Post 253.

It’s hilarious and so typical. These last years, Ziya was vehemently into pink. Every opportunity to get dressed was declarative. In contrast to my choices, she would insist on locating pink pants, pink tops and pink hairclips, proclaiming that it was her body so she should decide. As I stood in front of the cupboard doors, blue pants and yellow tops dangling ineffectually from my arms, you know which feminist mom was seriously contemplating the pros and cons of teaching empowerment to a contrary four year old.

Avoiding absolute fundamentalism, pink could be matched with purple in her lexicon of outfit possibilities, and Zi would initiate repetitive conversations about which colours were our favorites – mine is green, and hers pink and purple. Such verification was intended solely to confirm which colours she consented to, which she thought went well with pink, and which coordinated with various media influences, such as Doc McStuffins or Lego Friends.

My friends laughed at the irony of Ziya’s steadfast commitment to such gender stereotypical representation, for I eventually gave in to my inability to change the mind of a four year old despite the fact that I was pursuing all kinds of efforts to change the public’s mind about the normality of a sexist status quo.

I threw up my hands because I recognised that she was unlikely to escape the dominance of precisely those ideas. Understandably, she was also working out how to fit in with her peers and social norms. Plus, all parents know when and how to choose their battles with children, who will negotiate with the bloody-mindedness of a terrorist or a gladiator to get what they want.

Lo and behold, and out of the blue, she is now done with pink. But, of course, guess which colour is suddenly her favorite?

Black.

Whole new conversations must be initiated in contexts with no apparent relevance, and old positions must be explicitly revised, to make the point about these new terms of level cool.

Now we are pulling my black shalwar dupattas from the cupboard to joyously create black robes like, of all characters, Voldemort. Dolls are being marker-made up with black ‘lipstick’. Apparently, we must go looking for black flowers. Black starry pajamas are being donned after afternoon baths. Black and red tutus are being fashioned, and worn over self-same pajamas, all entirely explained by the trending status of black.

Dizzied by this unpredicted turn of events, all I could do is sit in front of the cupboard and dreamily wish for a minty mohito. It’s humbling to know that, however capable you consider yourself in the public world of work, you will hardly be able to keep up with a six year old’s changes of mind and personality.

The change is surprising as the hearts and glitter girl power of Sophia Grace and other Disney children stars still provide the soundtrack for Zi’s home-based “dance shows”. Maybe it came from playing new characters, like zombies, with her neighbhourhood friend, whose interests are also changing. Or, because we finished the first three Harry Potter audio books over Santa Cruz’s morning traffic, and she’s intrigued by the beckoning power of dark forces and Hogwarts uniforms. Maybe she’s decided to identify with my sister, who herself had a long Goth phase, and who Ziya associates with snakes, bats and dangerous wildlife.

Our children have multifaceted psychological shifts in their little lives as part of their growth. For parents surviving storms, and the stress of school tests, it’s a good reminder that they also excel in evoking so much laughter and love.

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Post 252.

An historic victory was won last week when child marriage was prohibited by amendments to the marriage laws of Trinidad and Tobago. This was a victory for the women’s movement, supported by male allies and working across race, class and religion, despite how fraught that can be. I was relieved both PNM and UNC MPs voted for an amended law. I was sorry the change failed to happen under Kamla Persad-Bissessar as early as 2010.

The call first came from the Hindu Women’s Organisation (HWO) more than six years ago. Organisations such as the IGDS and FPATT became involved by 2013. Lobbying expanded over the last two years, as a coalition of civil society organizations, including Womantra, CAISO, the Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, the Association of Female Executives of Trinidad and Tobago (AFETT), the YMCA, CAFRA and more, was brought together by Folade Mutota and WINAD.

It was discriminatory for girls to be marriageable earlier than boys. There was no contemporary reason for this other than girls’ sexual vulnerability at a younger age. The solution isn’t marriage, it’s transforming such vulnerability to older male sexual predation. That this was overwhelmingly an issue affecting adolescent girls points squarely to how gender inequality leads to denial of full self-determination at a much younger age for girls than boys.

