Post 385.

For three decades, there have been calls for more equal representation of women in Parliament, our nation’s highest decision-making body. This has never been taken seriously despite ritual lip service to women’s rights and gender equality.

Most citizens just want a leader, regardless of sex, who is committed to fairness and who won’t become corrupt. There’s also significant public scepticism about whether women improve the policies and legislation that are introduced.

We haven’t seen most elected women make transformational differences across the Caribbean. Some have. Billie Miller in Barbados and Gail Teixeira in Guyana fearlessly legalised women’s right to safe termination. Joan Yuille-Williams uniquely championed the draft National Gender Policy, before it was crushed by Patrick Manning, and left without approval to this day.

Often, people also want elected women to exercise greater independence in the face of their political leaders, other men, and the kinds of sexist and homophobic political culture they blithely entrench. Yet, from childhood, women are deeply socialised to conform to and uphold male power and patriarchal standards. They are demonised, stereotyped, discredited and sidelined when they don’t. This operates in Cabinet and Parliament just as much as it does every day in our families, workplaces, places of worship and communities.

Women and men are socialised by and often share the same beliefs, but face different and unequal risks for challenging them. Simply being a woman in public life is a risk, and given the authoritarian style of party leaders, women are much more likely to tow the party line and to prove their loyalty, a quality long associated with femininity.

Last week, I highlighted victim-blaming by the PNM Women’s League, and their defence of violent masculinity. As Colin Robinson pointed out on Sunday, such loyalty may also extend to being a “respectable” mouthpiece for sexist and homophobic politics on the hustings, rather than opting to “go high” as women across party divides.

Women are also likely to prioritise respectability that other powerful men, such as those controlling religious constituencies, will accept. For to do otherwise is peril. My deep disappointments about Kamla Persad-Bissessar were, among others, that she failed to end legal child marriage, approve a national gender policy, and create a Children’s Act that wasn’t discriminatory, all to keep patriarchal religious leadership on side the UNC.

Will this election bring any change? What do voter trends and predictions regarding “marginal” constituencies mean for women’s leadership and gender equality?

The PNM is fielding 14 women candidates. With expected wins in Arima, Arouca/Maloney, St Ann’s East, Tobago West and D’Abadie/O’Meara, they can count on five women on the PNM side. Tobago East is being contested by Watson Duke so Ayana Webster-Roy may or may not make the sixth.

None of these are Indian women, which speaks to this group’s lower inclusion in the party as well as the fact that five of them are being fielded in constituencies they can’t win: Siparia, Oropouche West, Fyzabad, St Augustine, Couva North, Chaguanas West, and Princes Town.

Of the 14 women candidates, eight are sacrificial lambs. Indeed, one can argue that women candidates were primarily placed in losing seats. This is typical globally, and is also one of the reasons for women’s lower levels of public office.

The UNC is fielding 12 women candidates. Of these, four are likely wins: Chaguanas East, Siparia, St Augustine and Tabaquite. Three are not clear: La Horquetta/Talparo, Moruga/Tableland, and Toco/Sangre Grande. There’s ethnic mix among those who can win. The five put in unwinnable seats are mainly non-Indian.

If these numbers hold, nine women will be in the Lower House, with possibly four more. Together, at the most, that makes 13 of 41, or 32 per cent. Of these, two will be Indian women, far fewer than either their numbers or qualifications deserve, suggesting a complex mix of racialised and gendered push-and-pull factors at play.

Increasing the numbers of women in politics remains a symbolic and substantive goal. Women, who are half of the population, deserve to be more than one-third of decision-makers, particularly in a country where they have dominated tertiary education for the last 20 years, and are certifiably more qualified by the thousands. If men historically hit this glass ceiling up to today, there would be a national outcry about entrenched male marginalisation.

For women to advance greater gender equality and social justice in policy, law and society, as we hope they will, Caribbean scholarship shows they need a critical mass of much more than 30 per cent, they need the freedom to vote by conscience rather than in ways beholden to a political leader, and they need a groundswell of citizens and male political allies, for whom equality, inclusion, non-discrimination and human rights matter, to be the wind beneath their wings. This election will not achieve that, illuminating the limits of our democracy.

Post 380.

Decades of advocacy to end gender-based violence have led to some changes worth commending. The latest step is the Domestic Violence Amendment Bill which expands protections for children, the elderly, persons with disabilities, and some dating and visiting relationships. 

Debated in the Senate on Monday, it was assuring to see support on both sides for preventing domestic violence and protecting victims. Senator Wade Mark himself mentioned that amendments proposed by the UNC in 1999, which would have allowed police to enter a home without a warrant to stop domestic violence, were not supported. Over twenty years, global and regional advocacy continued to press for a response that prevents and protects, changing legislation all over the world, creating new norms, and making this the now accepted and required response. 

