Post 231.

As I wrote last week, I visited communities where people were forcibly removed from their neighbourhoods, where stalwart ANC activists now live in poverty without pension or insurance, where jailhouses were rocked by such systematized racism it makes you feel ill to think it was all real and not that far in the past.

Now, too little conversation appears possible between White, Coloured and Black Africans, for each occupies such a specific connection to this history that it seems almost impossible to walk in another’s skin. ‘What do you think of South Africa?’, one White woman from Johannesburg asked me. ‘The injustice has never been adequately addressed’, I said, ‘its effects seem to over-determine the lives of many blacks, and inequality appears so stark between racial groups’. ‘Yes’, she responded, as if we were having two different conversations, ‘now that Black people are doing so much better, Whites are having a hard time finding work.’ Her answer deflected engagement with so much of what I saw, for racial and economic inequality remain deeply interlocked in vastly structural ways, whatever a minority of individual and neoliberal gains.

Amidst these contradictions, I wondered what it would require for South Africans to end such a conversation understanding each other’s analyses and agreeing on fundamental truths, without belittling or disrespecting the other.

President Obama said as much in his end of term speech this week, that defeat is forgetting our better selves, our dreams for justice, our call to speak to each other in ways that avoid intent to wound. Whatever the blood on his hands in relation to bombings in Pakistan and his failures to reign in Wall Street impunity, whatever the imperfections of his decisions, like Mandela, he will be remembered for the dignity he brought to public deliberation.

We need far more of that here, for there is a vast chasm between what is required, whether from politicians and state officials or columnists who prefer to pelt small-mindedness rather than fill their word space with hope or strategy. Who will dust off injured good will and find the language and action necessary for a public to remember it can collectively create greater good, and know which best steps are next?

Last year was hell for women, men too, but, the numbers mean more than their simplistic comparison, for many more women are at risk specifically within relationships and in their homes, because they are women and in ways specific to women. Cynicism, meannness, backlash and attacks, however phrased as a bully’s style of jokes, fail to remind us weekly of our best selves and what we need to succeed beyond tears and terror.

This generation needs voices that not only educate, but also inspire by providing maps for us to find courage and effectiveness rather than bulldozers that crush spirits for a dollar a word. To do less is to fail to publicise voices defined by purpose and principle as much as distinction, humility and care.

In this time of anger and despair when everything, both large and small, seems to have become insurmountable and unsolvable, whether it is our levels of violence or our grinding economic slow-down, we have to do better than attack in any direction. We have to, instead, quietly do the work that brings in others in creating incremental improvements in every direction.

I left a troubled country that still dreams of its better self and am bringing home with me a reminder that those dealing in debasement cannot move us ahead, cannot give us the language of such dreams. There will be the difficult conversations, ones we still haven’t found language for, ones in which we disagree. Yet, each of us can do less to erode social trust and public truth if we speak and act for accountability and with humanity.

Mandela’s words have thus traveled home with me: “Let us refrain from chauvinistic breast-beating; but let us also not underrate what we have achieved in establishing a stable and progressive democracy where we take freedoms seriously; in building national unity in spite of decades and centuries of apartheid and colonial rule; in creating a culture in which we increasingly respect the dignity of all”.

Post 230.

I entered this new year far from home and, over just these short days, have been reminded that we have less to overcome than we think and more resources than we realise. It sounds optimistic to say, given our daily and long term troubles, but it is possible to make everyday life better, to end unjust systems, and to be driven by redistribution as much as by reconciliation.

Traveling South Africa, from the Eastern to the Western Cape, the duration, force and severity of apartheid is memorialized across the landscape. In Johannesburg, the apartheid museum encloses everything from dozens of bold resistance posters to yellow and bullet-pocked police vans, feared by old and young alike, for their association with police impunity and state killing.

The images of massacres go back to the 17th century, to Dutch Boer land grabbing and enslavement of Africans indigenous to Southern Africa as well as those brought to the area along with others such as Malays and Indians. There were also merciless torch-earth strategies by the British to establish their own sovereignty over the Boers. The possibilities for European wealth sustained centuries of suffering.

