘what you are doing for women’” cannot substitute for “addressing the more critical question of ‘how we are creating systemic change for women’” and their communities.

The numbers regarding women’s lives do not show a transformed reality. Individual empowerment and charity aren’t enough when beliefs and structures still protect inequality. Referenda and consultations that go nowhere are excuses, for rights are not won through popularity. Transformational leadership isn’t an idea. It is a necessity yet to be achieved.

Powerful women out there, who’s ready?

Post 228.

“On behalf of the Government and People of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, I wish to convey heartfelt condolences to the President of the United States of America and the American People with respect to the unspeakable horrors of the June 12th attack on an Orlando, Florida nightclub, the worst mass shooting in twentieth century US history.

Today, we urge the American people to acknowledge the national and global danger of their pro-gun culture; religiously-legitimized sexism and homophobia; embedded racism and classism against African-descended persons, people of colour and immigrants; and pervasive realities of violence against women. Violence against persons, who do not fit dominant ideals of manhood, womanhood and heterosexuality, profoundly intersects these other issues and experiences. True greatness is showing fearless will to dismantle these points where oppression and fear meet, instead making them meeting points for cross-cutting transformation.

The People of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago recognize that members of the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender communities share the right of all citizens of all nations to live in conditions of safety, respect and equality, and to create spaces for affirmation, empowerment and joy. Members of these communities are part of our nations’ families, civil society organizations, workplaces, religions and schools. We understand that threat to their lives also harms those who know and love them, and whose solidarities are with them.

As the Government and people of the United States of America struggle to come to terms with this terrible tragedy, Trinidad and Tobago is also gripped by shock, sadness and outrage. This strengthens our resolve to collaborate across the region and hemisphere to fulfill the dream of full emancipation born out of the subjugation experienced, refused and resisted by so many of our resilient peoples. The lesson to us is that violence to one constitutes violence to all as it violates the hope of a world of greater justice and peace.

No doubt, members of Trinidad and Tobago’s LBGT community wish to hear even greater government commitment to ending discrimination and criminalization on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, knowing that such laws perpetuate the conditions for many forms of gender based violence, which harm citizens, including children, across all sexualities.

Without commitment behind them, words remain just such. They offer little genuine solace or solidarity on behalf of the nation’s representatives, highlighting above all our own fears of challenging homophobia and surviving in political life.

Acknowledging this vulnerability means being truthful about what it takes for LBGT persons to survive and thrive daily. Therefore, my government takes this moment to conscientiously state its commitment to ending the conditions within which such an American massacre becomes possible. It is not enough to say may it never happen or should never happen in Trinidad and Tobago. True leadership means taking action so that it does not. Prejudice will not keep us from acting, for our watchword of tolerance does not extend to inhumanity and inequity.

Our hearts are also heavy at the loss of so many young, promising lives. We are reminded that protection of children and youth includes those who are lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender, for they face greater vulnerability. As Prime Minister, I assure our own LBGT young people that we honour your need for safe spaces to grow and flourish, whether in schools or other public places.

No nation should ever have to face such tragedy and it is hoped that nothing of this nature will ever befall any nation again. I call on everyone, from religious leaders to teachers, from youth to parliamentarians, to affirm a place for the human rights of all.

Join me in assuring the LGBT community that the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago will unite to treat each other as we wish to be treated, to choose compassion instead of conflict, and to tolerate and protect gender and sexual diversity as we do religious and cultural diversity. May we strengthen our resolve to create a nation where each of us is surrounded by love, and safe within our shared home.”

Dr. Gabrielle Hosein for Dr the Honourable Keith Rowley
Prime Minister of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago

Post 227.

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

Trinidad experienced mass African enslavement for a much shorter time, much later and in smaller numbers than Barbados, Jamaica and Haiti. Largely the population of enslaved Africans expanded after 1793 when both white and mixed planters, from the French West Indies, settled in Trinidad, bringing Africans with them as part of their property. Many of these planters were frightened by the attacks on slavery being waged in Haiti, then called Saint Domingue.

Their fright was justified. Haiti’s struggle to free its almost half a million enslaved Africans was inspiration for emancipation struggles throughout the region, including in Trinidad. Saint Domingue produced shocking prosperity for plantation owners and for the French empire, more than anywhere else in the Caribbean. Torture, terror, rape and genocide produced such wealth. This is why revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ famous speech, for Liberty or Death, defined the hopes and dreams of the once enslaved. On January 1, 1804, Haiti declared independence as a black republic, the first country to do so and to abolish slavery.

I try to connect this powerful place in world-making with the streets of downtown Port au Prince, lined by vendors and market women, making a life like the black survivors of Marley’s music, amidst dust, and in places, rubble and garbage. It’s hard to acknowledge Haiti’s impoverishment while trying to shed all the stereotypes we’ve inherited of its desperate poverty, but we must.

Haiti’s hardships aren’t incidental to its anti-colonial or contemporary story. They are absolutely central. In 1825, France forced it to pay 150 million gold francs in reparations to French ex-slaveholders. Even with the amount of reparations reduced in 1838, Haiti didn’t pay off its debt until 1947. The 20th century of US occupation and domination required resistance to another era of disempowerment for which the full story is hardly acknowledged or told.

