Post 344.

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Ziya’s class recently concluded a class president election. In the run-up, she practiced her speech, highlighting qualities of kindness and loyalty, and roles such listening, helping, resolving conflicts, and encouraging good behaviour.

I was pleased that she felt confident enough to consider being elected and that her teacher had enthused such a sense of possibility among the students. Many children in the class offered themselves as candidates. It seemed like an excellent lesson in democracy.

“The boys only voted for boys,” Zi later huffed. Why did this matter? From her description, the girls seem to have mostly voted for each other or for themselves. ‘Did a boy give the best speech?’ I asked, but she was noncommittal.

Turns out that there are more boys than girls in the class, and the other girls had eventually concluded their speeches didn’t matter as the boys were never going to vote for a girl. This meant that the girls would never get to be president, and why run if you can’t win?

Why did she think the boys wouldn’t vote for girls? “The boys don’t think girls exist”, she said. As decades of efforts to create gender equality attest, when searching for nominees to appoint to private sector and state boards, an argument is often made that enough qualified women can’t be found.

In the early 2000s, when state boards and companies on the stock exchange couldn’t find women to nominate, the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women found 200 qualified women. Women’s representation went up to 29% that year.  The global numbers tell us that girls remain invisible to boys, in both corporate and political leadership, in the adult world today.

Her second explanation was that “the boys only vote for their friends, and all their friends are the other boys”. She was describing the budding version of the resilient, powerful and informal influence of an ‘old boys’ network’.

There’s significant data on the mentoring and deal-making that occurs on golf courses, football fields and bars or in lodges, where familiarities and friendships among men develop outside of formal spheres. We may all turn to our networks first, nurturing them with respect and reciprocity as part of strengthening their ties, their reach and our place in them.

When those networks also intersect with power over decision-making, and the lower status and greater invisibility of those outside, they are a formula for exclusion. Those in these networks don’t have to be personally bad, and the exclusion doesn’t have to be deliberate. Nonetheless, the outcome is no longer innocent.

Zi’s third explanation was that “the boys think they are smarter than the girls”. Think of how worried society becomes when girls “outperform” boys at SEA, but how the nation celebrates when a boy finally “tops” girls, as if stopping reversal of the natural order from going too far. Think of how women in Obama’s administration had to amplify each other for their ideas to even be heard. Imagine, long-held biases about lesser female competency are still clear enough for her to articulate.

Boys’ implicit gender bias plus social networks plus majority vote created unequal opportunity. I told Zi to talk to her teacher. She couldn’t let an unfair system become entrenched, even if she was afraid of getting in trouble for “complaining”. I told her about quota systems, and that for every boy or girl class president, there could be an alternative vice-president, and that there should be alternating class presidents so girls would have an equal chance.

I gave her everything I got, from Audrey Jeffers to the Suffragettes. Eventually, she ran to her room and came back with a poster titled, THE Election REBELLION. Over her title, she wrote, ‘Vote = Voice of the Electorate”, a reference to nineteen years earlier when Svenn Miki Grant and I handed out a thousand copies of a youth manifesto at a public launch on the promenade. Below she wrote, “the choice is yours to vote for girls”. And, in huge and colourful letters, between a heart and a star, was the message: “THE GIRLS WANT VOTES”.

Next morning, she took her poster to school and went to rouse her friends. Her teacher held a girls’ meeting at lunch and they represented their sense of unfairness. She then met with the whole class so all the children could recognise that being in the voting minority meant it would always be an uphill battle for the girls to secure power through democratic means.

By the end of day, Zi reported the rebellion to be over. Yet, was the electoral system really changed? Zi wasn’t sure what new rules they had secured. She hadn’t confirmed whether there would now be alternating leadership. Until she’s sure and it’s enacted, the struggle continues.

What’s clear is that the unjust political realities of adult women are already reflected in the eyes of eight year old girls. We have a responsibility to address unfair male domination at all ages, levels of power and processes of decision-making. An election rebellion is long overdue. The girls deserve votes.

 

Post 185.

HazelBrwownStamp

It’s the stories that I love.

Stories told by women who spent decades pressing for social change, and stories of solidarity by men sometimes almost twice my age. Stories that challenge myths that women of two generations ago were less radical than now and myths that feminist men didn’t exist throughout our history.

I love the stories of activists who came before because they bring our history to life, to their own lives, with laughter and commiseration, with passion and pain, with irony and unexpected twists, making us learn more about successful strategies or forgotten beginnings or our responsibilities to our future.

