November 2015


Post 215.

Last week, Vernon Ramesar of iETv interviewed me about hostility to feminism.

I first explained that part of the problem is that North American stereotypes are often imposed on our home-grown, centuries-old social movements. Instead, we should see feminist struggles as grounded the ways that big systems of slavery and indentureship provided the foundation for issues of sexual violence, unequal wages, or the ideal of male breadwinners and female housewives, which Caribbean women continue to negotiate today.

Not watching much further past this point in the interview, one guy wrote in response: “Gosh. I dislike when women highlight how much of a victim they are. ‘Look at me. I’m a victim since slavery. Treat me special and give me everything!’”

I was intrigued by this mangling of the message, and its hostility. Feminists don’t ask for special treatment, just what is fair. We don’t want everything, only what is just. So what is going on? Is explaining that persistent inequities still exist, and that justice inspires us to challenge them, the same as claiming victimhood?

No. Does analysis of beliefs and values about manhood and power, in religion, family, law, media and the economy, automatically mean that women are being cast as completely powerless? Here, too, the answer is no. So, what else is going on? Accusing women of claiming to be victims, when that is not what they are doing, is an act of silencing them from articulating the conditions of their oppression, which are real.

Feminism gets the biggest backlash here. That’s because, for us, it isn’t that everyone is always individually responsible for their place in power. Unequal relations aren’t just about women’s attitude. There is agency, meaning capacity to make decisions, but there are also ways that women’s opportunities and choices are delimited by, for example, the unsafe conditions for securing termination of pregnancies, the low numbers of sexual assault cases successfully prosecuted, or the greater risks women face at the point of leaving abusive relationships.

Yet, what feminism is navigating is a historical moment dominated by the tyranny of agency and denial of the big political-economic systems that still penetrate women’s lives. We hear it all the time. “Women have the vote, they have rights, what more do they want? If women didn’t dress this way or go there or say what they did, that wouldn’t have happened. You all want equality, but want special treatment, like men to hold open doors, make up your mind. Feminism is passé, women have to stop hearing there are obstacles to them achieving. Now the playing field is unbalanced because women and feminists have biased society and state against men.”

In other words, the hand that rocks the cradle is both ruling and ruining the world, and men are suffering at women’s hands, from violence, from economic exploitation and from women’s domination of family arrangements. Sound like more twisted mangling of feminist arguments about women’s subordination?

There is an ironic slip of hand here: the stereotyping of feminism in ways that force closure of victimhood to women and, simultaneously, its frequent and increasing opening to men as the new, legitimate victims.

The result is a denial of patriarchal power, combined with appropriation of feminist concepts to articulate a backlash. It’s like billionaires in the US claiming that there is a class war against the rich, using the very concept “class” that was created to name economic inequality.

Some women, even those concerned about women’s rights, may also misread feminism as claiming victimhood. The distaste and fear of being similarly labelled means that they too wield a stereotype they wish to avoid. They want to see women as powerful, networked, capable, tenacious, strategic and inspired. But, focusing on women’s personal power won’t simply erase when and why their power is devalued, denied or taken away.

Feminism has always been about women’s consciousness, aspirations, communities and capacities, and how these have been resisted by racism, classism and patriarchy.

It has long been about transforming masculinity from both benefiting from and being hurt by these systems. It has always been about facing victimisation with vision. Today, these remain valid, reasonable intentions for the Caribbean despite distortion and opposition.

• The interview can be viewed at grrlscene.wordpress.com.

Advertisements

Two interviews from November 2015 with Vernon Ramesar of iETv on women, men and Caribbean feminism….hoping to continue a conversation about what we should discuss more, eg indigenous women’s issues, particularly in places like Belize, Dominica and Guyana, what young women see as the issues important to them and their generation, continued forms of backlash and solidarity by men, the influence of neo-liberal capitalism on social movements today, social media and cyberfeminism in the Caribbean, and the extent to which celebrities, fashion and fun are both narrowing and expanding the meanings of what a feminist looks like…..the place for transgender persons in women’s movements, and more and more and more.

A revolution is a way of life. There is no pure place for resistance. Let’s grow with joy. Bless…

Part 1…

Part 2….

Indo C Fist Thought T shirt image

Artwork by Danielle Boodoo-Fortune. Layout by Kathryn Chan.

Post 214.

Once, I was among the youth voices in Caribbean feminist inter-generational conversations. Now, I’m bringing together young graduate students and activists with an older generation. Those I’ve been reading and learning from for two decades, and who I want to continue to thread, like matrilineal lines, through emerging thinking and politics.

That’s not as easy as it sounds, for intergenerational gatherings are cross-stitched by multiple tensions.

For one, older feminists need to trust that a younger generation has read what they have written or heard their words, and understand the commitments, especially across race, sexuality and class, which they have woven into their legacy. Like many mothers, they may need to reflectively work through which times to grow a new generation and which times to step back and listen. Also, how to advise in ways that don’t make daughters feel judged, disciplined or dictated to, and when to let go, recognizing that things may not look to those of a younger age and era as elders’ eyes see.