Coming from the Caribbean, I thought I understood colonialism. Living in the Americas, I thought I understood how recent it was that racism, such as in the US, dictated state policy. South Africa presents something else entirely – a social experiment that extended across every aspect of life, from the prison where both Mandela and Gandhi were held to the buses domestic workers could use.

The bus driver’s mother, who lived in the infamous District 6 in Cape Town, lost her home along with 60 000 others across a range of ethnicities, when they were forcibly removed to make way for a ‘Whites Only’ policy for the area. Her home has not yet been returned today. That is only another layer on the dispossession of Black people that occurred, by imposition of Boer law, since 1913, when whole communities were moved, enslaved, forced to work to pay taxes, made homeless and jailed. Africans who were indigenous to this area, known as the Khoi, had to go work on the wine-producing farms, and were paid in wine. They have the highest rates of fetal alcohol syndrome in the world today.

School children did not escape. It almost reads like a chapter in Aldous Huxley’ critical novel, ‘Brave New World’, which documents a world built on engineering inequality and subordination. The novel is absurd and clearly fantastical, but it is also disturbingly like the South African state then for whole groups were given different chances simply because of, sometimes random, labeling of their race.

Free schooling was for Whites. Black children had to pay. The quality of education at ‘Black Only’ universities could not compare to those reserved for Whites. Some children, like Hector Peterson, were killed in the 1976 peaceful protests against the imposition of Afrikaan as the language of schooling. Children were also jailed and disappeared. The cost to individual lives is hard to get one’s head around, and I walk around wondering how Black people manage to not still be angry. Turns out, they are, particularly around issues of land. Racism itself, as manifested in economic inequality, if nothing else, continues to heat a pot about to boil over. This is obvious from seeing shacks, slums and humble housing in townships in comparison to the palatial suburbs.

I saw one poet perform a piece called “I’ve Come to Take You Home’, her tribute to Sarah Baartman, stereotyped as the Hottentot Venus, who was considered to embody the link between apes and humans, and who was put on display for European audiences to gawk at her body. She then told us that her poem was translated and read in the French parliament as part of a campaign to bring Bartmann’s remains back to South Africa. They flew back with her remains, bringing her to be eventually buried in her homeland of the Eastern Cape.

What people survived here is a reminder of why all forms of structural inequality must be struggled against, and that change is always possible. It requires organization and commitment, and deep learning from the past to move ahead.

Post 229.

If I could wish on a December super moon, large and bright enough to grant both Christmas requests and New Year resolutions, I’d wish for a Trinidad and Tobago where I didn’t have to write so repeatedly about sexual violence.

I’d lift spirits with a story of Ziya discovering Queen Latifah and Monie Love’s 1989 feminist hit, ‘Ladies First’, and it rolling on repeat through this week’s traffic while she excessively bops her neck and spits like they do, “Some think that we can’t flow (can’t flow)/ Stereotypes, they got to go (got to go)”.

It’s all in that song. Opening shots of women rebels like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis and a young Winnie Mandela. ‘Ain’t I a Woman’, they would ask, and don’t I deserve every right due to me, every moment of equality and every experience of unthreatened freedom? Later, a chorus follows that flips ‘ladies first’ into reverse, from mere precious chivalry to women exercising self-defining political and lyrical power.

The video backdrop is a bombed-out housing project which, when we cut to BBC world radio, mixes straight to breaking images of a bombed-out Aleppo. Queen La foregrounds news footage of armed struggle against apartheid in South Africa. I show Zi Google images of children on the other side of the world so that she can make sense of today’s news.

Truth is, I haven’t yet figured out how to script for what’s present and here. After remembering the names of 47 women killed this year, at last Saturday’s Life in Leggings gathering, I returned home feeling despair. Ziya knows about patriarchy, simplified as ‘when men think they are more powerful than women’, but I don’t have adequate language to talk to her about why the flow of some women’s lives is abruptly stopped or how much longer it will take to end stereotypes that got to go.

