Post 386.

Last week, I suggested there would be nine to 13 women in the Lower House. Now, that number is 11, with only two of these being Indo-Trinidadian women, not one of whom is from the PNM despite claims that the party is nationally inclusive.

TT’s parties need to show their commitment to more equitable representation of women (across race, disability and sexual orientation) in ways that increase their numbers in the House, where the nation’s decisions are made. At 26 per cent as of today, we have actually moved backward, and there is little to celebrate about a near shatter-proof glass ceiling in 2020.

Such marginalisation of women is ever more important as the world faces health and economic crises that will exacerbate gender inequalities, but is blind to such inequality as a substantive issue.

Globally, men are 75 per cent of parliamentarians, 73 per cent of managerial decision-makers, and 72 per cent of executives of global health organisations. As UN Women points out, disaster preparedness and recovery plans also rarely include women’s needs and interests, and tend “to be developed with little or no sex- or gender-disaggregated data and little input from national gender equality representatives or women’s organisations.”

The PNM’s manifesto, our guide for the next five years, similarly highlights the low priority given to ending gender inequality. The manifesto was based on the Prime Minister’s Road to Recovery Committee, comprising 14 per cent representation by women, two of whom represented the public service, with one of these acting as secretary to the committee.

The long active women’s movement was completely excluded despite the fact that, on the ground, women provide the majority of care as front-line workers in hospitals, schools and community organisations, and as carers of the ill, aged and children at home. Women also work in the hardest-hit sectors such as accommodation and food services, retail trade, administrative activities, and the informal economy, already predominate in the lowest income brackets, and will be less able to benefit from economic stimulus plans because of their greater responsibility for unpaid care work.

None of this is acknowledged anywhere in the manifesto. It is oblivious to a sex-disaggregated picture of the economy, the extent to which it shows unequal distribution of income, ownership, labour and opportunity, and the explicit need to address this as part of national recovery.

Women are mentioned on two pages of the manifesto, where they are characterised in terms of motherhood, welfare and vulnerability. Advancing gender equality, as a goal and responsibility of democratic governance, is not integrated across economic planning, agriculture or housing.

Some women will benefit from plans outlined. However, given that women are a minority of manufacturing business owners, own account employers, contractors or construction workers, for example, means there will inevitably be inequality in women’s direct inclusion and benefit from the manifesto’s plans. Gender-blindness in the recovery committee led to invisibility or insignificance of such outcomes. That said, the one civil society representative, who should have raised this issue seems to have focused on ensuring that single fathers are mentioned five times.

The manifesto includes a commitment to “implement policies which improve the lives of women and children such as the National Policy on Gender and Development,” but doesn’t speak to approving the policy. This may continue the status quo where parts of a draft policy, not formally approved by Cabinet, are being implemented, creating significant policy and public confusion.

The manifesto also commits to fund shelters, transitional facilities, and strategies to end gender-based violence. This is welcome. Thus far, shelters, victim and witness support, and the GBV Unit have received vastly insufficient funding to meet public need. The Government will also be formulating a second national strategic action plan to end gender-based and sexual violence, after letting the last one lapse for four years. Here, resourcing the plan, so the Government puts money where its manifesto says it will, is key.

UN Women (in Policy Brief #18) calls on governments to 1) ensure that decision-making bodies are gender-balanced, 2) harness existing gender equality institutions and mechanisms in the pandemic response, 3) ensure that gender equality concerns are embedded in the design and implementation of national covid19 policy responses and budgets in ways informed by sex-disaggregated data, and 4) include and support women and women’s organisations in covid19 response decision-making.

None of this was promised, and is yet to be seen. I’ll wait to celebrate when we see basic commitment to, as the UN puts it, “building back better” than before covid19.

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 229.

If I could wish on a December super moon, large and bright enough to grant both Christmas requests and New Year resolutions, I’d wish for a Trinidad and Tobago where I didn’t have to write so repeatedly about sexual violence.

I’d lift spirits with a story of Ziya discovering Queen Latifah and Monie Love’s 1989 feminist hit, ‘Ladies First’, and it rolling on repeat through this week’s traffic while she excessively bops her neck and spits like they do, “Some think that we can’t flow (can’t flow)/ Stereotypes, they got to go (got to go)”.

It’s all in that song. Opening shots of women rebels like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis and a young Winnie Mandela. ‘Ain’t I a Woman’, they would ask, and don’t I deserve every right due to me, every moment of equality and every experience of unthreatened freedom? Later, a chorus follows that flips ‘ladies first’ into reverse, from mere precious chivalry to women exercising self-defining political and lyrical power.

The video backdrop is a bombed-out housing project which, when we cut to BBC world radio, mixes straight to breaking images of a bombed-out Aleppo. Queen La foregrounds news footage of armed struggle against apartheid in South Africa. I show Zi Google images of children on the other side of the world so that she can make sense of today’s news.

Truth is, I haven’t yet figured out how to script for what’s present and here. After remembering the names of 47 women killed this year, at last Saturday’s Life in Leggings gathering, I returned home feeling despair. Ziya knows about patriarchy, simplified as ‘when men think they are more powerful than women’, but I don’t have adequate language to talk to her about why the flow of some women’s lives is abruptly stopped or how much longer it will take to end stereotypes that got to go.

The message to girls is to learn to protect themselves, but how to explain why they are so vulnerable to sexual harm, and why self-defense classes are as much a solution as Aleppo’s destruction.

