February 2015

Post 181.

Block talk style, my bredren were comparing the extent of punishment they thought should be inflicted on men who share sexually-explicit photos of women which they know were taken with an expectation of privacy.

Those kind of men behave unethically and exploitatively in a world where women face shame and stigma for what earns men fame and stripes, a world where women’s greater gender inequality creates greater sexual vulnerability, and where men can and do wield their ability to harm women in ways they will never feel.

If a woman agrees to take or share sexy, intimate photos or videos, whether in a single, private sexual encounter or over a long-term relationship, that doesn’t mean she consents to public distribution of those images. Men, women and the law should be clear on this right to consent and its violation.

To tell women to never take such photos is unrealistic in our digital image age, it denies women a source of erotic pleasure they may wish to share with their sexual partners, and it worryingly assumes that men, even those in serious partnerships, will inevitably turn out to be untrustworthy, dangerous, and mercilessly insensitive Neanderthals.

This message is no different from telling girls and women not to wear short skirts in case it causes their rape or telling them not to have sex before marriage because men won’t want the cow if the milk is free or telling them that walking unaccompanied on the street is inviting sexual harassment or telling them that they are to blame for men’s domestic battery, because they answered back or stayed in the marriage for too long.

Women are not responsible for men’s decisions to violate, devalue, disrespect or penalize them in any form, including by reneging on an understanding of sexual intimacy and privacy. Here is where both law and our social principles should be on women’s side.

Right now, social hypocrisy rests on the side of male privilege, and what’s come to be called ‘revenge porn’ is overwhelmingly and globally characterized by men’s use of media and technology to humiliate and harm girls and women, who for one reason or another trusted that they would be safe from such violence.

Yes girls should grow up learning to be careful, for it seems as if any man, from uncles to exes, can potentially sexually subordinate them however those men choose. Yet, as we give women this message, what messages do we give men? And where do these messages come from?

Almost a year ago to the day, the Senate agreed that the state should send a message through the Libel and Defamation Amendment Act and the Cyber Security Agency Bill. Both pieces of legislation should make willfully disseminating personal files or photos, which expose private affairs and create public ridicule and damage, punishable by jail time and fines, thus protecting the rights and freedoms of girls and women, who are the main victims.

However, the Act doesn’t cover ‘revenge porn’ anywhere and cybercrime legislation remains only at bill stage. The message? Victims are unprotected. Newspapers can, with casual brutality, publish their names, photos and, possibly, sexual history. Men can argue that one time, short term or casual sexual encounters are a free-for-all with no expectations of ethics, common decency or confidentiality.  We now wait for a mister in the judge’s chair, relying on common rather than criminal law, to determine issues of consent, responsibility and privacy.

This indeterminacy is why my bredren thought a public, cricket bat beating would send the best message of solidarity.  If I were not all about non-violence, I’d agree.

Post 180.

Zi is at the left of the photo, last in the line

Zi is at the left of the photo, last in the line (Photo: Roba Ofili)

Two hours waiting. Two minutes of playing mas. Thus went four year-old Ziya’s first time crossing the big stage.

Practice starts from young, which is clearly how committed masqueraders develop patience with long waits, and know to make the most of their few moments to put their all into display.

In a spectrum of stunning costumes, like inhabitants of a surreal alter-dimension, dozens of children somehow managed the heat, and began such early socialization to a ritual that determines the ultimate success of local music, shapes national conversation about selfhood and freedom, and establishes the most revered secular space in the country.

For us to be visible, to be seen like this, is to exist, writes scholar Gordon Rohlehr. That’s why the crescendo of the stage continues to rule the rhythm of the road on Carnival days.

Zi was there with Noble Douglas’ Lilliput carnival band. She had no idea why they needed to cross the stage and, because her teachers create a small version for her school Carnival show in St. Augustine, she didn’t know ‘the stage’ only truly existed in the savannah.

All she knew was that Aunty Tonya, her dance teacher, would be there and, loyally, she would feel happy doing whatever Aunty Tonya asked her to do. So it goes with children, they make meaning by making their own connections.

