Post 282.

Think of your love for lyrics, and how the right words can draw your attention, change your opinion or just cause your heart to pulse a little harder.

We know well the compelling wordplay of calypso and extempo, but are less familiar with the tradition of rapso or what the community refers to as “the power of de word in the riddim of de word”. Even lesser known, though long kept alive is a local tradition of spoken word. It has just as much to make a politician cringe. Strike poetry, like a match to the sulphur of your tongue, and watch how paper can turn to fire.

I sat in Sunday’s audience at NAPA, enraptured by the energy at 2 Cents Movement’s spoken word finals, and the sixteen voices of another generation continuing this poetry tradition.

Deneka Thomas, the winner of the competition, confidently flung fire like sparks from black, sharp, flint stones. Her piece described all that is contained in a closet, all that is hung in it besides clothes, haunting like monsters whose shadows fall out and reach for your bed, highlighting how unsafe one can feel and be even in our own bedrooms. Closets are where secrets are held and abuse is buried, leaving you no less afraid. Closets are where LBGTI youth exist in fear of hate just outside the door. Closets are places that many hide, hoping the dark will protect.

Deneka was brilliant, which is only to be expected from a young, but experienced poet, who has visibly gone from strength to strength over these last years. She championed over a slew of other pieces by both women and men which focused on consent, violence and equal rights across sexual orientation. Young poets also spent their three minutes on economic injustice, like poetry thrown to blow open the stereotypes and status quo of gang-defined zones.

Young women in particular highlighted changing aspects of childhood brought on by inter-generational addiction to electronic devices, represented the voice of the earth rebelling against our destruction, and described the experience of being asked for a dance that seems stilted, much like the democratic act of voting for a party that you mistakenly think knows the right steps.

These women, and Deneka herself, are part of women’s spoken word history. Cheryl Byron was the first woman to peform rapso in a calypso tent in 1976. Kiskadee Karavan famously burst on the scene, with the band Homefront, featuring Gillian Moor alongside Ozzi Majiq and Kinky Dan, and their hit, “Free Yuhself (Give Yuhself a Chance)” in 1992. Brother Resistance carried the movement for decades, supporting other rapso women like Sister Ava and her band, when they began to perform in the 1990s.

As I’ve written before, I know the story well from about 1997 when I ‘broke new ground’ with Brother Resistance’s movement, which trained young poets for the stage, bringing in the expertise of Ataklan, Wendell Manwarren, Brother Book, and Kareja Mandela. Deneka’s fearless and decriminalized woman power built on the first pieces about women’s sexuality performed as part of Izavibes, imagined into being by Lisa Allen-Agostini and her brother, Dennis, following the earlier ‘Holy Underground’. Izavibes was midwife to the Ten Sisters Poetry and Song Movement which produced the only CD collection of women’s poetry in the country. Conceptualised by Paula Obe and Aneesa Baksh, from North to South Trinidad between 2000 and 2004, same-sex desire was defiantly delivered alongside other women’s wise words.

Ten Sisters begat the Speak Easy, hosted by Dara Njeri, which was continued by Songshine, led by Gillian Moor. From there, UWI Speak, Writers’ Block and other young collectives emerged, nurturing another generation of women like Ivory Hayes, now a young veteran to the stage. Those young women on stage last night, and the young men continuing to use poetry to promote conscious lyrics and politics, are inheritors of this women’s history of protecting and performing poetry.

Poets love lyrics because words can be stripped, like torn sentences, to softly bind pain like bandages. As Deneka showed, words also provide the kind of glinting steel that make closets openings for more imaginative worlds and for subversive escape routes long mapped by underground passages.

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Post 281.

For all its imperfections, the Guardian has been good to me. In 2012, Editor Judy Raymond offered to publish my diary about working motherhood. Since then, I’ve encountered many, mostly mothers, who were emboldened by someone writing about the quiet, isolated experiences and emotions that they have, but feared weren’t important or collective enough for public print.