The message to girls is to learn to protect themselves, but how to explain why they are so vulnerable to sexual harm, and why self-defense classes are as much a solution as Aleppo’s destruction.

TTPS report that, in 2015, there were 180 female rape victims under eighteen years old plus 109 over eighteen. Officially classified as ‘rape’, though indicating a different kind of vulnerability, particularly without proper sex education in schools, sex with females 14-16 years old accounted for 137 cases while sex with females under 14 years old accounted for 112 cases. That was last year alone, and only rape cases that reached the police. The last thing those girls need to be asked is, why didn’t you fight back, like an out of timing tune whose refrain is, what more could you have done to stop this happening to you.

In war-free T and T, I’m clear about which lyrics to flip. The first is that girls and women have personal responsibility for our safety. No. We do not open ourselves up to attack anytime. Sex crimes are the responsibility of the attacker, whether it happens at home by someone a girl knows or on in public by a stranger. Sexual violence is neither normal nor inevitable. It is not ‘just the way things are’. Sexuality spliced with everyday violence is fundamentally a sign of things not being as they should be.

This creates rape culture, where gender-based violence is sexualized, and where there is pervasive and passive acceptance of female vulnerability, victim-blaming and hyper-masculinity.

Verse after verse, voice after voice, we must hold government’s accountable, whether in relation to the never-approved national gender policy or in relation to the never implemented National Strategic Action Plan on Gender Based and Sexual Violence. Back-up voices must pitch for police and judiciary accountability, and successful prosecution of the majority of cases, stopping in its tracks such repetitive impunity.

In the dark-night sky that will usher in a new year, enough stars will be visible for every one of these wishes, though all they really require is state and social will. When Zi asks, why violence against women, why Aleppo, and I turn off the radio, not knowing exactly what to say, you’ll understand why some mornings I turn up the volume and set ‘Ladies First’ on replay.

Post 228.

Almost forty years ago, Audre Lorde wrote, “we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and still we will be no less afraid”. Around the region today, women are posting sexual harassment, abuse and assault survival stories as part of the #lifeinleggings movement, precisely to overcome that silencing and fear.

The hashtag and postings were started by Barbadian women Ronelle King and Allyson Benn to highlight the pervasiveness of sexual violence. Can any of us say that we don’t know one woman who has experienced such threat, fear, harm and denial of choice, possibly many times?

They linked their initiative to Barbados’ 50th independence and, therefore, to the impossibility of ‘development’ without also ending gender inequalities. Caribbean states have paid scant attention to the realities of rape culture while reframing twenty years of lip service into a story of “too much focus on women”. Yet, the courage it takes to share these stories suggests that silencing remains more dominant than safe space for women’s truths about their relationships, families, communities and nation.

Breaking these silences remains a risk. Families are invested in hiding stories of sexual predation, telling women that it happened in the past or that it’s more important to just keep peace. People respond that, somehow, you must have looked for that because of your clothes, your job or smile. Others’ trauma at hearing what happened to you has to be managed, sometimes making it easier to say nothing. It’s common to not be believed or to be blamed or seen as bringing down shame or wanting attention or, worse, as a joke.

Now isn’t the time to say not all men rape, assault or harass. Women are not accusing all men, they are simply no longer hiding what actually happened to them. Women are not responsible for protecting themselves, for ‘men don’t molest decent girls’. These stories begin when we are children and modesty provides no safety. Women don’t want men’s protection, we want their solidarity. There’s one message that can change women’s #lifeinleggings, and that is that men’s sexual self-responsibility has no excuses.

From Bajan politicians to Guyanese indigenous women to Jamaican reggae singers to Trinidadian university educators to policewomen in St. Vincent to disabled girls across the region, every kind of Caribbean woman has stories. Imagine what it means when education, class privilege, fame, age, ethnicity or profession makes no difference?