I thought about this while observing an absolutely historic first gathering, of three generations of Indo-Caribbean feminist scholars, almost immediately dissemble into a past generation’s disagreements. I suppose it was good for graduate students to see that those whose writings have defined their own seams of thought are also just people; fallible, passionate, likable, disagreeable, anxious, generous and, even, unkind. Path-breaking women who don’t necessarily share analyses, and who trace different and competing hurts, ambitions and lives to their stories.

That was when I also realized that time had shifted, and that there was value in nurturing a collective confidence that didn’t need matriarchal approval for newer interpretations and choices. We had the wisdom of their works, yet our own path to forge. We could and had come of age.

Such moments of renegotiation and redefinition occur in all social movements, but there isn’t much documented about generational leadership change in Caribbean history, whether in unions, NGOs, political parties or even mas-making families. Yet, generation was key to the Black Power challenge to an older order just as much as cyber-feminism is creating new forms of solidarity-building which some second wave feminists still don’t take seriously.

It’s important for the young to learn how ideas were formed, strategies conceptualized and past struggles waged. Our responsibility is to know our histories by asking those who came before. Their task is to give space to how a new generation gives those histories meaning, acknowledging that they might not have the last word, for the young may have stopped listening or, once the sync has gone, already moved on. Then, it only alienates them to emphasize how much they are failing or how much is being lost, those perspectives also likely failing to accurately assess the times they are navigating.

In the face of early rebuke and skepticism from some who established the intellectual tradition we were exploring, I instead saw the value of more careful consideration of those forty years younger. What were they offering to us about what it means to be Indian or Dougla, to become an immigrant, confront historical violence, imagine same sex desire, read books that connect the Caribbean to Mauritius or poetry to politics, manifest goddess possession, be a man or challenge men, and explore how education expands one’s identities and responsibilities to the region?

Caribbean societies are so hierarchical that there’s small chance of a younger generation, particularly of young women, really saying what they think and feel to those they respect and feel they owe loyalty. Yet, amongst themselves, they know when what was said made them uncomfortable and when they disagree. Distrust that they will be reprimanded rather than heard means they choose silence instead of dialogue, fear instead of engagement, and disappointment rather than connection.

How does that impact possibilities for true inter-generational collaboration? How, then, should those with older power wield their authority? What do the young learn about asserting themselves? For, sometimes we have to challenge even Indian elders, even feminist foremothers, lovingly and publicly. Social movements don’t just live on, but are continuously made. It’s important to record how we do this, and the gifts and risks sewn in at every stage.

For a reflection on the Symposium ‘Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought: Beyond Gender Negotiations’, organised by Gabrielle Hosein, Lisa Outar and the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, St. Augustine, see Krystal Nandini Ghisyawan’s review in the Stabroek News.

Post 213.

Is your child’s homework sparking greater creativity? Is it igniting her imagination? Is it encouraging her to ask and follow her own questions about the world? Is it teaching fearlessness as well as compassion and cooperativeness? Will it make her more passionate about learning? Is her homework fun?

I reflected on these questions while on a boat to Nelson Island this Saturday, thinking about how much learning should happen outside of classrooms, promising myself to create my own curriculum of subjects like math, geography, history, science and languages by roaming as much of the country as I can with Zi.

For example, she learned about her indentured Indian ancestors’ confinement on the island, Butler’s six year incarceration, the words “workers’ rights” and “capitalism”, and saw the prison cells where the grandfather of a boy she knows was held in the 1970s. She counted islands and observed ocean garbage. I know many parents who value just this approach, involving their children in cooking, growing food, stargazing, and know-your-country-trips to highlight the relevance of knowledge and skills to their lives.

I know fewer parents as opposed as I am to early induction into stress-producing test preparation, free-time-eliminating extra lessons, and strictness as the key to academic success. I also don’t believe that children, especially five year olds, should get homework. Nor do I think children’s other activities should be determined by how much homework they have.

With test culture and standardization, teachers are doing their best, and schools can’t do or be everything. I’m not against revision, but feel that homework should either include or leave evenings and weekends free for other possibilities for dreaming, making-believe, and making unique and unexpected meanings. Mostly it does neither, and is more likely to be associated with boredom and drudgery than inspire delight and curiosity.

I have my own philosophy about the purpose of education, and my own take on schooling’s approach to learning as well as its weight on how learning is experienced in and out of school. I’m open to the benefits of school, and the genuine love and efforts of teachers, but after the bell rings, other ways and kinds of learning should be given fair chance. When can that happen when children spend so much time on homework so many evenings each week, even on weekends? Is more time spent sitting still, being stressed by pressuring parents, and being taught to complete work to avoid trouble the best lessons we can provide?

