February 2016


Post 225.

We must set our eye on the way ahead, even as horror holds us in the present at news of this week’s acid attack on Rachael Chadee. This February, two girls were sexually assaulted in secondary schools, and the wife of a police officer was threatened with rape and murder. Norma Holder was raped and killed returning from church. Asami Nagakiya was strangled. Rachael Sukdeo took to social media to escape assault. And, those were not the entirety of reports or incidences, just the ones that made headlines, just this month.

This trend signals that the major problem in our society occurs within the family. Under Reports of Domestic Violence Offences for 2015, which refer to offences committed against a spouse, child, any other person who is a member of the household or dependant, there were 15 murder/homicides, 38 cases of sexual abuse, 808 cases of assault by beating, 526 cases of threats and 62 cases of verbal abuse worth reporting to police, and 95 breaches of protection orders.

Generalised violence, but particularly sexualized violence, is in our homes, schools and streets, and if all women stopped flinging waist, it would make no difference. Until we acknowledge that men’s violence against each other and women is a men’s issue and a men’s movement-building issue, we will be in trouble.

What’s happening with boys and men, as victims and as perpetrators, is connected to what’s happening in terms of violence against women. The crisis of masculinity isn’t one of girls doing well in school, its one of the continued association between manhood, power and violence, starting at home.

The first problem is economic inequality, and the vulnerability to risk, insecurity and harm that it creates in women and men’s lives. The second issue is state failure to adequately address criminality, whether through schools, policing, social services, prisons or the courts. But, what gives these vulnerabilities and failures different meanings for women, men, girls and boys are the forms of manhood that are dominant, rewarded, tolerated and excused.

If you hear how we should be paying more attention to the murders of boys and men, as they occur in greater numbers, than the everyday, more invisible harm faced by women and girls, which is far more sexualized and includes murder, walk away. If you hear how the solution is men playing their rightful, leading roles in the family, church, schools and state, walk away. If recommendations prioritize more dominant men as role models or military boot camp or youth imprisonment, walk away. If you hear anyone framing the violence being experienced by boys and the violence being experienced by girls in terms of a battle of the sexes for attention and resources, walk away.

There is a single overarching issue at the heart of both and it is forms of manhood that idealise dominance, toxicity, authority and impunity. Their normality creates the context for more extreme forms of these qualities, which result in harm to both women and men, and widespread enactment of inhumane masculinities.

It will take decades of workshops, community trainings, counseling, fundraising, scholarships, marches, curriculum change, mentorship and skill building to challenge the deeply embedded toxicity of patriarchal rules. And, it cannot happen until men and women are willing to accept what’s at stake, which is challenge to male dominance and power. It’s a choice for men: a less violent society in which completely different masculine ideals underlie children’s gender socialization, or a hold on privilege and, with it, a continued status quo. And if religious and state leaders don’t wake up to their own complicity with such toxicity, they will continue to trade justice for respectability, while berating the rest of us for it no longer hitting home.

For the conversation about violence against women to not go cold, we need concrete deliverables and deadlines from a range of state officials.  They have the greatest power to implement policies, change protocols, provide resources, reach communities, and enact the solutions we propose.

Those solutions include gender training across local government, and gender policies for each Regional or City Corporation, gender-based violence curriculum for young people, and a targeted strategy at a new generation which needs different gender roles.

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Post 224.

Vigilance. For, few victories are absolute.

From bloggers to protesters, a generation asserted itself in the call for Mayor Kee’s resignation. Women in their 20s and 30s, supported by men and older women, made a rare show of public power over sexist language regarding violence against women. One commentator compared it to the Black Power movement when an earlier generation mobilized against the mores of their parents’ status quo.

Others argued that protests should have been over the murder of Asami Nagakiya, rather than officialdom’s response. They missed the fact that this generation fully understands the interlock of both. The uproar was about another example of violence against women. Yet, everything said also protested commonplace sexual harassment, sexual assault and other kinds of public gender-based harm, precisely because these normalize violence, or fear and threat of violence, as a fact of women’s lives. Women are right to not only focus on single losses of life or single incidences of abuse when feelings of fear in public, and women’s lack of public and private safety, is pervasive, yet invisible to many or worse denied or, worse yet, blamed on women themselves.

The state is obligated to create conditions within which women, who are particular targets of violence, are safe, regardless. It is one thing to live in a nation where harassment, rape, beatings, trafficking and murder continue, with too few of these resulting in convictions or change. It is another when state officials use moments of such violence to point fingers away from state accountability. And do so with impunity, as if the consequences of state failure around violence are not experienced every day. That this was a moment of insisting on state officials’ answerability, in a country where its lack costs us billions, is not to be dismissed. Accountability to non-sexist language and decision-making might seem insignificant, but it at the core of women’s citizenship.