I love their stories because these efforts, connections and memories are our legacy, as much as the lasting reforms they created, or gains which we must still protect, are our legacy. They are a legacy because too often we think that it takes people who others consider political leaders, or people with university degrees, or those who seem to have more privilege or power to challenge everyday injustices.

Yet, stories by indomitable citizens of all classes and creeds remind us that is not true. These are stories by people who get up and do, working together to provide help or change unequal rules. Such collective love and labour by citizens is also ‘politics’ because it aims to defend their dreams for an emancipated nation and region, and their commitment to equality, independence and rights for women. These stories remind that the struggle for government by the people and for the people is not new.

Fearless Politics: The Life and Times of Hazel Brown is just the conference for those of you who also love everyday stories of those around us who got up and did, just like we do or wish to. The public is invited to attend and participate in this gathering to honour a woman who has spent four decades tirelessly fighting for social change, along with hundreds of others whose names should not be forgotten. But, helping us to remember is precisely what stories do.

Hazel’s own stories include sitting in Port of Spain City Council meetings when she was a child as she waited for the Mayor to sign her report book, because in those days the Council sponsored children’s education. It is here she began to understand government, reminding us maybe we should take our children to watch these meetings as part of their civic empowerment and critical education. Her story of running for election in the 1970s along with women of the Housewives Association of Trinidad and Tobago is a lesson in strategy for those thinking about politics today.There’s hope in working with women to buy, iron, exchange and affordably sell used schoolbooks. Then, heartbreak in her plan for a solar powered radio station that was undermined and never came to be. And there will be more than her stories.

Speaking on Saturday are long time activists in areas from women’s health to community and consumer rights, from sustainable food provision, including solar cooking and grow box agriculture, to women’s political participation and leadership, and from Baby Doll mas to the National Gender Policy.

This conference is for anyone who wishes to know more about struggles for social justice, artists and cultural workers interested in social transformation, activists of all eras and issues, and citizens whose dream for our world remains greater equality, justice, sustainability, cooperation and peace.

Come for stories about roads walked and paths still to be cut, in the spirit of our fearless legacy. This column was published prior to the conference, Fearless Politics: The Life and Times of Hazel Brown. Videos, photos and other conference information are available on the IGDS website and Youtube page. http://sta.uwi.edu/conferences/15/fearlesspolitics/index.asp. https://www.youtube.com/user/igdsuwistaugustine

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Post 180.

Now that the government has collapsed and a general election should be called, people will start asking ‘who we go put?’

Elected to power in May 2010, a collaboration of parties and principles was formed to oust Patrick Manning, but nonetheless brought the UNC, COP, MSJ, NJAC and TOP into a hopeful coalition. COP is at odds with itself and the government. TOP and NJAC bring no votes. MSJ has left never to return and the UNC, which cannot by itself constitute the People’s Partnership government, has spent four years destroying its own legitimacy from within.

Those who are left, from Speaker Wade Mark to Minister Howai, have also lost public credibility. Vasant Barath’s unholy alliance with propagandist Ernie Ross, which conjured up such ill-begotten campaigns as the ‘Kublal’ lizard, the belligerent attacks on media for censorship, and the entirely vacuous Petrotrin-funded ‘happiness’ full page ads, seems to have been involved in both setting up Gary Griffith and attempting to hoodwink the population on official letterhead. The UNC’s only political capital is Kamla Persad-Bissessar herself, her strategy of endless direct patronage, and her Faustian deals with financiers who can bling her back into power.

For those willing to assume office for the next few months, the first Cabinet meeting could only be compared to Alice’s entry to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party or newbie skiers leaping recklessly onto a snowballing avalanche or a relay race where the runners enter from anywhere and run in any politically expedient direction. Sorry to mix metaphors, but it is that kind of pretense at coherence going on.

Then, there is the PNM. Amongst other factors, if Patrick Manning somehow makes it through the nomination process, gunning as he is to undermine Rowley, then that too will render the party completely unelectable to anyone who voted precisely to get Manning out in the first place.

So, who we go put? Perhaps, these reflections will stop us from asking this.

Perhaps, taking a break from brilliant mauvai langue memes, radio callers will push discussions on what in our political culture creates such lack of options for leadership. We’ve been having this conversation for the last decades so there is much for a new generation to draw on and this is no time to give up.

What needs to change in our constitution, state institutions and civil bureaucracy? What is the first step in our own national campaign to create more focused questions and answers about responsible government? What constitutes accountability? How is that best ensured? How can Parliament better prevent both corruption and maximum leadership? What policies and democratic practices do we expect from political parties? What must we all change in the way we relate to state resources and power across every community?

