Post 172.

One day I woke up and realized that I was twice as old as the university students I teach, cast as too serious about school work, obedient to an institutionalized hierarchy and long past any connection to rebellious irreverence.

I thought about this when a student came to tell me her essay was late because she was too busy with activism. We were on break, during a guest lecture that challenged gender studies’ students about academic feminists’ commitment to more than our own professional advancement, to the everyday needs of women’s lives and to social change. Why laud writing books when we should be helping communities prevent another abuse of a woman or child? What was achieved by articles instead of direct action?

With the guest lecturer’s questions resonating in her mind, the student felt she was on strong footing to school me on the truly radical politics of a late essay justified by on-the-ground civic involvement.

I laughed quietly because she reminded me of myself when I had that heady certainty that those older than me had given up the revolution for work wear and girl shoes, monthly salaries, and the class privileges of Babylon. She thought I had sold out, not continually redefined subversive commitment.

I told her the story of my University of Toronto lecturer, Guyanese Arnold Itwaru, who assigned us an essay on our Caribbean identity. Weekly, while reading Kamau Braithwaite, Franz Fanon, Eduard Glissant and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o outside of class, I’d tell him I couldn’t write the essay because I had no nation language, only the colonizer’s English, and only equally foreign forms such as poetry, prose and plays to substitute for the alienation of academic writing style.

Given that class was all about decolonization, and we were so inspired that my nineteen year old friends and I had stopped eating with knives and forks and forever forsworn jackets, I was sure Professor Itwaru would understand I was wrestling with the whole point of essays and education.

Indeed, I had called up my mother from my dorm room and asked her if she wanted me to get a degree or get an education. Any parent or person over nineteen knows exactly what she said.

I had also just challenged my college’s insistence that we wear academic gowns every night to dinner in our dormitory dining halls. Trinity College, at University of Toronto, took and still takes that tradition seriously. Naturally, I wasn’t down with wearing no symbol of academic, colonial elitism on my post-independence, fervently brown-is-beautiful shoulders.

The college said to wear the gown or get kicked out. I said me and my Iranian comrade sistren would go to the press about racism. They said ok, the college will collectively vote on your right to refuse in one week’s time, wear the gown until then. We complied by painting ‘fight the power’ and ‘oppression’ in red, with our hands, down the front of the gowns, and walked in to eat with young Marley as our life soundtrack. Turns out, we successfully argued for a decolonial right that was non-existent before, winning by three votes in a packed room. In May, Professor Itwaru accepted the paper that was due in December, and gave me an A.

Now on the other side of youthful idealism, that is being seen as neither youthful nor radical, I appreciate that scholarship can save lives, and that reading and reflection can enable better activism. Education is both a practice of discipline and freedom, I told my student. I understand why my mother wanted me to graduate. Now, write that essay.

Post 151.

I’m revising my book on citizenship in Trinidad, building on Indian political theorist Partha Chatterjee’s distinction between civil society and political society. It’s helping me to explain how Trinidadians both in and out of the state navigate authority. Brought home, this is how I’m thinking his distinction applies.

When governments make decisions for us, without proper consultation or process, they ignore fundamental citizen rights. Often, state officials impose such authority to enable continued rapid growth of corporate capital. We can see this in everything from aluminum smelter agreements to lack of sufficient regulation of quarries to highways and rapid rails planned without necessary studies to the proposed privatisation of Chaguaramas. De-fanging institutions, such as Town and Country Planning or the EMA, are vital to enabling elite expediency to triumph over transparent, people-centred development.

Having undermined civil society, how then do governments appear participatory? Direct benefits, baskets of subsidies and poverty-removal programmes. These control specific population groups by identifying them as targets of government policies. Men with a history of crime get hand outs through sports. Muslims and Hindus get a cheque on Eid and Divali for diversity. Victims of tragedy get new mattresses and food directly from a Cabinet minister. Ex-Caroni workers get deeds a week before casting their vote. Here, the role of the state and bureaucracy is to transfer resources, not to represent our rights. Ordinary people are thus simultaneously marginalized and managed.

This strategy fragments benefit-seekers and divides potential opposition. All we notice are bags of goodies thrown from budget speeches, platforms and public appearances. Asserting claims to a life of worth and dignity through unions, associations or citizens’ groups becomes so much harder. Popular mobilization instead happens through fleeting, temporary and unstable forms of political organization such as marches, rallies, protests, and vote-trading.

