March 2023

Post 463.

LAST WEEKEND, I chose Maya Cozier’s She Paradise over MovieTowne’s Hollywood blockbusters, determined to show cinemas that audiences want local films. It’s only when we fill the house to see our own productions that movie theatres will follow demand, offering showtimes over longer periods and in more locations. 

Endless numbers of our youth have never seen anyone who looks like them or anywhere that looks like their reality in a cinema, made gritty or beautiful, shown as larger than petty or painful and in ways that actually humanise, so that we look at each other with more understanding or compassion and a sense that each of us carries a complex story. 

We portray ourselves in music videos, but the majority are so stereotyped, they misrepresent as much as they show. We see ourselves on the news, but as success or tragedy, hardly in relation to everyday Trinidadian life.

By contrast, She Paradise focuses on impoverished and working class black and mixed women (two have Indian last names), from 17-year-old Sparkle, the film’s protagonist, to the crew of three dancers she joins in an attempt to use her youthful sexuality to put food on the table instead of cooking discarded vegetables from the market. 

Black and mixed Trinidadian women are predominantly hypersexualised in our region’s visual landscape. Less often do we see them as subjects, rather than objects, navigating these stereotypes and their own families, emotions, traumas and aspirations. 

Sparkle lives with her granddad, once a thriving goldsmith. She auditions for and then befriends the dance crew, seeking money, appeal and adulthood. She’s still inexperienced, however, and despite being warned about a local soca celebrity, believes that sex with him might have genuine and mutual intimacy. 

Instead, he rapes her one night at a party when drugs and alcohol make her nearly unconscious and, though she tries to fight back, she learns there’s little empathy for naïve teenage girls, those seeking to express and enjoy their sexuality or those becoming a woman among predatory men. Maya Cozier highlights these sexual politics poignantly; the other women in the dance crew were also raped or used and discarded, and had to learn to tough it out to survive. 

The women in this story are not perfect. They are in, what the band Freetown would describe as, their fully human form. Sparkle steals from her grandfather, but later promises to pay him back. He locks her out of the house one night, calling her a jamette, but his home remains her safe place in the world. Diamond, Shan and Mica protect her as they do each other, but also abandon her, creating a betrayal that stops Sparkle from wanting to go back. They are in control of lives that appear out of their control. 

Sparkle finds her erotic power, earning money she needs, but walks away from the nightlife of a dancer, though to what isn’t clear. She understands men will pay for sex and will provide enough for a car and apartment, dancers can earn more than they ever had before, and parties can be exciting, but she also discovers that none of it is as nice as she imagined it might be. 

Sparkle’s story is real. Across the Caribbean, mostly because they are poor, girls are trading their sexuality for survival. For them, as for Sparkle, there is power and pleasure as much as there is exploitation and vulnerability. 

All this reckoning is set to the film’s bad-gyal soundtrack, pumping with dancehall and soca music as its own aural narrative. Cozier’s camera also uses close-ups and movement to keep audiences connected. 

The film’s performances are believable, from Kimberly Crichton as Diamond, the hardened mother-figure of the sisterhood of women, Denisia Latchman as tough Shan with dancehall queen moves, Chelsey Rampersad as the softer Mica who fled family violence and whose bisexuality is fully accepted by her crew, and Onessa Nestor, who plays Sparkle and who comes of age in front of our eyes. Michael Cherrie, as Papa, creates as identifiable a character as one would expect from such an experienced actor. 

As a first, full-length feature by a young woman, She Paradise is ambitious. Cozier is a filmmaker with a future. Few were in the cinema, which was unfortunate because her film is hugely worth watching as a Caribbean viewer, perhaps out on a date night. It’s up to us to value the thrill of scenes and people that look like who and what we know, shown on a big screen.

Post 462.

HERO, directed by Frances-Anne Solomon, and based on the “extraordinary” life of Trinidadian Ulric Cross, is a brilliant film which stands out for its contribution to Caribbean cinema. 

It’s sharply edited with a world-sweeping soundtrack, and an epic-level tale of how a young man born in 1917 in Belmont went on to become World War II’s most decorated West Indian, a BBC radio host, and legal adviser to path-breaking leaders in Ghana, Camaroon and Tanzania at a heady time of decolonisation. 

Hugely ambitious, a vast array of locations, costumes and sets place the viewer in Trinidad in the 1930s, London in the 1940s and 1950s, and across Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. Key characters in the film’s narrative are towering Trinidadian figures such as CLR James, born in Tunapuna, and George Padmore, born in Trinidad and buried in Ghana. If you needed a sense of how those from little Trinidad and Tobago were like saltfish in defining times of pan-African history, this film is your go-to must-see. 

Filmgoers want a watchable feature, compelling characters and relationships, camaraderie as well as tensions, and a well-paced script with both inspiring moments and relatable vulnerabilities. Hero is a genre-disobeying documentary that brings all that. 