Grandmothers have seemed to be my most regular readers. This often left me negotiating badass with good beti even while the radical example and words of older, wiser feminist foot soldiers, including those in hijab and those leading domestic worker unions, emboldened me.

I began in Features, yet my sense of citizenship often led my diary to political analysis and advocacy. Slowly, as Ziya grew, I had space to think about more than sleeplessness, breastfeeding, baby steps and birthdays. Like most women, including ones whose educational and occupational empowerment seems to set them to achieve everything women could want, I worried about being a good mother, making ends meet and managing my career. This continues, even with just one child, having had to live with the loss of not having more.

Yet, I rebelled, writing in 2014, “Some days you spend whole conversations on love and sex. Other days you connect ethically and emotionally with other women over delays in passing procurement legislation, the state failure and corruption that has allowed illegal quarrying, and the social and economic costs of badly planned urban development. When women resist because representation remains our right and responsibility, some days our diaries will say nothing about husbands or babies”.

Still, the column wasn’t not focused enough on governance, in the style of my long-time UWI mentor Prof Selwyn Ryan. Indeed, I was composing fictional creation-stories, delving into the deeply emotional art of Jabs such as Ronald and Sherry Alfred, and Fancy Indians like Rose and Lionel Jagessar, and still mulling over marriage, fatherhood, primary schooling, connection to nature, and love.

I thought hard about genre and experimented with writing. The form of a diary is so often associated with women’s private thoughts and feelings, held close and secret with a small symbolic lock. Bringing this genre into the public domain was a deliberate act against male-defined Op-Ed expectations which position the oil sector, the constitution and politics as the serious topics of the nation.

For most people, managing family life, feeling safe in their homes, and negotiating aspirations and disappointments matter most and are the most pressing issues in their lives. The diary moved from Features, taking these concerns with it, and challenging divisions between public and private, and their unequal value.

The form also built on historical examples of colonial logs, and journals such as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which I read as a graduate student, but with substance grounded in emancipatory, Caribbean feminist observations and Political Leader-less, worker and citizen people-power.

Readers wrote to me, wondering if I was a PMN, a UNC, a COP, a knife and fork Indian, too Indian, and too feminist. Amidst calling for an end to child marriage, programmes to end violence against women, and policies to protect women workers from sexual harassment, I wrote twenty columns in which lesbians were named as part of the nation and region, precisely because no one else would, because every woman matters, not just the ones that meet patriarchal expectations, and because these women, who were not allowed to exist in law, would here defiantly exist in public record as having the right to be.

I learned that to write a diary, which wrestles with life, love, rights and justice, is to risk repetitive, aggressive attack. I owe Editor Shelly Dass public thanks for skillfully stopping Kevin Baldeosingh from using the Guardian to legitimize his bizarre and obsessive stalking of me in the press, always to harm.

I’ve grown, as has Ziya, in these pages. I’ve learned to look around the landscape, appreciating all its heartfelt and difficult growing pains, like my own, in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Diary of a Mothering Worker departs from the Guardian, but will continue to walk good, gratefully carrying the lessons from Guardian and its readers’ years of nurturing wrapped in its jahajin bundle.

 

Post 280.

I sat three rows from Theresa May when, as part of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, she apologized for Britain’s role in criminalizing same-sex conduct in former colonies. “I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country,” she said, “They were wrong then and they are wrong now.”

Apologies by Britain should come hard and fast, for colonialism itself, the slave trade, inconceivably vast economic extraction and impoverishment, antidemocratic laws kept in place by a ‘savings clause’, and more.

This apology should not be diminished, for it results from courageous and sustained global South struggle, across at least thirty-six countries. Nonetheless, as Justice Rampersad pointed out in his April 12th decision, changing discriminatory laws is a matter for emancipatory Caribbean jurisprudence. We didn’t need the British empire’s ‘benevolent’ mission of colonising and civilising. We don’t need a 21st century version of civilising now.

