Post 269.

Carnival has always been about negotiation of gendered and sexual power. Think of jamettes long confrontation with middle-class and religious expectations of respectability. Think of a cross-dressing mas tradition long enabling performance of transgressive identities.

The charge has historically been directed at women ‘wining like that’ with century after century of commentators repetitively raging about (women’s) vulgarity and the potential for bam bam to make all social order bend over.

Ignoring the hysteria of such emasculated morality, women increasingly came together in movements tens of thousands strong to declare a desire for sexual freedom and pleasure, and an expectation of state responsibility for protection of these, as ‘rights’.

Commentators who bemoaned Carnival’s loss of political punch completely misread decades of bikini mas because they were not the mouth-piece for Afro-Trinidadian working class men in the tradition of pan and calypso. They missed the significance of year after year of multi-class and multi-ethnic bands of bubblicious women in agreement about such rights as a modern Caribbean feminist politics predating ‘Slutwalks’, ‘Life in Leggings’ or ‘Me Too’ responses to sexual harassment.

‘Carnival is woman’ on the one hand was about commodifying and marketing women’s bodies as the nation’s economic stimulus package, but on the other it marked a decisive shift to a contemporary social order in which jamette resistance had become fully nationalized.

TTPS’ public position on consent in Carnival is the jamette’s desire and right to sexual autonomy and freedom from sexual violence, both denied by the very foundations of colonial authority, now articulated by law.

It’s a historically significant signal of change and power not to be by-passed, a legacy of Carnival becoming woman, now penetrating into state authority. It should stop anyone from declaring that Carnival is no longer political because the renegotiation of power in the democratic density of a ram fete or in the middle of rough wine on the road is politics itself, from rather than in ‘yuh pweffin’.

A debate with all expected hullabaloo followed the police press statement. Iwer declared, “If you look at all the history about Carnival, we never had an issue with anybody wining on anyone”. Not true. Thousands of women can tell you about fellas not taking a ‘no’ or a ‘move away’, others pulling your wrists or your waist when you on the road for Jouvay, needing to roll with a crew of fellas for protection, and playing mas within ropes and with security precisely to be free of being pursued and grabbed.

Fay-Ann’s concern was about the right to consent being abused by ‘a lot of women in the stations’ falsely claiming a man tried to wine on them, though reports of sexual violence have never worked that way. Machel was criticised for his instructions before his management instructed him to back back. The police were above the fray and dead clear. It’s assault to touch someone without her or his consent.

Police Service Asst. Supt. Michael Jackman went further than advising permission to wine: “Even when a person is already engaged in dancing or wining or gyrating with another person, with a partner, a friend, family member or stranger, at some point in time that person says, “Okay, I want to stop”, and they indicate that verbally or by action, that action may be by stepping away or saying, “no”, verbally, “I had enough”, then the person who they were engaged with at that point in time ought to respect that decision and stop”. In his statement were echoes of Explainer’s ‘Rasta Chick’, Singing Sandra’s ‘Die with My Dignity’, Destra’s ‘Wrong Bam Bam’ and even Sharlene Boodram’s, ‘Ask It’.

Wining is an old jamette language now brilliantly informing interpretation of law by police brass. The body talks, and the lesson is to become literate in woman-centred traditions of lyrical and waist skill, or Dan is the man in the van on his way to make a jail.

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Post 268.

Comandantas from Mexico’s Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) recently called for a global gathering of rebellious women. Their language reflected centuries of radical leadership of Indigenous women in the Caribbean.

“With regard to the Zapatista men”, they wrote, “we are going to put them to work on all the necessary tasks so that we can play, talk, sing, dance, recite poetry, and engage in any other forms of art and culture that we want to share without embarrassment. The men will be in charge of all necessary kitchen and cleaning duties”.

Here at home, I had just had one of those conversations about how feminists should make our work more about men and more relevant to men, but no words were said about them manning the kitchens.

This pressure is ironic. In all its diversity, feminism is the only social movement in history to put women’s rights and their challenge to patriarchal power first, and it emerged specifically because other movements, from unions to political parties, aimed for merely halfway liberation, and still do.