The majority of these marriages were between girls under sixteen, and boys and men who were, at times, much older.  This is not the Ram and Sita or Romeo and Juliet story of two teen secret lovers nor of their unwed adolescent sexual experimentation nor of family protection of two secondary students supported to finish both this and tertiary schooling.

Largely working class girls, perhaps with limited educational support or options, and definitely limited prospects for occupational advancement, were experiencing the greatest vulnerability to early sexual initiation by adult men, who usually also had low educational or occupational achievement.

Marriage may have seemed like a secure economic option because an older man promised to look after them. Perhaps, they were seduced by a feeling of adulthood that sexual relationships bring. Maybe they were in love or escaping oppressive and insecure family conditions, or they got pregnant and marriage seemed the next step. It’s likely they didn’t have a clue about the compromises, conflicts and responsibilities that come with partnership with a hardback man.

Rather than “the destruction of family life”, what was destroyed was the legal access of adult men to teen girls. This was necessary if we recognize how gender, religion and class unequally impacted thousands from lower-income families.

There were recommendations that teenagers over sixteen, but within three years of age, be allowed to marry. Such an exception had merit. That the exception didn’t make it to the legislation is a complicated story about the AG vs the HWO and the coalition.

What happens to the babies of unwed mothers? Families and partners can still love and support them such that teenage girls finish schooling, can secure their own income and can decide what they want out of their lives. A change to the marriage law in no way affects this.

If lack of respectability associated with unwed pregnancy is a major fear, then the solution is to give girls knowledge, support and access to contraception.

Adult hypocrisy, rather than “strict family values”, is at stake here for no one wants to girls to have sex, whether by choice and desire or by grooming and predation, without the threat and likelihood of dire consequences. So no one wants to prepare them to protect themselves if they do. When they are made pregnant, everyone can treat them as if they are responsible for the shame. The solution can’t be marriage to the same adult man who didn’t know or care enough to use condoms or protect a teenage girl’s future freedom in the first place.

Too early pregnancy isn’t a more important issue than too early marriage. Like child sexual abuse, they are consequences of adult failures to acknowledge girls’ sexual vulnerability and empower even poor girls to secure better options. If we care as much as we say, all the other work must now gain momentum.

 

Post 251.

Stormy ongoings in the teacup that is Trinidad and Tobago are both an indicator of and distraction from the major hitch facing us today. That hitch is lack of institutional accountability in state and corporate governance of our planet.

Such accountability cannot be secured by either technological or technical fixes, though they may counter crises. Such accountability is totally a matter of politics, meaning political will and public power driven by a fearless demand for human responsibility, justice and truth.

Elections are of little relevance here, for the damage is ground into our bodies and our generations, while being both hidden and denied, in the years between voting a party in and then voting them out. As we all know, we pay the costs with debt and blood.

How can we persuade the young that what the report, Global Catastrophic Risks 2017, calls “striking exponential developments” such as species extinction and carbon dioxide poisoning of the earth will not be solved simply by invention when the challenge is to quicken care, conviction and collective action?

Nuclear warfare risk, for example, is best contained by controlling proliferation, creating decision-making paths that slow the chance of use, and replacing a deterrence model with one banning all nuclear weapons.  ‘Seems utopian’, said my students, when I read them the Bandung position that world peace required disarmament, made in April 1955 when ex-colonies came together to declare their vision for a world other than that dictated to them.

Nonetheless, the fact is that planetary movements of ordinary people can insist we reduce warfare risk, even as it has expanded into chemical and biological weapons, as used in Syria up to this year. The threat isn’t just from rebel terrorists, but from states’ use of non-deadly chemical weapons for “domestic riot control purposes, counter-terrorism operations, international peacekeeping operations…and standby offensive chemical weapons capability”. People somewhere fought for the Biological Weapons Convention of 1975, which has not yet been empowered sufficiently.