Over weeks, on Saturday mornings, Aunty Tonya had her troupe practicing both dance basics and how to chip in a line and wave at the judges. What happened when they actually reached wasn’t decipherable from the edges where parents were corralled, but as I looked for Zi dancing with all the excitement she had anticipated, I instead saw my sapodilla brown Lilliputian in Aunty Tonya’s arms, being carried on her hip.

Trust my child to decide the stage too big, everything too new, too many children surrounding her, music too loud, ‘Vagabond’ not her song or that she not close enough to a safe adult, and securing “lift up” is as much as she could manage.

She came off stage still a little unsure of what happened, but was fully prepared a few hours later, while loudly singing to her favorite tune, Benjai’s ‘Phenomenal’, to confidently declare that she knows all about playing mas, defined by her as putting on a costume and jumping up. So it goes with children, they make their own decisions about what to remember.

Wanting her to understand Carnival as more than jumping and waving, the next day we went to UWI’s Old Yard to see traditional mas. I wanted her to see how the bat shivers and stretches its wings, the fancy sailors puff and rock from side to side, the stick men have a ballet of thrust and parry, the Dame Lorraines bounce their pillows, the Jab Jabs use their bodies to attack and protect, and the blue devils, which like the gorillas had her screaming with terror, crawl like netherworld, cobalt tarantulas with dripping red tongues.

Mas traditions involve specific chants, choreography and costumes, and playing a mas isn’t the same as playing yourself, though both matter. If Zi was going to start crossing the stage, I wanted her to know she was bringing history with her, from one generation to another, in her own imaginative incarnation.

Being experts in crossings is what Caribbean people do. It’s how we learned to exist. We have crossed waters, crossed authorities, crossed junctions and junctures, and crossed everything from spiritualities to pleasures. One day, Zi might appreciate all this. Perhaps, one day as she plays her mas across the big stage.


Active Voice

The University of the West Indies’ repeated claims that it was clueless about the level of gender-based violence (GBV), or any violence on its campus for that matter, because it “cannot admit to a phenomenon that is not supported by data collected by UWI” are damaging the institution. They are an embarrassment because they lead to the inevitable conclusion that there are fundamental problems with UWI’S methods of data collection. Either that or the methods are designed to evade collection of data that would indicate beyond any shadow of a doubt the enormity of the problem.

Because of course the University’s claims that GBV is not a major issue at the university flies in the face of the experience of students who have to live and work on its campus. On February 12 students at Mary Seacole Hall, one of the only female halls of residence at UWI, mounted a…

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Enough is enough


I never had the pleasure of meeting you Özgecan.  I never had the chance to hear you laugh with your friends or sing along to your favorite tune.  No I did not know you at all but I know you now.  Your name will forever be etched into my heart and into the hearts of millions of others here in Turkey and around the world who woke on Valentine’s Day, the day of romance, to the sickening news of your death at the hands of a monster.  We are shocked beyond words hearing of your suffering and of knowing that the simple task of stepping on a bus is no longer safe here in Mersin.


What happened to you happens to other women every day, all over the world.  Whether it is in New Delhi or Melbourne monsters can be found everywhere.  But with your death comes the news that tens of thousands…

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Post 179.

You don’t go there thinking that you will learn about how to live, but so it was last week at the funeral of Marcia Henville. How humbling to sit among her children and best friends, those she helped or who helped her, and some who never met her at all, everyone reflecting on what difference one life could make.

I was moved by invocations of forgiveness, knowing that this choice is not about excusing a wrong, but preventing it from devouring you from inside, particularly when your family is already torn asunder. I heard people say it was too soon, Marcia wasn’t even buried yet, but I couldn’t imagine what else her children could be expected to do.

We all live in families where we have had to learn to forgive hurts large and small. That hasn’t meant forgetting, and it does not displace necessary expectations for accountability, care and justice. But, as you walk with your wounds, you need to travel light. Fear, anger and hate are too heavy burdens when grief, regret and disappointment may be all you can bear.

