October 2015


Post 211.

This week’s lesson was to remember to look after myself.

I was a speaker at  ‘Empower’, an event hosted last Sunday by a company called The Sisterhood. Before my turn, Thokozile James, one of the organizers, unexpectedly called up a woman to the microphone. Recently widowed and a mother of three children, she had been diagnosed with cancer just three weeks earlier. Watching her, my heart sent a shiver right down my arms to the backs of my fingertips. Unobtrusively, I clenched and unclenched my hands in the face of that killer word, cancer, and its creeping intimacy with so many of our lives.

‘I used to be the last in the office’, she said to us.’ I missed doctor’s appointments because I was busy with work, a degree and children. I put my health last’. Listening to her, I felt my whole rib cage open as if someone was reaching in to grab my heart. I was filled with recognition. ‘Finally’, she said, ‘before I left the office late one evening, I got myself the first appointment with a cancer testing caravan. I was first in line that morning and I am telling you now that I will survive’.

I looked at this courageous, articulate professional woman, committed to her job for more than a decade, but ultimately recognizing that only life matters, and wondered what it would take for her lesson to matter to me.

Over forty now, I too work far too much, exercise too little, and keep going even when I should stop. For some reason, whether it’s from Ziya’s age or starting primary school or my own exhaustion, or both, I’ve had the flu four or five times this year, maybe more, I’ve forgotten, not for more than a few days, and low grade rather than debilitating. Through all those times, I’ve taken cold tablets and keep working, driving coughing or feverish through traffic to get to meetings it seemed crucial to attend, and managing deadlines and teaching responsibilities, despite feeling run down and run over.

Though having long proven myself to be a super-committed professional, taking more than one day to recover, knowing that it might not fit with an office plan, felt like a betrayal of my reputation and the job, as if I was risking being seen as undeserving, irresponsible or unreliable, one of those people bosses warn about not meeting expectations. Amidst this vicious circle of overwork and insufficient recovery, I wondered, is there a point at which women, like the one now speaking to us, who get awards for their loyalty and dedication, can stop proving themselves? Is there at point at which putting your health first becomes something other a negotiation with potential reproach?

Just hours later, I woke up at 3am with a sharply sore throat. Armed with cold tablets, I went to work on Monday. By evening, I knew I couldn’t make it again the next day, on a schedule that meant getting up at 5.30am to get Ziya to school and getting home later than 7.30pm after a meeting. I was about to travel to a conference and back, putting in almost 40 hours of travel time in just four days this week, and I knew I would reach back to work on Monday like a dead woman walking.

It was this woman’s reality that made me stop. If I didn’t listen now, when would I learn? If I didn’t get better, wouldn’t it keep getting worse? And, how would not fully recovering undermine my very professionalism with such low grade, continual effects on my ideas, energy, productivity and efficiency? Who would be blamable in the end, but me?

My own speech that afternoon emphasized that, as women, we all have funny, awkward, dark, sad, passionate, inspiring, life-long learning stories, of making mistakes, failing at getting everything right, falling down before we get up and dust off, feeling guilty, surviving emotional or other damage, and more. However, the story that shook me between my ribs was this woman’s. I learned what I hope I remember, defend and know is right. When women, especially mothering workers, must put ourselves first, no demands matter above our health and life.

Post 210.

Those very struggles established in slavery and indentureship have not yet been won for all Caribbean women. Sisterhood and empowerment are a commitment to their individual and collective achievement, and that commitment is the fire and hope of Caribbean feminism.

Let us take the words offered by this movement while also embracing Caribbean feminism’s radical history and intent, its lessons and wisdom, its analyses and aims. Let us love ourselves and each other, building community in ways that claim our place in continuing its legacy. When it comes to hundreds of years of our region’s women desiring and labouring for change, let us feel no fear or shame.

The feminist movement still keeps this controversial label because this is the only movement in all of modern time that has unapologetically placed  women’s real issues first, not because addressing them helps to improve the economy, the family or the nation, but to make the world right for women.

