Playing the ‘Gender Card’
As I walk through Chaguanas West, Jack Warner’s trucks blare ‘Jack is de Man’ and ‘Uncle Jack’. These songs mobilise the respect, seniority and authority seen as rightfully due to such paternal roles. Being ‘the Man’ additionally symbolizes a macho figure of command and leadership, one to follow and admire. Only men can be ‘the Man’. There’s no equivalent for women. Being ‘de woman’ mainly refers to sexiness, and ‘woman is boss’ or ‘Iron Lady’ returns us to women trumping men at a standard they once and still set.
Khadijah Ameen’s soundtrack is Alicia Key’s ‘Girl on Fire’. Jack calls her a giggly child, an image easily available in a society where four year old boys are hailed as ‘small man’ and where total strangers can call hardback women ‘baby’ as they walk by. ‘Girl on Fire’ attempts to neutralise Jack’s wielding of the ‘gender card’ to trivialize Khadijah, and re-frames her as young, but unstoppable. Nonetheless, as an experienced adult and mother, note that she’s still positioned as only a girl.
Whenever women talk about their struggles to be seen as more than girls, but to not have to become ‘the Man’ like men, people think they invent the ‘gender card’ from nowhere, using it for unfair advantage, as if ‘a girl’ and ‘the Man’ compete on an equal playing field. Even male politicians I’ve interviewed argue that sexism makes it harder for women in politics, partly explaining why there are so few.
When Jack plies the associations between power and manhood, and attacks Khadijah’s reputation as a woman, no one sees him as playing the ‘gender card’. We think such resonance is inconsequential to elections, but in a world still overwhelmingly defined by male dominance and double-standards, such wars are inescapably battles of the sexes too.
Khadijah’s story parallels Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s experience of the ‘gender card’. On platforms, Kamla narrates how male leadership undermined her, put men before her and called her “a little girl from Siparia”, but she turned stereotypically feminine virtues of patience, loyalty and commitment into swords worthy of any vampire-slayer. Khadijah also has stories of being discouraged from leadership positions in the party, in favour of more powerful men, but she obediently accepted to rise another day.
When Roodal says that voters must protect Kamla with their “life” and “blood” and when Kamla says that mothers, fathers and brothers must defend Khadijah as a “our daughter” and “our sister”, that strategy trades on traditional beliefs about women’s need for protection. Troublingly, it interlocks gender with religion, and the need to protect Sita from Rawan. It interlocks gender with race and culture, and the extended family’s protection of their females from attack, perhaps particularly by African men. Kamla and Khadijah perform an ideal womanhood that is strong, but not so independent that, like Jack and Ramesh, they will ever betray.
The ‘gender card’ is littered all over the campaign trail, showing how our ideas of masculinity and femininity organize meaning and access to status, resources and power. Kamla continually struggles against accusations of weakness and indecisiveness, labels long flung at women whether or not they are true. Yet, she remains popularly celebrated for woman power, caring and motherly leadership, beauty and even “charm”. This has its risks, opening her to censure for firing words sounding “too much like Panday”.
At the polls, women are unlikely to vote for Khadijah because she’s a woman even if that mythical “subordinated Indian woman” no longer votes as her husband tells her to. Women will vote for performance or party. Perhaps, playing the ‘gender card’ requires knowing how those yet undecided must still be skillfully and successfully wooed.