September 2013

Post 118.

It’s hard to say it more plainly. Mothers have a right to breastfeed wherever they want.

There is no reason under the sun why babies cannot be breastfed in parliament, at workplaces, on Fredrick Street, at cricket matches, at church or temple, in malls, on Harris Promenade, at Maracas, on the Avenue and in NAPA.

There is no reason under the sun why these places should be defined on male terms, suited solely or mainly to male bodies and responsibilities.

Equality means making all spaces also defined on female terms, suited to female bodies, and to women’s multiple responsibilities as workers, mothers, citizens, community members and participants in culture.

Equity means not making women choose between work and family or watching a performance and quietly breastfeeding her baby. It means enabling her to speak in parliament while she is breastfeeding, if that is what she chooses, because when she’s at home no one stops her from speaking while breastfeeding. Women’s brains and their bodies can perform different roles at the same time, in public and in private. Mothers rock out like that without a fuss every day.

And, there is no difference between the home and the House of Parliament. If the family really is the basis for the nation, then the House, the state and the nation need to be more family friendly or stop and check their own hypocrisy.  

Breasts were not put on the planet for men’s pleasure, though they are just as sexual as ears, necks and knees. Women evolved breasts to feed babies, babies who go on to be productive workers in our current capitalist system, who grow into the citizens that define our nation, whose right to good health is a public responsibility.

Once you get over the tiefhead that the meaning of women’s bodies should be defined by men’s desire for them, and that it is men who therefore set the rules for women, then it’s obvious that breasts are as carnal, offensive or vulgar as elbows. They are a natural part of how women reproduce and nurture life. We have to trust and empower women to use their best judgment about where and what is right for them and their babies.

Feminist advocacy has long campaigned for spaces like breastfeeding/breast-milk pumping rooms in malls and workplaces so that women have somewhere quiet and discreet to go if they choose. The key point here is that they must choose.

Banishing women to seclusion despite their own choice isn’t progressive policy. It’s a denial of choice and an act of domination. It feels like an experience of violence. I’ve competently breastfed while giving workshops, while shopping in a store in the mall and at public functions. If anyone had ever stood up over me and forced me into isolation supposedly for my own comfort, I would have felt like they were putting a shame on me that I did not feel, and punishing me for being a mother and for inconveniently having a woman’s body.  

The mothers, grandmothers, women, fathers and men, who are clear that babies have a right to feed wherever they are, know that the shame is now on NAPA for being ignorant  and demeaning.  

Ineffectual murmuring in the hallways of the ministries of health and gender has not stopped NAPA from defending the indefensible, which is particularly insulting given that there is absolutely no written policy justifying administrators’ responses thus far.   

There is no reason under the sun for NAPA and the Ministry of Culture’s failure to publicly apologize and to immediately affirm a commitment to a non-sexist, taxpayer-funded facility. 

Post 117.

A woman’s experience of domestic violence is best not dealt with through the press. It might sell papers and make a good story for a reporters’ by-line, but it doesn’t help any woman to be further battered by headlines.

If you are a woman experiencing violence, you should have the support of family, friends, your communities and the state in order to escape it in a way that doesn’t leave you feeling more vulnerable, ashamed, fearful, exposed or blamed.

Family violence is not private, in the sense that it takes place in an overall society that wrongly continues to accept male domination, in the sense that women’s greater inequality is not an individual issue but an economic, political, religious and legal one, in the sense that violence against women constitutes a crime, a human right violation and a contravention of international conventions which the government of Trinidad and Tobago has responsibility for responding to, in the sense that we are all our neighbours’ keepers.

However, family violence is personal, in the sense that broadcasting a woman’s experience only takes control of her own story away from her, in the sense that it creates intrigue and gossip rather than the kinds of collective support and open dialogue which it is her right to choose, in the sense that it is now the media, the lawyers, the radio callers and everybody else who is speaking, creating fewer confidential spaces for a woman turn to.

