Post 335.

Today, I turned 45. I’m not sure I feel celebratory. I feel like a survivor. Like the walking wounded. Moving slowly, but surely on my feet.

For all my empowerment, I’m amazed I’m still negotiating women’s timeworn challenges. Like an increasing number of us, precisely because sheer hard work has led to vastly more university educated women than men, I’m a main breadwinner.

At the same time, because male privilege remains so resilient, I also put in the majority of time on child care and carry the majority of responsibility for managing all the logistics and planning related to family life.

This comes at the cost of my savings and my career. It brings the exhaustion that so many single mothers are familiar with, and dust off like just another day.

It’s labour that is mostly invisible, undervalued, taken-for-granted, and assumed to be mine. For the good of my daughter, like so many moms, I do it willingly and wholeheartedly. I’m clear-eyed about the inequalities, but I’m prepared to sacrifice, to provide the absolute best, and to teach lessons of generosity, care and justice with joy.

I’ve started a whole new life. It’s like adulthood, which is cynical at best, but blushed with rose-coloured bliss. Maybe bliss is just a choice. I imagine I’m past life’s half-way mark so, at this point, I have fewer years ahead than I’ve already lived. These days, therefore, I’m just trying to be happy.

There’s debt to climb out of, overdue publications to submit, a house to buy, and ends to meet. It’s the kind of stress that keeps you up calculating at night.

There are also rivers to walk, waterfalls to find and beaches to remind of the wind and the waves, alternately whispering and roaring, as both wash across the shore.

There’s also love which feels like winning the Lotto every day. Maybe past forty you are not looking for perfect, maybe you are not even looking, maybe you just get lucky enough to cross paths with someone committed to growing.

Inside, I’ve turned bountiful like the hillsides after first rains. I awake more aware that love is a harvest you sow each morning. I count lessons about commitment and communication like seeds, in between calculations at night.

Some days, I lift each limb depressed and empty, like Sisyphus waking to discover the boulder he had shouldered uphill had rolled back down again. What working mother doesn’t know the feeling of not having an hour for herself, to breathe, to think, to feel or to stay sane.

I pole dance twice a week now which is both hard and hot AF. It enables me to support a woman-run and women-only small business which challenges women to become strong, to feel good, to recognize their challenges, to value themselves, and to connect to their sexuality. My goal is simply to show up, for me.

I’ve reached here through taking on and giving up, through gathering and letting go. I remind myself that it’s not possible to have it all, at least not at the same time, wondering if men tell themselves that daily too.

Patriarchy, from politician to religious leader to employer to lover, is a killer, but it’s like rising above the falling rain when you finally reach where you know yourself, your rights and your power. Women come into our own because we’ve hurt and healed, stooped and conquered. I hope I can carry my own independence and freedom, for it has been hard earned.

I now understand how women seem to become more certain, more centred, more unapologetic, and more fearless in their fifties, sixties and seventies. They’ve paid their dues pleasing everybody. Having learned through love and loss, they know there’s far less to fear than they thought. Such insight is a trade with age.

I’ve learned gratitude and forgiveness for those on my side, for those in my softly-beating heart, for the giants in my life, for the child who teaches me, for allies and inspiration, for opportunities to become a better person, and for laughter and cool mornings with trees in the distance.

Every dawn, we receive life as a gift to keep opening. Every dusk, women know the weariness from standing tall like a silk cotton tree, carrying our scars and imperfections, worries and burdens.

Over my shoulder, my own jahajin bundle is slung. Thirty kilometres per second on this next rotation of the sun, and blossoming in my own time and season, here I come.

 

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Post 274.

Zi came home from school with minor injuries. A boy had pushed her down making her bleed from her knee. Another day, one kicked her in the neck, somehow, and it hurt her for a week. Next time, a third hit her in her eye. The physical violence wasn’t purposeful, the boys were being wild. But I wondered if there was a later lesson, that men can behave how they choose and women must learn to manage their own safety or risk injury.