The Bill also removes the need to preserve the institution of marriage from the Court’s consideration in determining the terms of a protection order. After decades of women being told by police and magistrates to try to make a violent relationship work, for the sake of marriage and family, advocacy also created greater recognition that this repugnant norm should no longer have legal teeth. 

In their speeches, Senators, Khadijah Ameen, Hazel Thompson-Ahye, Sophia Chote, Anthony Vieira and Charrisse Seepersad, spoke in favour of expanding protection to those adults sharing a home who are not related by consanguinity or affinity, meaning blood or marriage. 

The Alliance for State Action to End Gender Based Violence has argued such expanded protection would reflect the diversity of those sharing domestic spaces today. In the oncoming economic contraction, many unrelated persons will have to share homes as they are less able to afford rent or expenses on their own. All persons who ordinarily or periodically reside in the same dwelling deserve equal access to protection by law from domestic violence.

The AG described this as a “Pandora’s Box”. In Greek mythology, Pandora’s Box released great and unexpected troubles on the world when opened. “How will we draw a line on who is a member of a household?”, he asked. So, the brouhaha is not over provisions, but over definitions. 

Here, the role of legislators is not to determine which consenting adults can or cannot be members of a household, but to protect those who are. This is why Colin Robinson, in his column, argued that “member of a household” could simply be changed from “a person who habitually resides in the same dwelling house as the applicant or the respondent and is related to the applicant or respondent by blood, marriage or adoption” to a person who shares the house and/or is related by blood, marriage or adoption. It’s hyperbole by the AG to make inclusion of an ‘or’ the cause of many unforeseen problems. 

The consequences are well-foreseen by the AG, and they relate to changes to what he has identified as 23 pieces of legislation, such as related to immigration, sexual offenses and children.  He’s repeatedly said he is “urgently” waiting for Jones v. TT to be decided by the Privy Council so he can get guidance on amending these laws. 

This is a bit of balderdash. The AG can amend all these laws without waiting for the judgment, and Parliament has the authority to pass all such amendments if it boldly chooses the right side of history. 

A Privy Council decision will compel the AG to make those changes. It will lord over any legal challenges, protecting him from having to defend these evolving norms himself. The Pandora’s Box isn’t ours, and it isn’t about legal conundrums. It is his, and it is entirely political. 

Senators were not oblivious to this, nor to their own parties’ complicity, which is why recommendations to expand protection were voted against by 16 PNM senators with 9 UNC senators abstaining, and only 4 Independent Senators, Anthony Vieira, Paul Richards, Sophia Choate and Charisse Seepersad, voting in favour.  

Yet, the call for a larger definition of “member of household” is not only about same-sex relationships. What we watched on Monday was the way that intent to deny protection to those relationships left others also excluded. It shows our deep interconnection with each other, and the jeopardy of thinking some can be denied rights without consequences for us all. 

The Pandora’s Box isn’t the risk of opening broad inclusion of domestic relationships. It is the release of the harms of discrimination, of sacrifice of some citizens for votes, of cowardice by representatives who well know what is right.  

In the Greek story, all that was left in the box was Hope. So, we continue to advocate for state response to all victims’ needs, and for a culture of tolerance, rights and peace, knowing that this is what we must do so legislators that today deny necessary provisions, tomorrow will agree.

Post 318.

On Sunday, Colin Robinson kicked off critiques of ‘good men’ campaigns. People might think activists are being difficult. Surely this is what women wanted all along.

Actually, things are as complex as critiques make them seem. ‘Good men’ campaigns are a recent invention. In the 1990s when organisations such as Men Against Violence Against Women (MAVAW) were founded, and were profeminist and allied with struggles of the women’s movement, no one was talking about good men.

Both women and men involved were still trying to get the public to see men’s power over women as harmful, and were squarely appealing to men to disassociate love from licks. The men’s movement acknowledged male violence against women and men’s role in ending it. In today’s opposite world, MAWAW circulates videos lauding men “destroying feminism”, and participates in male-only chat groups that malign women who suggest that doesn’t feel like solidarity.

In the decades between the 1990s and now, the ‘good men’ campaign grew as International Men’s Day became a day, not for growing men’s contribution to ending patriarchal gender ideals as they harm both women and men, but for praising men, giving them more platform and visibility, emphasising all men (not just those poor, HIV positive, disabled or gay) as marginalized, and pressing for women and feminists to meet male needs with greater priority.

We’ve seen the surreal shift to women organising fora in which only men are speakers, and radio programmes, such as on I95 on Sunday, when a male host thought it good to have only men speak about gender issues (as if experts), in the process promoting significant misinformation about gendered power relations, nature and nurture debates, and Caribbean feminist visions for women and men in our region.

Turn the whole world upside down, sang 3 Canal.