The climate change crisis is much the same with solutions widely proposed to keep global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius through a Carbon Law that aims to halve emissions every decade to around zero by 2050. We saw what happened when Trump’s ‘America First’ policy led to his pull out of the 2015 Paris agreement. This means we can’t simply be a world watching to see whether political leaders will commit to fossil fuel phase out and renewable energy.

Indeed, states have “consistently disregarded the high-end scenarios that could lead to abrupt, irreversible or runaway climate change” despite evidence of a tipping point, the likelihood of a 4 degree rise, and effects such as starvation, displacement and ecological collapse. Sweet T and T has historically had a fossil fuel phase in combined with a what-else-we-go-do approach, that is not only short-term and short-sighted, but lethal, and on which all political parties agree.

Such is the Anthropocene, a geological era when we are impacting the habitability of the planet at an accelerating pace. The current situation is one where nine planetary boundaries that underpin the stability of the global ecosystem were identified. These included ozone depletion, fresh water use, ocean acidification, and biosphere integrity which includes species diversity.

We’ve exceeded safe limits for four of the nine, which means it’s past time, as the Global Catastrophic Risks 2017 report recommends, to integrate the valuation of ecosystems into economic decision-making, reduce pollution, change consumption patterns, monitor national and corporate reporting, and cooperate globally in recognition of the fact that these risks cross national boundaries. Who can make this happen? Only you and me, with our insistence multiplied by millions.

Within the university, I’m struck that students don’t seem to realise the fate in front their eyes, nor the urgency required of them to overthrow business as usual, nor the fact that they will be the first global generation in history whose parents have robbed them of a secure future.

Innovation won’t drive change without a sense of will, care, capacity, anger, commitment and immediacy. Yet, I struggle to successfully and sustainably teach these or even to connect our small-island, headline squabbles with irresponsible elites and institutions to similar governance catastrophes whose unjust implications are now planetary.

 

 

 

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Post 250.

Recently leaked documents reveal a top-secret operations control centre, known as the Deep Impact Group or DIG, housed in a non-descript room within WASA’s offices. Peeling paint on the outer walls is mere diversion. This Centre is outfitted with the most sophisticated GIS and communication technology of any state agency, appearing almost like Tom Cruise’s intel capacity in the film, Minority Report.

Its entire purpose is to instantly direct WASA workers, those mysterious blue-uniformed men with digging equipment, to any recently paved road. Revelation of this wholly underground, yet well-funded strategic base, will no doubt provide answers to many questions long asked by citizens, such as: How come WASA waits until a road is finally paved to dig it up? Is there is some conspiracy within the state to unnecessarily create potholes to oppress school children with twice-daily traffic, and ruin car shocks and bushings? Fishily, is the Bamboo the unexpected headquarters for a used car parts mafia controlling the government?

Picture interactive screen technology in an array of blinking glass billboards throughout the room. Phones ring constantly, the screens ping wherever arch-nemeses such as private contractors hired by the Ministry of Transport appear with their subversive illegal gravel and unsustainable use of Pitch Lake asphalt.

One Minister or another is inevitably shouting down secure phone lines, for roads left properly paved will no longer need to be pointlessly resurfaced in six months. And, what would there be to boast about when one can build only so many overpasses and roundabouts? The situation would be untenable, possibly leading to a palace coup by party once-faithful. The pressure in the enclosed office is palpable, frenzied by the constant pinging indicating that, surely, nowhere in the country is truly safe.

With each call, a WASA secret agent dashes to Google Map the exact section of highway or rural trace which has somehow escaped their oversight and is being paved by enthusiastic fellas on overtime, entirely unaware of their sabotaging of DIG’s national mission. The harried strategist in charge rushes from screen to screen, yelling commands and rapidly diverting limited men and trucks to avert the disaster of possible paving that successfully covers over cracks and craters, leading to a heady but dangerous sense of contentment, comfort and first-world status among drivers. It’s almost too much to imagine the risk.

