Post 203.

We spent Sunday morning carefully observing wildlife in Chaguaramas, all the while grieving their demise under Dr. Bhoe Tewarie’s leadership as Minister. Getting home wet from a spring, I felt it was a miracle that Ziya could walk amidst such great biodiversity, and Trinidad’s human and natural history.

Walk with me.

Just to the left of the turn to go into Macaripe Mail Road, next to the sea and along the Cuesa river wetlands, live a family of small crocodilians called Caimans. If you go quietly, you can see them resting. Development is planning for both now and for future generations, so including their habitat in planning isn’t an idealist, environmentalist wish. It is sustainable development and the right thing to do, especially in Chagaramas, for Ziya’s children will never have the experience she did if we submit to Dr. Tewarie’s piped dreams.

Filled-in and concretized land, and a freshwater waterpark are to be established on the same spot through private leases. This will destroy the precious little habitat that those caiman have a right to, and compromise the rights of public open space enjoyed by Baptists, Hindus, and those of all classes who freely access this state land for recreation. It will also exploit an aquifer for the most unsustainable uses imaginable at a time of global water crisis.

As I left the caiman, I looked up at the sign of what was planned, after closed-door conversations Dr. Tewarie had with private investors, and wondered if any of them ever saw those caiman or cared about habitat, future generations, precious fresh water, or Town and Country Planning approvals.

Keep walking.

The view of the sea will be cut off from the proposed new Guave Road, past the military museum, and will instead be accessible through businesses profiting from a mall and marina restaurants. These plans were made before the new Chagaramas Development Authority 2015 master plan was formulated and were forcibly misfit in, under the title of CDA ‘fixed projects’. Yet, the Town and Country Planning (Chaguaramas) Development Order created the CDA to follow the 1974 Statutory land use plan, which should only be replaced by Parliamentary and public agreement, and which clearly classes the coastline here as a public open space. Dr. Tewarie and the CDA know this, but fences are going up anyway. Have all the planning approvals have been obtained? Why not? Why do you think that the Minister of Planning and Sustainable Development is pursuing such an unsustainable dream?

Chagaramas’ forests are intended to be a “National Park”. Will the CDA again allow open-air fetes, such as by Ceasar’s Army, in, of all places, the Tucker valley “bamboo cathedral” in the middle of the wider National Park? If so, what will happen to the howler monkeys Ziya watched, not caged in the zoo, but free? Will businesses continue to operate as if the garbage growing around them, filling the streams, is in the Park’s best interest? Will extending the golf course from nine holes to eighteen plus high-density residential housing provide the buffers this national park needs? And imagine the military establishing a panorama of bright industrial level lights around its fenced off football field at the Tucker Valley youth camp, in the last “dark zones” in the western Northern Range. Such human hubris is disallowed because of the harm it causes to species in this ecology, but it continues, unregulated and irresponsibly.

Zi ecountered a furry, placid, pink-toed tarantula, Blue Emperor, Postman, Bamboo Page and other butterflies, two Green-banded Urania moths, a plica plica lizard, a tiny black and white striped frog, bats, a yellow and green ladybird, a hawk and cornbirds. Yesterday she told me, trees are a kind of school.

Is the next generation voiceless in the face of Minister Tewarie’s elite model, out of time with the publicly accessible heritage and biodiversity of Chagaramas, and sustainable planning across the planet? The Minister could have extended rather than destroyed biodiversity along the coast, and been sensitive not to big money, but the long-term interest of people of Trinidad and Tobago.

As Zi also now knows, it’s under Dr. Tewarie’s leadership that those caiman will be no more once tractors start to roll.

Post 202.

In 1999, Nesha Haniff wrote that “Indian women’s writings are only now emerging and the scholarship by Indian women on Indian women is slowly developing.” Almost twenty years later, enough of that writing now exists for a new generation of scholars to look back at it and ask a number of questions. How does it enable us to think about life today? What does it contribute to the Caribbean intellectual tradition? How has it defined feminism? What are its radical elements? What does it say about sexuality, race, family, religion, empowerment and more?

