I’m spending much of the next three weeks in Chaguanas West, following the by-election. I’m interested in the extent to which having a woman PM and party leader expands the possibilities for women’s political leadership and democratic participation, and their ability to challenge an entirely male dominated political culture. I’m interested in women’s experience of contesting elections, the roles played by young women, housewives and those in the women’s arms, and whether aspects of masculinity and femininity shape how men and women voters view Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Jack Warner and Khadijah Ameen.
As an older, wealthy, dominant man, and as one who expertly plays the politics of patronage from his own and state largesse, Jack starts out with status, resources and power that Khadijah has no access to, even with the backing of the UNC. There is a reason that Jack can gun sling on his own, like a Clint Eastwood. We understand this model of manhood well, and it always commands respect.
Khadijah Ameen is a young mother, racially-mixed, politically experienced, loyal and, frankly, quite brave. At some level, she knows she is positioned as the party’s sacrificial lamb as she faces off against Jack Warner, who has managed to constitute himself as both David and Goliath. Some think that Khadijah is ineffectual, too green, not friendly enough or has a problematic political history. Kamla’s direct support of her brings both benefits and costs, after all, in this election, the PM is fighting for her life as well. For feminist political anthropologists like myself, this election is gold mine for when and why gender does and doesn’t matter.
The fact is that the call to party loyalty is falling on deaf ears. Jack’s supporters are absorbed by his ability to be their savior, fixing everyday sufferation with box drains, scholarships, wheel-chairs and groceries, when state institutions have seem to have entirely failed. Constituency voters think that everyone in the UNC is corrupt anyway, at least Jack is a Robin Hood for the poor.They don’t care if the UNC and Partnership government falls, Jack is the man they want for Prime Minister. Let’s be clear, Jack’s rallies may have the euphoria of a fete, but they carry the momentum of a mutiny.
If the government had strengthened the institutions of the state, people would look to local government and the right ministries for what they are willing to turn to Jack for. If the people of Chaguanas West were not so fearful of being abandoned again by the political parties, they could see the wider national skepticism about Jack as a future Prime Minister. If we didn’t think that elite corruption was everywhere, we wouldn’t be so willing to excuse it.
Women don’t necessarily make better leaders than men, nor represent women’s needs better, but I’d like to see women be given the chance to make the differences and the mistakes that men have had since the beginning of the social contract. As both Kamla and Khadijah lead this struggle, two of the total minority of women in our politics, we will see how the forces of Jack, Inshan and others square off against Anand, Roodal, Suruj, Devant, Vasant and so on, and their financiers. I’ve my own fears that in the end none of us are really going to win.