November 2018


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Post 310.

It was entirely an old familiarity, recalled by the smell of airplane fuel in morning heat. You know when a drifting scent or shade of light suddenly puts both your feet back in the past?

As I crossed Piarco’s tarmac, I glanced up into the brightness and the yellow-painted side of the airport made me look twice, the first time mistakenly seeing a waving gallery and, the second time, vividly remembering the old one, from the old airport, as if it was there in front of me. I breathed, feeling goosebumps, maybe because of the hot wind blowing along my arms or from being caught momentarily convinced by this mirage.

As a child, I’d marvel at so many beloved families and friends crowding that second-floor verandah to share an experience of travel, to emotionally wave at their loved ones until they disappeared through the plane door, or excitedly identify them from the line of rumpled travelers as soon as they disembarked.

Something in the new airport design, whether for modernization, security or cost-cutting, lost sight of this Caribbean custom or never understood or valued ordinary Caribbean cultural expressions of connection and community, and the narrow, barricaded gate at which one now says quick goodbyes has shut such a space for sharing into the past.

I was coming home from commemorating the 25th anniversary of The UWI’s Institute for Gender and Development Studies on the Cave Hill campus in Barbados. The three founding professors of the IGDS, Patricia Mohammed, Rhoda Reddock and Eudine Barriteau were being honoured, and I sat at the conference with graduate students who, in just two years’ time, would never have these Caribbean feminist foremothers on the campus with them. After nearly forty years, such passing of a generation that built scholarship, institutional strength and academic activism from scratch was the end of an era.

For twenty years on campus, I was under their wing, gaining invaluable guidance, compassion and protection. Looking through the shimmering above the tarmac, and blindly seeing a memory instead of the present, I thought about the past and what makes it live on.

These women tried to understand and value Caribbean customs and cultural practices, treated them like the true richness of theory and the deep wealth of scholarship and, in so doing, created a homegrown feminism that connected countries and generations in our region, crossing from one tarmac to another.

This homegrown Caribbean feminism’s head cornerstone was the one that the builder refused. It looked for what was ours, found the everyday ways ordinary people cared and created citizen coalitions, and built that into the design that my graduate students and I inherited.

The head cornerstone’s strength was its grounding in gendered analysis of the region and its realities; women’s rights histories and stories; mothers’ and grandmothers’, godmothers’ and aunties’ ways of raising up and nurturing; daughters’ aspirations to improve on the past; and the solidarities of male allies. None of these are yet taken seriously or valued in economics, social sciences and political theories in the Caribbean today.

Yet, somewhere, that window to our lives as they crisscross the Caribbean hasn’t disappeared. Twenty-five years on, in IGDS, it’s still here. Honouring these three women, I treasured the homegrown feminist foundation laid for us to remember to examine and empower the ways we make time and space for love, family, survival, connection and equality as well as the little traditions through which we recognize each others’ heart and humanity.

As I entered the airport’s cool interior, the past, present and future walked through with me. I thought about whether we educate both for Caribbean transformation as well as recognition of what most matters to Caribbean people, whether in terms of how we design our built environments or our social policies.

I thought about how few places teach another generation to understand, and protect from new ideas about modernization, foreign models or almighty profit, the spaces and practices that can be so easily relegated to obsolescence even when they have significance for care, connection and community. Now we get to decide what to keep.

Honouring the professors and the past would live on in our design for a future of Caribbean living and loving. For, one bright morning, the right hazy mix of scent and hue could fully return an old, familiar flutter of emotion and eagerness, along with nostalgia for what was simply deconstructed out of our collective memory.

It’s such an unnoticeable thing, the disappearance of that waving gallery.

 

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Post 309.

Is justice for one, justice for all?

In the Caribbean, we have a way of dividing ourselves from each other, and from each other’s struggles. What if, instead, we thought that each of these struggles nurtured better chances for fair treatment for others. How might that make us invest in each other’s pursuit of rights, even when they seem at odds with our biases, fears or differences?

It’s a good question to ask in response to last week’s historic ruling of the Caribbean Court of Justice. Four Guyanese transwomen, Gulliver (Quincy) McEwan, Angel (Seon) Clarke, Peaches (Joseph) Fraser and Isabella (Seyon) Persaud, spent almost ten years challenging a charge and fine for “wearing women’s clothing for an improper purpose” in a public place. They spent four nights locked up for this minor crime. They pressed on despite the prejudice of the trial magistrate who lectured them about being confused about their sexuality and their status as men, and urged them to go to church.

This wasn’t the first time they had experienced the painful edge of a post-emancipation law, established in 1893 as another oppressive act of legal coercion. Such vagrancy and loitering provisions aimed precisely at denying freedom to Africans regarding their bodies, labour, gender, intimacies, religion and rights.

Indians, Chinese, Portuguese and others were also in Caribbean colonies by this time, with their own intersections of gender, sexuality, class and religion. All were now also brought again under the iron fist of colonial authority and its limits on our fundamental desires to be respected as self-determining individuals and, despite formidable hurdles, to be free.

Imagine for a second, then, that Gulliver, Angel, Peaches and Isabella showed unbelievable valor to end another vestige of colonial authority that continued to sharpen its blade right up until the twenty-first century. Imagine that, in doing so, they didn’t win a victory just for themselves or for transpersons or for gender diversity.

Step out of your biases, fears and framework of us and them for long enough to also see that their struggle edged forward free Caribbean people’s resistance to colonial rule, discriminatory laws and dehumanizing policing practices.