The millions of women who are the majority labouring in feminism’s trenches must unapologetically prioritize women’s freedom from sexual violence and equity in political and economic power, both still to be won.

Yet, this movement has also been active on issues of peace, nuclear disarmament, trade agreements, gang violence, literacy, conservation, and other areas which impact both women and men’s lives. Additionally, feminists have long been active on ‘men’s issues’ whether they are arguing for greater paternity leave, for greater care for boys’ emotions, prison reform, and much more.

And, it’s worth noting that men’s violence against women and women’s under-representation in global and national decision-making are not ‘women’s issues’. They are issues of men’s occupation and exercise of unequal power, and they should be solved by men with an iota of commitment to justice because that’s what manhood, in all its diversity, love and strengths, brings.

Do we appeal to a majority of men by leaving traditional notions of manhood and womanhood unchallenged or by prioritizing men’s needs, cleaving feminism’s radical vision and analytic challenge to precisely these from its mobilization and power?

We know that’s not necessary because men all over the world are involved and doing great work in feminist movements without us even trying to “put men and boys more to the centre of our policy solutions”, or pretend there is anything equal in experiences of domestic violence, or that one woman President is enough when women have never been 50% of our parliament.

These are brothers-in-struggle who don’t need women to exercise power behind the scenes, in the home, while rocking the cradle, or nicely because they know that commitment is about justice, not comfort, not a battle of the sexes, nor a decentering of women from feminism, even as we also care about our children, brothers, nation and planet.

In a final irony, marking feminist success by men’s visibility risks becoming vulnerable to those demanding newspaper space for gender – meaning only men – while failing to get definitions, facts or analysis right. Because of word space, I won’t dust out those SFATT soundboys tonight*.  

We don’t get men on our side by softening, repackaging or marginalising accurate analyses of power, but because collective transformation of patriarchal ideals of manhood and womanhood, which ultimately harm both women and men, is necessary.  

To quote these Zapatista Comandantas, “We greet you with respect and affection as the women that we are—women who struggle, resist, and rebel against the chauvinist and patriarchal state. We know well that the bad system not only exploits, represses, robs, and disrespects us as human beings, but that it exploits, represses, robs, and disrespects us all over again as women…Yet we are not fearful, or if we are, we control our fear, and we do not give in, we don’t give up, and we don’t sell out.”

 

*An earlier critique of comments in the article highlighted: 1. Murders of women do not occur when fathers are alienated from their children and respond in a wrong manner. Fathers may become alienated from their children when women end abusive relationships. Intimate partner violence, without accountability, which includes threats to women’s lives and their families created that alienation, at least in this case. 2. Withholding sex from a spouse is NOT abuse. It may mean the relationship should end but nowhere in any UN position or national law is choosing not to have sex with a violent partner an example of sexual abuse. 3. “In most cases, the perpetrator would not have murdered before or had a criminal record”. This is vastly missing the point. Anyone who is going to murder their ex/partner needed help long before that relationship or its ending, anger doesn’t turn to murder without pre-existing controlling and abusive behaviour, which may indeed be recognised and reported on…in this case, police and family were aware of reports. 4. The argument that women’s abusive behaviour to men is the “true offense”, much worse that physical violence (for which is harm is unequally borne by women), more widespread, more harmful and more at fault when cases of woman-murder happen absolves men of responsibility for femicide. 5. Men and women can be abusive. Both need access to counseling and life without violence, but when women are run down and murdered, they are not responsible. Wrapping valid arguments in equally irresponsible victim-blame does more harm than good.

 

Post 257.

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Get up. Stand up. Speak up.

“To achieve the full and equal participation of women and men in our national and regional development as competent human beings, and not property or real estate, then we have to stand up for gender justice”. Lyrics to make a politician cringe, delivered, as they rarely are at UWI’s graduation ceremonies, by Dr. Hazel Brown.

The podium was a platform for advocacy in common-sense style. Her walk to the microphone suggested frailties that come with age, but her words were tough talk from a tireless soldier still in the trenches. She wondered aloud how being conferred an honorary doctorate would help her to achieve long-pursued dreams for women’s rights, consumer rights, transformational leadership, and fair distribution of wealth and power to meet household needs. That’s the damn question self.