Advocating for maternity leave, domestic violence, anti-discrimination or sexual assault legislation. Challenging sexism in school curricula. Recognising housework’s economic value. Creating global agreement that women and girls can achieve any aspiration. Insisting that femininity isn’t about lack or weakness, but about women’s own definitions and embodiment of power.

Feminism in the Caribbean wasn’t imported, it emerged from the conditions of our lives and our dreams for equality and rights. It was never built on hatred or discrimination, but on the long struggle for true emancipation. It never aimed to make women superior to men, rather it aims to enable women to live on terms not defined by male superiority. It challenges racism as it is knotted with sexism, distorting women’s and men’s experiences of their bodies. It seeks a world in which all women can be who they are, and be valued simply because they are, regardless of their sexual choices.

Caribbean feminism gives us words to describe realities and resistances that are only ours, to describe a movement led by everyday women for every woman, without apology. Let’s not forget those foremothers as we also enjoy the rewards of looking good, having disposable income, networking within rather than across class, and improving our individual capacities to earn more money. Let us not forget the implications of a Beyonce brand of sexy feminism in heels and on fleek in bright lights and big stage, for women who refuse sexiness, but still wish to be seen as beautiful.

Reproductive rights, safety from sexual violence and exploitation, equal pay for equal work, fair sharing of family responsibilities, a right to independence and decision-making, and a sense of self free of racist ideals regarding our beauty are the roots of Caribbean feminism today. If you are a woman who believes any of these are important, then you believe in feminist ideals which centuries of struggle have made more legitimate and worth fighting for. Disown stereotypes and misrecognition, and fearlessly tell them that this is what a Caribbean feminist looks like. And, then, however it feels right, rock this politics’ insights and inspiration in your unique contribution.

Sisterhood. Empowerment. Financial independence. A supportive community of women. Sexual freedom. Fearlessness. Equality. Choice. Self-acceptance, self-determination and self-care. As we invest in these in our lives, let’s also connect to and celebrate the Caribbean women whose feminism gave us these words to make ours and to confidently share.

Diary of a mothering worker.

Post 209.

At last week Wednesday’s forum, ‘Reflecting on Gender and Politics in the 2015 Election Campaign’, young people filled the room, many of them lesbian and gay, who I hope felt that the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI created a safe space for public deliberation, for once not defined by their marginality.

The event was inspired by ‘the marginals’ in national talk about the election. How could we instead think about politics beyond polls and ‘the numbers’, to see multiple kinds of ‘margins’ in our landscape, especially in the deeply connected experiences of women and the LBGTI community? How could we encourage public reflection that no other site in the country would, precisely because feminist academia is founded on solidarity with these groups’ continuing struggles for equal citizenship? How could we build on civil society efforts to bring us together across political party divides?

There was the history of the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women to build on. Twenty years of producing a Women’s Manifesto and trying to get campaigning parties to commit to its goals. Twenty years of funding women candidates in the hopes that they would see the women who helped to get them into power as an important constituency. More years of encouraging a women’s cross-party caucus, where women politicians could gather as allies, rather than adversaries.

There was also the history of organisations like Caiso, Friends for Life, Women’s Caucus, Silver Lining Foundation and I am One to support. More than a decade of advocacy to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2010, Caiso produced a manifesto, ‘6 in 6’, which outlined six policy and leadership steps they hoped that the new government would take in its first half year in office. Five years later, with those all unfulfilled, whether in terms of police treatment of LGBTI crime victims, the creation of safe schools or the community’s greater vulnerability to homelessness, they were still challenging their marginality. Now as part of a new network of groups called Allies for Justice and Diversity, a rights-we-deserve-not-what-rights-we-are-allowed manifesto was again created in 2015.

In a country where ‘the marginals’ decide the victor, it made sense for a post-election forum to bring together marginal groups to document their overlapping analyses and strategies, as they both contested how ideals of masculinity and femininity shape the lived realities of political life. Sexism cannot be ended without also ending homophobia, and advancing emancipation requires us to fearlessly document, understand and defy an unjust status quo. Where else then, would we discuss the homophobic bullying and stereotyping experienced by gay male candidates, from the population, their own political parties, and our headline-hungry media? Where else would we share how campaigning is experienced by women as they negotiate the significance of their family roles, femininity, and sexual respectability for their acceptability as representatives and leaders? Where else would the nation’s first transgender electoral candidate affirm her right to all the rights of citizenship, including public office?