The highest Caribbean court struck down Guyana’s crossdressing law, arguing that it violates the Constitution of Guyana and is void. It found that the law invalidly criminalized intentions, not proven actions. It illegitimately defined some forms of clothing as objectionable. It lacked sufficient clarity for ordinary people to understand what conduct is prohibited. It gave police wide and almost arbitrary discretionary powers, creating real risks of victimization. It treated transgender and gender non-conforming persons unfavourably because of their gender expression and gender identity. Finally, the CCJ affirmed the validity of inclusion of advocates and social justice movements as interested parties.

The judgment affirmed a powerful promise that those most poor, marginal or powerless could, nonetheless, legitimately expect the system to defend them. As CAISO director Colin Robinson put it, “This is an historic ruling, particularly because it was brought by working class, transgender women who had the bravery and courage to seek justice from a system that does not usually work for them”.

Haven’t so many, particularly among the working classes, looked around and felt, as Isabella Persaud, one of the appellants said, “We are always treated like trash.” Their cause shares ground with Hindus, Muslims, Spiritual Baptists, Rastafarians, and poor Indians and Africans around the region who have turned to the courts for protection against being unfairly targeted or denied equality, respect and inclusion.

To quote the Hon. Mr. Justice Saunders, newly appointed President, “No one should have his or her dignity trampled on, or human rights denied, merely on account of a difference, especially one that poses no threat to public safety or public order.”

This line, and its logic, is one with which we all can agree, for it speaks not just to these four Caribbean citizens, but to each of us, and an ideal we surely must enshrine as necessary. Justice, however, isn’t only won in the courts. It’s also won in our nod to each other’s humanity in the streets. AS IGDS’ Angelique Nixon, acknowledged, “as important as laws are, we also have to do work to transform the culture to create more acceptance and tolerance” locally and regionally.

Regardless of who is expanding our access to justice, but especially when they are poor, working-class and beyond the pale of respectability, being Caribbean requires us to value the victory of those creating our regional future of greater justice and equality.

 

Post 308.

The story goes like this. On November 22, 1948, at the mosque on Prince Albert Street in San Fernando, a nineteen-year-old young lady, Sister Zarina Yusuf Mohammed, suggested to her aunt, Mrs. Ameena Rahamut, that they form a women’s association. At the time, electricity bills needed to be paid for the masjid, and the women were asked to respond with a financial solution.

From that moment until now, seventy years later, the San Fernando Muslim Women’s Association (SMWA) has been active on just about every front imaginable; from outings to fundraisers, charity, bazaars, iftar dinners, religious education, primary schooling, fashion shows and improvements to the masjid itself.  And, Sister Zarina is still an Association member.

I was humbled to be in the room with these honorable and humble ladies who have nurtured a women’s group for three generations, created a social space through which women could exercise leadership and form strong networks, and had an impact both within and outside the Muslim community through their support to students and children, care for the ill and poor, and much more.

I have a special love for Caribbean Muslim women’s organisations. You meet these women, who run battered women’s shelters or quietly support feminist struggles or work in children’s rights, and come face to face with some of the most hands-on community organisers in the country.

Sometimes, I’m intimidated. These women are proper in a way I’m not. They seem indefatigable, raising whole families of children and running their community like a dynasty, when I’m exhausted just trying to get through the day. They’re effective in a way I dream to be, making an impact, year after year for decades, that crosses class differences.

I was at the SMWA’s seventieth anniversary celebrations, wondering why they invited me as a speaker, for surely my public activism hasn’t put me in the movement for respectability as much as it has for respect for women’s rights. The two are not the same, and may at times be at odds.

I found myself thinking about our probable political differences in relation to reproductive rights and justice, sexual and gender diversity, and gender roles and responsibilities. More importantly, I found myself thinking that despite these likely differences in our feminisms, there was far more than I ever realized I could learn from these women.

Muslim women’s organisations in Trinidad have a long and resilient history. They should. Aisha, third wife of the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him), born at the turn of the seventh century, delivered public speeches, became directly involved in war and even battles, and was considered a stateswoman, scholar, mufti, and judge.

In Trinidad, from the 1930s, Muslim women were delivering lectures to mixed audiences, becoming members of elected mosque boards and councils, holding meetings to develop women’s groups, and participating in debates regarding women’s equality.

From the 1950s, the Young Muslim Women’s Association, the San Juan Muslim Ladies Organisation, and the Islamic Ladies Social and Cultural Association also began to be established. Muslim women in both the TML and Nur-E-Islam mosques also have a history of pushback against partitions narrowing their space for prayer in the masjid, and ASJA women have challenged their exclusion from voting in organizational elections when they perceived their association or jamaat being a “boys’ club”.

An “understated stridency” (to use Patricia Mohammed’s words) is at work here, despite stereotypes of Muslim Indian women as more passive, and even more oppressed. As I was reminded on Sunday, these women are formidable and fierce, they are generous and giving, and deeply committed to correct ways of living that create greater common good.

As I listened to their awards for earliest membership, longest service, and contribution after contribution, including by several women who are national award winners, I found myself dreaming that if I could help build and sustain a Caribbean feminist movement for seventy years, as they have for the SMWA, patriarchy and its harms might just be run out of town.

These are women from whom we can learn about the last half century of Muslim Indian women’s associational history. There’s capacity, connection, wisdom and will of steel to observe up close. Brother Kalamazad Mohammed is also an encouragingly progressive imam.

“It was essential to motivate women…into empowering themselves”, says Sister Zarina in an interview, “We were born to help the less fortunate. We were certainly not created to only dwell within the walls of our homes…”.

Sign me up, I thought. Alhamdulillah. I want to be a part.