How do the degrees we receive, handed like a baton from the past to the future, become our fighting words and weapons against corruption, mismanagement, violence and inequality? “My greatest disappointment during my years of advocacy has been the lack of consistent, purposeful organizing by people like yourselves, in this room, in areas of active citizenship. There’s much talk, but there’s not enough of the necessary action that is required around the advocacy and for social justice”, she cautioned another generation.

Fifty years in the work of social change and people’s empowerment, and goodly Dr. Brown’s greatest disappointment is the well-schooled, well-heeled and well-robed who, by our thousands, are responsible for today’s perfect storm of fossil fuel dependence, increasing insecurity, and near institutional collapse; all avoidable if we mobilised our degree like a hammer and sickle, a small axe, a bilna, or a broom for the sweeping changes we long need.

Few know that Hazel started at UWI and left, finding organisations like the Housewives Association of Trinidad and Tobago, and later the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women, a better academy for a woman of action. I can’t disagree.

Invest enough time supporting and learning from fearless activists and you emerge with lifelong intimacy with and commitment to standing up and speaking up, rather than remaining silent. You don’t conceive the work, and its demands and risks, as somebody else’s responsibility. I’m not convinced we’ve yet dreadlocked that fierce will to be truculent about transparency and justice, in the face of elite decision-making, into a UWI degree.

This can’t be top-down. Students have to demand of themselves that they learn to get up, stand up and speak up. Three weeks ago, I made my own students count all the readings they had not done and told them to give back one dollar for every one. Their education is an investment, and when they waste it the way WASA wastes water or the way the THA can’t account to the Auditor General and doesn’t care, they commit the crime that has left our Heritage and Stabilisation fund woefully empty. They directly take what could have bought another hospital bed in another Ministry’s budget, or paid another social worker to help the almost 20 000 school children seeking counseling.

Because I’ve been thinking about budgets in an economic crisis, I was dead serious about how blithe indolence is almost like tiefing. They were more offended at my demand for their pocket money than horrified at their entitlement, but how will we produce graduands who won’t waste one more public penny?

So, what are we conferring on Dr. Brown? Is it promise of solidarity? Is it institutional backing? Is it commitment to households, consumers and communities, rather than alignment with the tripartite box of labour, government and industry? Will this mean that a university dominated by men will bring its bois to back Dr. Brown in her decades-long call for a national gender policy?

Being close to her advocacy for over twenty years has taught me more than my degrees. There are not many people from whom you learn something activist, strategic, global, grounded, historical, feminist, and community-centered every time you sit in a room with them. The honor acknowledges her contribution to knowledge for Caribbean transformation. It should give her the power to be able to call on a university graduating women and men of action.

 

Post 254. 


Wednesday afternoon found me playing a game.

Every two years, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at Cave Hill hosts a summer Institute in Gender and Development. This is their twelfth session, and participants from Dominica, Jamaica, Bahamas, St. Lucia, Barbados, Belize, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Cuba, Guyana, Antigua and Grenada were there. More than two dozen people of all ages, ethnicities and sexualities in one of those special opportunities to come together as Caribbean people. 

I’ve been playing this game for twelve years. Called ‘Steppin Up’, it’s a feminist-movement building game focused on consciousness-raising, strategy-sharing and solidarity-building. The board is the size of the room, made with masking tape. Each square offers scenarios in which groups must choose options, sometimes thus moving forward or back, and understanding more about the complexities of addressing issues from child sexual abuse, fair trade and youth leadership to working across religious boundaries. 

Regardless of your organization or issue, the Caribbean terrain is beset by all these challenges.

The goal is to provide players with an experience they can reflect on, for plenty people, especially with activist commitments and aspirations, talk good politics without reflecting on how they actually engage others, make decisions, and assess their movement’s strategic gains and losses.

Someone always starts off asking how to win. After playing, I ask them for the answer. They realise it’s not a race and that frame prevents them from creating collaborations or working across divides when possible. Also, what’s gained if you rush ahead to complete the content, but miss the group dynamics that mean people feel silenced, trivialized or disrespected along the way?