Most people think Indo-Caribbean women have not produced a lot or even particularly important scholarship, and that it is now coming into voice. But, it isn’t that the scholarship has been missing, it is that it has been marginal to how the region and its gender relations have been thought about.

Even as only a starting point, I want researchers to know that that Indians in the Caribbean can’t be studied as if this scholarship doesn’t exist, and neither can mixed and complex societies like Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname, and even others like Jamaica and Martinique.

This means getting to know the research about the intersections of gender, race and region along with generation and nation. It means getting to know how its concepts draw on myths and traditions, using words like ‘matikor’, ‘bindi’, ‘jahajin’ and ‘dougla’ to create theory, or ways of explaining who we have been, are becoming and should be. It means asking how the work of those creating art or writing books, or the lives of pioneering women negotiating power relations, from family life to business to politics, can be documented using the frames that Indo-Caribbean feminist scholarship offers for reflecting on our ambitions, struggles and communities.

For these ideas to turn into the collective conversation that it should, with others in and beyond the region, eighteen scholars are being brought together here to present their research. They are doing so in order to examine the Indo-Caribbean feminist scholarship that exists, and to show its contribution as well as how it can be advanced, nuanced or completely revised. Those scholars will presenting at UWI on November 5-6, 2015, on be everything from dance to literature, from sexuality to masculinity, from religion to family, and from visual art to violence in Indo-Caribbean life.

I am hoping that bringing them together here makes Trinidad and Tobago a leader in mentoring and producing knowledge about Indo-Caribbean, Dougla and Caribbean feminisms. I am hoping that it helps us to recognize and shape how a new generation of scholars is writing about Indian womanhoods and manhoods, from the ground up rather than importing theory. I am hoping that the publication of these papers in 2016 will shape Indo-Caribbean research on women and gender relations for at least the next decade.

To make this happen, I’ve spent these last weeks asking those in business to support the flight/hotel costs of one or more of the scholars who will be presenting on those two days, supplementing funds raised through university research grants. This way, there’s a collaborative investment by a wider community in producing much needed knowledge about Indo-Caribbean contemporary life, particularly women’s lives, and an investment in the intellectual leadership of our young women scholars.

It’s been a challenge. Most understand the importance of giving to charity, sports or even medical research. Social science, which studies family, culture, changes to tradition, power inequalities, and how we relate to each other in contemporary life, seems less urgent. Good at teaching and writing, rather than fundraising for research, I’ve also surprised myself by how shy I feel about confidently convincing those who can easily give funds why they should do so. Care for this project is forcing my skills to grow.

The scholarship I’ve read since beginning research on Indo-Trinidadian girlhood fifteen years ago has shaped the woman and scholar that I’ve become. My vision is to give back to the younger, emerging scholars documenting and explaining ideas, theories and experiences over the next fifteen years. If you can connect to that vision and want to help make such contemporary, collaborative, Indo-Caribbean feminist research a reality, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Post 200.

In 2000, when I became Miss Mastana Bahar, a newspaper reporter asked me about my plans for marriage and children. I responded that I didn’t sit around dreaming about marriage, but wanted children. She also asked me if I’d marry a non-Indian (because that’s one of those national obsessions about Indian women, making us the only group routinely asked blatantly judgy questions about interracial relationships). Thanks to the Editor, Maxie Cuffie, a half-page, bold headline later screamed: “Miss Mastana Shocker. Wants child out of wedlock. Could marry non-Indian”.

Both forming and filling public taste for salacious details about a seemingly “sexually unconventional woman”, Cuffie’s manufacturing of a drama of sexual impropriety reflected his focus on business bottom line, not public interest.  In the fifteen years since then, during which neither motherhood nor my marriage have drawn any shock, I’ve watched media headlines shape public sentiment in ways that have less to do with public good than with selling specific stories, and newspapers.

‘Have you had sex with her?’, the headline of Sheila Rampersad’s July 2, 2015 Express column, was more of this strategy. This question was asked of a US politician, but the effect of the headline, combined with the article, was to make the public see the PM’s “personal difficulties” and “awful weakness” as sex-related, thereby steering discussion that since followed into self-righteous gossip masquerading as political commentary.