Forgiveness is never about the other person and his or her lesson, it is only always about your ability to heal. When you forgive, you fit something that happened into your past, freeing your present, knowing there is no other exit from a darkening maze.

I admired that Marcia’s family and community understood this immediately. In my heart, I asked myself if I could be that good, that strong, that insightful about how to survive such a painful path ahead.

I also listened closely to what people remembered. She taught her children to be themselves, and she was their friend. Her friends said that she would go wherever she heard someone cry. She roamed the country helping families. She connected shotters with their desire to live differently, rather than by the gun. She had her own vision for the marginalised.  It felt like not letting such commitment die could be so simple, but her coffin was a reminder that it is not.

We still ask the wrong questions about violence against women. Why ask why women don’t leave? There are many reasons, from commitment to children and abiding love to terror and low self-confidence to lack of support and economic insecurity. While women must be empowered to secure their own safety, our questions should instead be: Why doesn’t every societal message tell boys and men who resort to violence that seeking help is their responsibility? Why don’t more men’s groups take action against men’s violence and for men’s healing? When will powerful men visibly lead transformations of masculinity beyond its associations with power, recognising the point of women’s struggle for peace and equality?

My own male Guardian Media bosses can begin to set examples that may save women’s lives. Stag’s totally sexist, ‘It’s a man’s world. Rule responsibly’, campaign should be the first to fund national anti-violence messaging everywhere that Stag sells, throughout and beyond Carnival. Profiting from dangerous ideals of men’s right to rule, despite statistics showing what that means for women in reality, means on every billboard and bottle you should be the first to market men’s responsibility to stop violence against women.

Reflecting on what difference one life, one effort, one campaign could make, I left Marcia Henville’s funeral with lessons resonating in my head like a conversation between tenor pan and bass. Remembering that love is a practice of forgiveness as much as of justice, I walked away under noon sun, grateful for an example of the kind of person I still could become.

(An interesting note: when this column was published, the Guardian editors removed the reference to the company, Guardian Media. Just reminder that what we read is, ultimately, corporate controlled.)

Post 180.

Now that the government has collapsed and a general election should be called, people will start asking ‘who we go put?’

Elected to power in May 2010, a collaboration of parties and principles was formed to oust Patrick Manning, but nonetheless brought the UNC, COP, MSJ, NJAC and TOP into a hopeful coalition. COP is at odds with itself and the government. TOP and NJAC bring no votes. MSJ has left never to return and the UNC, which cannot by itself constitute the People’s Partnership government, has spent four years destroying its own legitimacy from within.

Those who are left, from Speaker Wade Mark to Minister Howai, have also lost public credibility. Vasant Barath’s unholy alliance with propagandist Ernie Ross, which conjured up such ill-begotten campaigns as the ‘Kublal’ lizard, the belligerent attacks on media for censorship, and the entirely vacuous Petrotrin-funded ‘happiness’ full page ads, seems to have been involved in both setting up Gary Griffith and attempting to hoodwink the population on official letterhead. The UNC’s only political capital is Kamla Persad-Bissessar herself, her strategy of endless direct patronage, and her Faustian deals with financiers who can bling her back into power.

For those willing to assume office for the next few months, the first Cabinet meeting could only be compared to Alice’s entry to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party or newbie skiers leaping recklessly onto a snowballing avalanche or a relay race where the runners enter from anywhere and run in any politically expedient direction. Sorry to mix metaphors, but it is that kind of pretense at coherence going on.

Then, there is the PNM. Amongst other factors, if Patrick Manning somehow makes it through the nomination process, gunning as he is to undermine Rowley, then that too will render the party completely unelectable to anyone who voted precisely to get Manning out in the first place.

So, who we go put? Perhaps, these reflections will stop us from asking this.

Perhaps, taking a break from brilliant mauvai langue memes, radio callers will push discussions on what in our political culture creates such lack of options for leadership. We’ve been having this conversation for the last decades so there is much for a new generation to draw on and this is no time to give up.

