November 2012

Post 79.

As I get older, I realise I have fewer and fewer things to prove to people. Take for instance, an ironic encounter that I had with four older women last night. I was at the Network for NGOs for the Advancement of Women’s Annual ‘Young Woman of the Year’ Award Ceremony.

I had been told that the event was ‘very formal’ as in more properly dressed than not-jeans and, if you know me, you know that as soon as I heard that I knew that extra effort was going to have to be involved. So I raced home from work, ate, bathed, ironed (!), dressed and finished my speech in under an hour, and rocked out of the house feeling as authentically ‘put together’ as I get. Hazel had personally told me to wear proper shoes probably knowing that I turn up everywhere in sneakers so I wore my one pair of good heels and carried a stylish bag. There was no make-up, but it wasn’t a beauty contest I was entering (been there, done that) after all.

I roll in late, blaming the shoes and was escorted to a table with none other than Zalayhar Hassanali, widow of the late President of the Republic of T and T Noor Hassanali; Minister of Gender, Youth and Child Development Marlene Coudray, who stood up against PM Patrick Manning in court, ran the San Fernando City Corporation and has switched party affiliations from PNM to COP to UNC; Brenda Gopeesingh who has long been associated with the Hindu Women’s Organisation, a middle-class, conservative group whom she is a leading figure in and clearly more radical than; and two Raja Yoga Centre nuns.

Cool. I already knew most of these folks. For example, I met Mrs. Hassanali many years ago when I gave another feature talk, probably in one of my painted t-shirts, at a Child Welfare League event. On my way out, and never having even met her as the President’s wife, I mischievously asked for a lift into town (in the official President’s vehicle no less) and we chatted the whole way. Then and there, I decided the woman was cool.

Anyway, check me bonding with Sister Indira, sitting on my left. Don’t ask me how the conversation got there, but she managed to tell me that she thought my strapless top, part of a set with linen pants, wasn’t respectful given the event and my role as feature speaker.

Mash brakes! Here was I thinking I was looking youthful and stylish when that was clearly not how I was being read. It didn’t help that the raja yoga card I randomly got said something about our first achievement having to be self-respect. Sister Indira wondered if I had a scarf to sort of drape over my shoulders and maybe hide my tattoo a bit? Well, you coulda knock me off de chair.

But, hey, what does it matter to me? I pulled out the scarf which I brought exactly for this kind of moment and, in an attempt at righting the world, inquired from the others around the table if they also thought if I should put on the scarf, you know, to be more appropriate. Except for Brenda, who thought the whole thing hilarious and actually said how I wouldn’t let a man tell me what to wear why let a woman (Yaay Brenda!), there was a motherly and grandmotherly series of approving nods around the table. The ayes had it. I donned the scarf, which Sister Indira then lovingly adjusted because I clearly had no sense of what was required, and everyone seemed a bit more comfortable and satisfied all around.

Me, I was in shock. Here I am, almost 40 years old. I have three degrees. I pay my own bills. I done make child. I even married. I dey to give de feature speech. Do I have any authority? No. I was foremost daughter, grand-daughter, beti and young woman in their eyes and I wasn’t (apparently) at my most respectable. Did what I thought matter? No. If mothers, grandmothers and wizened older women knew best, was it worth rebelling in my old age, making some kind of generational statement, asserting my sense of individuality? No.

It was best to know that, no matter how old you are and whatever stripes you’ve earned along the way, aunties, mothers, grandmothers and the old ladies of our world do not care. They know what is right, they were glad to set me right and most important was that I perform a dutifulness that gave them the respect they were rightly due.

I had to laugh to myself, sitting there feeling like some teenager who, given the chance, they would have sent back inside to change. Me, big woman, never too old to be told what to wear, what is proper, and how I should carry myself and behave. Even if I disagreed, I still appreciated what I thought was an act of quiet, womanly care and advice on their behalf, only for my benefit, and I was glad I had in fact reached an age where I could just do as I was told, knowing that all they wanted was recognition of their greater experience and wisdom, and it took nothing from me to show a little deference.