Late last year, Winston Dookeran admonished me about the importance of getting involved in politics, which in his view was the only way to change leadership and governance. You civil society activists create a lot of noise and little impact, and mostly gain a feel-good sense of self from complaining outside the walls of authority, he said. I couldn’t see how his getting into Cabinet gave him any more voice, relevance or influence, and had already chosen to invest in civil society because building power by, of and for the people from the ground up is what remains necessary.

We will ask ‘who we go put?’ for another fifty years if we don’t think of what vox populi, vox dei means beyond voting in an election. Our demand a fresh mandate should kickstart our campaign for answers to far more transformational questions.

Post 176.

Je suis Ayeesha. Three years old.

Je suis Maezol. Eight years old.

Je suis each of dozens of innocent children killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. For there is no self-censorship such as curtailing all that you do, and learning to wish for dark clouds rather than clear skies, simply to survive.

Je suis an unnamed Nigerian girl, misrepresented in this week’s press as a ‘suicide bomber’, though there is no evidence that she was suicidal and she was never a bomber, but another innocent child among the others murdered.

Je suis Mary, Esther, Blessing, Glory, Fatima, Awa, Rahila, Rejoice, Hauwa and Zara, who were also kidnapped by extremist men and may never again experience freedom from daily fear, injustice and violence.

Je suis the jailed Bradley Manning who exposed how unarmed Iraqi civilians were massacred by US troops from their helicopter, without any trial by jury or right of appeal, for nothing close to satire or blasphemy. Je suis Raif Badawi who is sentenced to flogging and imprisonment in Saudi Arabia for criticizing Wahabbi rule.

Why choose Charlie but not Ayeesha? Why see an attack on us all in religious-based violence without also seeing it in state violence, class violence and corporate violence? This is a good moment to denounce all violence that forces silencing of dissent and critique, and acceptance of injustice and inequality.

Je suis Charlie to evoke a global defense of truth, justice and freedom for all, and to mobilize a politics that equally abhors the violation of some individuals in some places as much as it does in others. Je suis Charlie to refuse distinctions regarding torture, terrorism and armed violence, and to challenge dogmatism regardless of who imposes their worldview with guns and war.

It’s absolutely true that self-righteous religiosity, whether Islamic or Christian, powerfully continues to deny equality to some because of their gender or sexuality, resist women’s complete autonomy, and perpetuate the violence of illegal and unsafe abortions which kill tens of thousands of women worldwide. It is also true that nationalism combined with state violence decides whose bodies matter, which countries we emotively connect to, and whose lives can be ignored by citizens, media and states.

Forty-seven nations’ politicians gather in solidarity in Paris while state terrorism against other innocents fails to make us sufficiently act against the intolerance behind such crimes. Indeed, one cannot blame cartoonists, French racism, Western colonialism and war, or economic deprivation for provoking a ‘Muslim’, Algerian or masculine response. An egotistical claim to sovereignty over others, meaning the assumed right to repress and kill, is at work here and it is as illegitimate when claimed by individuals or nations. This is therefore also a moment to remember that contemporary religious fundamentalism, state militarism and extremist male violence are entangled in ways that it is ahistorical to deny.

The hijacking of religious tolerance, individual freedom, women’s rights, collective peace and global as well as local forms of economic equality connects Charlie Hebdo with Nabila Rehman who was picking ochros in her garden when drone missiles killed her grandmother, injuring her and seven other children.

Will we identify with freedom for all or sacrifice fairness for tribalism? This, to quote Maajid Nawaz, “is the difference between choosing principles and choosing sides”. An attack on anyone’s human rights is an attack on all we cherish, and all that connects our humanity across every national border.

Je suis Mahmoud, a Palestinian teen who rushed to help Israelis attacked in a West bank supermarket.

Je suis Charlie. Je suis Ayeesha. No to all terror. Not in my name.

Post 171.

Amidst signs from Guave Road farmers showing government’s crop destruction in Chagaramas, banners from Tacarigua, increasingly intoxicated folk singing about Kamla drinking puncheon, and a cute Indian rasta with long dreads who danced spiritedly the entire way, last Friday found me in Port of Spain marching against corruption.

Amassing with unions can be pure joy for their unique sense of collectivity and reminder of popular strength. When else will exuberant songs and drums echoing through the street remind you that labour needs to hold the reins of power and that we might indeed overcome economic inequality and exploitation. Someday, someday.

As an anthropologist and activist, my instincts were to read all the handmade signs, walk within the energy of the unions represented, from contractors to oilfield and communication workers to UWI staff, and, as I was to speak on the platform later, give voice to protestors’ own ideas.