It follows Ulric’s life from his childhood, showing him winning a prestigious Exhibition Scholarship and then his grades declining after his mother died and his father abandoned him and his siblings, through his role as a navigator in over 80 flights to bomb Germany and occupied Europe as part of the British Royal Air Force (RAF), and finally as a jurist creating constitutional law in newly independent African states. The story ends just as he’s leaving Africa to return to Trinidad, where he went on to become an Appeal Court judge. The last clips are of contemporary feminist marches which feel somewhat disconnected amidst such a tightly interwoven script.

I first met Ulric Cross in 1999, when he was already in his 70s, still tall, charming, well spoken, witty and sharp. He was dapper, like James Bond, always ready to open a bottle of champagne, smoke cigarettes and tell stories, laughing at his own memories. I never thought of him as a hero, and that public narrative seemed distant from the gentle, loving and good-natured man I’d call dad when I came by. 

It was similar to Ann Cross, a nurse, after whom a health clinic in Cameroon is named, a fiercely single-minded, radically left-wing and adventurous woman, whom I simply thought of as my friend Nicola’s mum. In Hero, Solomon transforms both Ulric and Ann, giving their lives a place in history that makes even those who knew them see them anew. 

Ulric is superbly played by Nicolai Salcedo who is a natural actor, never giving the character a sense of being forced. Frances-Anne Solomon has Salcedo smiling, smoking, joking, determined, and charming women, nearly the way Ulric would have done. Indeed, all the performances are strong throughout. 

Hero plays with colour, photography and footage to make a film that is as educational as a documentary but also hugely imaginative and at times purely fictional, both casting an intimate lens on Ulric and Ann and a panoramic lens on struggles between metropole and colonies. 

I particularly liked the subversive storyline about a fellow West Indian working for the British secret service, although it was the Belgians who orchestrated the assassination of Congo’s Patrice Lumumba. 

What sets Hero apart is the way that it splices archival footage with its own filmed scenes. It skilfully and repeatedly uses these historical scenes as sets, matching lighting and extras as if filming was occurring in those past times, changing the colours of footage to play with the resonances between past and present, and even rendering some shots in black and white to place back as if truly from an archive. 

Accompanying all this are real images of Ulric, in his 90s, nearly bedridden. It was striking to see him again so aged, particularly in contrast to a clip of him decades earlier, standing confident and articulate in front of a radio mic. Those bedroom scenes are captured as if filmed by his daughter Nicola, the love of his life, who is represented as a sensitive, curious and tentative filmmaker asking her parents about their past.

The film is a gift which every West Indian should see, for we can so easily get mired in our smallness. Hero, executive produced by Lisa Wickham, compellingly reminds us that we have been and can be world-stage.

Post 461.

IT IS timely to use April, which is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, to look at parents’ challenges with “teenage boyfriend problems” and how we discipline and punish. 

As cited in the 2016 IDB publication, Crime and Violence in Trinidad and Tobago, “widespread use of corporal punishment is a result of a complex interplay of cultural and social norms, including the belief that children are born ‘bad’ or ‘wicked’ and need correcting, the view of children as ‘property’ of their parents, the belief that punishment is necessary for character and moral development, the importance placed on obedience, lack of parenting skills (including a lack of knowledge about non-violent approaches to discipline), and the widespread belief of adults that they were not harmed by the physical punishment they received as children.” 

Corporal punishment describes physical violence enacted on the body. It is accepted by many teachers and families, and by children. Adults fear lack of control over children and loss of discipline without such aggressive domination. 

However, we should note that both the Children Act and the Domestic Violence Act prohibit cruel or humiliating punishment, unlawful physical violence and all forms of abuse. Beating children isn’t a crime. However, it’s essential that we name it for what it is and how it should be seen. 

Both physical violence against children and between partners is abuse. In 2005-2006, UNICEF found that 77 per cent of children aged two-14 experienced violent discipline in TT, with five-six per cent experiencing being “hit or slapped on the face, head or ears, or being hit over and over with an implement,”

However, no child deserves to be battered because extreme violence masquerades as discipline in our society. 

Let’s move now to adolescent sexuality, for which many teens are berated and beaten. 

Adolescent desire is normal, psychologically and biologically. Despite our misunderstanding and fears, it is not an expression of deviance. Sexual attraction becomes familiar to children beginning in primary school. Children talk about sex and intimacy, know others experimenting as they emerge into early teens, and have their own desires, even those from religious families. 

According to the Global School-Based Student Health Survey, reported in 2017 for Trinidad, one in three adolescents between 13 and17 was sexually active, with 55.9 per cent of this group having first had sexual intercourse before the age of 14. 

Among 13-15-year-olds, boys (33 per cent) were twice as likely as girls (16 per cent) to report having ever had sexual intercourse. In Tobago, it was 38.8 per cent, with 56.3 per cent of this group found to have had first sexual intercourse before the age of 14, and boys having higher rates of early sexual initiation and multiple partners than girls. As boys’ practices fit dominant expectations of heterosexual masculinity, it isn’t considered a teenage problem. 

With regard to girls, maybe they are not making decisions that are healthy for their future, aren’t ready for such choices or are rebelling. That’s adolescence. How should adults respond? 

Many shake their fists at health and family life education (HFLE) in schools, failing to recognise that teaching about adolescent sexualities (which is only one part of HFLE) helps parents when they talk and punish their teens, and nothing works. 

