June 2019


Post 338.

In 2019, the issues that have long faced women continue to be part of sustained struggle. The hope in this struggle are the many women, especially young women, fearlessly pursuing gender, sexual and reproductive justice around the region.

I’m meeting some of these women for the first time, feeling hope from their potential. I’m introducing you to them because the names of Caribbean women activists often disappear along with recognition of their labour.

I was at an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) event recently, featuring companies and banks with progressive policies regarding women’s employment and leadership, sexual harassment, and work-family balance. Someone in the audience asked what led to these policies. The private sector speakers answered that society has changed, customers are choosing socially (and environmentally) progressive profits, and a younger generation is looking for jobs in companies that align with their ideals.

Society didn’t just change. Feminists labored for decades, despite being stereotyped and maligned, to mainstream the transformations that appear to have just happened over time and that, ultimately, benefit us all.

Societies don’t just change. Women, and feminist men who are allies, labour to make those changes to women’s rights, LBGTI human rights, rights to safe and legal terminations, rights of sex workers, and rights of girls and women to live free of male harassment and violence. They labour to make the changes to parenting policies, including extended paternity leave, that we take to be common sense today.

Such labour takes whole lives, is often voluntary, and can be exhausting, impoverishing and invisible. The private sector takes up this work when the social shifts have already happened, but rely on feminists’ everyday investment to take the risks and resist persistent social support for male domination, heterosexual privilege, traditional gender roles, and women’s unequal burden of care.

So, let me introduce you to Ifasina Efunyemi, a Garifuna woman, who co-founded Petal, Promoting Empowerment through Awareness for Lesbian and Bisexual Women, a Belizean organization that creates safe spaces, promotes healthy relations, and provides training that supports economic empowerment. Every year they hold a forum on International Women’s Day with different themes from gender-based violence to social security and the age of consent.

Meet Robyn Charlery White, co-founder and Director of Herstoire Collective, which promotes sexual and reproductive health and rights, works through digital advocacy, creates safe spaces for women and girls to access information and services, and teaches St. Lucian school age girls about menstrual health. You wouldn’t believe how little secondary school girls are informed about their bodies, fertility and sexuality, mostly because of parents’ silence, and the impact of such disempowerment.

Patrice Daniel, from Barbados, co-founded Walking into Walls in 2012. It’s an on-line space (which you can Like on Facebook) that documents gender-based violence against women and girls, their own narratives and stories of violence, and feminist activism to end such violence. In its own way, this crucial record of the most gutting of women and girls’ realities aims to highlight and challenge the norms that make male violence so normal in the Caribbean.

In Jamaica, Shantae Porteous works with Women’s Empowerment for Change (WE Change). Focusing on empowering lesbian, bisexual and transwomen, their work includes using culture and arts to heal from abuse. She’s also part of I’m Glad I’m a Girl Foundation, which has been lobbying to provide sexual and reproductive health services and information to girls thirteen to seventeen. Ironically, the age of consent is sixteen, but such services cannot be legally accessed without parental consent before eighteen. For almost ten years, the Foundation has also organised a feminist-led camp for girls that includes conversations on puberty, self-confidence and financial management. Boss mix, right?

You may think that the big issues are migration and trafficking, climate-related disasters, and poverty, but these are unequally suffered by the most vulnerable or stigmatised groups in our societies; teenage girls, persons living with HIV/AIDS, trans women, poor women, and survivors of insecurity and violence.

What do these and other young women need to continue creating hope? Funding, capacity-building, meaningful partnerships, volunteers, allies, political will and state collaboration, spaces to gather, succession planning, and opportunities to become financially sustainable.

It may not be visible, but another generation is labouring to protect and advance women’s human rights, and free women, girls, men and boys from patriarchal authority. In the spirit of regional solidarity, I’m billboarding their courage because the story shouldn’t be that societies just somehow change.

If anyone tells you the future is feminist. Now, you know their names.

 

 

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Post 337.

As a child, the white handkerchief in the right back pocket of my dad’s pants would dry my tears. Collecting his belongings, after he unexpectedly died of a heart attack on Thursday in St. Vincent, in a pair of his pants folded on a shelf, I found his handkerchief, soft and familiar.

I slid it into my own right back pocket, his habit giving me comfort and connection. At the morgue, I stood bewildered, clutching that small cotton square, willing his eyes to open, contemplating the hard metaphysics that we can be here and not here at the same time.

I said all the things one says, it’s okay, I forgive you, I forgive myself, I’m sorry some people hurt you, I’m so glad some people treated you well, I wish you peace, I thank you, I love you. When I couldn’t think in words anymore, I stroked his hair and his head, breathing for us both, breathing, breathing.

My dad, Azad Nazar Hosein (February 9, 1943 – June 6, 2019) was brilliant. He was devastatingly logical, had an absorbed and dominating mind, and could sharply envision both a far end and each step in between. He opened the first computer school in the country, called ComTech, and I distinctly remember him teaching students to code, standing at a wooden podium with a gold plaque printed with the word, “Think”.

For decades, he worked with governments on strategic planning and project management like a guru in the field. He was a workaholic, committed to the region, his students, preventing fiscal mis-management, and empowering civil servants with whom he collaborated.

He was also difficult and unpredictable, and for a long time I struggled. I learned forgiveness and compassion from loving him as I grew older, but I also learned how to protect my boundaries, how I wanted to be loved, and what it means to both be a survivor and be who I am because of his strengths. Fathers are not always easy.

Stroking his hair, time fell away, and I was no longer the adult intimate with his gifts and failings. The more his cold body became real, the more insubstantial I felt, like I was dissipating into a ghost of myself at five or six years old, crumpling his handkerchief and drying my tears. I had not stroked his hair so gently like that for nearly forty years, with the entirety of a child’s adoration and affection. It was visceral and mutual, he adored me then too.

