April 2014

Post 146.

Last week, the Single Father’s Association of T and T (SFATT) stated that physical punishment should remain a legitimate way to discipline children in homes and schools. SFATT was attempting to ally with a mother who uploaded her physical and verbal abuse of her daughter, in an effort to discipline and protect through public humiliation and violence.

It’s important to avoid individual woman blame, and instead turn attention to inadequate coping strategies in families, inadequate provision of social services and inadequate understandings of how adolescence, sexuality, status and vulnerability are being reshaped by the internet, media and popular culture. It’s also necessary to protect children from violence of all kinds.

To take any other public position ignores that the nation is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It disregards decades of advocacy against corporal punishment by Caribbean women, rather than learning from and visibly allying with this politics and history. It undermines other men’s collective efforts to create greater peace in relationships, schools and communities.

I’m thrilled that men have been slowly joining women in trying to transform sexism, homophobia and violence. The Caribbean suffered almost three decades of setback by the myth of male marginalization, that fiction that gender equality meant too much woman power, and that men are the victims whose rights now deserve our greatest attention. Pervasive though baseless, this backlash framed how many men expressed their anxieties in a world requiring new kinds of bravery, rather than bravado. Disappointingly, such response to feminist challenges to power distanced men from much needed collaboration with women and children’s rights struggles.

On Sunday, sitting in the audience at the Bocas Lit Festival and Two Cents Movement’s Verses Poetry Slam, I thought that maybe we were finally past that myth. Brilliant performances by young men called for more nurturing, less homophobic, more responsible and less violent manhood. These young men were not invested in returning to an assured authority they never knew and were not experiencing women’s equality as anything other than everyday. Why should they? They grew up more freed from sexism and homophobia than any other generation of our boys and men, ever. Just maybe, older men’s resistances to changing gender relations don’t as easily resonate. In fact, those performers were critical of the men of past generations, who they were calling on their peers to do better than, to be more politically progressive than and to be less violent than. SFATT could take a cue from such a critical, generational view.

Men are now organizing themselves, often with financial, organizational and intellectual support from women, to not only address men’s needs but also advance women’s rights. I welcome them. I especially welcome young men, who may avoid instead of inherit the anger and loss of their uncles, fathers and grandfathers, and their  fears and stereotypes of feminism.

We need men on the front line with us, but in public and state committee debates on familial violence we need them to be clear. Representatives of contemporary men’s groups should connect to the global child rights’ movement, understand why whipping is a long-debunked learning and parenting strategy, and caucus with the women’s movement before going on air.

Violence and domination are approaches that entirely fail to teach respect, love, discipline, rights, good judgment and emotional safety to those in our care. I deeply hope that young men speaking out about new expressions of masculinity, children’s needs of their family and the dysfunction of violence in our communities can give us the full solidarities and new scripts that our airwaves most need to share.

Post 145.

You may be surprised to know that the most verbally abusive person in my life is my three year old. Or, perhaps, if you are a parent, you are not surprised.

Aside from disclaiming me as her friend whenever she’s resentful of my authority, Ziya also has suddenly begun to articulate, with American Psycho meets Voldemort darkness, all the ways she can think of maiming me.

‘I will hit you on your head with a tree’, she threatens. ‘I will push you and make you fall down and get hurt’, she promises. ‘I will mash up your face’, she swears, channeling The Godfather. At this point, I began to get concerned.

She was always physically assertive, wrestling me in the nights when she wanted to fall asleep breastfeeding and I was pushing her off, flinging both legs and arms like a Tasmanian Devil in infrequent though full-scale two year old tantrums, lashing out when she was vex at her dad or me and then having to apologize for hitting.

That’s average, if annoying. What’s terrifying is when her little brain starts to use her expanding vocabulary to imagine and detail infliction of harm and pain to assert dominance, exact revenge or register resistance.

Stone and I never throw words at each other. In fourteen years, he’s never insulted or become angry enough to say mean things to me, and vice versa. We don’t put each other down and we don’t put Ziya down. We also censor Ziya’s television consumption, precisely because of its violent content and overall unhealthy transmission of values about gender, race, class, sexuality, nation, capitalism and so on. Between Dora, Dinosaur Train, Martha the talking dog, Curious George, Word World and the Wild Kratts with their focus on animals and ecology, where did Ziya learn to negotiate relationships by being so vocally vicious?

During play, at school.

Since she’s started school, her conversational give and take, her social skills or lack of them, and her handling of conflict and power have had to step up. It’s at home that she re-enacts newly encountered situations and tests newly acquired skills. She hasn’t yet figured out, or maybe she has, that there are certain things you should not say and certain things you only say to your friends at school. It’s hard to tell if she doesn’t understand correct boundaries or is deliberately pushing them. As we all know, three year olds are wily creatures capable of sophisticated plotting when they have a point to make.