Women of this generation targeted the Mayor because they understood that they too were under attack. The supposed harm to decency and morality posed by women flinging waist is debated every year, and is a 150 year-old panic rooted in the tyranny of respectability hypocritically imposed on women, determining their status, meaning and value. Yet, the past decade’s noticeable trend among students is an overwhelming concern with women’s sexual and bodily liberty. Fueled by celebrity-led movements and world marches against slut shaming is the idea that women should be able to go wherever, however and whenever they choose. In 2013 for example, young women, led by Renelle White, held their own ‘slut walk’, titled a ‘Jammette March’, on the promenade, to insist that women’s sexuality doesn’t provoke male violence. Male violence explains male violence.

Between the emergence of ‘Carnival as woman’ and female students seeing educational and employment gains as insufficient in the face of continued sexual violence and shaming, an articulate power has been developing which clearly can amass. In questioning a trend that seemed to emphasise the right to choose without adequately engaging the contents of such choice, many missed its political potential. While Mayor Kee’s resignation was not a ‘solution’, it was thus a victory for a globalized generation for whom ‘slut’ or jamette shaming matters.

Luckily, international press was upon us. The PM had already affirmed Mayor Kee’s intention to resign. Public and media opinion put his comments as inappropriate, with his apology adding insult to injury. Over 10 000 signatures appeared on a petition, started by young feminist group Womantra, giving a mandate to momentum. Behind and in front the scenes, women from both political parties also weighed in.

But, vigilance.

Clyde Paul retains authority in Port Fortin despite responding, “What action must Tim Kee resign for. I hope when the truth of the young lady’s murder unfolds some people could handle it.”  Religious leaders are morbidly capitalizing on a woman’s murder to insist on women’s morality. This backlash strengthens the lie that covering up and being decent will protect women from harm.

To refuse that protection racket, a generation of gender-conscious women and men will have to be serious about successful organizing. One battle may be won, but a war over women’s freedom is one we cannot afford to lose.

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Sunday night. Monday morning

Post 223.

For Jouvay, I was Death playing mas in Trinidad. Roaming the road, sharp silver scythe in hand, culling those closest to the ground, and knowing neither law nor sin.

I was also Woman, entangled in a long skirt, made of shredded, black garbage bag, for those used and discarded, refused, their pains mere abandoned detritus in the wake of killings. Carrying death’s scythe as a sign of its shadow overhead, like a cross to bear.

Such is the schizophrenia of living in Trinidad and Tobago. Grieving amidst violence, with more than one murder a day, and historically-familiar rhythms of dark-night mourning, where women birth the lives that death takes away.

Lest we forget. Three boys in particular were on my mind. Jodal Ramnath, Denelson Smith, and Mark Richards. Jodal, six years old, killed within minutes of the New Year by gunmen shooting with high-powered rifles from the roof of a nearby school. Real life midnight robbers, missing poetic license. Then, judged by a population which hypocritically ropes off pretty mas for those with money, as if little Jodal’s photos of dressing up in gold, like a King costume, excused the coast guard, the police, the political parties, the shotters and the drug men from their responsibility to prevent harm to our children.

Later, Denelson Smith and Mark Richards killed in their school uniform by devils who come out for pay. Imps terrifying the young, with neighbourhood crossroads like judging points with scores counted and winners declared.

As Death continues to stalk through region and town, in now year-round fetes with dames, tiefs and dark souls in glittering clothes, Justice seems to have taken to an armchair, like many others watching the macabre dance on TV.

For the insight it offers, post-Carnival, I want to hail out Jouvay’s mirror to darkest ourselves, and its metaphor for restless hope for a new day. For, when else could I or anyone else express freedom and pain, in public, in the dead of night, while passing the walled yard of sacred graves, wondering if it is still possible to save ourselves, heart beating hard at how, for some, it is already too late.

Jouvay’s mas and masking traditions often get eclipsed by the ‘pretty mas’ of Monday and Tuesday. Beyond standard images of muddied revelers, Jouvay’s mas, which is as political as it is personal, as transgressive as it is stylish, is least likely to make it into Carnival magazines, for grim commitment to mixing anger with splendor isn’t easy to package, sell or consume. Yet, here one can find stories of iron meeting iron, hardship meeting creativity, contradictory realities meeting the next step with no easy resolution ahead.