These forms are not directed toward fundamental transformation of structures of political power. They are mostly matters of water and electricity provision, and jobs and so on, meant to make sure that those who can’t be absorbed into economic growth won’t become socially dangerous. Meanwhile, institutions, from the hospitals to the Police Complaints Authority to the Auditor-General, edge closer to the tipping point of collapse, leaving us to marvel at how little justice is protected in a system that works best through contacts. This brings us to political society, where we may forego participation for populism and invest more in politicians than in democratic institutions.

Today, thinking as just a citizen about such politics, I wonder how those groups desperately trying to secure due process can actually win. How can Tacarigua residents protect their public, green space from the stadium Anil Roberts decided they would have? How can Chaguaramas citizens say no to Bhoe Tewarie’s vision of a coast handed over to the private sector? How can Mon Desir homes be protected from the Housing Minister’s commitment to illegal asphalt-laying without the reports which should be publicly accessible?

The upcoming election season will precisely aim to extend this displacement, seducing us from being national citizens to target populations who substitute benefits for rights, disbursements for representation, and love for the leader for true equality. This is how power works in political society, where bigger budgets replace good government, and we are all disciplined by and negotiate in relation to our access and dependence.

There’s a book to be written about our politics, but there’s also exercise of authority that we have to collectively change. It means connecting with each other across our diversities, ideologies, issues, pro- or anti-government analyses, and communities. I hope to contribute to how that unfolds in practice and theory.



Post 127.

On Saturday, at Central Bank, I gave a talk on why we should end sexism and homophobia. The talk explains why ending them would improve life for everyone, and is aimed at those in power. It’s pitched to all the people who think that they are not hurt by sexism and homophobia, and to those people who don’t want to be treated unequally. The talk includes statistics, legislative review, stories, quotes, cool pics and performance poetry.

Shout outs to my students are the sub-text of the entire presentation. The slide background was the awesome logo for the student feminist group, ‘Consciousness Raising’, which was active from 2007-2009 and was the first group to come out of my women’s studies class.  They held campus marches for two years for International Women’s Day and International Day Against Violence for Women. The words in their logo are ‘solidarity’, ‘freedom’, ‘take action’ and ‘change’.

The students I quoted in my talk also formed groups such as ‘Support for Change’, in 2011, to advocate for the national gender policy. They run Facebook discussion safe spaces like ‘Womantra’.  They start campaigns of all kinds such as a Port of Spain and UWI slutwalk action to show that women’s sexuality in no way justifies rape. They initiated the CARICOM-targeted campaign to end homophobia and transphobia. These students are also active in the gender studies-led Break the Silence campaign to end child sexual abuse and incest. When people ask for feminism, these are its young leaders in their actively expanding numbers. Women and men working in a wide range of movements. Rock on, radical university youth!

Among the coolest things I showed was the picture of my Introduction to Women’s Studies class of 2013. This is the seventh year that my students have done popular actions on women’s rights at UWI, in a course first taught in 1982. These are the people doing movement engaging and building, and I got to put their faces in her/history. My students this year were open-minded, thoughtful, ethical and courageous. It’s wonderful to see a politically conscious, Caribbean feminist generation coming out of UWI.

I hope the PNM, in its upcoming Parliamentary critique, doesn’t miss this kind of national contribution, particularly in light of the party’s anti-choice and homophobic prejudice, simply so they can score political points. We will see.

I struggled a lot with the words in my talk. In Caribbean feminist academia and activism, there is lively debate about whether to use words like ‘equality’ or words like ‘equity’, or even ‘transformation’, also whether to use ‘homophobia’, which actually misrepresents the issue but is at least commonly known, or whether to use ‘heterosexism’. I also wrestled a lot with my talk’s absence of direct reference to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered persons and women, though it is hard-core anti-sexism activism.

There is a lot of talk in the country, not all of it constructive. The TEDx Port of Spain 2013 event featured an inspiring line up of speakers, including Etienne Charles, Attillah Springer, Wayne Kublalsingh, Rondel Benjamin and Keegan Taylor, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, Father Clyde Harvey, Erle Rahaman-Noronha, Debrah Lewis and Dominique Le Gendre. In about a week, Google TEDx POS 2013, sit back and check them out.

There are also past talks by Sunity Maharaj, Verna St. Rose Greaves, Christopher Laird of Gayelle and others. My talk included Episode 4 of my ‘If I was Prime Minister’ series, started in 2009. For Mrs. Persad-Bissessar’s Cabinet, it’s a must-see.

It’s also for those with homophobic religious beliefs, or who care about children, the economy and creating safe communities. Watch it with an eye to the leadership we will need beyond 2015.