It provides other trusted adults, such as counsellors and teachers, in whom students can confide and from whom they can accept advice. It changes peer culture, helping students to support each other in making better decisions regarding their bodies and sexuality. It also helps to delay sexual experimentation, identify grooming, and empower minors to be critical of media influences.

Implemented with PTAs, it can provide better strategies for parents, so we don’t shout or hit our children out of frustration or fear for them, often regretting it, but nonetheless invested in whatever gives us desperate hope. Rather than opt for best practices, we caution girls to not get pregnant or shame themselves through violence every day.

Sexual and reproductive health services are also not available to adolescents without parental consent. Were such services supported by law, adolescent sexual health professionals could reach out to schools and youth groups, through community caravans and through regular clinic days so, again, parents are not on their own talking to children in ways they just don’t hear. 

It’s not just minors making questionable choices. So is the State, so are those opposed to comprehensive sexuality education, so are those in the media, so are parents. We pathologise adolescent sexuality. We normalise violence. Who needs to be more responsible? Just ask our teens. 

**This was the original article I wrote which Newsday would not publish leading to the one above being the published version:

My sincerest condolences to the family of 15-year-old Alliyah Alexander who died on Tuesday 5th April, 2022. The press reported that Alliyah died of blunt force injuries from being beaten and then falling down steps. She will never be able to tell her mother what happened. Such a saddening loss.  

Press on femicides continues to reproduce misunderstanding, stereotypes and victim blame. Morning Edition went with the tagline, “Discipline: What is too far?” What Alliyah experienced should never be represented as discipline or punishment, but as unjustifiable abuse. 

If we do not correctly name such an act of physical aggression, as psychologist Dr. Margaret Nakid-Chatoor did repeatedly, how can we agree that no child ever deserves to be battered? How can we be honest that extreme violence masquerades as discipline in our society? 

I was disturbed that Rondell Feeles of Father’s Association of Trinidad and Tobago wouldn’t name this scenario as one of ‘excessive abuse’, as if the beating had to actually kill Alliyah to constitute violence. A minor died. TV 6 thought it appropriate to still encourage the population to ask, ‘What is too far?’ 

What makes us willing to debate whether an adult man beating a 15-year-old daughter with a belt is legitimate discipline, but enables us to see a man hitting a 20-year-old partner as domestic violence? Isn’t all of it too far?  

Guardian’s judgmental front page read, “Teen who died during beating exhibited deviant behaviour’. This headline reflected Alliyah’s mother’s comments that her daughter was having “teenage problem with a boyfriend.” She added, “We talk, we punish, we ban, nothing work.”

Adolescent sexual desire is normal, psychologically and biologically. Sexual attraction is familiar to 15-year-olds. They talk about it, know others experimenting, and have their own desires, even those from religious families. Parental challenges managing “teenage boyfriend problems” are typical of every generation. 

There was nothing “deviant” about Alliyah’s behaviour. Maybe it wasn’t healthy for her future, maybe she wasn’t ready for such choices, maybe she wasn’t making the best decisions, maybe she was rebelling. That’s adolescence. 

No parent is perfect and children are exasperating when they don’t follow advice or do as they are told, but Guardian went further with textbook victim-blaming. This means including information about a victim that smears her character and makes violence which she experiences appear somehow to be her own fault. 

The message? Maybe if she was a good girl, she would still be alive. At her funeral service, Alliyah was described as “obedient, loving, intelligent and well-rounded young woman”. Guardian was unfair; the newspaper was also wrong. 

This sad story of a growing teen also results from our own irresponsibility as a society. 

Many shake their fists at Health and Family Life Education (HFLE) in schools, failing to recognise that teaching about adolescent sexualities (which is only one part of HFLE) helps parents when they talk and punish their teens, and nothing works. It provides other trusted adults, such as counsellors and teachers, in whom students can confide and from whom they can accept advice. It changes peer culture, helping students to support each other in making better decisions regarding their bodies and sexuality. It also helps to delay sexual experimentation, identify grooming, and empower minors to be critical of media influences.

Implemented with PTAs, it can provide better strategies for parents, so we don’t shout, demean or hit our children out of frustration or fear for them, often regretting it, but nonetheless invested in whatever gives us desperate hope.

We pretend this scenario isn’t familiar to parents across the country, and we leave them to do it on their own. We ignore best practices, instead opting for blaming and beating. This situation only came to our attention because young Alliyah died, but we are cautioning children to not get pregnant or shame themselves through violence every day.

Sexual and reproductive health services are also not available to adolescents without parental consent. Were such services supported by law, adolescent sexual health professionals could reach out to schools and youth groups, through community caravans and through regular clinic days so, again, parents are not on their own talking to children in ways they just don’t hear. 

Growing up is not easy. However, minors are not the only ones making questionable choices. So is the state, so are those opposed to comprehensive sexuality education, so are those in the media, so are parents. We pathologise adolescent sexuality. We normalise violence. While they are here with us to answer, just ask our teens. 

Post 460.