This was evident in 3 Canal’s band, Blk.Jab.Nation, where it was clear that many played a mas they individually imagined. Amongst women, there were hand painted masks, translucent cloths top-knotted and then slung over women’s faces, and mesh veils sewn, like brides’ own, to hang from men’s bowler hats, in a runway of women’s masking on parade. To see masking re-emerge is to witness a counterpoint to the contemporary focus on cosmetics for Carnival. As more and more women get their makeup professionally done, masking becomes more important to see and be seen on terms that the male gaze cannot easily penetrate, or get access to without consent.

Among women were also those bare-chested and covered in black paint. One woman in nothing but a regular panty, defiantly taking back the night in a world where women’s sexual safety relies on them covering their bodies in fear and shame, where consent means too little without an end to all sexual vulnerability and violence.

Lest we forget, there is history and richness of masquerade in Jouvay that prettiness cannot encapsulate. This haute couture ruins an aesthetic of colourful sequins, opting instead for a different language with which we can work out what it means to be brown and black bodies negotiating darkness, womanhood, motherhood, beauty and community in pursuit of our humanity.

Crick. Crack. Having played its mas, may Death now tire and offer respite, leaving Woman, already entangled with too many aching memories and stories, to tend to her days of unaccustomed strife.

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Post 222.

Neither Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland nor modern day zombie flicks come close to the creatures that leap out from fantasy and hell as they take over bodies, turn ordinary neighbours into mythical forms and gorge on human life to reincarnate year after year, on sticks, in paint, within wire, emerging from embryonic, easily unnoticed rooms, defying us to acknowledge what we usually fail to see.

Moms morph into deformed folk like Erzulie the La Diablesse, with her cloven hoof, horns and complex sweeping spirit. Old men turn bat or Jab, like Carnival has full moon power, casting an overpowering spell, despite people’s poverty or pain. Young bredren oil down, revealing true selves in Devil blue and black skins, daubing each other with love, despite familiarity with anger.

In this magical place, even a bookish sort of child need only glance around to gather and store imaginative resources, meanwhile learning to be patient, to look carefully, to draw value from what others dismiss. While for most, traditional mas seems repetitious or cliché, I’ve found characters within traditional mas communities provoke a greater sense of humanity, deeper connection to land, and humbling appreciation for the beauty that people insist on making from their experiences of negation and oppression, near starvation and intimacy with horror. It’s these netherworld creations twisting through her home place that I want Ziya to learn to notice.

For little ones like her, Tuesday night’s Kings and Queens competition required sitting through many crossings of the stage that didn’t seize her sense of the truly inventive, but more importantly, there were those that did. I took her to see Peter Minshall’s King, ‘The Dying Swan – Ras Nijinsky in Drag as Pavlova’, for her to see how the stick legs of moko jumbies, instead of being hidden, might be seductively sculpted, as if on tip toe, and held in ballet shoes. Jha-Whan Thomas danced like a steelpan that plays classical scores in ways their composers never saw coming, in a way I understand as uniquely ‘Made in Trinidad and Tobago’. There is all this for her to know.

Such possibility is always present.  I wanted Zi to observe how vision means seeing the taken for granted anew. And, there are visionaries to learn from right here, making orchestras of whipped rope made from plant leaves, overturning devils’ horns to point at onlookers, perfecting thirty-foot-high mas that really does dance.

With Carnival upon us, with attention on bikinis and beads, and hot bodies, iced rum and deafening soca, my gaze as anthropologist, educator and mother is on the best of traditional mas, including the gigantic sculptures that embody their makers’ highest aspirations. Contemporary and breathing, these all provide lessons in art, design, family, memory and history, making Carnival a museum without walls, where artifacts handed down over generations are chipping down the road, stepping like sailors or rhyming like robbers, rather than encased in glass or hanging lifeless and still.

This handing down is a reminder that, beyond the materials assembled, Carnival makes people, who we often overlook, visible. And that is one of its truths. It matters that, this year, young Lionel Jagessar Junior and his partner Kareena Badall, both made it to the finals, as another generation making multiple crossings, not just on stage, for a band that has brought Indian mas to San Fernando for more than 35 years. It matters that a generation that comes after Zi might therefore still have access to their mas camps as an alternate space, if only under a shed, for education, stories, creating characters and representing moments in history, which no one has to fly out to reach.

All I can say for certainty is that, in this place that makes wonderland from damnation, as Ziya develops a sense of dreaming for herself, from Carnival dragons to rainforest guardians, her earliest inspirations won’t only come from mere books on a shelf.