TTPS report that, in 2015, there were 180 female rape victims under eighteen years old plus 109 over eighteen. Officially classified as ‘rape’, though indicating a different kind of vulnerability, particularly without proper sex education in schools, sex with females 14-16 years old accounted for 137 cases while sex with females under 14 years old accounted for 112 cases. That was last year alone, and only rape cases that reached the police. The last thing those girls need to be asked is, why didn’t you fight back, like an out of timing tune whose refrain is, what more could you have done to stop this happening to you.

In war-free T and T, I’m clear about which lyrics to flip. The first is that girls and women have personal responsibility for our safety. No. We do not open ourselves up to attack anytime. Sex crimes are the responsibility of the attacker, whether it happens at home by someone a girl knows or on in public by a stranger. Sexual violence is neither normal nor inevitable. It is not ‘just the way things are’. Sexuality spliced with everyday violence is fundamentally a sign of things not being as they should be.

This creates rape culture, where gender-based violence is sexualized, and where there is pervasive and passive acceptance of female vulnerability, victim-blaming and hyper-masculinity.

Verse after verse, voice after voice, we must hold government’s accountable, whether in relation to the never-approved national gender policy or in relation to the never implemented National Strategic Action Plan on Gender Based and Sexual Violence. Back-up voices must pitch for police and judiciary accountability, and successful prosecution of the majority of cases, stopping in its tracks such repetitive impunity.

In the dark-night sky that will usher in a new year, enough stars will be visible for every one of these wishes, though all they really require is state and social will. When Zi asks, why violence against women, why Aleppo, and I turn off the radio, not knowing exactly what to say, you’ll understand why some mornings I turn up the volume and set ‘Ladies First’ on replay.

Two interviews from November 2015 with Vernon Ramesar of iETv on women, men and Caribbean feminism….hoping to continue a conversation about what we should discuss more, eg indigenous women’s issues, particularly in places like Belize, Dominica and Guyana, what young women see as the issues important to them and their generation, continued forms of backlash and solidarity by men, the influence of neo-liberal capitalism on social movements today, social media and cyberfeminism in the Caribbean, and the extent to which celebrities, fashion and fun are both narrowing and expanding the meanings of what a feminist looks like…..the place for transgender persons in women’s movements, and more and more and more.

A revolution is a way of life. There is no pure place for resistance. Let’s grow with joy. Bless…

Part 1…

Part 2….

Post 196. LGBT Hinduism.

When one of Trinidad and Tobago’s best known contemporary authors, Shani Mootoo, was reading from her work at Alice Yard in Woodbrook, she expressed amazement that the word ‘lesbian’ was now being said openly in Trinidad, in a way she never imagined when she left for Canada all those years ago. The audience promptly affirmed, collectively shouting ‘lesbian!’ at the urging of Vahni Capildeo, a younger Indo-Trinidadian woman living in the UK, and author of several published collections of poetry.

While the readings continued, I reflected on the many incremental efforts that make such major shifts occur, almost without us noticing. And I wondered what a student might examine if she or he had to try to document the causes of such change. To what extent would focus be on the work of LBGT organisations which have been systematically nudging the public toward acknowledging their claims to human rights, equality and freedom from discrimination? To what extent would the decade of debate over the Draft National Gender Policy, and advocacy led by the women’s movement, explain wider discussion of homosexuality? To what extent is it the impact of global and regional advocacy or US popular culture? How much is from younger generations just living as they choose?

Someone once asked me why my column talks about lesbians all the time. It doesn’t of course, but I also deliberately place the presence and realities of those women who remain unjustly silenced and criminalized into the public domain.  So, yes, the word lesbian occupies more space in national press than it would have otherwise. In a small way, this normalizes the kinds of citizens who continue to hope they can be accepted for who they are. The citizens who should be safe to discuss their lives and loves just as much as their responsibilities for care of parents or their dissatisfaction with that new crumbly Crix, or, come election time, who they go put.

It was one of those moments of opening and occupying at the NCIC’s Divali Nagar compound on Saturday. How amazing to hear a new generation quoting religious texts to justify anti-homophobic Hinduism, to learn from Krystal Ghisyawan’s research on lesbian women’s desires for a sense of safety in their families and nation, and to watch Shalini Seereeram talk about representing women’s intimacies in art and the risks she takes in being true to her vision of the world. This panel could never be found fifteen years ago when I was searching for it. I wondered how and when such Hindu feminism had found its Caribbean footing.

Enlargened by those watching the live online broadcast and asking questions via Facebook, we heard about a sruti paradigm in Hindu theology which focuses on the eternal and is unconcerned about sexuality and gender, female incarnations of male deities like Vishnu, and bodily transformations from one sex to another, like Arjun becoming temporarily female to experience Krishna’s love, or Sikhandini honoring her bride’s wishes by becoming male. And how these, not Sita’s chastity, influenced women’s claims to LGBT, Hindu, Indian and Trinidadian identities as all parts of a right to be.

Like Pandita Indrani Rampersad’s theological support for same sex marriage when other religious groups quote scripture to reproduce prejudicial legislation, this gathering, titled ‘Queerying Hinduism’ and led by young married couple, Aneela Bhagwat and Arvind Singh of the Centre for Indic Studies, was another small step transforming the space, language and solidarities available to and beyond lesbian Indo-Caribbean women.

I thought of Shani Mootoo, acclimatizing to the fact that engagements with sexuality and gender have moved outside of fiction. And, I wanted this column to be its own moment, tracing and placing into public record the Indo-Caribbean feminisms now inspiring me.

‘Why aren’t the older heads here?, someone asked. But, more important was the circle of young women present, without judgment, with laughter, with pride, as I never imagined I’d see.

Check out the Centre for Indic Studies on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/centreforindicstudies.