The fact of ‘boys being boys’ as the denominator of social rules isn’t good enough when spaces are shared. One of the boys was also calling her and other children names. I said she should tell him not to call her names, she doesn’t like it and to stop. She said, he wouldn’t listen and would anyway. I said tell the other boys that they have to make sure how they want to behave doesn’t hurt others, including her. She said they wouldn’t care. I said, tell your teachers. She said, they just say, don’t worry about it and go play somewhere else, so she stopped saying anything.

Is this how gender-based violence becomes familiar, when girls realise that they cannot state their right to not be insulted or injured and have it heard, thus changing boys’ behaviour? When there is impunity and lack of accountability about respect and safety in shared spaces, raising these realities gets read as advocating the feminisation of childhood, but something else is at stake when girls learn to stay silent and be more careful.

Zi wasn’t prepared to press her point or fight back, risking further rough play to defend her terms, so she experienced a moment of socialisation about silence, inability to change the conditions she experiences, and responsibility for her safety. Sound familiar? I began thinking about what she’d need to be able to state her fair needs and rights as a basis for autonomy, sovereignty and empowerment.

I thought about continued government failure to implement gender-based violence programmes in schools or preventative programmes in social life. Global literature will tell you that gender ideologies –  beliefs and values about manhood and womanhood, their roles, and their right to different forms and expressions of self and power – are at the heart of violence against women.

Other factors, whether interpersonal conflict, substance abuse, economic insecurity and infidelity, are triggers, and sometimes consequences, but not the cause.  A country that takes such violence seriously would systematically transform our gender ideologies, giving girls greater practice stating the terms of their relationships with others, and refusing verbal or physical violence and harm.

People think women are too empowered or have ‘too much equality’, but the numbers of applications for protection orders, the deaths from intimate partner violence, and rates of sexual violence against girls and women tells a different story.

Religious messages are those most pervasive and least likely to emphasise the legitimacy of women having full sovereign power over their own bodies, sexuality and reproduction. Pastoral care often reminds women of the sanctity of marriage to men, the need to respect husbands as authority figures, and the necessity of sacrifice for peace in the family.

Male violence is backed by surprisingly common ideas that women don’t have the right to decide when the relationship is done and should peacefully cooperate with practices of male culture and control.

Do girls have the right to state what they want and how they want to be treated, and to have that respected? Do they have the right to say no to insult or aggression? When do they get to practice the skills they need to stop any experiences of violence?

Neither state nor society takes preventative programmes seriously enough to stop violence against women. Seeing those moments of gender socialization that don’t help either stops all my public activism in its tracks and makes me wonder.

 

 

Post 211.

This week’s lesson was to remember to look after myself.

I was a speaker at  ‘Empower’, an event hosted last Sunday by a company called The Sisterhood. Before my turn, Thokozile James, one of the organizers, unexpectedly called up a woman to the microphone. Recently widowed and a mother of three children, she had been diagnosed with cancer just three weeks earlier. Watching her, my heart sent a shiver right down my arms to the backs of my fingertips. Unobtrusively, I clenched and unclenched my hands in the face of that killer word, cancer, and its creeping intimacy with so many of our lives.

‘I used to be the last in the office’, she said to us.’ I missed doctor’s appointments because I was busy with work, a degree and children. I put my health last’. Listening to her, I felt my whole rib cage open as if someone was reaching in to grab my heart. I was filled with recognition. ‘Finally’, she said, ‘before I left the office late one evening, I got myself the first appointment with a cancer testing caravan. I was first in line that morning and I am telling you now that I will survive’.

I looked at this courageous, articulate professional woman, committed to her job for more than a decade, but ultimately recognizing that only life matters, and wondered what it would take for her lesson to matter to me.