Post 116.

Teaching started at UWI this week.

Students come to class with heartbreaking experiences of everyday violence, neglect, anxiety, pain and disappointment. Adult and young women come having left abusive relationships or still living in them. Both young men and young women sit in front of me having survived child sexual abuse and still in situations where they live with it every day. People come as single parents, having risked illegal abortions, as gays and lesbians fearful of homophobia, and from families with too many harsh words and too little listening or love. A few come without any home. Some are young and sheltered and ready for the world, many walk in with their wounds, fragile but steady.

As I stand looking at them on the first day of class, sometimes I want to abandon the course outline, the grades and the pressure because as we systematically explore power, domination, inequality and silencing, I know it gets too much for some. When I listen to their stories, the pores on my arms raise. Not because of the trauma they carry, but because it hits me how much wise and strong they are, beyond anything I can teach, and I’m humbled by how much I need to make theory useful for further healing their reality.

Once, one wonderful woman in her twenties came to find me. She had been left at an orphanage by her mother and had been raised by an adopted grandmother who recently died.  After that, other family members began to deal drugs from the house, which is not uncommon in Trinidad and Tobago. She moved by an uncle who tried to molest her, saying sometimes there were things she would have to do. She had just experienced her second miscarriage, and been abandoned by the baby’s father. He had been concerned not only about her as a burden, but as a stain to his reputation because they had conceived out of marriage. Now he wanted her to hide her truths. She was staying with friends and had to move. Still managing post-partum depression, she dreamt her lost baby crying on mornings, experienced black-outs and was trying to find her feet on her own.  She was in crisis despite looking young, polished and professional, and starting a new term of school.

When these are your students, what do you do?

As I stand looking at them on the first day of class, sometimes all I want is to push them to get the grades, pressure them to do the work, give them something to focus on and at which to succeed. In giving all to their education, there is a way they learn focus, discipline, acceptance and self-love. They learn to discard some of what has locked down their spirit. They learn that, although it is not easy, change is always possible, for each person differently.

I expect students to earn their degree and I’m prepared to give my all to them. I help them to learn to read critically, write analytically and understand how knowledge can change the world. More specifically, my job is to help them learn to apply and reflect on feminist theory and the lens it provides to their own and others’ lives. I’m focused on course content and assignments and I expect my students to be too. Yet, over the years, I’ve repeatedly discovered that that can just be too much.

It’s like this in schools everywhere in the nation.  I teach the curriculum, but hope that each year my students also gain the power they need for both liberation and transformation.   

Post 74.

Permission to make the choices you do sometimes comes from the most unexpected of sources and in the most unexpected moments. By permission, I don’t mean that you need or are waiting on someone else’s approval. I mean that something clicks in your head just when they say what they do, and that click creates the sense of resolution or acceptance or even just acknowledgement that you were seeking from yourself.

In a recent conversation with a man, I was talking about how much I wanted focus on my career, even apply for a fellowship abroad, but how much I was pained by the way it would inconvenience and separate my family, and reshape their whole lives around my own priorities, even if just for a short time. If I went away, my mom and/or husband would have to come to help with the baby. This may not be the ideal situation in terms of how either or both of them may have pictured their lives. I’d have to find comfortable, affordable lodgings for either or both, we’d have to budget for a cut in income if my husband stayed with me as household and parenting support and/or an increase in expenses as I looked after the needs of my mom, as she would be fully dependent on me while she helped to look after my needs. There’d be some unsettled feeling as we all settled down in close quarters in our different and not necessarily always compatible ways, and I’d feel underneath it all not only somewhat selfish for calling on everyone to make a sacrifice for me, but also more than a little responsible for making sure either and/or both of them could be happy and not frustrated, resentful, neglected or lonely.

Yes, these thoughts were related to my aspirations and their implications for unwanted shifts and changes in my family life, but these only became significant, requiring consideration and negotiation, because of my dependence on my mother and/or husband to be willing participants in looking after my (our) baby. I might have been able to go off on my own before, but now I couldn’t do it alone with Zi and leaving her wasn’t an option. I clearly want both family and career. Was being selfish or unrealistic to want it all? When I made the decision to have a baby, did I also make a decision to not want or go after some of the things I would have before?

I don’t get this at all, this man told me. His parents were both academics and when his dad went away to get his PhD, his mom looked after their three children born all about a year apart. When she had to get her PhD, he did the same. They both went on fellowships throughout their careers. Neither considered the idea of that one should sacrifice more than the other or that one deserved more than the other or that one was more responsible than the other.