Especially given that my speech was, among other things, about the need for abortion and lesbianism to be totally decriminalised. I figured my words would send my uncompromisingly anti-“respectable” message so that my bare shoulders didn’t need to.

Ah, the ironies of growing up woman.

Feature speech at Network of NGOs for the Advancement of Women Young Woman of the Year 2012 Award Ceremony held at Crown Plaza, Trinidad.

Good evening Everyone and especially the Young Women nominated for the Young Woman of the Year 2012 Award. You are such an inspiration!

Thank you Hazel Brown for asking me to be here with you all today.

The biographies of these young women show immense individual ambition, self-confidence, initiative and creativity, as well as clear commitment to community, country and the environment. These are all the qualities that every parent, and especially every mother, would be proud to see in their daughters.

To these qualities and commitments, I want to add the idea of solidarity – and particularly solidarity with other young women across differences of class, ethnicity, geography, religion and sexual orientation. What kinds of solidarities do I mean? Why do they remain important?

Young women are doing well, you are doing well, but many young women still need us to lift as we climb.

Violence in our homes remains prevalent. In my classes with only about 80 students, the majority have either experienced violence against women or know someone who has. Violence stops so many girls and young women from imagining and reaching their potential and it remains a reality that a new generation must unapologetically confront on your own terms and in your own ways, but confront it you must. We know that violence and control get reproduced in within teen relationships, making it hard for girls to have boyfriends and also full decision-making about their movements, friends and freedom, and making it hard to negotiate condom and contraception use. If there is one thing that young women can do, its provide non-judgmental peer spaces for young women to be able to share their experiences of family and sexual violence from family, seek strength and sisterhood, and make choices that are healthy and right for them rather than for others, whether those others are parents or religious leaders or partners.

Part of this violence is the issue of child sexual abuse and incest, which like domestic violence, continues to predominantly affect girls in our society, reproducing silences that run throughout families and communities, silences that will not protect us, silences that leave us no less afraid. The Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the UWI, where I work, has embarked on a national campaign to raise awareness about child sexual abuse and incest, using the symbol of the blue teddy, and I want to encourage young women in the different kinds of work that you do – in dance, sports, arts and community organizing, to use your creativity and networks to help break the silence about sexual violence in our homes, as an act of solidarity with other young women who have grown used to a reality of shame and repression rather than transformation and freedom from anger, betrayal and fear.

In my classes, the majority of students – though thankfully not all – also know someone who has had an abortion. This is the reality within which young women are coming of age, and as a new generation, you need to continue the struggle for safe rather than unsafe options for termination of pregnancies as well as for wide, national access to contraception, education and counseling. Trinidad and Tobago has a high teenage birthrate, and I imagine, also a high teenage rate of abortion. I myself know a handful of young women in their twenties who have terminated pregnancies and each time I have wished that they had access to safe, legal medical options, to patient rights, to responsible doctors. Is your politics one that seeks to secure these options or not? While the decision is yours, the implications reach out to other young women who you may never meet, or perhaps may one day come to know and care about.

There are two other issues that I want to touch on before I move on. The first relates to proposed changes to the Marriage Acts of Trinidad and Tobago, and efforts to increase the age of marriage from 12 and 14 to, at minimum, 16 or even 18 years old. Young women have not been at the forefront of the national debate on this issue and it affects you. There are issues of religion, respectability and so on that shape how the marriage of young girls is understood, but most important are the views of young women and questions of the power inequalities in such relationships, girls’ ability to make such long-term choices at such a young age, and the impact that early marriage makes on girls’ ability to experience adolescence as a time when they come to decide who they are and want to be for themselves.