Rampersad herself asked a valid question: “what are appropriate and ethical ways to investigate, reveal and discuss the Prime Minister’s alleged personal vulnerabilities in so far as they affect the public interest?” Indira Sagewan-Ali responded with a lecture about adultery, which as much as people think is wrong, has no clear connection to good or bad governmental decision-making. Diana Mahabir-Wyatt argued that the state and public have no right in the bedrooms of citizens. In defense of free speech, Kumar Mahabir appears to have jumped in on-line with questions about Rampersad’s own sexuality and alcohol consumption, without addressing her argument. It was inevitable that her question would be seen as applicable to anybody in public life. And, as if this Mad Hatter’s tea party didn’t have enough crazy table talk, Selwyn Ryan returned on Sunday to the formulaic short-cut to scandal, the “sexually unconventional woman”, as a valid subject for analysis in a column on, wait for it, psychopathic/sociopathic disorders and psychiatric disease.

We are focusing on the private lives of leaders more than the outrage that is the collapse of the ethical and institutional power of the state and its officials to reign in all individuals on our behalf. Persona matters in the midst of their failure, and is a sign of our turning the page on our own responsibility as citizens and power as voters as we mine headlines for a savior.

Maintenance of power through mass patron-client relations, which have always combined welfare with corruption, added to the power of financiers over political parties – from Jack to Ish and Steve to Andre Monteil, a man who allegedly comingles money by the millions, to SIS, which has received more than one tenth of our national budget in contracts, added to poor institutional regulation on everything from land development to environmental management is the real bacchanal.

It doesn’t matter who we put in office, they have and will all oversee massive waste and corruption, regardless of the party leaders or other candidates, whether they drink alcohol, smoke weed or have unconventional sex. And it will remain so as long we feed the interest of big business, which owns the media, by not focusing on the story of every missing dollar, then demanding accountability from public decisions and deals. Rihanna’s BBHMM is my taxpayer’s anthem. Not a vote for you unless you get all our money back where it should be.

I care less about Keith or Kamla’s personality than the sickness of misspent billions detailed in every year’s Auditor-General’s report, which no leader takes full responsibility for, which no authority has ever issued a statement on, listing immediate action being taken, and which is the greater private sleaze threatening public order. To this ex-Miss Mastana, that story is the real inter-racial shocker.

Post 199.

Stereotype has long defined public talk about Indian women’s sexuality, and panic that Hindu women’s immorality can undermine a whole political-economic order isn’t new.

150 years ago, authorities were pressuring recruiters to find the ‘right’ kind of Indian woman whose obedience could be assured. At that time, across the British empire, indentured women were hysterically cast as hyper-aware of their sexual and labour power, and as aligning themselves strategically with men to maneuver the colonial system. This was considered a sign of their dangerousness and untrustworthiness, facilitated by the fracturing of familial and religious rules, and capable of undermining the plantation system itself.

Later, to weaken Indian women’s gendered negotiations, they were redefined as unpaid housewives in village life off the plantation, fulfilling a colonial ideal of women as dependent nurturers, and Indian men’s wish for partners who couldn’t simply leave for better love or sex, more respect and rights, or greater economic security. And so, another stereotype of the passive Indian woman, whose dutifulness held together the clan, became accepted in our society.

Throughout this period and then post-independence, conservative Hindu voices spoke out against Hindu women’s interracial sexual unions, seeing nationalist desires for biological and cultural mixing as plans for assimilation and erasure.

Both the Africanisation of Indian culture, and the Indianisation of national culture, through chutney-soca or the mass entry of young Indian women into Carnival, signaled a loss of difference, respectability, purity, tradition and Mother culture. Morally good, ethnically loyal Hindu women were supposed to neither reject Hindu men nor fall prey to African men’s debauchery. Notice how Sat Maharaj emphasized that while Dr. Rowley was wining on a young Indian woman, the PM was at a puja being a proper Hindu devotee.

On the other hand, African men’s sexual possession of an exoticised Marajin, Dulahin or ‘Indian gyal’ was considered a superior approach to creating Mother Trinidad where ‘all of we is one’. African men’s prowess with Hindu women, and their sexual and political power to determine the creolization of both Indians and the nation, was a potent symbol of Indian men’s emasculation. Indian patriarchy was considered racist for resisting such penetration.