I especially tried to talk with women. One carried so much heavy determination to survive domestic violence and current unemployment that I couldn’t imagine how to begin to talk about politics. I could have connected her with a job, but despite having a computer, she didn’t have typing skills. Feeling her defeat, I could only think, may Jah provide the bread.

As I moved through the ranks, asking people how they would end corruption, many weren’t interested in talking, maybe because they wondered why an Indian like me, maybe ah UNC, was asking such questions. Such reticence wasn’t surprising. Dishonesty is the historical modus operandi of every party, yet this was opposition not national politics, personalizing corruption with a capitalized, yellow K.

Some women I spoke with lamented that race was holding back the country, but were clear that racism was worse now than ever before. One man said he’d end corruption by bunnin down Port of Spain. Most just said the solution was to vote out Kamla. I countered that PNM history tells us corruption isn’t because of this Prime Minister. Remember Tarouba Stadium? But, that mood wasn’t there amongst unionists, MSJ supporters, ILP members, PNM faithful, San Fernando workers wanting their back pay, and others wronged and disappointed by a Minshall-named ‘Mama of Mamaguy’.

A number of women told me that we can’t end corruption, we doh have no power. But then why march? On the platform, I hoped they heard me honour Caribbean women’s long tradition of resistance against oppressive systems which used sexual and other kinds of violence, including the law, to control their rights, bodies and fertility, paid women less than they paid men for the same work, and assigned them tasks worth less pay. This is why our great-grandmothers fought in their numbers, to give us this capacity we have today.

I didn’t expect marchers to bring up procurement legislation, political party financing reform, whistleblower protection, increasing police convictions for state fraud, reviewing operations of our tax department or strengthening the Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) process. Yet, it’s also clear that unions need to make such specific solutions household words as well as call workers to the streets. They need to show how corruption bankrupts the treasury, and undermines the quality of schools, roads and hospitals, leaving the poorest the most hungry.

My speech emphasized that communities must be connected to each other, not to political leaders, and disrupting any myth of Indian women’s docility, I was clear that Jack Warner doesn’t have the moral authority to be on any anti-corruption platform with me. I then left early for a date with my husband, to give enough time and thought also to marriage and family.

Post 168.

I was unapologetically proud when Kamla Persad-Bissessar became the country’s first woman Prime Minister. I loved her clean election campaign in comparison to the PNM’s labeling their opponents ‘skeletons’ and throwing insults for cheap political gain. I was completely excited that this astute politician could defeat lesser men and lead a complex coalition, unlike any other Caribbean leader before, and miles ahead of PNM’s go-it-alone politics. I’d watch Persad-Bissessar on TV and teach my daughter the name of the first Indian woman to crack that glass ceiling.

At one meeting, along with feminist grandmothers like Hazel Brown and Brenda Gopeesingh, I breastfed Ziya while the PM talked with us and I took notes. I wondered who before had breastfed while with a PM in a Cabinet meeting room, and of course Persad-Bissessar didn’t even blink, knowing that this is what women can do in boardrooms when grandmothers and mothers hold office.

I liked little decisions the People’s Partnership made, for example to ban hunting despite a myopic ‘no hunting, no vote’ campaign, to actually answer the parliamentary questions put to the government, and the initial choice to put the gender machinery in the ministry of planning. I took heat from all kinds of people because I was seen as too silent and too uncritical in Persad-Bissessar’s first years. It was because, perhaps naively, I had such hope.

Since then, I’ve found myself ending up and again on the side of citizens, led by other women, mothers and grandmothers, protesting through media and on the street. My hope has tumbled, knocked down by bad appointments, murky state spending, the homophobia of the Children’s Act, patron-clientelism, mishandled electoral changes, and reliance on PR and attacks.

In the PM’s showdown with Wayne Kublalsingh, popular sentiment that he is mere nuisance is on her side. Regardless, his death will leave no escape from unexpected kinds of regret. By first marching against the highway and then switching position once in power, the PM created the path that led to such reckoning. Her own supporters, or advisors with their own agendas who want her to fail, may spin around and say why not have chosen mediation, and why not just agree to properly done hydrology and cost-benefit analyses? What about compassion? As we grow more committed to accountability, which we will with each decade, the principles at stake here will grow less personalized to one man and become more publicly and historically clear.

I wish I could thank the PM for setting the standard for how development should best be done, through consensus rather than division. I wish I could ask her what her grandmother would advise. I wish I could congratulate her for ending this impasse as an informed, transformational leader would. After all, a patriot is one who wrestles for the Soul of her country. I wish that, as woman, she would roar at puppet master financiers. I wish her decisions meant no future struggle over the same issues, taking up time for committed, concerned citizens like you and me.