Finally, I must speak tonight about the recently passed but not yet proclaimed Children’s Act of Trinidad and Tobago. This extremely progressive and much needed Act decriminalizes sexual activity amongst minors, as it should – for there are other responses and solutions rather than the heavy hand of the law, but it also explicitly criminalises sexual activity against minors, children under 18 years old, when those activities take place between minors of the same sex. This denial of equal rights to young people – and young women – must not be allowed. It is absolutely discriminatory, it divides youth against each other, it leaves some children protected and makes others punished, it prevents open discussion about healthy, safe and authentic sexual desires and choices, and it reproduces a nation where some young women experience the privileges of full citizenship and others, from as young as twelve years old, do not. Young women, we need your voices to join with those who cannot safely and openly speak for or be themselves. That is what solidarity is about.

Solidarity is based on the vision that you hold for the world and I know you are all young women of vision. Is your vision that all young women grow up in families without physical or sexual violence, is your vision that they grow up in communities that don’t respond with silencing and shame, is it that young women grow up in a world where despite sex being everywhere, they nonetheless cannot speak openly about it to parents, teachers, religious leaders and other adults without following a script that says they must be chaste…because where does that leave them if they are not? Is your vision that no medical practice – especially those only performed on girls and women, will ever take place in unsafe conditions? Is your vision for a generation not divided by race, politics, class, religion or sexual orientation, but able to find those few precious spaces of common ground – despite our differences, on the basis of our equal human rights, our commitment to making sure that all in our society have the protections and freedoms that still only some benefit from? What is your vision for the young women least able to speak about their realities, those most judged, those most left to fend for themselves without the powerful, visible solidarity of their young sisters?

There are many groups of young women to speak about. I chose these groups today because we need to break silences about them, and we need amazing young women like you to be unafraid of doing so on behalf of your generation. Every generation of young women must challenge the generation of women and men before them to secure expanded forms of justice, peace, equity, freedom and solidarity, because our silences will not protect us in the ways that our solidarities will. So, while you young women are involved in such a diverse array of fields – agriculture, music, dance, jewelry, entrepreneurship, arts, sports, conservation, charity and community-building, I also want to push you to think about how your own work can transform the lives of those young women we speak about least and hear from least.

That’s why I speak about young women struggling through child sexual abuse and incest who need to no longer protect their families, young women who have terminated pregnancies and whose stories we need to hear rather than condemn, those lesbian young women who we pretend, in all our righteousness and even hypocrisy, do not exist, when all of them like you are simply young people who need to be given the chance to make the life for themselves that feels right and is based on self-confidence, self-love and the warm embrace of family and community belonging. A generation before me could sit uncomfortably in their chairs, but these young women will be no less afraid and I certainly am not afraid to speak with – and when necessary for – them…and in so doing for me, my vision, my nation and the world in which I want to live.

Solidarity is grounded in being unafraid, knowing that speaking with and for your sisters may not make you popular but it will make your politics thorough and true. And you are the generation of young women in the history of this post-slavery, post-indentureship and post-colonial society most able to do so. You all are educated, you are powerful, you are creative, you are driven and you are brave. You best know how to bring your bredren in to support your work because the work to right the world for young women is not women’s work, it is the work of a generation with the power, smarts and opportunities to make change. It’s not your job to get young men involved, it’s your job to demand they represent, standing next to and in solidarity with you. Nothing is stopping them and, don’t let anyone fool you, boys and men still have power they need to share and power they can contribute to the struggle to end violence, to recognise girls’ right to make decisions regarding their bodies and to end homophobia.

You best know how to reach out to those younger than you and you are already doing so. You are linked in with rural, religious, cultural, musical, agricultural, environmental, entrepreneurial communities that the Network of NGOs wouldn’t know where to begin to find. Those spaces that are yours are the same ones where these issues are lived and where the needs and rights of young women can be taken on.

Your time is not in the future, frankly it is now. It is for these reasons that we recognise and acknowledge the work of the Network of NGOs for the Advancement of Women, and in the spirit of the work of still to be done, recognize and celebrate you. Congratulations to all of you amazing young women and good luck with the work that you do.

Thank you.
Gabrielle Jamela Hosein
November 23, 2012.