What needs to change in our constitution, state institutions and civil bureaucracy? What is the first step in our own national campaign to create more focused questions and answers about responsible government? What constitutes accountability? How is that best ensured? How can Parliament better prevent both corruption and maximum leadership? What policies and democratic practices do we expect from political parties? What must we all change in the way we relate to state resources and power across every community?

Late last year, Winston Dookeran admonished me about the importance of getting involved in politics, which in his view was the only way to change leadership and governance. You civil society activists create a lot of noise and little impact, and mostly gain a feel-good sense of self from complaining outside the walls of authority, he said. I couldn’t see how his getting into Cabinet gave him any more voice, relevance or influence, and had already chosen to invest in civil society because building power by, of and for the people from the ground up is what remains necessary.

We will ask ‘who we go put?’ for another fifty years if we don’t think of what vox populi, vox dei means beyond voting in an election. Our demand a fresh mandate should kickstart our campaign for answers to far more transformational questions.

Conversation about ending violence and changing masculinities in T and T.

Post 178.

Watching her Gayelle family celebrate and remember Marcia Henville, I couldn’t shake disbelief that domestic violence could have caused her death.  The loss of such an irrepressible woman left horror hovering behind the love and courage being shared from Gayelle’s studio to our living rooms.

Feeling what Sunity Maharaj rightly called ‘grief upon outrage’ pressing heavily on my heart, I remembered that providing a sense of connection was always the genius of Gayelle and its hosts. Even at home, you could feel you were there with them, close, personal and on set with their emotions, their aspirations and their community.

But it wasn’t just Gayelle who made television we own, it was Marcia, a woman who seemed to know no boundaries, who walked unarmed where police feared to tread, who asked questions to make a politician cringe, and who made her own television brand one that was unapologetically rooted in pursuit of justice. Anyone who watched the programmes she hosted felt compelled by her passion, and on the streets with her she held your gaze, like a clear eye in an angry storm, as she demanded accountability to truths the whole nation could see.

When I was too tired to wake with Gayelle’s night-long vigil, I tried to sleep, but was unable to resolve how such a fearless woman could still be so unsafe in her own bedroom. It’s a different feeling from the sense of threat when Dana Seetahal was murdered. That was public and political, reinforcing that anyone who threated powerful interests and secrets lacks genuine protection in this country.

Marcia’s death happened at home, emphasizing how many women, less fearless than her, lack genuine safety in the one place it should always be.  So too with nineteen year old Salma Chadee and Shabana Mohammed, both also killed at home, as they either attempted to leave their relationships or after their relationships had ended. So too with Dorothy Rodrigo, 30 years old, shot on January 2nd, in her bathroom.

Homes are amongst the most unsafe places for the vulnerable. Women are most likely to face life-threatening abuse at the point of leaving relationships. It is their partners who present the greatest threat. We all know the smallest forms of violation and the most unconscionable acts of violence are borne by girls and women of all ages, daily.

In one month of 2013 alone, women reported assaults and threats to police in Barataria, San Fernando, Gasparillo, Marabella, Arima, St. James, Tunapuna, Las Lomas, Malabar, Pinto, Princes Town, Barrackpore, Point Fortin, Arouca, Gasparillo, Moruga, St. Madeleine, Cumuto, Freeport, Couva, Carenage, Malony, Mon Repos, Morvant, Siparia, Scarborough, St. James, La Brea, Valencia, La Horquetta, St. Margarets, and more.

Yet, despite all this information, despite understanding that class, race, and other differences don’t provide women with any guarantees, I couldn’t sleep because I realized how much I also fall for the myth that empowered women are more able to escape pervasive experiences of abuse. I had forgotten that a woman’s public life, her education, her job and even her politics, tell you little about the personal and her negotiations with its deeply embedded, often excused inequalities.

If a woman who was her own woman, like Marcia Henville, could fall victim too, then what does this mean for all the work that we, men, women and the state, need to do?

We lost a woman unlike any in the country and media because we haven’t completely confronted an entire culture of male power and domination. We haven’t made being safe at home a reality.  Marcia Henville’s spirit surely demands we pursue such justice. Now, and fearlessly.