I saw him on Monday in a chance encounter in the Tobago airport. He was fasting for Ramadan and had just swum in the ocean. He looked tall, confident and well for his seventy-six years. We spent time discussing procurement and corruption. He started the conversation by saying he hadn’t seen me write in the newspaper about the new US laws against abortion, and launched into a short speech about how he strongly believed in a woman’s right to choose.

How did he manage to believe that his work with Caribbean governments would change how we strategise, implement and evaluate when it had not as yet? He said, you have to have eternal optimism that things will improve in the region. I looked at him, smiling to myself, so clearly the child of my parents’ politics and commitments, features and mannerisms.

Working at UWI reminds me of my dad, who also once lectured there. I think of him striding long-legged across the field to the mainframe computers on campus, with boxes of punch cards in his arms, while I ran alongside to keep up at six or seven years old. I think of him helping me learn to ride my bicycle on Dash Street, opposite UWI school, where I climbed trees in the lush backyards of campus housing. I think of him calling me ‘sugarplum’ when I would leap into his arms and touch his hair.

Before he boarded the plane on Monday, he retold the story of his happiness on the day I was born. I was the girl he wanted. Now I think I should have taken a picture of us, should have hugged him longer, but all I have is that he kissed me on the cheek and I saw him smile for the last time. He was not perfect, but he was mine.

In the morgue on Friday morning, the pathologist came out with my dad’s heart covered in a bowl in his hand. While he explained the autopsy results, I kept looking at his wrapped heart. This was the heart beating in his body on Monday. This was the heart I wanted to love me. Here for the last time was his heart. Now, there would be only memory and acceptance. No more chances to make anything right.

I was four years old when I stood next to my dad at his mother’s funeral, his handkerchief on his head while he prayed. For the first time I will be there again, on Thursday, his handkerchief drying my tears as he is laid to rest in his mother’s grave.

 

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Post 336.

When warriors walk into the pages of history, it is up to those of us left behind to write the words that give life to their memory. So it is with Guyanese activist, Andaiye, who passed away on May 31, 2019, aged 77.

Born Sandra Williams in 1942, she changed her name to a Swahili one, meaning ‘daughter comes home’. I always admired her singular name and have never met another Caribbean woman with one name, so chosen. No patriarchal or colonial lineage to negotiate, just what Dominican revolutionary Cecilia Babb would call her ‘woman name’.

Such boldfacedness seems to have come from a fiercer time than now, when Caribbean women, indeed Caribbean people, imagined ourselves on entirely liberated and self-defined terms.

Andaiye’s story won’t be told by the victors, but by those who stood at her shoulders, her comrades, her feminist sisters, another generation of upcoming social justice foot-soldiers, and others from all walks of life whom she continues to call into battle, her spirit as unrelenting in its call for our commitment as she was in life.

She was a sharp woman, wry and acidic, yet wonderfully encouraging and compassionate. She could bless and warn at the same time, empower and humble, educate and listen. I met her many times and she was always full of quiet and unwavering truth, her gaze looking right through pretensions, power and politicking.

Forty years ago, Andaiye was a founding member of the Working People’s Alliance at a time when revolutionary politics was sweeping the region, from the Workers’ Party of Jamaica to the New Jewel Movement of Grenada to student protests of the 1970s that aimed to topple the ‘flag independence’ and establishment politics of Dr. Eric Williams in Trinidad.

She worked as Coordinator and Editor, International Secretary and Women’s Secretary, until 2000. It’s like she herself was walking in the footsteps of the renowned radical, Trinidadian Claudia Jones, tireless thinker, writer, and fighter for working people, for justice for women, and for an end to the racist legacy of colonialism.

After the assassinations of Walter Rodney, Maurice Bishop, Jacqueline Creft and others in the 1980s, our Caribbean dream of a new world seemed impossible. In this dark time, women around the region began to organize anew. Andaiye co-founded Red Thread, a Guyanese women’s organization committed to women’s economic independence and power, cross-race solidarity, working-class women’s leadership, and development built on care and justice.

Women like her created and held a space bigger than our current aspirations seem. At a moment when everyone, from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the big banks, is talking about women’s economic empowerment, Andaiye insists that this demands actually changing power relations in households, the economy and culture, and between our local economies and the global economic order.

She would scoff at the cheapness of a definition that aims to get more women into the waged labour force while ignoring the care labour they still carry, and while failing to support cross-class women’s movements so that the poorest of women are organized to exercise a say over our economy.

When CLR James wrote, Every Cook Can Govern, he wasn’t thinking of mothers, housewives and domestic workers, but Andaiye and the organisations she was a part of, the Women’s International Network for Wages for Caring Work, and the Global Women’s Strike, always did.

In Andaiye’s words, “I believe fundamentally that seeing how women’s unwaged labour underpins everything is the starting point of everything ranging from understanding capital to organizing against it”.

Her passing reminds that we should cherish what a generation of women spent their lives and labour working toward, and steady ourselves for the unfinished business with which we are left.

For her, Venezuela and solidarity with its people are our business. The “whole doctrine of pre-emptive strike – with all the rogue states and failed states being countries with people of colour” is our business. Men and boys murdered by the thousands across the region are our business. “Women at the bottom – working class, of color” are our business. Counting women’s labour is our business. Turning to our common humanity as a basis for political action is our business.

“I always feel good when people are not taking it – are fighting back”, said Andaiye in 2004. When published, her collection of speeches and writings will be titled, “The Point is to Change the World”. When we live by those words, we keep her memory alive. And, perhaps, that is all that needs to be said.

http://andaiye1942-2019.com/