On the same stage that morning, Jamaica’s PM Andrew Holness spoke, quite brilliantly, highlighting what sustainability, prosperity, inclusiveness and security mean from a Caribbean perspective in which equity and accountability among nations count.

In an earlier response on having gays in his Cabinet, Holness said, “I think that the first step is that the State protect the human rights of every citizen, regardless of sexual orientation or inclination”.  This was a major shift in public position from Bruce Golding’s infamous “not in my Cabinet” statement, and highlights increasing openings for equitable and accountable Caribbean leadership.

Here at home, President Weekes herself has said, “I think in terms of the State and the law all citizens and all persons under the protection of our jurisdiction should have equal treatment whatever their gender, whatever their sexual orientation, whatever their race we need to have absolute equality across the board in terms of State obligations and constitutional rights”.

Having been involved in LBGTI rights advocacy since about 2005, I didn’t expect to hear such public declarations in my lifetime. I have a beautiful memory of CAISO’s 2010 campaign, conceptualized in many ways by Colin Robinson’s politics of claiming belonging to a nation of ‘many bodies’, and the dual flying of national and rainbow flags high in the air at massive UNC rallies.

It wasn’t an easy space, and the PNM campaign trail would have been significantly worse, for those were the infamous ‘big C’ days, but to publicly declare equal citizenship involved great courage. There are forgotten foot soldiers, among many, who have moved popular culture forward over the last decade.

I thought about all this in relation to Guardian’s front-page expose on Michelle Lee-Ahye. There’s much to disparage about ‘rescuing’ someone from social media smearing, and doing this using her partner’s photos, in a still homophobic society and without consent. There’s much to say about the problems of prying into the private lives of women in public life though that’s long been debunked as illegitimate, irrelevant and sexist.

However, more important, was the public backlash to the newspaper, rather than Lee-Ahye’s choices. Many were clear that her sexuality was a non-story, and were outraged it would be headlined, supposedly and misguidedly for her protection. Being a woman-loving woman, or any woman who has sex outside of heterosexual marriage, might be a basis for idle gossip, but it doesn’t tarnish her achievement of gold nor does it reduce her right to privacy. That this could be expressed as a widely held view was an unintended, progressive outcome of that story.

In 2005, I couldn’t predict all this. Advocacy felt exhausting and ongoing without any progress. Even seeing hundreds proudly, joyfully gathering with rainbow flags over these past weeks was unimaginable as late as 2010.

Hope has been reborn in me. Yet, the evictions and firings of LBGTI citizens following Justice Rampersad’s decision signal continued need to tirelessly press back against continued vulnerability, believing that together we can actually aspire and achieve.

Post 279.

An attuned ear hears a shackle when it falls. It’s a surreal sound, when an instrument of inhumanity hits the ground broken, clanging with its iron weight of history. Instinctively listen for the heart-piercing exultations of emotion that echo out powerfully. Also be stopped still by a black hole of quiet horror that you may yet again hear that shackle clink close around a human body.

If the pores on your skin raised, as did mine when I heard Justice Devindra Rampersad’s judgment on Thursday, it’s because I never anticipated that a shackle’s fall could sound and feel like the force of a supernova when it collapses, its vibration sheer disintegrating your heart, leaving you in breathless tremors and shaking tears.

The boldness of the judgment and the interval of freedom it created for the first time in hundreds of years, like a slash in colonial space-time continuum, can’t be anything but celebrated.

There are thousands of bodies in the nation which had been existing in fear, shame and silence and which, for the first time, felt included, protected and free. It is like the future time-traveled and arrived to rock the vibrational field of the present, in a way so many citizens dared to dream, but despaired they wouldn’t live to see.

Justice Rampersad’s judgment in Jones v TT ruled that Sections 13 and 16 of the Sexual Offences Act, which criminalize buggery, or acts of anal sex, and same-sex genital touching, are unconstitutional. He held that the “savings clause”, which retains the legality of colonial law despite our republican status, doesn’t apply. This is because, in 1986, the Sexual Offences Act was repealed and “replaced”, thus creating new, post-1976 law.