If his parents could do this, if his mother could move forward without thought of the consequences for his father’s personal, economic and career sacrifices while he was the one there and fully available to care, then forty years later, why couldn’t I? After all these decades and such everyday empowerment, how come I was still wrestling with these dilemmas?

Without knowing it, the man in this conversation gave me permission to go ahead. Or, maybe it was his mom and dad that gave me permission. I didn’t need them to decide for me or to give me their approval, I needed to do it myself. This man took for granted that these were his mother’s rights, and seeing them through his – and her – eyes, I saw my own too.

The very next day, a fellowship that seemed perfect for me arrived in my inbox. Without thought to how anyone else would manage, because, well, they would just have to, I decided that if this was what I wanted, I would apply and I’d just have to be eternally grateful but also guiltless to my mom and/or husband for the support they gave and which I deserved as part of the give and take of family, commitment and love. My husband would have to figure it out and grow as a person if necessary. My mom would have to manage even if I couldn’t meet her needs. I know I’m there for them and they would have to know I needed them to be there for me. Or, like an adult, I’d have to myself figure out how to do it alone, with my child, and I’d have to grow as a person and manage even if my mom and/or husband couldn’t be there as I thought they should be. 

This leads me to the second time in the past weeks that I heard that click. Today, while meeting Penny Williams, the Australian Ambassador for Girls and Women and a mother of four children, a student asked how she coped as a diplomatic in a profession generally unfriendly to family. She said, I guess the answer is, you just do some things badly.

Not a profound statement, not a loud click, but there it was. I just had to make the decisions right for me and accept that I would make mistakes, I would make choices that I later question, I would ask for more than I get, but most importantly I had to not give up because of fear, guilt, concern or love before I even tried. This was essentially it, I might do well at a fellowship but badly at family one year, I might be the mom, daughter and partner that I always wanted to be, but have to defer tenure twice. I have to give myself permission to try, to suceed and sometimes to maybe or maybe not make my mom and/or husband – and/or baby – happy.

No one could apply for that fellowship for me, no one else could apply these ideals to me, but me.

Post 70.

What a difference a year makes. When Zi was about ten months, she spent the first night away from home, by my mother, and, while Stone dropped her over, I was left alone at home for the first time since she was born. Amidst exhaustion from work plus breastfeeding plus sleeplessness, I still found the energy to miss her. Well, no more!

Today she left with her dad to celebrate her grandfather’s birthday with the family. Amidst exhaustion from work plus breastfeeding plus sleeplessness plus having-a-fractured-cheekbone , I happily waved them off as they left, feeling no longing at all for either to immediately return.

There were dilemmas of course. Stone’s mom had personally called to ask me to come over, reminding me that last year I also found some reason not to come. I like Stone’s family and genuinely wanted to go, but the only times Stone voluntarily takes Zi anywhere for hours at a time is when he takes her to see her grandparents. These are, therefore, the only times that I am left home alone. Such times are rare and precious. After a long week at work, it’s hard to trade them for another day on the road, out of the house, among people, responsible for Zi, and unable to ignore everything and everyone for a few hours of quiet freedom.

With my freedom, of course, I planned to fold and put away a small mountain of clothes, sort and organise a large molehill of toys, finish writing an overdue essay, wash the dishes, feed the dogs and generally tidy around the house. Before Zi was born, I similarly used to go around compulsively tidying. Any stranger walking through might have mistaken our house for a minor hotel because things were always in straight lines and neatly in their assigned place. Well, no more!

The clothes sat depressed and unattended, the jumbled toys made claustrophobic pleas that were ignored, the essay slummed with a motley crue of low-priority tasks, and the tidying sighed in despair all over the house. I didn’t care. Such a difference, after only a year.

There were dilemmas of course. I felt guilty that I could have been using my time more productively instead of lying about reading. I kept thinking that if I did all my chores while Zi was gone then I’d be able to spend better quality time while she was here instead of putting her aside to put away clothes during our few, just as precious, weekend days together. I’d be a better mother if I got all this stuff done now, I thought. ‘I’m tired!’ I then thought, ‘rebel!’, although it was not clear who I was rebelling against as I’d have to eventually face up to the clothes anyway.

When I was childless, I didn’t have to value my time because it was all mine. When I had Zi, I was willing to give it up, seemingly endlessly. Well no more! When Stone called to say they were on their way home, my first instinct was to think, ‘already!’

So much for love.