Over forty now, I too work far too much, exercise too little, and keep going even when I should stop. For some reason, whether it’s from Ziya’s age or starting primary school or my own exhaustion, or both, I’ve had the flu four or five times this year, maybe more, I’ve forgotten, not for more than a few days, and low grade rather than debilitating. Through all those times, I’ve taken cold tablets and keep working, driving coughing or feverish through traffic to get to meetings it seemed crucial to attend, and managing deadlines and teaching responsibilities, despite feeling run down and run over.

Though having long proven myself to be a super-committed professional, taking more than one day to recover, knowing that it might not fit with an office plan, felt like a betrayal of my reputation and the job, as if I was risking being seen as undeserving, irresponsible or unreliable, one of those people bosses warn about not meeting expectations. Amidst this vicious circle of overwork and insufficient recovery, I wondered, is there a point at which women, like the one now speaking to us, who get awards for their loyalty and dedication, can stop proving themselves? Is there at point at which putting your health first becomes something other a negotiation with potential reproach?

Just hours later, I woke up at 3am with a sharply sore throat. Armed with cold tablets, I went to work on Monday. By evening, I knew I couldn’t make it again the next day, on a schedule that meant getting up at 5.30am to get Ziya to school and getting home later than 7.30pm after a meeting. I was about to travel to a conference and back, putting in almost 40 hours of travel time in just four days this week, and I knew I would reach back to work on Monday like a dead woman walking.

It was this woman’s reality that made me stop. If I didn’t listen now, when would I learn? If I didn’t get better, wouldn’t it keep getting worse? And, how would not fully recovering undermine my very professionalism with such low grade, continual effects on my ideas, energy, productivity and efficiency? Who would be blamable in the end, but me?

My own speech that afternoon emphasized that, as women, we all have funny, awkward, dark, sad, passionate, inspiring, life-long learning stories, of making mistakes, failing at getting everything right, falling down before we get up and dust off, feeling guilty, surviving emotional or other damage, and more. However, the story that shook me between my ribs was this woman’s. I learned what I hope I remember, defend and know is right. When women, especially mothering workers, must put ourselves first, no demands matter above our health and life.

Post 210.

Those very struggles established in slavery and indentureship have not yet been won for all Caribbean women. Sisterhood and empowerment are a commitment to their individual and collective achievement, and that commitment is the fire and hope of Caribbean feminism.

Let us take the words offered by this movement while also embracing Caribbean feminism’s radical history and intent, its lessons and wisdom, its analyses and aims. Let us love ourselves and each other, building community in ways that claim our place in continuing its legacy. When it comes to hundreds of years of our region’s women desiring and labouring for change, let us feel no fear or shame.

The feminist movement still keeps this controversial label because this is the only movement in all of modern time that has unapologetically placed  women’s real issues first, not because addressing them helps to improve the economy, the family or the nation, but to make the world right for women.

Advocating for maternity leave, domestic violence, anti-discrimination or sexual assault legislation. Challenging sexism in school curricula. Recognising housework’s economic value. Creating global agreement that women and girls can achieve any aspiration. Insisting that femininity isn’t about lack or weakness, but about women’s own definitions and embodiment of power.

Feminism in the Caribbean wasn’t imported, it emerged from the conditions of our lives and our dreams for equality and rights. It was never built on hatred or discrimination, but on the long struggle for true emancipation. It never aimed to make women superior to men, rather it aims to enable women to live on terms not defined by male superiority. It challenges racism as it is knotted with sexism, distorting women’s and men’s experiences of their bodies. It seeks a world in which all women can be who they are, and be valued simply because they are, regardless of their sexual choices.

Caribbean feminism gives us words to describe realities and resistances that are only ours, to describe a movement led by everyday women for every woman, without apology. Let’s not forget those foremothers as we also enjoy the rewards of looking good, having disposable income, networking within rather than across class, and improving our individual capacities to earn more money. Let us not forget the implications of a Beyonce brand of sexy feminism in heels and on fleek in bright lights and big stage, for women who refuse sexiness, but still wish to be seen as beautiful.