Being a woman is public and personal, for government sets the context for the intimate, for love spans ecology, neighbor and nation, justice and future, just as it does family. Knowing more than wishing is necessary, I wake up wondering which words and deeds can make the world right. These days I awake almost holding my breath, wondering how stories I’m telling are going to end. Knowing that every decision made for the country I love feels like a turning point, I wish the PM would inspire again the hope I felt in 2010.

 

Post 166.

I told myself that I’d be there to support Wayne Kublalsingh’s second hunger strike, even if I disagreed with it as a strategy, because you don’t leave soldiers to fight on battlefields alone.

You might disagree with their battle plan, wonder at their choices, get vex that they don’t follow your suggestions, and anticipate the victories as well as onslaught of wounds, but soldiers who decide to die fighting deserve more than dismissive derision.

I mean soldiers who put everything into the trenches of citizen organizing for more than a decade for no personal gain, and who have fought without guns, mudslinging or dogs of war for communities’ sustainable needs. Soldiers who ran out big polluter industries which would have gorged on our precious island resources, exported the profits, and left our children along the South-West peninsula mired in waste. I mean soldiers who won’t give up our rights to state accountability for any version of development, and who won’t let politicians conveniently and falsely make us choose.

While these soldiers step into the deep fog ahead, steeled by will, experience and principle, there is work for us to do.  This is my tenth column on the HRM since November 2012, every word as personal as it is political. I’ve often visited the handful of older folk, sitting peaceably outside the PM’s office for more than 200 days, forever imprinting in my mind that image of their little tent facing the façade of prime ministerial authority.  Listening to the women of the HRM marvel at never imagining quiet, rural mothers could challenge the PM, I’ve seen examples of empowerment for young Indian women.

I came of age under citizen soldiers like Sheila Soloman, Angela Cropper, Norman Girvan, Norris Deonarine, Rhea Mungal, Desmond Allum, Michael Als, and more. Their ghosts stalk our apathy. They remind that history is made by individuals handing on a sense of people power to another generation. They forewarn that some successes may only be an edging back of government secrecy and domination, some will take more than our lifetime to achieve.

Through these weeks, I’ve listened to people saying the ‘environmental movement’ should just give up on this as if giving up is what Caribbean people do, as if one tenth of our budget isn’t a public issue. I’ve listened to others divide south from north Trinidad as if a nation is best guided by the spin of divide and rule. I’ve seen million dollar government propaganda distract from the billion dollar questions.

Perhaps naively, I hoped that, against such a Goliath, we could win with our little slingshots of truth.  I’ve also listened to Sunity Maharaj sagely caution me that, if I think back to the Amerindians, to the long struggle since colonization, I’d also remember that crushing, arbitrary defeat after defeat is part of our legacy.

I could write about the dilemmas of choosing a primary school where teachers will not beat my child, and the worry of sitting in parent-teacher meetings hearing that her confidence doesn’t match her vocabulary, but I find myself more concerned with the complexity of power and its hidden curriculum, less likely to produce solidarity than indifference and cynicism.

Our work ahead is to decide what this moment will mean.  When mega projects cost us more than they should, ecologically, financially and socially, I ask myself what Ziya will think of the sides I took, and my own accountability.

May soldiers also help her learn how to educate, advocate and mobilize. In your own future dark time, Zi my love, may they still haunt those aiming at your dream.

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On Wednesday 22 October, I visited Wayne at home. Lying in his bed, looking hollow but radiant on Day 36, he pointed to a sketch he had done of three men – Martin Luther King, Walter Rodney and Martin Carter.

I had written this entry the night before, hoping to explain my own involvement, what I understand true soldiers to be, and why Wayne didn’t need to live on to lead another future struggle – for that is our responsibility. It was late when Express reporter Kim Boodram had called to say she had seen Wayne and was horrified at his state. I felt darkness like a weight pressing on my fingers, wrists, arms, shoulders and neck as I sat at my desk listening. I had not yet ended this entry and found an articulation of my emotions in Martin Carter’s

‘This is the dark time, my love’.

His brown beetles are soldiers who trample the slender grass, who produce oppression and fear. I thought of independence as the change to our own forces of authoritarianism and the guerrilla citizens who help us learn how to defend ourselves. I thought of the jumbie Wayne, now in human body, but perhaps moving to another form. I thought of how I carry the formidable commitment of civil society within me, like a pantheon, and my hope that Wayne’s spirit would also usher us ahead.When he showed me the drawing, I read this to him, glad that Carter’s truths continue to haunt us. The next day was a gathering to shed light on the darkness of governmental secrecy and domination. Light, not violence, is our weapon. 

Gabrielle Souldeya Hosein