Also new law was created with the unprecedented extension of penalties for buggery from 5 years to 25 years and creation of a new prohibition, titled “serious indecency”, and explicitly meant to criminalise lesbianism for the first time (by legislating that only men could have sexual access to women). In other words, this is new law, not simply a re-enactment and continuity from 1925.

Second, he argued that even if the savings clause could hold, its intention was to continue and preserve protections of citizens’ rights in the move from colonial subjection to independent nationhood, not deny rights, discriminate or victimize. In this case, relying on the savings clause as justification goes against its spirit.

Additionally, he agreed that Jason Jones’ right to privacy was denied, observing that such privacy had not been conceptualized in early colonial law, but was now an accepted ideal. Use of the savings clause to deny that right again defies its intention.

Regarding the Act itself, its violation of Sections 4 and 5 of the constitution were already acknowledged by parliament in 1986. It is possible to infringe upon individuals’ constitutional rights, under Section 13 of the constitution, but the burden is on the parliament to fully justify its necessity, which it has not done. Passage of legislation by 3/5 majority, however procedurally legitimate, isn’t enough.  Religious or majority view and public opinion isn’t enough. Political expediency is far short of enough in the face of signed international conventions and global and liberalizing standards of dignity, decency, equality and human rights. Claiming parliamentary prerogative isn’t enough, or might be enough in Britain where no constitution exists so parliamentary law is highest authority, but not in Trinidad and Tobago where the constitution should be supreme.

In other words, Jah bless our republican status and the possibilities for future-facing Caribbean jurisprudence. Why rely on British law when we have our own constitution? Why still carry habits of prisoners when we are freed from such imprisonment?

Without the savings clause as a defense, the 1986 Act was always unconstitutional and unjustified, and unreasonably and arbitrarily denied rights to privacy, family, intimacy and equality to all citizens and couples. Its legitimacy was founded on its own fiction and presumptions, like the emperor with no clothes.

To write that race, colour, gender, age or sexual orientation is not all that encompasses a person’s soul nor their value to society or themselves is to wield something other than the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. This is the ultimate dream of Caribbean emancipation.

For this to occur in real life and in our generation is overwhelmingly beautiful, and feels cosmically huge. On appeal, we hope the disturbing metallic edge of manacles, re-clasped on those who call for our love, is not something we have to hear. To them, do not turn a deaf ear.

Post 278.

Twenty-year-old Christine Chuniesingh lost her life to intimate partner violence this week. She won’t be the last woman for the year to die at the hands of her male partner.

A month ago, the National Security Minister reported to the Senate that police were focusing on responding to violence against women through a visible presence, marked and unmarked vehicles, town meetings and more.

These steps are good news, but as the State Minister for National Security in Jamaica pointed out last year, violence against women is not a police issue, it’s a national issue.

This should be kept in mind by the AG and the National Security Minister when they want to put this problem in the hands of cops instead of recognizing that approval of a coherent strategy is Cabinet’s responsibility.

So, the question is, what is our national response? And, how is this national response rolling out through the school system, the health care system, collaboration with the private sector, and more? How are we explaining the paradox of these murders of women even while reports of domestic violence have been falling?

Is the state’s position that it has no idea how to prevent deaths in these numbers, given that we are already at 50% of the women murdered by their partners for all of last year?

It’s well-established that intimate partner violence is founded in our current ideas about masculinity and femininity, and the association between manhood and power over women. Violence is simply a way to keep this in place when its being challenged in interpersonal relationships.

Already, there’s denial of this association by representatives of the men’s rights movement, who against all national data, including the numbers of intimate partner killings, argue that women are more violent than men.

Already, there’s a myth that women have taken over the state, the court system, the labour market, and the education system, and that men are now the real victims of gender inequality.