Yet, obviously Port au Prince is only one small representation of a whole country, and if I raise my eyes to the majestic green mountains encircling the city, it’s clear that Haitian realities are also full of forms of dignity and beauty. These are what we should make an effort to see. In Vodun spiritual symbols, reminding us that a people’s art articulates the genesis of their freedom. In community relationships, ever-present entrepreneurship, food provision, literature, scholarship and uniformed school children.

It’s strange to gather here, as an Indo-Trinidadian amidst a panorama of others from the region, and to realize that we of the contemporary Caribbean, particularly descendants of enslaved Africans, are indeed the hope and dream of departed ancestors who imagined another world and who made it possible with their labour and blood.

Reading about Haiti was educational, but it took stepping on this ground for me to connect to the caution to never forget. This is the history that should define us as a region. Walk away from these words remembering the name Anacaona. At 29 years old, she was a Taino chief, or cacica, around 1500 in Haiti when the Spanish executed her by hanging for resisting subjugation. She refused to exchange concubinage for clemency. Walk away remembering the names Victoria Montou, Sanite Belair and Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniere. Sanite Belair was a sergeant in the army of Toussaint L’Ouverture, and refused to wear a blindfold at her execution. Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniere, also a soldier during the Haitian Revolution, fought in traditional men’s garments. Cécile Fatiman was a Haitian Vodon spiritual leader who presided over a ceremony at Bois Caïman, which is one of the sparking points of the Haitian Revolution.

I too, as Maya Angelou writes, live what was once a hope and dream. I thank Haiti’s people for reminding me that like other Caribbean citizens today, history has given me great responsibility.

We in the region, regardless of our ethnicity or nationality, owe a debt to Haiti, one that we should repay by protecting and pursuing an egalitarianism that still doesn’t exist, whether among genders, sexualities or classes, or whether between our small states and global corporate power, or whether between we ex-colonies and the IMF. In 1804, declaring sovereignty meant ending slavery. What would such a declaration mean and require of us today?

 

 

Post 226.

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There’s that Sunday afternoon spent folding still-warm children’s clothes when the next piece you lift and shake out is so small in your hands that you know it is now outgrown. It’s a moment hard to even mention to others, it seems so insignificant, so inevitable and so ordinary. This isn’t the first time you’ve changed the sizes that fill the drawers. The just-born sleepers were soon replaced, the onesies were eventually considered too tight, the two year old’s T-shirts became too short. All began to look like they had shrunk when really a small, warm body had lengthened and filled.

Maybe you stopped and looked deep into your memory then, just as now. Maybe you crushed those clothes to your nose, closing your eyes and breathing in their smell, just as now. Maybe you suddenly heard a clock chime the passing of weeks or months or years, but it’s hard to remember if those moments held your breath as much as this one. Now, you are standing by yourself, surrounded by bright yellow humidity, your hands holding the crumpled clothes as if you could stop the reverberations of that chime from disappearing.

All you can think about is how we measure time by seconds and minutes, by light and dark, by rotations of the earth and the moon. These are discussions easy to have with others, for they are established through scientific, public and impersonal measures. What you mention to only a few are the little marks on the inside of the wooden cupboard door that record changes in height with whatever marker was available, sometimes red, blue or purple. There was such excitement about those recordings. Big efforts to stand tall with heels against the frame, wide eyes looking up as if to see if the mark had to move places before its even made. Pride and display at the smallest of changes and everyone agreeing on the relationship between those calculations and pure joy.

What you’ve probably not shared with anyone at all are the moments when the clothes in the basket, just bigger than the size of your hand or the length of your forearm, signal the dusk of one age and the dawn of another. One pink and black, long-sleeved pajama feeling like sweetest sorrow materialized, for all the times it was worn were precious, but not so much as when you experience them as fleeting, as you do now.

Right then, all you can think about is how you quietly measure time by centimeters, socks that migrated to the dolls’ dress up box, vocabulary changes, capacities like braiding hair or tying shoelaces, and clothes grown too small. What a curious clock, with these strange indicators, whose chime brings you back to the present only to cause you to slip away to the past precisely because you are aware you have reached a once only-imagined future.

Caught between the magical and mundane, you are even a little self-conscious that someone might come in and look at you sideways, for standing mid-way in the room, bizarrely cupping a tiny cotton outfit to your face, like an oxygen mask. Even if you explained, they might not understand, agree with or honour your symbols for changing seasons and for shifts that don’t affect anything as important as commodity prices, though they still you in your step, renewing your sense of priorities.

This is every day, every week parenting. Nothing extraordinary or special. Yet, I know I’m not alone. I know children whose mothers saved a lock of their baby hair, who forty years later can unfold their first baby clothes.

There must be others like me, who have stood amidst clean laundry, wondering where the years went, with something in hand more beloved than expected because of how fast those years have flown.

I know there are others, caught up with jobs, deadlines, extra-curricular activities, chores, meetings and concerns about the state and economy, who also realise that it’s the meanings we hardly quantify or discuss in newspaper Op Eds that can appear in fading shafts of afternoon light as what really matters. Those warm clothes, warmly and lovingly held, no longer found where they used to be.

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