Audre Lorde has written, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you”. Almost forty years later, in support of #lifeinleggings, Tonya Haynes, in the Caribbean feminist blog, Code Red for Gender Justice, wrote,

“Women broke every silence. We spoke of street harassment: girl, yuh pussy fat! Principals who made no room for comprehensive sexuality education but slut-shamed girls who were themselves sexually abused. Rape by current and former partners. Years of sexual abuse by fathers, step-fathers, uncles, cousins. Stories of men who told us that they’re waiting for our four-year-old daughters to grow up. Men who offered jobs or rides or food or protection only to demand sex. Only to split our bodies open when we refused. Men who raped us because we are lesbian, because we are women, because we are girls, because they could. We exploded every myth about how good girls and good women are protected from this violence. That good men will protect us.  That all we have to do is call in our squad of brothers and uncles and fathers. We asked, and who will women and girls call when our fathers and brothers and uncles assault them? We affirmed that asking men to protect us from male violence is not freedom. All men benefit from male privilege and unequal relations of gender which disadvantage and devalue women and girls. We demand autonomy not protection! We split this island open for every woman and girl who has had her body split open. We split this island open and let all the secrets fall out”.

If you want to break your own silences, there is a #lifeinleggings gathering, on Saturday from 4-6pm, at the Big Black Box on Murray Street in Woodbrook. Go. Listen. Share. Let all our own islands’ secrets fall out.

Post 227.

A bill now before Cabinet proposes to raise the age of marriage for girls to eighteen years old. This is because the Children’s Act (2012) defines girls under this age as children, for whom marriage and motherhood constitute a violation of rights.

There will be brouhaha about this bill, but it follows a necessary global trend and, while imperfect, is worth supporting.

Some will say that marriage of minors is culturally or religiously sanctioned. Others will argue that the age of marriage and sexual consent should be set at sixteen years old, not eighteen, and that this is necessary to counter the sin and shame of unwed sex and motherhood.

The fact is the laws need to change. The civil marriage act specifies no minimum marriageable age. The Hindu Marriage Act, and Muslim Marriage and Divorce Acts, contain discriminatory provisions which enable marriage of girls at much younger ages than boys, reproducing a patriarchal view that girls do not need as much time for development of their independence and maturity before marriage.

But, there is more at stake. Child marriage is only one example of adult predatory masculinity, which can also be seen in girls’ rates of pregnancy, abortion, sexual abuse and incest, and HIV.

There have been small numbers of girls married at twelve, thirteen and fourteen as late as 2015. Seventeen 13 year-old girls were married in 2010 along with nine 14 year-olds. Between 2011 and today, twenty-one fourteen year-old girls were married. Overwhelmingly, of the 548 child marriages that took place between 2006 and 2016, the majority of those girls were married to adult men.

These are not relationships between equally adolescent minors. These are examples of relationships in which girls’ unequal age, power, and negotiating capacity are normalized. Were the situation to be reversed, where in one year twenty-six boys under 14 years old were married to mainly adult women, this would be appear to all as a theft of childhood, and molestation.

The symbolic significance of marriage blurs our understanding of child marriage rates as only one indicator of girls’ wider sexual vulnerability.

Turn to teenage pregnancy: Between 2008 and 2015, there were 35 pregnancies to girls twelve years old or younger, 2645 to girls between thirteen and sixteen years old, and 12 551 to girls seventeen to nineteen years old. “In these statistics, said the AG, “We have recorded the actual live births of thousands of children in circumstances potentially equal to statutory rape”.

In terms of sexual offense charges, between 2000 and 2015, there were 2 258 matters in relation to girls compared to two charges for sex with males under sixteen years old. As of July 2015, there were 559 cases related to sexual intercourse with a female under the age 14 years, 128 related to sexual intercourse with a person over 14 years and under 16 years without consent, and 45 related to sexual intercourse with a dependent minor. It is well documented that girls’ sexual vulnerability to adult men vastly increases between ten and fourteen years old, the very age around which child marriage debate pivots.

