Post 226.

As we approach end-of-year local government elections, and political parties’ women’s arms are mobilized in campaigns, rallies, and constituency offices, it’s a good time for such political bodies to flex some muscle and establish their expectations.

The domestication of political party women’s arms, sometimes called auxiliaries or leagues, is well documented across the region. Women’s arms are primarily drawn on in the lead-up to elections, then usually side-lined after, rather than being at the decision-making table in terms of appointments to Cabinet, boards and other state posts, and in terms of policy positions to be pursued. They are warm bodies needed on the streets to validate parties’ and candidates’ moral legitimacy, community relevance, and vote-enticing sensitivities to women.

It’s a powerful time, particularly for working class women, who know they are playing a crucial and visible role, and who bring that valuable nexus of cooking, cleaning-up, and campaigning skills and contacts when the battle for votes hits the streets. While usually male financiers stand on the side-lines making and breaking deals, I guarantee that campaign-, rally- or constituency-level momentum is not possible without largely lower and middle-income women’s and housewives’ labour, for they perform the majority of organizing work behind the scenes.

Such capacity and power shouldn’t just amount to ‘helpfulness’, but instead accrue analytically sound, badass might. Women’s arms are expected to stay within the boundaries of acceptable issues and rights for women, avoiding, for example, advocacy regarding the right to love of lesbian young women and the basic decency of safe terminations for others seeking abortions, despite their illegality.

The definition of womanhood they enact is linked to wifehood, motherhood and grand-motherhood, rather than to women as an independent constituency of sexual, economic and political beings, who, by now, should substantively occupy at least half of all political decision-making positions in the country.

They symbolize the moral centers of their party, selflessly concerned about and responsible for maintaining respect for the status quo, social order and public good, even when a gender policy is desperately needed to guide state programmes and spending regardless of whether some religious leaders realise that or not.

Within them, women learn when to stay quiet and when to speak, when to know their place, how to appropriately assert power, and how to not annoy men and elite women in the party with their non-negotiable challenges to class hierarchy, sexism, sexual harassment, homophobia and corruption, both in the party and in the society. While men present the risk of political and sexual indiscipline, the women’s arm is steadfast and loyal, like a good wife.

In this context, imagine the almighty commotion in political parties’ yard if women’s arms were seen as too fearless, too feminist and too fierce in their collective defense of women’s interests, rather than doing it nicely, despite women being currently documented as clustered in low-wage and insecure work, facing higher levels of unemployment and earning on average half of men’s wages in the economy. All good reasons for righteous rage.

Yet, there is potential for women’s arms and the women leaders they bring together to exercise power differently, in ways that are decisively committed to transforming unfair gender relations, not because party elites approve, but because its real women’s lives we are representing for here, and we are not giving party structures a choice about whether to respond. We are giving them targets, measurables, deadlines and penalties. Women’s arms should be that autonomous, unapologetic force within a political party that calls those with the most power to account for their advancement of gender equality internally, nationally and regionally.

If this occurred, there would be 50% of women amongst senior ranks, not just women clustering at the bottom. Party school would consist of training, mentoring and strategizing on how to empower women to act as transformational leaders and build male allies who defend solidarity rather than supremacy. Especially when we know a major obstacle is fear of men losing control over their women, and generally having less collective power in a society where women gain access to positions and roles which were previously the exclusive domain of men (Vassell 2013).

Given that fear, which adds to a climate where it can be risky to support girls and women instead of elite men, it wouldn’t be up to individual women to secure such progress, but up to the commitments embedded in the structures and processes of the party. No one should then resort to the easy explanation that ‘women are their own worst enemies’. Rather, the most influential party elites, particularly the men, would be assigned to ensure such progress, and come to account at the next women’s arm meeting.

What such a women’s arm would be is a strong, women-led, social movement, which successfully holds the state and political-economic elites accountable for our economic conditions, our gendered realities, the failures documented in Auditor-General’s reports, and the continued vast, avoidable destruction of our island ecology. For, the role of a women’s arm is to represent for women, particularly working class women, understanding their everyday struggles, needs, rights and dreams, using the power of the party. And, that’s what they should assess. The extent to which they secure sexual harassment and gender policies, economic and political empowerment, and gender parity within the party and nationally, without fear of that being seen as too radical, or, worse, imposition of a special interest concern.

There is inspiration for such an approach to women’s arms from across our region’s history. Thus, party school should teach about women in the Haitian, Cuban and Grenadian revolutions, in public resistances to slavery and indentureship, in riots over bread and water, in struggles to change laws regarding marriage, violence and labour, and in challenges to male dominance in organizational leadership.