I set no rules and, later, players realise how many they conservatively set themselves. Nothing stops them from challenging everything they have been taught about competition, and how much it alienates us from each other and ourselves. Yet, they rarely make the radical decision to collaborate across groups although that could transform their entire experience of the game.

Players reproduce competition, hierarchy, and goal-oriented rather than people-oriented decision-making because of Caribbean schooling, which continues to work for some individuals, but not for the region. 

We just don’t provide enough lessons of collaboration, attention to emotion within and across our collectivities, rewards for rethinking alienating rules, and strategies for enabling all, rather than just those who come first, to ‘win’. That deficit shows up in our capacity to ultimately create equity, justice and social inclusion.

Many spoke about the joy of a methodology that prioritized participation, decision-making, group-learning, activity, self-reflection and fun. It’s unsettling to think about how much less they would have learned had I opted for readings plus a chalk and talk approach.

Draw down from this lesson to our children whose age makes learning through activity, self-reflection, challenge and collaboration the most appropriate model. Add those children who are especially least likely to get the most from desk-bound, chalk and talk approaches, whether in relation to math or creative writing. Think of how many up and coming Caribbean young people we set up to fall two steps back.
I see the risks for Ziya too. She’s not yet clicked into desk work and becomes dreamier in the face of stressful schooling, though she loves learning through activities, discussions, play and books. 
At home, I get my news from reading, Stone gets his from TV. As it is, he knows much more than I do from the volume of news and commentaries he watches. Imagine if it was newspapers or nothing. That’s our schools. We enforce one way of teaching and testing, rather than the necessity of multiple routes.

Imagine even students who ace high stakes assessments may end up in their third choice of school and feel like failures because of a slew of layered hierarchies and inequalities. Surely, this result says more about our inadequacies than our children, about our commitment to the exam over equity, justice and social inclusion.

When a region of adults still wishes to learn through methods, including games, that validate how well-rounded, socially-conscious Caribbean people grow, we should step up and account for the real politics of our pedagogy, what works and should stay, and what fails and must go.

Post 241.

Between sexual violence statistics and the slow pace of legal progress for domestic workers, feminist activism often feels like running in the same place or, worse, pushing a boulder uphill each day only to start again at the bottom the next.

The loudest and most prevalent voices seem to oppose, misrepresent and resent. When you are visibly, vocally and consistently challenging any idea that inequality between the sexes is natural, ordained or evolutionary, you see how the backlash to women’s rights, and the demonization of feminism as a movement to achieve those rights, is real.

You have heart-wrenching understanding of just how much the state is failing women in terms of policy, plans, legislation, services, sexual and economic empowerment, and commitment to changing beliefs and values. You see how homophobia means more to people than letting women and men be valued simply for being human, rather meeting feminine or masculine ideals, and letting them love whichever soul they choose.

But, there are surprisingly encouraging moments. As I sat in AMCHAM’s Annual Women’s Leadership Seminar last Friday, I looked around at the room full of women and thought that feminism was actually less of a marginal voice than it seems. Far from it, this movement to replace subordination and stereotyping with fairness and freedom was on the mic and in front, and women in positions of authority were invested in and advancing its potential transformations.

There were numbers and power here, representing a majority that I had underestimated. I reflected on how much more I had to learn about how that majority, and those women increasingly, even if slowly, occupying leadership positions, were allies I had not sufficiently connected to or appreciated.

I had not noticed that women entering the corporate sector had created such shifts in relation to women’s rights, perhaps because their work fell under my radar, or I had considered it partial, classist and mainstream, or because their relative invisibility, as a majority which is nonetheless negotiating within patriarchal constraints on professional life, made me miscalculate their solidarity.

Amongst speakers, there was Charmaine Gandhi-Andrews, Chief Immigration Officer (Ag.) in the Ministry of National Security. Her leadership on issues of trafficked women was inspiring. This is exactly what an immigration division should be doing, not just raiding, arresting and deporting, but accounting for the political and economic gender inequalities that they meet face to face. Gandhi-Andrews was unapologetically badass, and is doing deeply relevant and necessary work for incredibly vulnerable women. I hope to be like her someday.