THERE ARE a number of observations to make about Amar Deobarran’s gruesome murder of Omatie Deobarran on April 1. 

The first is people’s disbelief that a diligent teacher, “upstanding citizen” and “very educated” guy “who loved his children” could also be abusive, repeatedly and lethally. It’s important to know that men exactly like this can do exactly these things. The fact that it can be any man is what is meant by it being “normalised.”

When people act so surprised it makes it less likely for women to break their silence about abuse by respectable men because it’s so hard to be believed and because people choose sides based on what they know, their own interests and biases.

Yet, violence isn’t meted out by some recognisable outcast or pathological exception, its perpetrated (like rape) by men who appear like any other. Recognising this, we can understand why all workplaces, religious spaces and communities have a responsibility to treat these issues of gender-based violence as if they are deep and real, however hidden, in their midst. 

The second is the family’s reported disbelief that Amar Deobarran could kill. Omatie Deobarran’s family reportedly advised her to “try and mend up things” despite the fact that Amar would “pick up a cutlass and knock it right round the hammock” when she was in it. 

At one point it seems that Omatie was to continue living on the same compound as a man who was recorded threatening to “saw off” her neck. Newsday reported that Amar was planning to evict her from their home, and described him and his mother telling her to go. It is commonplace for men to threaten to kill their wives, girlfriends or ex-partners, and for families to tolerate and defend them. Indeed, threats are often trivialised by families and ignored as a crime by police.

As a society, there is also significant dysfunction in how we understand love, whether in relation to beating children or condoning controlling and violent behaviour. Newspaper headlines are often guilty of just such confusion, misrepresenting men’s killing of women as acts of “passion” or blaming women for not choosing their men wisely. 

The Express represented Omatie’s murder as linked to her filing for divorce, not Amar’s infidelity and its consequences nor possibly his retaliation at custody arrangements resulting from his actions, and reinforced the message that women who decide to leave are the least safe because they “trigger” men to kill. 

Express’s headline focused on Amar Deobarran’s suicide. Omatie was merely described as “wife.” Guardian ran a story on how “Sir” changed after his father died of covid19, though problems clearly preceded that. No newspaper printed, “Unfaithful husband kills woman, self,” which would shift our perception of an inexplicable act by a caring man who “in a sudden twist” (to quote the Guardian) could kill a woman in front of their child. 

Third, it is therefore also absolutely essential that we talk about how a parent that loves his children could murder in front of them. All the data (see the Trinidad and Tobago Women’s Health Survey 2018) points to how much violence takes place in front of children, and against women when pregnant. This is something else that workplaces, schools and religious communities need to take seriously. It’s one of many reasons we should be teaching about gender-based violence prevention and protection in schools. 

News reports suggest that Omatie was fighting back for months, such quarrels were affecting the children, and that they were all seeing a counsellor, though Amar stopped going. One family member suggested that the murder was a response to court-mandated visitation with a court marshal, and where a man threatens a woman’s life, it should be clear to us by now that their children – as witnesses or victims – are also not safe. 

What should women do? Suffer in silence and be blamed for not leaving, thus exposing their children to the slow burn of family chaos and brutality? Hire an attorney and be blamed for leaving, risking men’s anger at having custody and access challenged? Are courts prepared to mandate lethality assessments which can protect women and their children? And how much more must be said about men’s responsibility for their violence before families acknowledge that this is where it can end? 

It’s because so many are surprised by “Sir” that we can imagine this is a common and familiar, though frequently unrecognised, scenario. Omatie’s story shows us so many signs, perhaps her death can stop another heartbreaking headline.

Post 459.

MYTHS AND falsehoods spread by adults put adolescents at risk. This is especially true in the area of adolescent sexuality. 

For example, comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) is often misrepresented as encouraging sexual experimentation and downplaying the risks associated with that behaviour. This is totally untrue and is a falsehood used to rally a misinformed movement against nationwide, equal access to age-appropriate health information for adolescents.

In fact, both CSE and the much broader health and family life education (HFLE) curriculum provide trusted adults and information to help young people make choices that keep them, their peer and family relationships, and their environments healthy and safe. 

No one wants adolescents to be sexually active before they are ready to manage responsibilities in relation to self, sex and relationships. Everyone understands the threat that teenage pregnancy poses to girls’ education, livelihood, economic survival and ability to live free of violence. 

CSE and HFLE programmes also aim to help minors identify and protect themselves from violence, abuse and bullying, and understand the importance of consent, or the right to decide what happens to your body, and a responsibility to value its safety, health and care.

There are thousands of children currently living in violent families and hundreds who experience sexual abuse each year. This is a group least likely to go to adults to ask questions about sex without fear, shame or danger. 

Children under-report their own experience of abuse, such is their silence. Many families don’t talk to children about their bodies, feelings, desires or sex because they are embarrassed, don’t know how or feel it is enough to tell them to study their books. 

Where do adolescents then go for information? The internet, where hardcore pornography is only a click away, and where there are many wrong answers to their questions. Or they go to their peers, who are the least experienced and informed. Rousing resistance to HFLE in schools only makes the most vulnerable of these children more silenced and ill-informed and less likely to be empowered to make decisions in their best interest. 