Post 78.

A man I know stopped me the other day as he walked by. ‘Why you always bad-talking Stone so in de papers?’ he asked. I laughed it off as male picong made partially in solidarity with and in defense of Stone’s masculine honour, but it is a question that needs to be answered.

I actually don’t bad talk Stone in the newspapers. What I do talk about, with clearly god-forbidden honesty, are the negotiations of marriage, motherhood and career. These are all spaces shaped by ideas regarding masculinity and femininity and how they connect to labour, power, decision-making and responsibilities in and out of the home. These ideas are inescapably shaped by the privileges that masculinities and therefore men still have in terms of doing fewer hours of unwaged and uncounted work in the home, earning higher pay for work of equal value to women’s, accessing the highest paid sectors of the legal (and illegal) economy, and benefitting from familial support that enables them to more easily manage the lengthy time demands of the workplace.

Now, not all men actively mobilize these privileges and many, including Stone, strive for relationships with equality that acknowledge the work of each partner and the extent to which both need to share the care. Nonetheless, all negotiations and positions, resistances and transformations within woman-man relationships take place within this institutional and ideological context of male privileging, and not all women can negotiate it well nor do all have access to the kinds of power and partners that would enable them to do so. Even in an especially egalitarian relationship such as mine, those negotiations take place in relation to who sacrifices their work time to care for the baby, who gets to sleep in or get up to care for the baby, who does what tasks in relation to the household and care of the baby, and what sacrifices are made overall and by whom. This reality is not singular to us. It’s pervasive and shared in all its complexity and diversity by literally billions of working and loving women and men over the entire planet.

Why then can’t one simply speak about these negotiations without being accused of shaming one’s man, failing to be properly mannersed as a wife, and revealing private secrets that must never be publicly admitted?

Despite the fact that seemingly everyone from religious leaders, teachers, politicians and people on the radio have plenty to say about it, this wholly invented division between private and public sets up the family – and wifehood and motherhood – as a sacred and silencing domain. The family is completely interlocked with the economy and the law, with societal views and with politicians’ patronage. It is in fact a very public institution, except when women need to speak out about what they experience there and, in particular, the injustices they experience there: sexual and other forms of abuse, an unequal division of labour, the obviously unjust injunction to honour and obey rather than honour and lead, and expectations that make career-family dilemmas an issue for far greater numbers of women than men.

There isn’t anything private about this stuff. All of it is shaped by governmental policies, school curriculums, legislation (and its lack), administration of social services, an absence of 24 hour state-provided day care, socialization processes that teach all women to learn to fear unspecified potential male violence, a status quo where having three women in a thirty-six member 2012 T and T Cabinet provokes no widespread outcry from all fair-minded citizens regardless of their sex, and a society where it is women who experience shame for admitting to being raped, sexually harassed, abused or victimized.

Women know that the one thing they should never do is embarrass or dishonor men because damage to the male ego can (and does) lead to any result, including violence, often widely considered to be deserved. Whose benefit does women’s silence serve? Not women.

Funny how women are pressured to keep family secrets private when making them public would enable women to see that these are widespread experiences requiring widely collective solutions. Funny how men and masculine status and pride get to set the terms of what women experience publicly and privately as well as what they are allowed to articulate about their experiences publicly and privately. Funny how it’s those exact aspects of men’s privilege that women are not allowed to simply describe for fear of shaming themselves and, worse, their men.

Funny how sometimes picong isn’t funny at all.

Post 77.

Having a baby humbles all your vanities. Whatever hang ups you have about looks, hair, bodies and brains, when your baby is born all you want is a little person who is healthy and who will one day, above all else, be happy.

You realise that all the talk about cute babies and good looking women and handsome men is a settah BS, not because beauty in all its diversity doesn’t exist, but because you have absolutely no control over what your baby looks like or what kind of hair, nose or toes she or he has or even how naturally astute or inclined to languages or music, art or sports she or he turns out to be.