Teresa White, Group Human Resource Director at ANSA McAl, talked about the sexual harassment policy the company has in place. She said every right thing I wanted to hear about such policies – that they are not just protocols for victims of sexual harassment, rather they are meant to entirely eliminate it by changing the rules, culture and responsibilities of the whole institution. I have much to learn from those managing such policies in practice, precisely because they are a global feminist strategy to not just empower individual women, but to transform the entire waged economy.

In conversation, Anya Schnoor, Managing Director of Scotiabank Trinidad and Tobago, told me that the bank had signed onto the UN ‘He For She Campaign’, meant to encourage men to speak out for gender equality. She added that they also had a ‘She for She Campaign’, which made my heart sing, as I never imagined a bank would prioritize solidarities among women, even though it’s an area women always emphasise as a challenge, desire and need.

The event also featured AMCHAM T&T’s support for the ‘Leave She Alone’ campaign, premised on men as vocal allies in ending violence against women. And, CEO Nirad Tewarie, gave exactly the speech guys should give: men have to do the work to create gender parity and have to be open to learning from women and feminists about how to do better along the way.

Optimistically, there may just be a feminist majority to collaborate with and learn from; women and men in corporate life pushing barriers in a myriad of ways I had not realised. The next step for all Caribbean feminisms’ yet unachieved goals? Recognise an opportunity and strategize.

Post 226. RED CARD RAPE CULTURE.

UWI’s responsibility is to transform the Caribbean by nurturing students’ commitment to fairness, justice, non-violence and sustainability. Young men have as much role as young women in creating gender equality and ending cultures of domination founded on sexism and homophobia. Indeed, this is my answer to the oft-asked question, ‘What about the men?’

Men have power to end violence against women at the staggering rates at which it occurs, just as they have responsibility to collectively organize to transform masculinities that create risk in boys and men’s lives. Young men have the opportunity to define their own identities by different ideals from those of past generations, creating future Caribbean male leaders willing to exchange the perks of privilege for the politics of justice for all, and a legacy in which women’s rights are never left behind.

Such commitment requires social movements that challenge the status quo and its tolerance for inequitable social norms. It requires role models and collective reward for positive change, thus changing young men’s options, solidarities, strategies and dreams.

Boys are now growing up conscious of themselves as gendered beings because of conversations about womanhood and manhood which feminism introduced into contemporary culture. This means that there’s potential among young men still working out their truths and transformations against educational advancements of young women and, yet, resilience of sexual violence against them. Such contradictions mark a cultural crossroads, and chance for young men to strike out directions that lead to dead ends.

Last Friday, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, St. Augustine Campus, collaborated with the young men of the dorm, Canada Hall, to give young men a non-judgmental space to imagine a world without sexual violence against women. ‘Red Card Rape Culture’ wasn’t just a workshop with male students from ten Caribbean countries, or a hashtag that could go viral, it was a metaphor for men’s power to refuse the impunity of such violence. For, the field could never be level with such pervasive foul play, and their best selves would never let things run that way.

Rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence is glamorized, trivialized and excused in media and popular culture, leaving no guarantees for women regarding freedom from objectification of their bodies, disregard for their rights, unwanted advances, dehumanization or male domination. It’s the imposition of what men want and how they want it on girls and women.

Given that this is one of the issues most raised by their young, female peers, International Men’s Day, commemorated on November 19th, provided an ideal moment to meet young men’s needs for politically-progressive mentorship and to encourage their contributions to movement-building.

The workshop tackled beliefs, blame, consent, shaming and normalization. It went through a range of statements that included: “There are situations when a girl says no but she means yes”, “Rapists think differently from other men”, “It is a woman’s responsibility to not get raped”, “It’s wrong to lead him on and when he is ready… say “no””, “She sent me pics. She should have known I would share it”, “Nothing wrong with lyrics from songs like Kick Een She Back Door”, and “Women bring out a part in men that they cannot control.”

Young men could ‘red card’ the statements they disagreed with, ‘yellow card’ those they were not sure about, and ‘green card’ those they considered right. They could see each other doing it, noting when they shared views or differed, and observing both consensus and individual resistance. At the end, they wrote their own counter-messages. Some of these were: “A Man Is Like A Taxi Driver, He Knows When To Stop”, “Women Should Not Live In Fear, How She’s Dressed Does Not Mean Yes”, “If She Says No, Get Up and Go”, and “No Doesn’t Mean Yes”.