Reproductive rights, safety from sexual violence and exploitation, equal pay for equal work, fair sharing of family responsibilities, a right to independence and decision-making, and a sense of self free of racist ideals regarding our beauty are the roots of Caribbean feminism today. If you are a woman who believes any of these are important, then you believe in feminist ideals which centuries of struggle have made more legitimate and worth fighting for. Disown stereotypes and misrecognition, and fearlessly tell them that this is what a Caribbean feminist looks like. And, then, however it feels right, rock this politics’ insights and inspiration in your unique contribution.

Sisterhood. Empowerment. Financial independence. A supportive community of women. Sexual freedom. Fearlessness. Equality. Choice. Self-acceptance, self-determination and self-care. As we invest in these in our lives, let’s also connect to and celebrate the Caribbean women whose feminism gave us these words to make ours and to confidently share.

Post 162.

Feminism is getting hotter. Sparking a global spring, girls and women are taking on the world political-economic order on the ground and through technology. More power to this movement for equality, equity, and transformation of all forms of domination. Welcome to a moment that tireless struggle has again born.

Once the dilemma was about the ‘I’m not feminist, but…’ kind of feminism, the belief in and practice of its politics that nonetheless ran from the backlash stereotypes associated with its identity and community.

However, going more mainstream has attached feminism to wider practices and representations, raising questions about the relationship between feeling powerful and undoing powerful hierarchies, as well as making us look harder at feminisms mix with capitalism, its long-marketed racist and sexist ordering of women, and its containment of the broadest goals of empowerment.

Take bootylicious feminism, also seen in Nicki Minaj’s dancehall queen version. Beyonce’s brand champions women as flawless and sexy, smart and powerful, economically in control and unanswerable to the politics of respectability. It also sells sex as it sells feminism. Indeed, here, sex sells feminism, potentially popularizing a narrower project than dismantling the beauty myths still packaging the meanings of female sexuality. What do hypersexual feminisms do for kinds that are not or refuse to be sexy?

I’ve wondered about this when my friend Nicole was shamed for playing Jouvay topless but for nipple coverings, and in an old shortpants, making explicit just how little pretty mas nakedness has opened a space for women’s non-prettied bodies on the road, on their own terms, even on Carnival days. I’ve thought about this when women face censure for shamelessly breast-feeding their babies. I’ve reflected on this as I envision the postcolonial feminisms I want for my little brown girl.

There’s feminist struggle for sex positivity. Existing double standards shame women in ways that men, even those who are molesters, rapists or adulterers, don’t face, and strippers, sex workers and ‘skettels’’ usually scorned behaviour means they are least protected by the law, unions, immigration officials and health institutions. This must change.

The question isn’t whether women have a right to make the choices they do. Instead our attention should be on the choices available, and the ones still determining women’s greatest rewards, pleasures and value. It’s no coincidence that just as girls have been ‘taking over’ education, media and labour markets, they have been increasingly pressured to still embody specific femininities and stilettoed super-sexiness. What does this mean for feminisms’ trenchant critique of women as objects for consumption, and for black and brown women’s refusal to reproduce reduction to their bodies at the expense of their humanity?

Freedom from sexual and other forms of  violence. Choice regarding marriage, children, and same sex desire. Access to reproductive justice, including safe and legal abortion. Transformation of the colonial gender stereotyping still pervasive in contemporary pop culture, advertising, nationalism and tourism. Value not for how we look nor for the femininities we do, but simply because we are. The kinds of economic rights that mean we neither gain greater wealth nor greater vulnerability from the exploitation of our bodies in public and private life. For me, this is what feminist goals of sexual liberation mean.

All women know there is no pure place for resistance. This is more rather than less reason for thinking critically about diverse instances named feminist. It’s reason for differentiating between the gender consciousness we now have of rights and inequalities, and feminist consciousness that aims at more than women’s individual wealth, choice or leveling of power to a radical re-imagining beyond current terms and boundaries.