I don’t know if it’s like this across the country, but it shows how emotional, verbal or physical violence becomes part of peer culture. They’ve been learning to pelt it out since preschool. Maybe it’s the historical role of domination in founding our society, and the fighting words and relations that it has made unnoticeable and accepted. Maybe it’s that we see playgrounds as idyllic spheres of innocence and joy, so schools and families don’t treat such learning outcomes as serious, and don’t seriously and collectively try to transform our children’s investments in violence. Can parents, principals and psychologists cooperate to make playgrounds places where abusive talk isn’t fine-tuned everyday?

I tell Zi that mean words hurt feelings. We discuss how she feels hurt when threatened in those ways. I tell her not to respond when she’s on the receiving end and to say sorry when it’s her.

It’s a developmental stage, but it’s also a warning sign about the world our children will create. What can we do while they are still our fledglings to change such fate?

Post 144.

Reporting government ministers to the police is something few women do.

There are always risks. Your sexuality is tried in the court of public opinion, and judgment inevitably reflects a sexual double standard that more greatly punishes women. Your respectability is questioned as if only the wrong kind of woman would find herself in that kind of position or the kind of woman who wants to vengefully victimize a man. If you got a car, job or house, and sexual transactions with more powerful men were involved, you have to prove you didn’t cause it or manipulate the situation or can even be believed. Rarely, will you entirely escape blame.

The press gets into your business, your beliefs, your past and your vulnerabilities instead of turning the lens on the wider issue or the legislation or policies that can create change, or the institutions or associations that knowingly enable or turn a blind eye. Don’t mind these things are happening everywhere, the story is reduced to the individual woman, isolating her from other women, the quiet ones, the respectable ones, the grateful ones, the ones who know better than to make front page news.

You can be the wife or the outside woman, rich or poor, a ‘gold digger’ or a flight attendant (or both), a lesbian, a sexually active teenager, a sex worker or a CEPEP worker. Whatever the mix of consent and coercion or power and powerlessness, it’s your right to speak out about exploitation, harassment, discrimination, violence, intimidation or any other treatment you feel you did not deserve, especially from someone more institutionally, politically or economically more powerful than you. It’s your right to go the police for justice. Rather than gossiping, it’s our responsibility to examine the gender and power relations that your broken silence should turn our attention to.

If women, all women, suddenly stopped keeping secrets, stopped fearing the shame we wrongly bear, stopped preferring to hide rather than stand out as the ‘troublemaker’, men’s privilege to repeatedly treat women as they can, as they choose, as women can’t treat them or as they can get away with would not be so free and easy. But, so many of us stay silent, unprotected from the public costs, reduced to protecting the powerful, the predator and the problem.

To this, feminist Audre Lorde says, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood…My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you…What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We can sit in our corners…mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted…and we will still be no less afraid”.

I was sexually harassed one night in a television newsroom. When I told my boss and she asked what I wanted to do, I felt there was nothing to be done. I was new and young. I was temporary, I may have been disbelieved or blamed or further harassed, and there were no laws or policies to protect me. Going public would only have felt like greater vulnerability.

So, to the journalist who asked me, yes, Rondelle Laidlow, Sacha Singh and Patricia Singh are setting powerful examples that young women need. It’s irrelevant whether we like, agree with or approve of them. They, like all women, need speaking out to become less risky.

Post 143.

Once upon a time, awoken from stillness and feeling lonesome, the sea crept up to the sand to tell it some jokes. Bubbling with mirth, it mischievously edged back, predicting sand’s response, and thinking itself really very funny. Maybe sand would laugh. Sand smiled quietly, but kept tranquil and cool.

Knowing sand was hard to impress, sea already had a comeback and waves of fresh lyrics. It tumbled about with irreverent banter, curious, confident and lively. Sand gently pushed sea back, blushing, and murmuring backchat.

‘Hmmm’, sea thought, its attention caught, ‘a challenge’.

Sea rolled in and tousled sand’s tight ringlets of seaweed and grasses. This teasing was sea being playful, sand guessed, wondering if sea acted without thinking or with too much thought or just had its own idiosyncratic ideas about what constitutes sweetness and charm. Sea pulled back and admired sand, its length and perfect fit, and it sighed happily. Sand looked at their arms interweaving, indulgent and amused.

And so days and darkness passed, sea approaching with tales from far-flung coasts, sand dancing at the shoreline. Eons of pursuit, visits and farewells followed, early pleasure creating an inevitable ebb and flow.