Robinson argued against ‘good men’ sloganeering because men are not good. Rather, like women, like all human beings, men have capacity for good and bad. In his words, “men owning our violence and our capacity for it is critical to change…Until we create spaces where guys can be honest about not being “good” men, men aren’t likely to do the hard work of exploring other options”.

There’s domineering joy in telling women on their way to work what you think about their bodies, knowing you would find men doing that to you both unwanted and threatening. There’s also pain and vulnerability in admitting that violence is how you control your woman because that’s what you’ve learned, and becoming the man you didn’t want to be is killing you at the same time as you risk killing her.

Peter Weller and I didn’t debate whether we “change men’s behaviour or we change the culture, systems and ideology that legitimate toxic masculinity”. Behaviour change is a strategy. The feminist revolution is more radical, conceptual and far-reaching. It includes changing the violence associated with power, opening up our very definitions of manhood and womanhood, shifting laws, policies, notions of ‘work’, and deconstructing fundamental assumptions of Western philosophy and the plantation-economy.

These legitimate goals have decades of scholarship and activism behind them and can’t be flattened simplistically into soundbites. I’m always wonderous about good men who come into a movement that they acknowledge they don’t fully understand, and may not fully support, and then seek to contain its goals. Good men should meet feminist analyses where they are, rather than women making their dreams smaller so no one gets angry.

Back to ‘good men’.

This branding mobilises the stereotype that feminists think “all men are bad”. Feminists don’t say men are bad. They call on men to be accountable for their views, behaviours and choices, and fight against masculine ideals that reproduce them as normal, natural and unchangeable.

Second, it excuses ‘good men’ from confronting male privilege as real, as institutionalized, as global, and as benefiting even good men. It’s like talking about the need to transform patriarchal power to someone who responds that your argument doesn’t have validity because he’s not bad.

Being a good guy is necessary. Being a good human is better. Supporting the feminist struggle to end sexism and homophobia, and to value us all because we are good humans, not because we meet gender ideals, is best of all.

Finally, if good men stop others from being sexist, violent, homophobic, unemotional or uncompassionate, what do good women do? By that logic, good women become feminists. Good men too.

If this becomes the conversation, it’s a transformation we’ve been dreaming of all along. Good women and men, it’s time to turn the whole unjust world upside down.

 

Post 309.

Is justice for one, justice for all?

In the Caribbean, we have a way of dividing ourselves from each other, and from each other’s struggles. What if, instead, we thought that each of these struggles nurtured better chances for fair treatment for others. How might that make us invest in each other’s pursuit of rights, even when they seem at odds with our biases, fears or differences?

It’s a good question to ask in response to last week’s historic ruling of the Caribbean Court of Justice. Four Guyanese transwomen, Gulliver (Quincy) McEwan, Angel (Seon) Clarke, Peaches (Joseph) Fraser and Isabella (Seyon) Persaud, spent almost ten years challenging a charge and fine for “wearing women’s clothing for an improper purpose” in a public place. They spent four nights locked up for this minor crime. They pressed on despite the prejudice of the trial magistrate who lectured them about being confused about their sexuality and their status as men, and urged them to go to church.

This wasn’t the first time they had experienced the painful edge of a post-emancipation law, established in 1893 as another oppressive act of legal coercion. Such vagrancy and loitering provisions aimed precisely at denying freedom to Africans regarding their bodies, labour, gender, intimacies, religion and rights.

Indians, Chinese, Portuguese and others were also in Caribbean colonies by this time, with their own intersections of gender, sexuality, class and religion. All were now also brought again under the iron fist of colonial authority and its limits on our fundamental desires to be respected as self-determining individuals and, despite formidable hurdles, to be free.

Imagine for a second, then, that Gulliver, Angel, Peaches and Isabella showed unbelievable valor to end another vestige of colonial authority that continued to sharpen its blade right up until the twenty-first century. Imagine that, in doing so, they didn’t win a victory just for themselves or for transpersons or for gender diversity.

Step out of your biases, fears and framework of us and them for long enough to also see that their struggle edged forward free Caribbean people’s resistance to colonial rule, discriminatory laws and dehumanizing policing practices.

The highest Caribbean court struck down Guyana’s crossdressing law, arguing that it violates the Constitution of Guyana and is void. It found that the law invalidly criminalized intentions, not proven actions. It illegitimately defined some forms of clothing as objectionable. It lacked sufficient clarity for ordinary people to understand what conduct is prohibited. It gave police wide and almost arbitrary discretionary powers, creating real risks of victimization. It treated transgender and gender non-conforming persons unfavourably because of their gender expression and gender identity. Finally, the CCJ affirmed the validity of inclusion of advocates and social justice movements as interested parties.