There are significant numbers who report unwanted sexual encounters and forced sexual initiation, meaning that the conversations we need to be having with them are not only about abstinence, because sex doesn’t always happen in conditions or in ways that they choose. 

Finally, like it or not, in our region, between ten and 30 per cent of adolescents are sexually active by 15 years old. Rural, indigenous and poor girls are most vulnerable, both to predation by older men and to unplanned consequences of sex.

What’s our approach? Abandon them for not obeying abstinence rules by refusing to explain the value of contraception? All that does is condemn them to risky sex; a sign of our own irresponsibility.

This is why, around the region, teenagers consistently ask for access to sexual and reproductive health information in schools and for services that enable them to prevent unwanted sex, sexually transmitted infections and pregnancies, and sexual violence. 

We can debate what approach is best. 

I agree with telling adolescents to wait until they are more mature or have finished school or can negotiate contraception or can earn their own income before having sex. Definitely, abstinence is best, though it’s not actually the reality for those who are not going to stop being sexually active, so we can’t be so obstinately narrow-minded about the range of information which teens need. 

What I find it hard to deal with, however, is misrepresentation of school-based health and family life or comprehensive sexuality curricula. For example, there is not decades of evidence that teaching about contraception leads to earlier sexual activity. And, last week, one opinion piece said: “The CSE approach ignores a needed priority on risk avoidance and, instead, primarily focuses on merely reducing the physical risks of teen sex, without adequately addressing the many other possible consequences of this activity.” 

Manners stop me from describing this as a deliberate lie. 

Parents, teachers and faith-based folks should know this does not reflect our own HFLE curriculum, which sensitively addresses many consequences and emphasises life skills, self-esteem, personal responsibility, healthy approaches to one’s body (including eating and exercise), and choices that provide the best life chances (including taking parenthood seriously enough to consciously defer pregnancy until adulthood). 

In our region, lack of access to sexual and reproductive health and rights curricula and services causes its own harmful results. To protect the health and development of Caribbean children, we need more responsible and truthful adults.

Post 458.

IN HIS March 19 commentary on CAPE 2021 scholarship winners, Dr Terrence Farrell called for efforts to “restore iconic secondary schools, but also to restore male achievement, restore excellence as an aspirational value, and indeed restore TT.”

Instead, we should unpack what are considered “iconic” secondary schools, their implicit association with masculinity, and the assumption that men best symbolise the status of the nation. 

The success of Lakshmi Girls’ Hindu College, Naparima Girls’ High School, St Augustine Girls’ High School and St Joseph’s Convent, St Joseph, among others, points to continuing transformations of an historic gendered hierarchy. This democratisation of success is an opportunity for schools that are neither male-dominated nor Port of Spain-dominated also to be iconic.

Dr Farrell, like other commentators, also called for restoration of male achievement. 

While there is concern about boys’ falling dominance in education, men are still ascendant in all spheres of power in our society; in business, politics, religion, land ownership, the security forces and the labour market, and on both public- and private-sector boards. 

This still occurs despite women graduating in higher numbers from UWI for 30 years. The hullabaloo about the “crisis facing boys” should be as loud in regard to the world beyond education, where there is less meritocracy, for which women pay the costs. This is precisely why girls know they have to work twice as hard to do just as well in the world today. 

The results suggest that excellence remains an aspirational value, though perhaps QRC and CIC have adjustments to make, which is what Dr Farrell is really referring to. In that sense, it’s a little dramatic to speak of needing to “restore TT,” as if these boys’ schools are the most legitimate symbols of the nation. 

Indeed, and someone needs to say it to an old boys’ club, what is wrong if Indian girls, dougla girls, south girls, Hindu girls, Presbyterian girls or African girls from the East-West Corridor occupy what seems to still be considered a fraternal right? Traditional inequalities in TT are being challenged, rather than reproduced, with good reason.

I understand those worried by the idea that, as one bredren put it, “Jus’ now we’re all gonna be pumping these SAGHS girls gas!” We are used to women’s subordination as shop clerks, domestic workers, informal sector workers, sex workers, caterers, cashiers, cleaners and housewives, even when they have a secondary-school education. 

We get worried when it seems that men may be moving downward in comparison to women, though women remain at the very bottom. The problem is when boys and men can no longer assume they will be on top. 

I also understand that there are real tribulations facing boys. These have been brewed through practices such as political patronage (which fed gangs), decades of judicial and prison system failure, economic contractions and neoliberal policies since the 1980s (which made the male-breadwinner model even harder to achieve), the crisis in social reproduction (as safety, trust and cohesion have fallen apart), intergenerational family violence, poor employment opportunities for university graduates (making education appear less relevant to economic power), and resilient ideals of manhood that have led boys to turn to leisure, crime, sports and entertainment in their flight from the feminine (which has meant that reading and studying are now seen as what girls do). 