Already, there’s a backlash to women doing well in education and employment, with many bringing all this empowerment back to a mythical marginalization of men, and the necessity of making women account to men’s feelings about their goals for autonomy.

This wider societal backlash to women wanting a life beyond male control plays out in relationships too. Containment of women’s empowerment explains intimate partner physical and sexual violence (the male backlash model), such as when women are earning more than men or pursuing qualifications beyond men’s own.

Men also don’t believe women have a right to leave relationships whenever they chose, and deal with feelings of rejection and failure with a reassertion of masculinity and control.

These dynamics get established in childhood, through big processes such as the socialization of children to differences between women and men, and their meanings and their value.

Such socialization isn’t only by mothers, but by all family members, media, peers, educators, neighbourhood members, and more. It is also learned through specific experiences such as witnessing or experiencing familial violence or child abuse.

But, at the heart of all these is a resilient belief in the notions of manhood and womanhood we take to be normal, and in the kinds of respect women should have for male authority and power that we take to be natural. The police cannot transform these beliefs.

As Cabinet is dominated by men, I can legitimately say that it takes balls to decide to go against what falsely appears to be God-given, and instead wake up to what ending this problem really needs.

Somewhere in Trinidad and Tobago, there’s a woman who is going to be the next one killed. It’s just a waiting game until we know her name.

We don’t have an urgent, coherent, cross-sectoral, national strategy to prevent or even systematically reduce this violence against women. I’ll be relieved but surprised if we do by the time we hear that news.

 

Post 277.

-1

I got home very late from work and ready to collapse only to find the bed under a low-hanging, tent-like sheet, apparently making a ‘fort’.

I deliberated whether, out of sheer nostalgia and love, to shuffle underneath for a night of claustrophobic, but cuddly sleep (the kind where there’s always a small, brown limb thrown across one’s neck), leaving the sheet at its angle about a foot from my head.

Or, whether to take it down because, while there was space for her, she being the size of Donkey to Shrek (me being Shrek), at least I wouldn’t die of suffocation while she sleeps peacefully and would be alive and breathing enough to risk her seven-year-old disappointment in the morning.

There are few adults who didn’t build ‘forts’ of some kind growing up. Obliging parents let us take sofa cushions, lean them against each other in squares and then spread sheets across, with the greatest of joys being crawling under there with books, toys, a flash light, friends or siblings, and those Chinese shrimp chips that expand when fried and taste like childhood bliss.

Childhood has changed. No children I know still play ‘elastic’, and those worldly girls of today look like you are describing a rotary dial phone, a wholly foreign thing none of them have seen, when you ask.

Yet, there are some things that remain consistent and, unfortunately, one of them is bullying. Still, we now think about it differently from before, and can help children grow into kinder, gentler human beings than we are, perhaps creating a more golden experience of growing up than what nostalgia allows us to recollect.

If you want to get a picture of what bullying looks like, at least in secondary schools, look up The Silver Lining Foundation’s just released Trinidad and Tobago School Climate Report on Bullying and Gender-Based Violence in Secondary Schools. Overseen by a team of young researchers and activists, 651 students from 20 schools were surveyed, with the majority of respondents being 13-16 years old.

The study is nationally generalizable so note that in the three months prior to the survey: 73% of students indicated they had been teased or harassed at least once; 24% indicated that they had been pushed or hit at least once; 40% indicated that their belongings were stolen or damaged, 29% were victims of sexually explicit taunts or advances; and 28% reported being inappropriately touched by another. Primarily, appearance, ability, and sexual orientation and gender expression were the most common causes of verbal teasing, harassment or intimidation.

What was just as disturbing was that these numbers were matched by students indicating that they had actively participated in teasing, harassment, stealing, pushing or hitting, threatening and sexual aggression. Boys were more likely to engage in bullying than girls, but also experienced verbal and physical bullying at slightly higher rates than girls who experienced greater sexual and cyber bullying. Boys’ experiences centered around attacks on their masculinity which targeted their sexuality or gender expression, and LBGT students experienced bullying at higher rates than others.