I suppose being in national life puts you in the public eye, but a society or a newspaper that decides that what happens to a woman’s body is their right to publicize is not much different from the man who says her body and her life are his to decide what to do with. Forget rights, let’s just go with what seems right. Is a woman being beaten a journalistic opportunity or a moment for sensitive intervention in ways that protect and empower, and can press drama about domestic violence create that kind of sensitivity?

When people are visibly engaged with the state and society, it doesn’t resolve that tension between respecting the sanctity of a woman’s privacy and understanding that family violence is not simply private man-woman business. Because the careless chatter spreads further and faster, it should make us stop and ask about our purpose and our responsibility in breaking silences regarding a woman’s story.  

We have to talk about family violence, and especially women’s experiences of violence. We have to speak about the fact that it is experienced by women of all classes, all religions, all ages and all ethnicities. Yet, it also seems that we have to talk about how we talk about it, when and why we make it news, and what it means for those women who may be speaking out, but who also have to face being talked about, potentially for the rest of their lives. Even these women will want to protect their families and children from the violence of public scrutiny.

I had to really sit and breathe this week because every time I hear of violence against women, I get sad and I get angry. I also had to take a moment before writing this because I would not have wanted any media conversation to be about me.  True or not, would you want the news to be about you? Even if I was experiencing violence, even if some feel that others should know, I’d end up feeling violated and even more alone.  Surely this isn’t how we enable women to feel safer in our own homes.

Post 116.

Teaching started at UWI this week.

Students come to class with heartbreaking experiences of everyday violence, neglect, anxiety, pain and disappointment. Adult and young women come having left abusive relationships or still living in them. Both young men and young women sit in front of me having survived child sexual abuse and still in situations where they live with it every day. People come as single parents, having risked illegal abortions, as gays and lesbians fearful of homophobia, and from families with too many harsh words and too little listening or love. A few come without any home. Some are young and sheltered and ready for the world, many walk in with their wounds, fragile but steady.

As I stand looking at them on the first day of class, sometimes I want to abandon the course outline, the grades and the pressure because as we systematically explore power, domination, inequality and silencing, I know it gets too much for some. When I listen to their stories, the pores on my arms raise. Not because of the trauma they carry, but because it hits me how much wise and strong they are, beyond anything I can teach, and I’m humbled by how much I need to make theory useful for further healing their reality.

Once, one wonderful woman in her twenties came to find me. She had been left at an orphanage by her mother and had been raised by an adopted grandmother who recently died.  After that, other family members began to deal drugs from the house, which is not uncommon in Trinidad and Tobago. She moved by an uncle who tried to molest her, saying sometimes there were things she would have to do. She had just experienced her second miscarriage, and been abandoned by the baby’s father. He had been concerned not only about her as a burden, but as a stain to his reputation because they had conceived out of marriage. Now he wanted her to hide her truths. She was staying with friends and had to move. Still managing post-partum depression, she dreamt her lost baby crying on mornings, experienced black-outs and was trying to find her feet on her own.  She was in crisis despite looking young, polished and professional, and starting a new term of school.

When these are your students, what do you do?

As I stand looking at them on the first day of class, sometimes all I want is to push them to get the grades, pressure them to do the work, give them something to focus on and at which to succeed. In giving all to their education, there is a way they learn focus, discipline, acceptance and self-love. They learn to discard some of what has locked down their spirit. They learn that, although it is not easy, change is always possible, for each person differently.

I expect students to earn their degree and I’m prepared to give my all to them. I help them to learn to read critically, write analytically and understand how knowledge can change the world. More specifically, my job is to help them learn to apply and reflect on feminist theory and the lens it provides to their own and others’ lives. I’m focused on course content and assignments and I expect my students to be too. Yet, over the years, I’ve repeatedly discovered that that can just be too much.

It’s like this in schools everywhere in the nation.  I teach the curriculum, but hope that each year my students also gain the power they need for both liberation and transformation.