In between there were rougher encounters, when sea grumbled or became thunderous, when it was full of confusion or when it wouldn’t listen. Sometimes, sand turned away, saying nothing but holding its ground. Sea would meet a rocky shoulder, not calm and warm embrace. There were periods when sand refused to let sea’s breath fill it under its skin, which sea loved to do again and again, coming close with deep draws of air. Exasperated by this, sea would swear to stay away. It would stare icily at the sand, holding back from reaching for its soft shore. Who needs jokes or touch or breath or teasing, sea would insist, withdrawing with great effort and growing distant without a backward glance.

Watching this melodramatic back and forth, the birds and the fish would roll their eyes, impatiently explaining about fate and the moon, and, moreover, about acceptance and attachment, contentment and connection, and life. A old and socratic starfish, sitting right where both sea and sand could hear, was elected to give them advice.

It asked the sea, ‘can you help but meet the sand?’ Sea could not deny, it was at the mercy of the winds and tides, but also its own restless nature. The starfish asked the sand, ‘can you help but meet the sea?’ Sand wondered at its own motivations. It wanted only to offer the solace of its shore and to let the sea come and go. ‘Can you help but meet?’, the starfish concluded, shrugging and stretching its arms. Without sand’s boundaries, sea could never know itself, and sand would become mere desert bereft of the sea’s longing. Wind blew, full but fleeting. It would be infinite, but unpredictable, they knew.

As the starfish hoped, both sea and sand grew a little wiser from then on. Sea couldn’t imagine not drifting up to sand, sharing stories or kisses or gifts, before leaving sand shaking with laughter. Sand no longer wished to contemplate its reflections without sea’s conversation. On still nights, they would merely touch fingers and tongues, and the whole world would seem to be listening to the wind singing and the trees’ hum, as each wandered off to sleep.

Today, we think that science understands why the sea always returns and why the sand never leaves, but science can only account for gravity, not the powerful pull of difference, desire and delight, without end since the beginning of this story.


Post 142.

On Tuesday, print and television news called me for a ‘gender perspective’. Chandresh Sharma story, Sat Maharaj statements, how is this hitting the government, violence against women as an issue.
I declined to comment on Sharma’s mess. I didn’t know all the facts. Men having multiple women is well accepted. It’s practically a male rite of public life. However, if our political parties and country had sexual harassment policies, regardless of how the situation began or ended, it would have been less likely. Men would face more rules regarding mixing sex with politics and leadership.
That’s why if I was Prime Minister, one election promise would be a National Sexual Harassment Policy, particularly to protect young women from men who have more institutional, ideological, economic, political and physical power. We have to challenge older, predatory males’ sexual license in our culture.
Glen Ramadharsingh was out of control and out of order, but I don’t think he planned to sexually assault. Still, a woman felt disrespected and threatened enough to file a complaint. Rightly so, she had to protect herself and her job from a more powerful male.
Beyond the violation of marriage, Sat Maharaj should have sided against any violence against women, domestic or not. I declined to comment because I think his sexist opinions get too much media attention.
I recommended both reporters talk to the Hindu Women’s Organisation. For years, they have been attempting anti-domestic violence work through their temples. Their campaign didn’t resoundingly spread because of pundits’ resistance. The organisation’s strategy may have prevented these kinds of incidents from happening by already shifting the social environment for Indian men’s relations with women. Press can help them.
It’s all hitting Campaign 2015 hard. The PM must be damned vex. Whatever your criticisms of her, she’s not worse than any of those men. She has risen among them, and now they are cutting her down, left, right and centre. Just handling them and their egos, entrenched public sector corruption, and gender and sexual inequality is more than anyone else in our history has ever done. As Sunity Maharaj also says, our systems need transformation or all individual leaders will inevitably fail. Whatever the PM’s shortcomings, I think she’s more competent than people say. Nonetheless, expect mistakes.
At any rate, individual politicians are not news. Dead fish by the thousands is our front page. When they start to die, how long do you think before we start too? Fish resources and ocean health are amongst our best economic resources for the future, and the poorest among us need to most rise up in defense of their descendants. It is the wealthiest who can pause their charity to influence protective legislation.
The struggle of the Highway Re-route Movement is also more important. I was surprised at a newspaper editorial chastising them for being a nuisance. That’s the point. Development is about democracy and transparent decision-making, not just big buildings. The HRM is rightly resisting that unaccountable vision. And without justice, why should there be peace?
On reflection, my one comment should have been support for Sacha Singh whose private photos became revenge-porn on the internet. There’s nothing wrong with sending sexy photos to your man. Women shouldn’t be punished for that. What’s shameful is publicizing them. It’s dutty and a form of mass-mediated sexual violence. On this count, Sacha has my absolute solidarity.
My failures to comment are often misrepresented as feminist silence about ‘Kamla’, a shallow cliché, but it was midnight when I finished work and finalized my thoughts, too late, though now I knew what I’d say.