Scholars such as Barbara Bailey, David Plummer and Mark Figueroa have also pointed to male privilege, or boys’ and men’s unearned advantage as a core catch-22. Figueroa writes, “Early childhood socialisation prepares girls much better than boys for the type of schooling common in the Caribbean. Girls are more confined to the house, more under adult supervision, given more responsibility, expected to be disciplined, taught to please others, and involved in doing uninteresting and repetitive tasks…In contrast, the mismatch between male gender identities and the educational system has grown. The old male chauvinist values are still inculcated in boys.” 

Competition is alive and well, and not just between girls’ schools, but between girls’ and boys’ schools, as they have always been. Increasingly, qualities associated with femininity are assets. Boys are caught in a gendered and generally misdiagnosed conundrum about what to do. 

We need well-educated men.

I’m also for addressing class inequalities in education, and widespread need for diverse learning approaches and inclusive (non-violent and non-homophobic) schools. We can continually remake rather than just restore ourselves as a republic. How depends on the analysis we choose.

Post 457.

ALL MEMORIES are partial and personal. They may not reflect or convey public personas and they may not narrate whole biographies, but they are how those we know and love live on. 

In my memories, Prof Selwyn Ryan is sitting at his desk in his office at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute for Social and Economic Studies (SALISES), working on one book or another, happy to spend an hour or two talking whenever I stopped in to say hello. It was like this for more than a decade. 

We spent endless afternoons after he retired as director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) discussing politics while I combed his library shelves and asked him about one moment or another in our history. He always had the backstory or analysis of a situation that you couldn’t find easily in print. 

When I think about the UWI, I think of professors like him; biologist Julian Kenny, historians Bridget Brereton and Brinsley Samaroo, economist Norman Girvan, literature scholar Ken Ramchand, and of course IGDS’s Rhoda Reddock and Patricia Mohammed. 

These are scholarly giants who, because they are academics invested in ideas, books, knowledge and the region, and because you could run into anybody crossing the quadrangle or in the library or at a conference, were more accessible than they may seem on paper or in the press. 

Indeed, it’s when they are retired that they may have more time, have accumulated an encyclopaedic understanding of the Caribbean, and perhaps most welcome younger students excited to access so much that’s not quite published anywhere. The place comes to have meaning through these relationships if you manage to make them.

Usually, the communities around such professors emerge from their disciplines. Prof. Ryan’s community expanded beyond ISER, now SALISES, to include political scientists, international relations scholars, sociologists and anthropologists, those of us influenced by the writings of Lloyd Best and a spectrum of Caribbean thinkers. You couldn’t produce a thesis on TT without citing him. 

I’d have to search countless publications and articles to compile the information that he could convey in just a conversation, and he could talk about elections, constitutional commissions, state boards or political leaders from across the region with a fluency and familiarity that was his hallmark. He knew the details like a journalist on the beat, yet he was astoundingly prolific as a scholar. 

He seemed to be working on another book every few months, trying out titles, literally writing thousands of words by hand on a pad of yellow lined paper. I couldn’t keep up. I’d knock on the building’s metal door and he’d pause writing his column to pull out his briefcase or leather bag of newspaper clippings to show me what he was writing about. He treated newspapers like a library.

He’d tell stories about politicians who distanced themselves in public, but called repeatedly for advice, chuckling and shaking his head at their hubris. We disagreed about Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s chances in the run-up to the 2010 election and about Errol Miller’s misguided thesis, but he welcomed opinion and old talk. He was a treasure trove of experience for a graduate student interested in listening, and affectionate debate. 

He was at heart a UWI man, on the UWI fete committee, who heard all town’s talk on the cocktail circuit, but was himself invested in writing more than status or money. As time went on, there were fewer academics with whom he was friends on campus, and his sense of community there changed, though his loyalty did not. 

When I was 21 years old, he gave me my first ethnographic research job, with Rajnie Ramlakhan, and, for some months in 2000 when I struggled with writing my chapters, he let me burrow in a vacant office at SALISES so I could finish my MPhil thesis. My world of young feminist organsing was so separate from his, but he genuinely listened across our generational differences as I grew into my own.

An archetypal Caribbean man, he was also encouraging, sensitive and kind. He was my long-time friend and mentor, part of making the UWI home for me.

Others can speak to his national and scholarly contribution, which also speaks for itself, but those who came of age under him will feel his passing as a moment that marks time. 

Travel well, Prof. Your spirit is still on campus and in our memories. Know that your legacy lives on in our hearts, minds and journeys.

Post 456.

WHEN ZIYA was eight years old, she started a little class newsletter. Other classmates joined and divided responsibility for different sections focusing on news, weather and sports. In the few issues they worked on, the boys who were responsible for the sports news only wrote about men’s soccer and sports. This was in a year when Serena Williams and Simone Biles had proven to be some of the greatest athletes of all time. 

You need to tell them that their section must feature women as much as men, I said. She refused, preferring to avoid any conversation about it and to accept such invisibility, though she recognised that it was not right. 

I couldn’t blame her. First, ensuring equality wasn’t her responsibility, it was also the boys’. Second, appearing to demand that they equally include women’s sports, having to convince boys confident with privilege, and then dealing with possibly being trivialised was more than she was willing to take on. 