In contestations for Indian and African dominance, Hindu women’s interracial unions have been widely celebrated and condemned, from calypsos to debates in the press. In such endless minding of their sexual business, Indian women’s views on their own sexuality are least heard. Mainly talk concerns their effects on others: men, families, ethnic groups and the nation. African women’s feelings, that men’s interracial unions were a rejection of them, were also largely dismissed. Indeed, amidst great diversity in African women’s perspectives and solidarities, the view of Indian women as an ethnic threat, who could take your man, his money and even nation-state, has also existed all along.

PNM member Juliet Davy’s comments, that Hindu Indian women seduce powerful non-Indian men for wealth and to destroy them, exemplifies this, with the twist that Hindu men use their women, including their own wife, mother, daughter or sister, to seduce non-Indian men.

What shifted such that Hindu women, rather than African men, are now considered predatory? When did their interracial unions appear, not as rejection of Indian men, but as tricks of subordinate pawns? When did African men become so sexually and economically vulnerable? How are myths of danger and docility being currently recombined?

Interestingly, for five years, Kamla Persad-Bissessar has been defined by just this predatory-pawn logic. She’s cast as embodying a creeping threat to all that constitutes our democratic state, incomprehensibly popular, politically powerful, morally degenerate and a weak puppet of a Hindu male cabal.

Combine old fear of the sexually and economically strategic Hindu woman, with established commentary on Indian women’s bodies in competitive race talk, with current assessment that a too-powerful Hindu patriarchy is ‘wooding’ the state treasury, with clear campaigning to seduce voters with an almost lone Indian lady, and it perhaps explains how stereotypes arise to articulate distrust of the PP’s twist on ‘real unity’.

Post 198.

More than once, Ziya has initiated conversation about skin colour, telling me that she wishes she had lighter skin or was white. Where this comes from, I’m not exactly sure, though the nexus of value and colour is inescapably embedded in our entire colonial legacy.

Most people blame ‘the parents’, that dynamic duo supposedly capable of successfully fighting all the world’s bad influences through their super skills in setting an all-powerfully influential example. Parents might blame ‘the media’ which, even if we police our own little sapodillas’ consumption of children’s shows, still manages to infiltrate their consciousness through conversation and time spent with their friends and other family members who watch TV.

So, Zi tells me that having light skin is prettier because you can have pink cheeks, like Anna from the film, ‘Frozen’. She apparently watches ‘Barbie’ and other Disney Channel shows when not home. And, she and her school friends clearly work through concepts of colour, status and beauty when talking, and even through skin colour matching games. She’s also reasoned to me that ‘light skin can be pink and girls are supposed to like pink, that’s why I like light skin’. This is not a conversation Zi is inventing or having alone.

When I’ve discussed this with people, they’ve gone through the list of sources of blame. I’ve checked each off one by one. Zi gets books chosen specifically with a range of considerations, including race, colour, gender, geography, art and science, in mind. I’ve only ever bought her brown dolls. Her allowed shows include Doc McStuffins, Dinosaur Train, Word World, and others vetted for their messages and representations.

What’s out there isn’t perfect, but some choices are better than others. Still, some choices are not great. There are far too few Caribbean music videos, particularly by women, that she can watch. So, it’s not entirely surprising that the ‘Roar’ video, where Katy Perry’s cheeks are quite pink, has swept the four year old world like an unstoppable anthem.

I say all this to make the point that when our children start to show familiarity with a world we know is sexist, racist, classist and more, our first reaction is blame. But, beyond family, schools or media, this is actually the world as we live it daily, like normal. Our kids were going to encounter and even assimilate it inevitably. As a parent who has made a real effort, while also having to balance not being fascist about my attempts at indoctrination, I refuse the neoliberal idea that fault is in individual failure to fulfill that checklist.

A long time ago, we realized that real change requires more than individual empowerment and effort, it also needs mass movements, attempting widespread shifts in social consciousness and political-economic relations. The global Black Power movement knew this. It challenged class-colour barriers, the connection between whiteness and power, and disparagement of hair and skin considered ‘too black’.