As an act of university solidarity, and to strengthen the alliance between women’s and LGBTI rights advocates, Nafeesa Mohammed, Khadijah Ameen, Sabrina Mowlah-Baksh, Luke Sinnette, Colin Robinson and Jowelle de Souza were all on one panel. Watching representatives of the PNM and UNC sit with these citizens, knowing their parties had unjustly abandoned them in their National Gender Policy drafts and in the Equal Opportunity Act, I hoped that the young people there could see that legitimacy and space is created incrementally, relentlessly, despite setbacks and disappointments. There was more than fifty years of activist history of holding the baton in that room, from Hazel Brown in her 70s to Afro-Trinidadian, lesbian, working class young women in their 20s. A generation coming after me should know that a path continues to be cut for them to run.

On election night, Dr. Keith Rowley, said that he is the Prime Minister of all of us, and “that we are all in this together”. We lead him by our example. Those young people came because they aspire for an equal place. Acknowledgment of that is what ‘all in this together’ means for politics in our nation.

Post 208.

As Ziya rolled in sandy ebb and flow at Maracas’ shoreline, a handful of friendly girls suddenly encircled us with a swirl of brown arms and legs. They drew Zi in, reaching for her hand, and asking her to go jump deeper into the waves.  A few brought Styrofoam cups to scoop up water and sand, throw in the air, and catch as they swept by amidst incoming foam. ‘Make sure not to leave the cups in the ocean’, I gently cautioned, ‘they will pollute the sea. ‘Auntie, what does pollute mean?’ one of them asked. She was eight years old, and the biggest of their brood.

How could children going to primary school not have encountered the idea of pollution? What are they being taught is the meaning of taking our very national identity as a twin-island republic from the blue, Caribbean sea? In an era when recycling, environmental conservation and climate change are words appearing weekly in newspapers, as politicians, parents, teachers, religious leaders, community activists, lawyers, doctors, engineers and artists, we are failing to give to children that crucial consciousness they already need.

While those girls were diving and floating, there wasn’t time to explain anything more than that to pollute is to poison. As I watched them then run onto the beach, they tossed away torn up pieces of those Styrofoam cups into the wind. A friend of mine picked up all the pieces and we threw them away in a garbage bin rather than see them get caught up and carried further from the shore.

Yet, stepping over chicken bones, bottle caps, crushed cigarettes, miscellaneous pieces of plastic, bits of paper food containers that once contained shark and bake, and more, on what is a disgusting mix of detritus and Maracas sand, Ziya’s enjoyment of our blessed ocean was shot through with real life lesson about how pervasive garbage is and what kind of failures exist in our national waste management policies. How can we teach children to love a country that we poison simultaneously?

Ziya is four, but because we discuss the environment often, she constantly brings up the fact that everything from her toothpaste to shampoo ends up in the ocean. It makes me ashamed, but I haven’t yet taken action to reduce these aspects of my own footprint. Nonetheless, her transparent observation calls me to account for myself, to acknowledge what harm I too am leaving her generation to inherit, to identify our unsustainable habits as the enemy of our children’s future.

We are the first generation of adults in all of human history to deny oncoming others what was handed down over millennia: clean air, earth and water.

We are poisoning the oceans, and already seeing the effects on marine life. Our seas are being filled with our garbage of all kinds, industrial and domestic, untreated and toxic. Reflecting our selfishness and shortsightedness, such garbage shows up at our feet on every coastline and river that was, less than two decades ago, garbage-free.

These are island children surrounded by ocean. Children who deserve to learn about how irresponsibility created ecological crisis as much as they are told about politeness. Children who must become consciousness of their standpoint in relation to the planet, for protecting it cannot be anything other than their first priority.

Who in the Ministry of Planning understands that the environment is an infinite economy? Who in the Ministry of Education sees schooling as beholden to teaching children the definitive global politics of their generation? Children will pay for our delay. None should still be wondering what pollution means.