The judgment affirmed a powerful promise that those most poor, marginal or powerless could, nonetheless, legitimately expect the system to defend them. As CAISO director Colin Robinson put it, “This is an historic ruling, particularly because it was brought by working class, transgender women who had the bravery and courage to seek justice from a system that does not usually work for them”.

Haven’t so many, particularly among the working classes, looked around and felt, as Isabella Persaud, one of the appellants said, “We are always treated like trash.” Their cause shares ground with Hindus, Muslims, Spiritual Baptists, Rastafarians, and poor Indians and Africans around the region who have turned to the courts for protection against being unfairly targeted or denied equality, respect and inclusion.

To quote the Hon. Mr. Justice Saunders, newly appointed President, “No one should have his or her dignity trampled on, or human rights denied, merely on account of a difference, especially one that poses no threat to public safety or public order.”

This line, and its logic, is one with which we all can agree, for it speaks not just to these four Caribbean citizens, but to each of us, and an ideal we surely must enshrine as necessary. Justice, however, isn’t only won in the courts. It’s also won in our nod to each other’s humanity in the streets. AS IGDS’ Angelique Nixon, acknowledged, “as important as laws are, we also have to do work to transform the culture to create more acceptance and tolerance” locally and regionally.

Regardless of who is expanding our access to justice, but especially when they are poor, working-class and beyond the pale of respectability, being Caribbean requires us to value the victory of those creating our regional future of greater justice and equality.

 

Diary of a mothering worker.

Post 209.

At last week Wednesday’s forum, ‘Reflecting on Gender and Politics in the 2015 Election Campaign’, young people filled the room, many of them lesbian and gay, who I hope felt that the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI created a safe space for public deliberation, for once not defined by their marginality.

The event was inspired by ‘the marginals’ in national talk about the election. How could we instead think about politics beyond polls and ‘the numbers’, to see multiple kinds of ‘margins’ in our landscape, especially in the deeply connected experiences of women and the LBGTI community? How could we encourage public reflection that no other site in the country would, precisely because feminist academia is founded on solidarity with these groups’ continuing struggles for equal citizenship? How could we build on civil society efforts to bring us together across political party divides?

There was the history of the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women to build on. Twenty years of producing a Women’s Manifesto and trying to get campaigning parties to commit to its goals. Twenty years of funding women candidates in the hopes that they would see the women who helped to get them into power as an important constituency. More years of encouraging a women’s cross-party caucus, where women politicians could gather as allies, rather than adversaries.

There was also the history of organisations like Caiso, Friends for Life, Women’s Caucus, Silver Lining Foundation and I am One to support. More than a decade of advocacy to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2010, Caiso produced a manifesto, ‘6 in 6’, which outlined six policy and leadership steps they hoped that the new government would take in its first half year in office. Five years later, with those all unfulfilled, whether in terms of police treatment of LGBTI crime victims, the creation of safe schools or the community’s greater vulnerability to homelessness, they were still challenging their marginality. Now as part of a new network of groups called Allies for Justice and Diversity, a rights-we-deserve-not-what-rights-we-are-allowed manifesto was again created in 2015.

In a country where ‘the marginals’ decide the victor, it made sense for a post-election forum to bring together marginal groups to document their overlapping analyses and strategies, as they both contested how ideals of masculinity and femininity shape the lived realities of political life. Sexism cannot be ended without also ending homophobia, and advancing emancipation requires us to fearlessly document, understand and defy an unjust status quo. Where else then, would we discuss the homophobic bullying and stereotyping experienced by gay male candidates, from the population, their own political parties, and our headline-hungry media? Where else would we share how campaigning is experienced by women as they negotiate the significance of their family roles, femininity, and sexual respectability for their acceptability as representatives and leaders? Where else would the nation’s first transgender electoral candidate affirm her right to all the rights of citizenship, including public office?

As an act of university solidarity, and to strengthen the alliance between women’s and LGBTI rights advocates, Nafeesa Mohammed, Khadijah Ameen, Sabrina Mowlah-Baksh, Luke Sinnette, Colin Robinson and Jowelle de Souza were all on one panel. Watching representatives of the PNM and UNC sit with these citizens, knowing their parties had unjustly abandoned them in their National Gender Policy drafts and in the Equal Opportunity Act, I hoped that the young people there could see that legitimacy and space is created incrementally, relentlessly, despite setbacks and disappointments. There was more than fifty years of activist history of holding the baton in that room, from Hazel Brown in her 70s to Afro-Trinidadian, lesbian, working class young women in their 20s. A generation coming after me should know that a path continues to be cut for them to run.

On election night, Dr. Keith Rowley, said that he is the Prime Minister of all of us, and “that we are all in this together”. We lead him by our example. Those young people came because they aspire for an equal place. Acknowledgment of that is what ‘all in this together’ means for politics in our nation.