For children, whether Indian, African or mixed, there’s a great deal of that transformative politics we still need to achieve, and we are a generation that can redesign the wheel while not having to reinvent it. Thinking about this makes you wonder about all the reasons for, and the losses of, such hopeful, collective Caribbean movements no longer existing today. It’s a lesson for us that such great efforts can be undermined, forgotten, even stereotyped over mere decades.

As a mother, I feel that once hierarchies penetrate our children’s understanding of the world and their place in it, they can now only be in resistance to such frameworks, no longer innocent of them or fully free. I dream that we could make such emancipation a real possibility. None but ourselves can free our minds, and luckily schooling and parenting can together be revolutionary.

So it goes in our contradictory, complex postcolony. For now, I’m keeping it simple. Mummy says all skin colours are beautiful.

Post 197.

‘And you want to be a feminist?’, the well-known pediatrician and fellow columnist asked me, I hoped rhetorically.

As Stone, Ziya and I entered in his office, he eyed Zi’s bottle of diluted cranberry juice the way US customs officials profile suspected narcotics traffickers as they step off the plane.

‘No more processed juice’, he declared, like entrance rules of a worm-hole to some healthier space-time. ‘It’s processed?’ I countered, because I like to think we buy healthy. ‘Did it come in a box, tin, container or carton?’ he spelt out, because obviously it did. ‘It’s processed unless your squeeze juice from fruit yourself’, he concluded, because clearly we hadn’t.

Then, he seemed to stop himself from starting a radical, anarcho-feminist, anti-big pharma, anti-global-food corp critique, one he had no doubt been championing since the 1970s. Instead, he simply outlined that big companies fool us into thinking that what we buy is beneficial instead of defined by chemical colours, acidifying preservatives, emulsifiers, and harmful processes, especially for children. Just read labels. I mentioned that Zi has Kellogg’s bran on a morning with banana and, I swear, it was like watching Harry Potter bristle at a Death Eater.

I appreciated his hard core line on what we should feed our children. Like Zi’s teachers, who chastise parents for sending chocolate, fruit snacks and cookies instead of real fruit in lunch kits.

Except at birthday parties, Zi doesn’t access soft drinks, or eat those biscuits, Kiss cakes or other packages of salt, sugar, sorbic acid and various four-syllable poisons. I’ve stood in the Pennywise hair products’ aisle wondering, if I died tomorrow, who would take the time to buy her shampoo without sulfate. I pointlessly rant, as I am never home to do the cooking, about the harms of canola, corn and soy oils, and pointlessly insist, as I am never home to do the grocery shopping, on us buying more costly grapeseed and cold-pressed coconut oil.

Zi’s vegetarian because twenty years ago I read so much on the horrors of meat production that I was done. If meat was raised in somebody’s backyard on grass, that would be different. But, what we buy has often been raised with antibiotics, growth-hormones and genetically modified corn, usually in stressful conditions, and we don’t yet know what long term harm that does to children. Finally, she has never had milk because so many children are lactose-intolerant, and milk is the cause of far too many rashes, infections, upsets, sinus irritations and allergies.

We sought the doctor because Zi was suffering from mosquito bites that she scratched into sores, which wouldn’t heal for weeks. ‘Cut out juices and other products with sugar, including overly processed brans and granolas as well as cheese,’ were our final pediatric instructions as I imagined the Mission Impossible soundtrack ricocheting around the room.

It’s here I felt justifiably overwhelmed. Fresh juicing, baking with unrefined flour and buying more organic everything seemed like plenty more effort for one woman logging long hours at work. It seemed like even more effort to my pork-loving, three-kinds-of-carbohydrates-on-the-plate-eating, lettuce-as-a-vegetable-counting, skeptical-of-Gab’s-probably-unneccessary-consumption-commandments, but nonetheless supportive husband. Stone and I exchanged one of those married people glances.

‘And you want to be a feminist?’ He contested my politics when I contested his expectations. I knew better than to duel with a doctor whose crew is midwives, and fearless breastfeeding and reproductive rights activists.