Third, no one else, not even the other girl in their little group, thought this youthful example of sexism or gender bias was an issue, so she would have been the one making something apparently innocent a big deal. She stayed silent, intimidated by the effort of saying something on her own and against an accepted norm.

Many women understand these hesitations. Many don’t want to take on the responsibility for creating gender equality because they are women. Many don’t want to have to convince other women or men who think that daily inequalities are acceptable or normal, and they stay silent even when activists call on them to act. They don’t want to be the one making something a big deal. Many feel it’s safer to negotiate their lives as best as they can, recognising that feminism isn’t popular or easy. 

I was sorry that Zi encountered that experience, one which repeats itself through our lives as women. It is such an inconsequential example, barely worth mentioning, but that’s exactly how inequality normalises privilege, exclusion, stereotypes and silences again and again, through the little injustices perpetuated and left unchallenged and unchanged.

When I think of gender equality, I think of a world in which girls no longer have any such experiences, in all their familiar complexity and momentous triviality. I want a world in which girls and women no longer have to fight for rights, freedoms, safety, legitimacy, recognition or power, whether in sports, workplaces, politics, university curricula, families, the media, religion or simply in public spaces. 

In this sense, “equality” isn’t about comparisons with men, trying to be like them or getting what they have, it is about fair access to and sharing of voice and visibility, inclusion and income, leadership and opportunity. It is also about fair sharing of power to decide what is normal in a just, peaceful, inclusive and caring world. 

In her little chat group of classmates this year, there’s been homophobic name-calling amongst the boys. I’ve had to explain to her that, at their age, some boys begin to wonder if they are gay and that using homosexuality as an insult is harmful and hurtful. I just ignore the boys, she says, again refusing to say something, though she reposted their group rules regarding being kind. 

You can see why feminists turned to laws and policies, which set state and organisational norms and rules, whether regarding discrimination, sexual harassment or violence, so that individual women themselves don’t have to champion what should be collectively agreed. 

That’s one of the reasons we celebrate women for International Women’s Day (IWD), precisely because as individuals, associations and movements, they have done so much championing, whether for justice, peace or sustainability. IWD is also a day to recognise that feminist struggles continue so that one day, girls can know what it’s like to never encounter sexism, homophobia, gender stereotyping, (having to be protected from) sexual abuse and the array of harms that result from gender inequality, even before their teens. It’s a day to strengthen courage and resolve. 

In Zi’s online experience, both boys and girls were silent about the homophobia by their primary school peers. I think about my daughter, being raised in a feminist family and by two moms, who is getting the message to stay quiet and avoid possible shame about her own reality. International Women’s Day is a moment to remind that this is the world we must change, for girls growing into womanhood, who shouldn’t be able to tell any of these stories.

Post 455.

DOES gender matter to war? As we watch Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this is a question that hardly makes it to news coverage, though its answers can offer valuable analytical insight.

So, what does the question really explore? First, whether masculinities and femininities shape how people experience war and how those with power wield violence in international politics. We’ve seen how militaries are dominated by men and how men in particular become conscripted into a nation’s defence. 

This happened a few days ago in Ukraine, when men 18-60 were banned from leaving the country and encouraged to join the army. On the other side of this are women who are left with responsibility for care for families, the aged and the ill, and for provision of food and water, which have long been responsibilities assigned to women. In this way, war relies on and reinforces stereotypical gender divisions, like most crises.

Second, the question directs us to look to leaders themselves and how they represent their power. Vladimir Putin’s highly crafted “badman” hyper-masculinity is part of his domestic gender politics and global gendered politics. This is not unusual. 

Whether in relation to the Cold War confrontation between John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev over the Cuban Missile Crisis or now between Putin and Biden, it’s necessary to not appear “weak” and to talk tough. Pro-American propaganda machines are referring to the sanctions as “potent” economic warfare exposing Putin’s “shocking weakness.” 

For both countries, nuclear weapons have long generated an imagery of competitive male sexuality, literally bombs are compared to the phallus (or erect penis), referred to as “big boy” and associated with penetration, just as the penis (though not in its usual soft and vulnerable state) is associated with a gun and semen described as bullets or blanks. 

Nationally, Putin has backed a mix of positions with relation to gender and sexuality, for example, defending women’s right to work but also championing motherhood as an essential part of Soviet womanhood. Feminists have faced increased repression since Pussy Riot members were imprisoned, anti-domestic violence organisations were placed on “foreign agent” lists, and some forms of domestic violence were decriminalised in 2017. 

More importantly, feminist scholars have pointed to the ways that gender is used for nation-building, through establishing state-friendly masculinised youth groups, and branding the West as gay, feminised, weak and immoral. Opposition leaders were photoshopped as transgender prostitutes, for example, and the Ukraine is represented as a “picky girl,” a “flighty mistress” and a western-dominated and dependent state. 

Homosexuality is portrayed as European, making Russia’s emphasis on heteronormative militarised manhood appear morally superior, and legitimising domination of Ukraine. Russian propaganda also compares Ukraine to a prostitute, sleeping with the EU and US for money (and weapons). In such ways, gender and sexuality are always part of establishing the boundaries between “us” vs “them” and establishing justifications for violence and war. 