Significantly, 63% of students never or rarely reported incidents of bullying because they didn’t want to be seen as tell-tales, did not trust teachers, did not want bullying by teachers or peers to worsen, or reported and felt too little was done.

Now think back to children’s familiar instinct for creating ‘forts’ as part of play or over their bed. Their desire to construct safe spaces, whether from cushions at home or in terms of relationships with family, teachers and peers, continues as they grow into adolescence. Without options for feeling sheltered, and because bullying still exists, vulnerability can easily outweigh young bliss.

I stood tiredly at the bedroom door, my shadow crossing the sloping sheet, thinking of the dream that children could both feel and be safe. You understand now why I decided to leave her ‘fort’ in place.

Post 276.

Class has always been an issue in the women’s movement. Crossing class divisions among women, and empowering working class women to have the pick-up-the-phone power of wealthy businessmen, remains the challenge today.

This, despite organisations such as Women Working for Social Progress (Working Women) with an explicit politics of working class women’s empowerment since the 1980s.

Media wished us all ‘Happy International Women’s Day’ on Thursday. I reflected on whether I’d prefer being wished a ‘powerful’ or ‘fearless’ IWD, instead of ‘happy’.

‘Happy’ doesn’t require acknowledging how much more people need to contribute to changes to our ecological and economic decision-making, corruption, social services, transportation options, and gang violence, which is what women really want. Happy isn’t a statement of commitment or solidarity, it’s a celebration, which is cool, but it’s apolitical, which is not.

This day was born from garment women workers’ public and unapologetic protests for better wages and working conditions, and from socialist women’s struggles in relation to class inequities in the economy and politics, women’s unequal responsibility for care work, violence, and more.

Radio hosts, particularly male ones who dominate the talk show terrain, discussed IWD, often combining progressive positions on consent, violence and women’s leadership with stereotypical and problematic block talk on women’s ‘natural’ characteristics, lesbianism and abortion.

The slew of activities that filled last week spoke to a growing national will to see respect, honour and safety as part of women’s rights. This is a success that has taken 110 years of blood, sweat and tears globally.

In the present, many months go into planning activities so that women get direct access to political leadership or so that it’s the women from rural South and Cashew Gardens whose work is amplified or so that men are called on to be vocal and visible allies.

In addition, IWD cocktails and fashion shows, and sisterhood with Proseco events, pop up; some very last minute and some quite costly, as if IWD is trending or another all-inclusive or about etiquette or a day which women should pay to access.

Rather, IWD is built on long-term and even year-round commitment to transforming a world in which women do not yet have full human rights, choice and freedoms in conditions of their choosing.

While there is joy in gathering over food and drinks, there is a risk when the costs separate women rather than bringing them together. Finally, when events appear a week before on the calendar, as if it only just occurred to the organisers, it makes you wonder if they took the time to find out what the long term work, and collaboration with and support to that, could have helped accomplish instead of another separate event.

Yet, so many events last week democratize a feminist dream in a way that makes sense to different women wherever they are. Amidst this, professional women and those of wealth and means should be aware of gathering to celebrate sisterhood, but without sisters lacking wealth, professional status and networks.

I thought about this while putting on a good jacket to talk to women leaders and managers about a private sector approach to addressing intimate partner violence.

I also thought about it while reflecting on my own political goals to provide ways for women of all classes to participate in IWD, whether by cutting out an IWD poster printed on March 8 in the newspaper and making sure its up in the store where they work or the office where they clean; or by freely sharing all the #speakyourtruth and #caribbeanmencan messages created for Facebook and Instagram; or by marching as a nation of women and girls gathering across differences of class, age, ethnicity, sexuality, geography and ability.

As commemoration of IWD expands, let’s remember its history is not just about celebration, but affirming how we can put our power to empowering women still needing and pursuing what others have achieved.