With regard to abortions recorded by public hospitals, between 2011 and 2015, there were 67 among girls thirteen to sixteen years old and 683 among those seventeen to nineteen years old. Finally, the HIV statistics are telling as girls 15-24 years old have almost always had higher rates than boys of their age. In 2014, girls accounted for 60% of infections among 15 to 19 year olds.

We need further research on these numbers and their meanings as well as on the prevalence and implications of adult men’s informal unions with girl children. Nonetheless, the overall trends are totally clear.

In a context where there is no national sexual and reproductive health policy, and no comprehensive sexual education in schools, girl children are overwhelmingly being targeted by men and boys older than them, in ways that impact their empowerment, self-determination, reproductive health, and right to live free from harm.

We must ask which is more important: protection of patriarchal ideologies, symbolic ethnic and religious laws, respectability politics and predatory masculinities or public will that presses political will to provide protections that girls urgently need.

Post 226. RED CARD RAPE CULTURE.

UWI’s responsibility is to transform the Caribbean by nurturing students’ commitment to fairness, justice, non-violence and sustainability. Young men have as much role as young women in creating gender equality and ending cultures of domination founded on sexism and homophobia. Indeed, this is my answer to the oft-asked question, ‘What about the men?’

Men have power to end violence against women at the staggering rates at which it occurs, just as they have responsibility to collectively organize to transform masculinities that create risk in boys and men’s lives. Young men have the opportunity to define their own identities by different ideals from those of past generations, creating future Caribbean male leaders willing to exchange the perks of privilege for the politics of justice for all, and a legacy in which women’s rights are never left behind.

Such commitment requires social movements that challenge the status quo and its tolerance for inequitable social norms. It requires role models and collective reward for positive change, thus changing young men’s options, solidarities, strategies and dreams.

Boys are now growing up conscious of themselves as gendered beings because of conversations about womanhood and manhood which feminism introduced into contemporary culture. This means that there’s potential among young men still working out their truths and transformations against educational advancements of young women and, yet, resilience of sexual violence against them. Such contradictions mark a cultural crossroads, and chance for young men to strike out directions that lead to dead ends.

Last Friday, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, St. Augustine Campus, collaborated with the young men of the dorm, Canada Hall, to give young men a non-judgmental space to imagine a world without sexual violence against women. ‘Red Card Rape Culture’ wasn’t just a workshop with male students from ten Caribbean countries, or a hashtag that could go viral, it was a metaphor for men’s power to refuse the impunity of such violence. For, the field could never be level with such pervasive foul play, and their best selves would never let things run that way.

Rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence is glamorized, trivialized and excused in media and popular culture, leaving no guarantees for women regarding freedom from objectification of their bodies, disregard for their rights, unwanted advances, dehumanization or male domination. It’s the imposition of what men want and how they want it on girls and women.

Given that this is one of the issues most raised by their young, female peers, International Men’s Day, commemorated on November 19th, provided an ideal moment to meet young men’s needs for politically-progressive mentorship and to encourage their contributions to movement-building.

The workshop tackled beliefs, blame, consent, shaming and normalization. It went through a range of statements that included: “There are situations when a girl says no but she means yes”, “Rapists think differently from other men”, “It is a woman’s responsibility to not get raped”, “It’s wrong to lead him on and when he is ready… say “no””, “She sent me pics. She should have known I would share it”, “Nothing wrong with lyrics from songs like Kick Een She Back Door”, and “Women bring out a part in men that they cannot control.”

Young men could ‘red card’ the statements they disagreed with, ‘yellow card’ those they were not sure about, and ‘green card’ those they considered right. They could see each other doing it, noting when they shared views or differed, and observing both consensus and individual resistance. At the end, they wrote their own counter-messages. Some of these were: “A Man Is Like A Taxi Driver, He Knows When To Stop”, “Women Should Not Live In Fear, How She’s Dressed Does Not Mean Yes”, “If She Says No, Get Up and Go”, and “No Doesn’t Mean Yes”.