For International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, commemorated today, these statements are now on social media as memes and across the campus as posters, giving these young men’s words visibility, as part of transforming the kinds of commitments UWI men articulate as ideal.

End violence. Empower women and men to create gender equality. Transform our Caribbean future. #redcardrapeculture.

Post 225.

Most people don’t expect grandmotherly women in hijab to be leaders in Caribbean feminist movement building. Last Sunday’s Symposium on ‘Children at Risk’, which was collaboratively organized by Madinah House, the TML Ladies Association, the National Muslim Women’s Organisation of Trinidad,  and National Islamic Counseling Services, showed the limits of such typical expectations.

I have huge admiration for these experienced and committed women, whose consistent work to challenge and create alternatives to patriarchal domination and its harms might not seem to fit their respectability and religiosity as much as their other efforts to manage teas and celebratory functions for hajjis and hajjahs.

Yet, the history of such woman-centred public engagement dates back to the 1930s when Muslim women began to deliver lectures to mixed audiences, become members of elected mosque boards and councils, hold meetings to develop women’s groups, and participate in debates on a range of topics including, “Be it resolved that Muslim women deserve an equal social status with men”.

From the 1950s, within the Indo-Trinidadian community, the Young Muslim Women’s Association, the San Juan Muslim Ladies Organisation, and the Islamic Ladies Social and Cultural Association began to be established. The ASJA Ladies Association was represented at the first world conference on the status of women held in Mexico City in 1975. Muslim women also have a history of pushback against partitions narrowing their space for prayer in the masjid, and challenges to their exclusion from voting in organizational elections when they perceived their association or jamaat being a “boys’ club” for far too long.

Muslim women have also long been part of Caribbean feminist response to issues such as violence against women. Madinah House, a temporary shelter for women and children escaping domestic abuse, which began operations in 1999, and is run by Muslim women, is one such example.

Beyond services are also advocacy and consciousness-raising within the Muslim community and nationally, in collaboration with the wider women’s rights movement, to encourage men to more greatly share domestic work, to call for greater commitment to ending child abuse, and to insist on collective responsibility for families free from violence.

Sunday showed such larger work to break silences about the reality of incest, neglect and abuse in children’s lives, and to provide concrete understandings of vulnerability and risk.

Supported by the US Embassy, the symposium brought a range of powerful women to the mic, including Lt. Colonel Shareda Hosein, originally from Aranguez and now retired from the US Army. Sit with your children, listen to what works or doesn’t in the family, write down what should change, and commit to it as parents, she suggested.

The indomitable Natalie O’Brady, General Manager of the Rape Crisis Society of Trinidad and Tobago/Coalition Against Domestic Violence, reinforced the importance of stable homes, and parental time and attention. These are fundamental to child protection, resilience and rights.

Children’s Authority staff and clinical psychologist, Vandana Siew Sankar, highlighted that neglect and physical abuse is almost equally distributed amongst girls and boys, with their greatest vulnerabilities occurring before they are four years old, except in cases of sexual abuse, which become more common, especially for girls, with the onset of puberty.

Director of the Gender Affairs Division, Ms. Antoinette JackMartin pointed to the establishment of a Central Registry on Domestic Violence, precisely to address a need for accessible statistics.

Finally, Sharifa Ali-Abdullah, whose work to develop the Children’s Authority of Trinidad and Tobago is legendary, emphasised that we should take seriously the likelihood that oncoming economic decline and unemployment will increase the incidence of child abuse, which already spans from extreme and exceptional to everyday and normalized in the thousands of cases that come to the attention of the Authority, and which are largely inadequately addressed by social services.

These efforts to prioritize prevention of violence against women and children; to provide woman-run, woman-centred and community-supported services; and to publicly bring a message fundamentally grounded in a right to live free of domination, threat and fear are strengths on which the regional women’s rights movement was built over the last decades.

Consistent with such a history of Muslim women’s pious, yet path-breaking contributions to a Caribbean feminist vision, Sunday again offered lessons and inspiration.