Other activities, like music or gymnastics, where the body moves as part of learning, even if it’s just hands beating pan or fingers tapping piano keys, are necessary for growing minds to map themselves and for different learning styles to find their space in ways that P.E. classes cannot substitute. After-school play helps children’s brains to develop capacities and connections which schools may be able to give neither time nor priority. Self-directed time is crucial for cognitive and emotional development, which are inseparable. For me, adventure, beyond habitual routes and routines, is key for continually opening those boxes that my university students eventually think from within, without even noticing their passivity to the status quo.

Imagine asking children to do whatever makes them super-excited about the subject for homework. What would they choose? And, if we tried that, what might we discover about how children wish to learn and actually do? Perhaps then, there might be less quarreling about not staying focused or taking responsibility, not wanting to do well or taking an interest in school work, and not trying hard enough at an almost everyday activity which, let’s be real, isn’t meant to be interesting or likable. We would instead ask ourselves about our own responsibility, as adults, for reproducing a national system where a good portion of students opt out of learning or forget it’s something that they were hard-wired to pursue and enjoy.

Wise parents warn me about homework burdens in years just ahead, the pleasures it infrequently offers, and its narrowing rather than expanding of independent reasoning. I’m not sure how I’m going to negotiate it then, but there’s a good chance I’ll decide while Zi and I are somewhere on land or sea, dreevaying.

Post 212.

Picture Paul-Keen’s Douglas’ script for “Party Nice”, with him insisting “is only a little ting we having”.

Ziya turns five next week. A birthday party is expected. If not by her then by my mother, who takes the memorability of the party personally, like Ziya’s public advocate on all things grandchildren rightfully deserve. For her part, Zi buffed me up for buying her dinosaur-themed party paraphernalia, asking me if I think her friends would want to go back home when they realize there were no princesses or little ponies. Who tell me buy dat?

I’ve spent the last two years emphasizing the coolness of dinosaurs, science and outer space, bought books with awesome paleontology facts, watched endless episodes of “Dinosaur Train’, drove to school on a morning letting her label every person we saw as a different kind of dinosaur. She has been genuinely into it. Not for her party. Here gender socialization, keeping up with friends, worry about fitting in and others’ approval prevail.

This seems inconsequential, but it highlights how narrow the options for girls remain, in their own peer circles and among parents, despite decades of women pushing the frontiers of femininity. This seems obvious from separate distribution of pink and camouflage-printed goods in toy store aisles. A few months ago, it had me poised between sets of Lego, in the ‘boys’ aisle defined by Jurassic Park and Minecraft, and, in the girls’ aisle, defined by limousines, make-up dressers complete with mirrors and lipstick, multiple kinds of hair styles, and leisure settings, like liming in a yacht. Eventually, I bought a submarine, with no girl figures in it, but satisfyingly complex, and neither about violence nor beauty.

It’s like Caribbean women’s rights is in a gendered war with Disney Corporation, and with Disney mass marketing across both media and merchandising, my messages of imagining a girl’s self beyond the most stereotypical are of little worth. If I had more time, I’d publish my own character, called Empress Sapodilla Sugarplum, whose series of stories I’ve already written in my head, and who imagines herself in backyard adventures as Jamaican warrior leader Nanny of the Maroons as much as she dresses up as Camille Alleyne, Trinidad and Tobago’s own awesome astronaut, up and away in a box with the sounds of a rocket launch streaming from Youtube. Thank goddess for Doc McStuffins, we reached a truce. As the mother of a brown sapodilla, who wishes for anything other than white mermaids and princesses, both Zi and I love this character, her message and music.

Good. Snacks. Cake. Drinks. I’m all like, you can invite five friends and we will play ‘pass the parcel’ and musical chairs. The child squinted up her eyes at my clearly last- generation idea of a party, unsurprisingly, for everyone else’s had a bouncy castle, and face painting. Indeed, I wondered if the handful of children I let her invite would all appear and stand around not knowing what to do with themselves.

“Is only a little ting we having” isn’t what parents put out at children’s parties anymore, and these are working middle-class people, with no businesses or trust funds. I’ve watched professional moms, in particular, turn up totally put together and triumphant, but completely exhausted, having baked, packaged, put up, handmade, ordered and organized everything, with it all costing about $5000, and me there, both awed and appreciative, but askance that the same might be expected of me.

I think Zi can have a big party when she has a job and can save for it herself. At this point, my mother prepares to look offended on her behalf, like Thelma when Keens-Douglas says, we go have the party, just buy some “cheeweez”. I don’t blame her, if I had my way, there would be a yard for kids to play, snacks, and the other parents, Stone and I would watch our children tire themselves out while we dressed back with drinks. US media dominance, middle-class pressures, working mom’s aspirations, and resilient gender stereotypes are all there to be managed even at such seemingly ideologically-innocent times. Whatever little ting she gets, Zi better end her birthday like Tantie Merle, only saying “party nice”.