Papers are strewn everywhere for there is hardly enough time to get permissions and signatures. This leads to diabolically unaccountable levels of spending as oversight cannot keep up with the pace of such disaster management. The problem is so large, both political parties have secretly agreed that DIG will never be made known nor report to a Joint Select Committee, and you will find that it has never been mentioned in any Auditor-General’s report. Check for yourself as far as records go. Uncanny absence corroborates this truth.

As personnel are rapidly diverted to new locations, and with drone-directed precision, alternatively left, then centre, then right sides of freshly-smoothed roads are efficiently gutted, there is hardly a moment to sleep. Election seasons inevitably result in one or more supervisors’ death by exhaustion.

Carlos John was particularly responsible for discomforting numbers of collapsing Ops Control directors, not to mention those who crumpled to their feet upon receiving orders to pave the Savannah’s precious green space. Now you understand the de-sensitization, MI5-style programming received by the driver who robotically poured gravel on a heroic Eden Shand, injuring him forever. It suddenly makes sense, right?

Crisis after crisis is averted as rumfled, frustrated staff track the trucks on the screens, in real-time, as they dreevay to a parlour, then a doubles man, and then to the emergency site. They hold their breath until the first split of pitch. Yet, their work is never done for the electronic map unendingly lights up seemingly everywhere in turn, pinging all the while.

A WASA insider, disgruntled because of recession cutbacks to this secret service, emailed photos, phone records and an audio memo of the pinging to me. I will not reveal my source, but it is clear that this story explains a reality long denied, but apparent to all with eyes to see and anywhere to reach in a hurry.

Post 249.

Indian Arrival Day provides a moment for looking back through history and asking what we should continue to carry in our jahajin bundle tomorrow. All remembering is selective. For young Indo-Trinidadian women and dougla or mixed-race women with Indian ancestry, who we accept and empower ourselves to be is shaped by the historical stories we are told. So, choosing those stories is as key to what we remember as it is to how we define ourselves today.

Stories of Indian womanhood typically idealise a sacrificial, dutiful and respectable figure, making many young women wonder how to manage being both Indian and self-determining at the same time. It’s as if Indo-Caribbean and feminism are awkwardly fitted words, to be lived in ways you hide from your family or as a marker of your irreverence to the teachings of priests, pundits and imams. Or, worse, your failure to be either appropriately Indian or an acceptable woman.

But, this ideal figure is a mythical one – drawn from emphasizing some women over others in India or the history of Islam, some goddesses or others in religious texts, and some women over others today.

Instead, the Indian women we should be remembering are our great-grandmothers, grandmothers and mothers. They were complex characters, not simply self-sacrificing. They could be unruly and heroic. They were imperfect, yet resilient, resourceful and determined survivors who changed lives, families and communities. These were the kind of women in whom we can see struggles, choices, regrets, victories and secrets, so much closer to our own lives despite the span of sometimes more than a century.

Thirty years of Indo-Caribbean feminist writing has highlighted that Indian women who arrived as part of the odyssey of indenture came as workers, not as wives. Some were kidnapped or fooled by recruiters, but many were escaping conditions not of their own choosing, including economic conditions shaped by successive droughts in India, the multifarious violence of British colonization, and the oppressiveness of marital, family, caste and village life. Sexual violence was also a reality in India, on ships that crossed the Kala Pani, and on sugar estates in the new world.

Amidst all this, these jahajins earned their own money (though at discriminatory wages in comparison to men), accrued and invested their own savings, and started and left sexual relationships in ways that explicitly threatened men’s control over them. The idea that Indian women were or should be docile, dependent or domesticated was a myth wielded by colonial authorities, religious leaders and Indian men to manners women, such that men would not turn to the cutlass or courts to control them and such that the British experiment wouldn’t be seen as producing the wrong kind of woman for a patriarchal stable family.

Post-indentureship feminism, which Lisa Outar and I write about in the collection, Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought, is the pursuit of self-determination which, in this post-indentureship period, explicitly builds on these stories which we are less often told.