Before he was killed on assignment in Libya, photojournalist Tim Hetherington compassionately represented military men, describing war as “one of the very few places where men can express love for each other without inhibition.” On the basis of his time in Liberia, he also observed how young rebel fighters re-enacted scenes from Hollywood films of war and combat like a “feedback loop.” Fighting became a stage to perform masculinity as portrayed by mass media just like gangs both provide the images for and then imagine themselves in relation to movies portraying gangsters as dominant men.

These gendered considerations appear peripheral to economic and imperial rationales for war, but only because there’s mainstream silence about their significance. They shape who leads nations, what kinds of security decisions they make, how they militarise societies to normalise armed violence against others, how they dehumanise death, and how much war (like gangs, like sports) is a site for competing patriarchies. Women have become more involved in militaries, but they haven’t changed this matrix of power, sexuality and gender. 

Russian feminists are courageously condemning Putin’s war. One manifesto declares, “War means violence, poverty, forced displacement, broken lives, insecurity, and the lack of a future. It is irreconcilable with the essential values and goals of the feminist movement. War exacerbates gender inequality and sets back gains for human rights by many years. War brings with it not only the violence of bombs and bullets but also sexual violence…We are the opposition to war, patriarchy, authoritarianism, and militarism. We are the future that will prevail.” 

May solidarity with a more feminist future bring us greater peace.

Post 454.

LAST Wednesday’s national blackout should direct us to lessons from sister isle Puerto Rico. 

In 2017, after Hurricane Maria demolished swathes of the electricity grid, leaving some without power for as long as a year, Casa Pueblo (the People’s House) provided a solar power “energy oasis.” The lights never went out and hundreds of residents turned to the non-profit to plug in cell phones, fridges with medicines and dialysis machines in the following weeks. 

Spurred on by their survival, Casa Pueblo continued to lend and instal thousands of solar panels, solar lights and solar-refrigerators throughout the community in Adjuntas, as they had been doing since 1991, to provide cheap, renewable energy, grow a network of microgrids and break dependence on fossil fuels. 

This is an important example for us here. We saw how easy it is to shut down the national grid, without even a hurricane or earthquake in sight. The first knocks down transmission lines. The second rattles power plants themselves, challenging the resilience of centralised grids. 

We are also still limping along with our fossil fuel addiction, in need of fast-tracked, alternative paths to economic and energy development. In Doha, we are still calling gas “the fuel of the future.” Look up. Renewable power is right over our heads. 

Local electricity is over-produced and cheap so these issues haven’t been taken up, but they should be, as they could help prevent what happened last week. More than that, solar energy can reduce business and household bills, provide clean and dependable power, decarbonise our footprint and reduce our contribution to climate change, and democratise energy infrastructure – meaning return decisions about power and management of microgrids to communities. 

Again, this is important for us. There’s a tug of war between those who believe in big government with central authority and those pushing for privatisation as more efficient, but that’s a false choice. 

Casa Pueblo’s “energy insurrection” shows this, precisely because its vision is centred in community-based development and a right to energy self-sufficiency, which for Puerto Rico is also part of movements seeking environmental justice and decolonisation from the US. 

What is being called a “decolonial future” is additionally about imagining a world of social justice, freedom, equality, peace and collective care for our shared commons of land, air and water, as well essential services related to education, health, housing and food. 

Mobilising communities around these interconnected concerns challenges models of increasing accumulation of wealth and power with ones of sovereignty, solidarity and mutual aid. It’s about challenging both state bureaucracy and corporate control, after all the sun shines for free and each home should be able to generate electricity. 

Imagine communities not having to beg for connection and supply. Imagine low monthly bills without having to hear about the costs of state subsidies. 

Our current approach is all big business. The “largest solar parks in the region” are being undertaken with Lightsource BP. Globally, communities are pushing back against “energy colonialism” and these industrial approaches. The Brechin Castle park project says it recognises the issues of biodiversity conservation, landscape impact and cultural heritage. But, why should Lightsource BP power the world when communities can power themselves? 

We should have these conversations without being provoked by a crisis. We should at least have these conversations when a crisis provokes them, otherwise we sit waiting for the next time our dependence becomes painfully apparent.

Here at home, long recommended transformations include amending the T&TEC Act so that power independently generated can be shared with the grid, enabling households or businesses to generate their own electricity, and paying or providing credit for what they contribute to a microgrid. 

These power supply solutions, promoting energy generation at the point of consumption, are just part of a more radical vision. That’s important to keep in mind too. 

Ultimately, renewable energy movements are also connected to those working on ecological regeneration and increasing community capacity, power and resources to autonomously respond to critical needs and climate crises. This is ever more urgent as debt rises and state finances contract, leading to poorer infrastructure and service delivery. 

I’ve highlighted Puerto Rico, but what Arturo Massol-Deya of Casa Pueblo calls “anti-colonial plan making from below” and an “energy insurgency” is bubbling across our archipelago because all of our islands face economic and ecological threat.

In our darkest moments, remember we have power to change people’s current frustrations, fears and losses when electricity goes. Under our shared Caribbean sky are grassroots examples of what we can do.

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