For International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, commemorated today, these statements are now on social media as memes and across the campus as posters, giving these young men’s words visibility, as part of transforming the kinds of commitments UWI men articulate as ideal.

End violence. Empower women and men to create gender equality. Transform our Caribbean future. #redcardrapeculture.

Post 225.

Most people don’t expect grandmotherly women in hijab to be leaders in Caribbean feminist movement building. Last Sunday’s Symposium on ‘Children at Risk’, which was collaboratively organized by Madinah House, the TML Ladies Association, the National Muslim Women’s Organisation of Trinidad,  and National Islamic Counseling Services, showed the limits of such typical expectations.

I have huge admiration for these experienced and committed women, whose consistent work to challenge and create alternatives to patriarchal domination and its harms might not seem to fit their respectability and religiosity as much as their other efforts to manage teas and celebratory functions for hajjis and hajjahs.

Yet, the history of such woman-centred public engagement dates back to the 1930s when Muslim women began to deliver lectures to mixed audiences, become members of elected mosque boards and councils, hold meetings to develop women’s groups, and participate in debates on a range of topics including, “Be it resolved that Muslim women deserve an equal social status with men”.

From the 1950s, within the Indo-Trinidadian community, the Young Muslim Women’s Association, the San Juan Muslim Ladies Organisation, and the Islamic Ladies Social and Cultural Association began to be established. The ASJA Ladies Association was represented at the first world conference on the status of women held in Mexico City in 1975. Muslim women also have a history of pushback against partitions narrowing their space for prayer in the masjid, and challenges to their exclusion from voting in organizational elections when they perceived their association or jamaat being a “boys’ club” for far too long.

Muslim women have also long been part of Caribbean feminist response to issues such as violence against women. Madinah House, a temporary shelter for women and children escaping domestic abuse, which began operations in 1999, and is run by Muslim women, is one such example.

Beyond services are also advocacy and consciousness-raising within the Muslim community and nationally, in collaboration with the wider women’s rights movement, to encourage men to more greatly share domestic work, to call for greater commitment to ending child abuse, and to insist on collective responsibility for families free from violence.

Sunday showed such larger work to break silences about the reality of incest, neglect and abuse in children’s lives, and to provide concrete understandings of vulnerability and risk.

Supported by the US Embassy, the symposium brought a range of powerful women to the mic, including Lt. Colonel Shareda Hosein, originally from Aranguez and now retired from the US Army. Sit with your children, listen to what works or doesn’t in the family, write down what should change, and commit to it as parents, she suggested.

The indomitable Natalie O’Brady, General Manager of the Rape Crisis Society of Trinidad and Tobago/Coalition Against Domestic Violence, reinforced the importance of stable homes, and parental time and attention. These are fundamental to child protection, resilience and rights.

Children’s Authority staff and clinical psychologist, Vandana Siew Sankar, highlighted that neglect and physical abuse is almost equally distributed amongst girls and boys, with their greatest vulnerabilities occurring before they are four years old, except in cases of sexual abuse, which become more common, especially for girls, with the onset of puberty.

Director of the Gender Affairs Division, Ms. Antoinette JackMartin pointed to the establishment of a Central Registry on Domestic Violence, precisely to address a need for accessible statistics.

Finally, Sharifa Ali-Abdullah, whose work to develop the Children’s Authority of Trinidad and Tobago is legendary, emphasised that we should take seriously the likelihood that oncoming economic decline and unemployment will increase the incidence of child abuse, which already spans from extreme and exceptional to everyday and normalized in the thousands of cases that come to the attention of the Authority, and which are largely inadequately addressed by social services.

These efforts to prioritize prevention of violence against women and children; to provide woman-run, woman-centred and community-supported services; and to publicly bring a message fundamentally grounded in a right to live free of domination, threat and fear are strengths on which the regional women’s rights movement was built over the last decades.

Consistent with such a history of Muslim women’s pious, yet path-breaking contributions to a Caribbean feminist vision, Sunday again offered lessons and inspiration.