It’s a sense of rights and how to navigate them which emerges from looking, not to India or texts or myths or the past, but to the indentureship experience and the archetypes or models which women have provided for us since they set foot on those boats.

It’s a legacy of women’s dreaming, strategizing, learning, laboring and organizing to resist, withstand or outlive violence, to express sexual desires and experience erotic pleasure, and to manage the demands and rewards of respectability.

Post-indentureship feminism describes how Indian women today negotiate gender ideals, navigate a range of aspirations and expectations, and wield a sense of self and rights shaped by decades of feminism. That feminism, in all its kinds, is home-grown. It emerged from the plantation experience of slavery and indentureship, and provided Indian women with the rich possibilities for cross-ethnic relations, intimacies and solidarities among women which are the best of Caribbean feminism today.

As we remember stories from indentureship to present, young women now have 170 years of Indian women’s sometimes hidden histories from which to find inspiration for our fearlessness and refusal to obey oppressive ideals at our own expense. Our families and communities should be our allies. This would honour those who arrived seeking nothing less.

Post 248.

La Diablesse sat on a fallen branch in a dappled part of a forest and wondered if she was lonely.

She loved the forest. The air was alive with birdsong, both solos and chorus. The tree leaves were always dancing with her as she hummed. The wind was her best friend, sometimes breathing quietly at her side while she slept, rushing about as they played hide and seek, howling at some injustice and even murmuring in a corner when they fought and had not yet made up. The sky bathed her like a scrubby child or a soft woman or breakable crystal. The animals, snakes and insects kept watch over her; an army on which she had only to call for protection.

La Diablesse knew she was beautiful. Treading carefully over roots and rocks, she walked naked, knelt by shallow pools that mirrored the sky, and saw her brown skin reflect all the beauty and life growing around her. She could speak all the languages of her companions. Through all of time, this was her home. She wanted for nothing. She felt deeply at peace.

One full moon night, there was a horrific killing in her forest. A man dragged a woman through the bushes and threw her against some dark, mossy rocks. There was one gunshot. The man spit and left, stumbling and casting his weight about without coordination.

La Diablesse had crept up to the woman, wondered whether it was the deep insight of her third eye which the man wished to blow away, and shuddered as the pores on her skin, from her foot to her scalp, grew cold as if overtaken by a sickly fever.

She surveyed the woman’s long white dress and the wide-brimmed white hat still gripped in one hand, and began to tug them away from her, pulling at the rim, then buttons, then skirt. She held up the dress and the moon shone through, so it appeared ghostly and alive, like a second skin that could lessen the cold she felt down to her bones. Shaking, she picked up the woman’s fallen shoe and put it on.

Many moons later, she again heard slow and deliberate footsteps, and turned quickly to hide within the folds of a large silk cotton tree trunk. A man was coming closer. He had not seen her, for the focus of his rifle was on a young deer that had only just grown to resemble its mother. Over his shoulder were iguanas, torturously tied but alive. The shot ricocheted off every held breath in the clearing. Birds screamed. The wind started to softly weep.

La Diablesse watched the man’s boots as they crushed decaying leaves, raising the scent of death. She saw him lean over the fallen deer, but unable to stomach its cold killing, she quietly crawled away, anger clawing her insides. She started to tremble just as she had when she bent over the woman and her hands crumpled the dress wrapped around her as she tried to contain her rage. She was a woman who now knew the terror of such unjust death. Who this man was did not matter. He could not do this and live.

For the first time, she began to head out of the forest, following the man, slowed by the unevenness of her legs. She reached the edge of the road and stood tall, the hat tilted against the sinking glare of the sun, the dress dancing around her. The wind sidled up to the man and whispered. He twisted and squinted into darkening forest. La Diablesse waved. She stepped back. He came closer. She moved back and the dress trailed.