‘Did you get anything done?’ he asked. ‘Like what? No.’ I said ambiguously, and pointedly, deciding I would write history as if I spent my freedom revelling in time spent without clearly set or achieved goals.

Thus passed about three hours of learning how hard, but yet necessary, it is to say no to family, chores, work and even your own obsessions with cleanliness in order to give yourself a few minutes to do nothing at all, guiltlessly. Miss Ziya? Miss Stone? Hah! No more!

I suppose I’m right on schedule with most moms. What I’ve actually missed is time for me.

Post 55.

Chatting outside of class at the end of the semester, a student asked me if I’d post an example answer for the exam to help him study. I told him I was really busy, but I’d see. He responded that instead of gossiping in the night, I could make the time to do it. Gossiping? I get home at 7pm, feed my child and breastfeed. I fold clothes and answer emails for major research projects, I take notes from books I’m reading. I wash dishes, pack lunch, write my diary and plan for my child’s future.

Obviously, he was joking and I knew that, but we not bredren, we doh lime and we wasn’t throwing block talk on no corner. Women are being tested when forced to confront sexism. Unapologetic feminists, like myself, are always being watched in these moments: Can we, above all, take a joke whatever its message? Do we quickly resort to anger, fulfilling nothing but the most predictable idea of who we are? Are we articulate enough to explain what our problem is, to not become emotional, to adopt a cool pose in the face of such violence?

This student’s comment was not only his small way of rebalancing the scales between us, it was also a moment to test my truth in the face of a male privilege he could draw on without trying. In the time I’ve been teaching, I’ve come to learn that students will tell you the most unexpectedly sexist or homophobic things, things that make you wonder if you’ve been in the same course with them, even at the end of twelve weeks in a gender studies class. That’s not ideal, but it’s life. Learning is a process, consciousness-raising takes time, everyone is walking their own path, and each of us has to choose our solidarities for ourselves. I just took a breath and let it slide.

This second year, Jamaican student was bright, critically-minded and I liked him. Like many of the men I teach in Gender Studies, especially in Men and Masculinities classes, he’s working through discomfort with the material and with me, a woman, as his teacher. Some students prefer that men less qualified than me teach what I do. I’m guessing because they think men will be less biased, which is based on the assumption that women are completely biased when it comes to men and not vice versa as well as the idea that women best understand women, but men can understand everybody. It’s also based on the fact that men are seen as being authority figures in a way women are not, even if they know less about a field of study. Go figure.

Still, I’ve had male students come back years later and say that, though they were uncomfortable with feminist critiques of patriarchy in class, later on when starting their football group they refused to agree to female cheerleaders. Either women were equal sports-players or they weren’t, but they were not going to support the men from the side. And, usually, by the end of a course students have a more nuanced understanding of how ideas about women and men work unnoticeably, and they are questioning assumptions they came in with about the course material, about feminism, about gender,and about me.

Yet, there are always surprises. This young man’s comment was one. Another student waiting to speak to me was so offended, she insisted he apologise. I watched the scene between them play out and listened to his apology, delivered with a laugh like he was still joking. Why don’t you go over to the male Head of the Math Department, I suggested, and make the same joke with him and come back and tell me if he finds it funny. He said he had made a joke with a male lecturer before about all the time he spent in the gym. Well, that’s not what he said to me. He said I was home ‘gossiping’. This was something he would never dream of saying to a male lecturer as a joke. He’d know it wouldn’t be considered funny, it would be risky, and it would seem like disrespect. He acknowledged this as we stood there. So, why feel he could do it with me?

There’s an important lesson here for all the women struggling to advance in education and employment. It doesn’t matter how much schooling you have. It doesn’t matter how much institutional power you bring. It doesn’t matter what kind of position of power you occupy. We live in a patriarchal world where students such as this one can draw on the rich historical authority of stereotypes and prejudices to trivialise and belittle you, simply because you are not a man. We live in a world where women face comments and views men never will, on the streets, in our homes, at our jobs despite our education, job titles or institutional position. There is nothing we can do to individually earn this respect, this freedom, which comes to men without them trying. It can only come from creating a world where those demeaning preconceptions are not available. Where they are available, they must carry no sense of right to define how women can be spoken to and spoken about.

There’s an important lesson here too for all those folks who think that women have won, that women and men are treated equally all the time everywhere, that women have everything they could want and that sexism is a thing of the past. It’s not. It’s present, it’s powerful, it comes in skin teeth and straight talk, it comes behind your back and to your face. As little difference as I clearly make in twelve weeks, my work in this world is to ensure that one day, for some young woman, mother or worker like me, it does not come at all.