You are simply making a baby who is simultaneously drawing on you to make herself. Even if you are nudging the gods with organic fish oil, prenatal yoga, positive thoughts and good food, all is still left to fate, and you can only love your child with all your heart whatever her abilities or disabilities (or different abilities), whatever her features and whatever her personality. You love, you accept, you love some more, you protect, you nurture, you start being very, very real, and you sustain it all with even more unconditional love.

You know that your child will inevitably encounter the crushing weight of the world’s expectations and most of her life will be spent simply learning to shake her shoulders free.You know that futile wish that you could change aspects of yourself just so you would be loved more by others, but most of all by you. Our children have whole lifetimes to learn about inadequacies and insecurities, the effects of a world run on vanities.

You decide to give your child every chance and all the confidence that society may not give her. You teach her to make space rather than fit in. You teach her to know she is magnificent and miraculous simply because she is, and she is yours, and somehow she chose you as hers. You learn to not compare your child to others or even your own expectations or even yourself because your ego will hold you back from the recognition of her successes, on her terms. So, you recognize you have new things to hold on to as well as let go.

You see other children that people think are smart or beautiful and you remind yourself that unless you see your own as smart and beautiful too, they will reflect your own gaze when they look at themselves. And they are smart and beautiful even if they are blind, deaf, disabled, tiny, tall, dark, mixed, taking their first steps early, learning to talk late, bad at tests or arriving at lifestages at their own pace.

Once we recognize how we are often invested in our children’s selves and successes because they can help us to measure up better in the world, we can see how easy it is to not know how to cope if they turn out to be imperfect by those standards. The first step in teaching children that they are more than adequate, they are in fact glorious, they are more than secure, they are in fact proud, is to not hide our vanities to ourselves and know that all that matters in our children’s life is their health and happiness, and our love for who they turn out to be.

I’m learning to invest in Zi’s self, her steps and her successes in a way that allows me to see who she is and what she needs rather than who I want and what I think she needs to be.

Post 76.

Today a past student asked me if becoming a mother had changed my views about what I teach.

I teach that gender is a regulatory fiction. Men and women are not naturally masculine or feminine, and people are not all necessarily or naturally heterosexual. In fact, men and women are more likely to not meet gender ideals and to have to put a lot of work into meeting them when they do, and human desire across history and culture has always been incredibly flexible and irrepressible. History shows that those folks who think that gender and sexuality are fixed, unchangeable and locked to biology, and that people naturally conform, are dead wrong.

In a world that I teach about, men and women could dress and walk as they choose, love whoever they want, and both participate in and destabilise what it means to be a man or a woman, regardless of their sex. They would be judged for being good persons, not for being man or woman enough for our expectations. We would get our priorities straight, love is love when it doesn’t hurt or abuse not when it happens between a man and a woman or within marriage or in order to make one person the head of the other and her children.

Have my views changed since I became a mother? Yes, I’ve become more committed. Either you understand and agree that everyone has a right to be whoever they are or you are more invested in upholding the rules that reward some and reject others because of who they are. You can’t be anti-racist and not also anti-sexist or anti-homophobic. Well, you can, but either you are against prejudice and discrimination for all, or you are not really against it at all. I know this isn’t always the popular position in a (religiously) conservative – and often hypocritical – world, but it’s what I teach and it’s what my past student was referring to.

What does all this mean for motherhood? If Ziya decides to be lesbian or bisexual or to remain unmarried or to not have children or to not conform to rules regarding femininity that she doesn’t consider just or true, I can only love her for who she is, and support and empower her in her struggle to be authentic to herself. I can only learn more and more from her analysis, courage and self-knowledge about what it takes to be truly human in a world that reduces us to and values us for our sex, gender and sexuality, rather than simply because we are.

Being a mother has strengthened my commitment to what I teach because my hope is that the transformations that social movements are seeking will be found, enabling her to love herself and simply be. Do I now think differently about what I teach? Absolutely, now I myself am learning what it all really means in relation to Zi.