Indeed, feminism includes building a healthier world, for us, animals and the earth. It includes giving consumer power to organic farmers and green markets rather than to the handful of corporations that make us stuffed, but starving, with shortening life-spans, and combinations of children’s diabetes, obesity and attention deficits.

If I wanted to be feminist, I’d have to defend the rights of my child, first in my own home, and value the responsibility and power of such reproductive time and labour. My soundtrack would have to be more Thug Life than Nestle, Pepsico, Coca Cola, Kraft Foods, General Mills and Wrigley.

As we left I thought of a joke, but don’t tell anybody. How many feminists does it take to make fresh cucumber juice? Just one! His name is Stone and we love him dearly!

Post 196. LGBT Hinduism.

When one of Trinidad and Tobago’s best known contemporary authors, Shani Mootoo, was reading from her work at Alice Yard in Woodbrook, she expressed amazement that the word ‘lesbian’ was now being said openly in Trinidad, in a way she never imagined when she left for Canada all those years ago. The audience promptly affirmed, collectively shouting ‘lesbian!’ at the urging of Vahni Capildeo, a younger Indo-Trinidadian woman living in the UK, and author of several published collections of poetry.

While the readings continued, I reflected on the many incremental efforts that make such major shifts occur, almost without us noticing. And I wondered what a student might examine if she or he had to try to document the causes of such change. To what extent would focus be on the work of LBGT organisations which have been systematically nudging the public toward acknowledging their claims to human rights, equality and freedom from discrimination? To what extent would the decade of debate over the Draft National Gender Policy, and advocacy led by the women’s movement, explain wider discussion of homosexuality? To what extent is it the impact of global and regional advocacy or US popular culture? How much is from younger generations just living as they choose?

Someone once asked me why my column talks about lesbians all the time. It doesn’t of course, but I also deliberately place the presence and realities of those women who remain unjustly silenced and criminalized into the public domain.  So, yes, the word lesbian occupies more space in national press than it would have otherwise. In a small way, this normalizes the kinds of citizens who continue to hope they can be accepted for who they are. The citizens who should be safe to discuss their lives and loves just as much as their responsibilities for care of parents or their dissatisfaction with that new crumbly Crix, or, come election time, who they go put.

It was one of those moments of opening and occupying at the NCIC’s Divali Nagar compound on Saturday. How amazing to hear a new generation quoting religious texts to justify anti-homophobic Hinduism, to learn from Krystal Ghisyawan’s research on lesbian women’s desires for a sense of safety in their families and nation, and to watch Shalini Seereeram talk about representing women’s intimacies in art and the risks she takes in being true to her vision of the world. This panel could never be found fifteen years ago when I was searching for it. I wondered how and when such Hindu feminism had found its Caribbean footing.

Enlargened by those watching the live online broadcast and asking questions via Facebook, we heard about a sruti paradigm in Hindu theology which focuses on the eternal and is unconcerned about sexuality and gender, female incarnations of male deities like Vishnu, and bodily transformations from one sex to another, like Arjun becoming temporarily female to experience Krishna’s love, or Sikhandini honoring her bride’s wishes by becoming male. And how these, not Sita’s chastity, influenced women’s claims to LGBT, Hindu, Indian and Trinidadian identities as all parts of a right to be.

Like Pandita Indrani Rampersad’s theological support for same sex marriage when other religious groups quote scripture to reproduce prejudicial legislation, this gathering, titled ‘Queerying Hinduism’ and led by young married couple, Aneela Bhagwat and Arvind Singh of the Centre for Indic Studies, was another small step transforming the space, language and solidarities available to and beyond lesbian Indo-Caribbean women.

I thought of Shani Mootoo, acclimatizing to the fact that engagements with sexuality and gender have moved outside of fiction. And, I wanted this column to be its own moment, tracing and placing into public record the Indo-Caribbean feminisms now inspiring me.

‘Why aren’t the older heads here?, someone asked. But, more important was the circle of young women present, without judgment, with laughter, with pride, as I never imagined I’d see.

Check out the Centre for Indic Studies on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/centreforindicstudies.

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