It would highlight that Afro-Caribbean women have long been mass movement leaders and Indian women were never obedient, quiet and docile, but as far back as indentureship, were individually and collectively seeking economic and sexual autonomy. It would tell you about women such Audrey Jeffers, Daisy Crick and Christina Lewis, even Gene Miles, who blew the whistle on party corruption, reminding us today that we still have no ‘whistleblower’ legislation.

It should share the strategies women used to make abortion legal in Barbados since 1983 and in Guyana since 1995. It would highlight the story of the Jamaican PNP Women’s Movement which, in 1977, evolved from being an ‘auxiliary’ to the PNP, to an ‘independent’ grouping within the Party with progressive leadership that addressed a wide range of issues facing women. They recognised “the importance of organising women as an independent lobby or pressure group capable of transforming itself into an agency for fundamental change” (Beverly Manley). It would seek examples from Costa Rica and Panama, where women have pushed their parties to develop, implement and monitor a gender strategy that is integrated into party development frameworks.

Holding the party accountable for achievement of political, economic and sexual equality, equity and empowerment is the rightful agenda of a women’s arm. The substance of such an agenda would impress and attract many women voters, strengthening the negotiating power of a women’s arm when needed.

Make sure that muscle on the campaign trail results in such power after, with Local Government councilors understanding that they should give back for what they gained. “We do not wish to be regarded as rebellious” said Bahamian Dame Doris Louise Johnson, “but we would point out to you that to cling sullenly or timidly to ancient, outmoded ways of government is not in the best interests of our country”.

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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 152.

Zi and Titanus Giganteus

In my mother’s era, even girls could roam their neighborhood unsupervised, playing with children, visiting neighbors and collecting assorted species of fish, frog and fauna in ravines or nearby streams.

The majority of children of Ziya’s generation will never have that experience. We adults have almost irreversibly polluted many of the rivers near our homes with garbage and poison. It’s risky for any mother to allow her young daughter to wander freely. Living at odds with our environment and each other is a cost that will be borne by those now being born.

I try to make up for that generational loss by taking Zi to clean streams or empty stretches of beach as often as I can. I avoid Maracas, and dream that the $78 million planned upgrade includes rehabilitation of the river’s ecosystem. Anything is possible with a vision, and we are responsible for protecting mangroves, coasts and fresh watercourses for our children.

Teaching Zi that girls can be explorers, not just the “princess-mermaids” that she and her school friends pretend to be, we study tadpoles in various stages of growth, assess the shape and colour of shells, rocks and plant life, and look for fish and crabs. Mostly, I’m hoping that her trips to Yara River, Avocat waterfall or Balandra enable her to become the kind of woman who is curious about and committed to the earth, wildlife and science.

I don’t want her to be afraid. I want her to be aware of what roles bats, lizards, bees, bachacs and snakes play, and why they have a right to be here. I want her to be willing to hold grasshoppers in her hand, catch little crabs without harming them, and carefully dissect unfamiliar dead insects.

This weekend, we showed Zi a dead Titanus Giganteus beetle caught in the backyard. Even lifeless, it is intimidating, and I had no plans to hold it in my hand. To Stone’s horror (I mean it, I saw him sway on his feet with herculean effort to appear nonchalant) and to my own surprise, Zi nimbly picked it up like she was selecting a cupcake from a tray. The body was bigger than her hand, and the legs and antennae dangled for inches. Girl didn’t flinch. I was impressed. It was one of those mummy moments when your child surpasses you, does something that you’d been teaching her to do, and just so shows you how it is done.

It seems irrelevant, but children, especially girls, are taught so much fear. We parent through fear. We teach girls to fear strangers and especially men. We teach them to fear their bodies and their sexuality. We teach them to fear being seen as too powerful or too dominant or too unstoppable or too feminist. We teach them to fear the wild, the dark and being outside alone.

Resisting this, I want Zi to learn everyday fearlessness, like Jane Goodall who went out into the forest and sat with gorillas for hours by herself, like my youngest sister Giselle who handles cobras with skill and due respect, like my women friends who are not intimidated by local tarantulas or by surfing the deep ocean. I want her to fear everything less than I do, to show me her nurtured instinct for a braver world.

Curiosity, courage and connection with the planet don’t seem like skills that girls most need, but they translate to confidently asking questions of the status quo, valuing widespread freedom and diversity, understanding how to contribute to a bigger ecology, and bringing fearlessness to whatever vision Zi decides should succeed.