The man never returned to the road. Neither did dozens of others, until these men became like grotesque companions, obsessed, then lost, then mad, then dead, with their eyes open in fear. Maybe it was a satisfying revenge in the beginning, but it soon became a feverish habit and, not long after, a terrifying fate.

Once an unknown emotion, now beautiful La Diablesse always felt lonely. Reminding her of her charm, and her wrath, the wind took her hand and ushered her to the edge of the road.

 

Post 247.

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Seen from the air, Guyana’s forested beauty is epic. The plane’s shadow buzzed over the treetops like a gnat, insignificant in afternoon sun and in comparison to such wondrously vast tree cover.

In between, bare red rock or white sand pockmarked the surface where old forest had been razed. Mining, quarrying or logging is making some rich in the present while leaving children in the future without this inheritance, for all your generation has to give is this one precious planet.

Such wounds seem small from the plane window, but are matters of life and death, of community traditions and contemporary rights, for Indigenous women continuing to resist in Guyana even as I write.

The taxi driver couldn’t figure out where all Guyana’s money went, for a country with gold, diamonds and timber should be the wealthiest in the Caribbean. ‘It don’t make sense’, he told me.

Not in Trinidad either where our resources made some rich while leaving the place poor: hospitals dirty, public transportation insufficient, prisons over-crowded, landfills unregulated, families violent and schools failing a third of the youth.

Given deals struck with Exxon and other companies, will Guyana’s oil just pass through the country like a dose of salts? If only others could learn the Trinidad lesson that wealth makes you shallow, wasteful, corrupt and consumerist as a nation; changes values so that the main ethic becomes private gain; and erodes attention and commitment to public responsibility, public utilities and public space.

As we drove, I tried to reconcile a Guyana I knew as a teenager when my mother joined Caricom.  At the same time back then, I moved to Barbados to start secondary school at Queen’s College, leaving Trinidad to become, first, a nowherian and, later, a regionalist.

It’s as a regionalist I listened to Christopher Ram, after a television interview in a neglected studio building, talk about his time in the Grenada Revolution and the hurt he still carries at its death.

It’s hard to imagine a generation from across the Caribbean traveled to Grenada to contribute to one island state’s aspiration to get independence right. It’s difficult to identify how much that aspiration was crushed and never quite returned. From Jamaica to Guyana, you can meet people who know what the fire of hope feels like and who carry the failures of that political experiment like the loss of a loved one, in their mind’s eye when they look into distance.

Arriving in Georgetown, there were areas I didn’t recognize. ‘We get modern’, said the driver, ‘we almost like foreign’.  There are better-lit highways, burgeoning suburbs, big cars, money laundering and ostentatious religious buildings. At best, the poor people, who remain the majority, struggling with VAT and joblessness, can hope to one day inherit the earth, but not tomorrow, next year or the next decade.

Such a dream deferred isn’t good enough. So, it’s important to cast our lot with those who remain indefatigable, rather than defeated, often women, often feminists.

One of them is Vanda Radzik, who drew the University of Guyana and the Women and Gender Equality Commission together to launch the collection, ‘Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought’, which I edited with Lisa Outar, a Guyanese born feminist scholar.

I first met Vanda thirty years ago, as I became aware of the anti-violence, ecological sustainability and economic empowerment work of the Guyanese women’s movement. Today, I’m simply and inadequately, like that small plane over such vast terrain, carrying these women’s legacy, trying to always remember and learn from their dream for a different future.

Similarly, the book collection’s premise is that Indo-Caribbean feminist thought requires us to look back as part of gathering our resources for the work ahead. The ways we imagine alternatives to all forms of oppression are richer when they draw on multi-ethnic, woman-centred, solidarity-based legacies of indentureship. This is the real wealth that arrival bequeathed.

The book is being launched in Guyana this week, and on Tuesday at 6pm, in UWI’s Law Faculty Auditorium, in Trinidad. All are welcome, for all these complex and tenuous threads, from Guyana to Trinidad to Grenada to elsewhere, some of which you may be gently holding over all these decades, are woven together there.