Post 410.

IN THE hope that you reach out to support, I’m beginning to focus on violence prevention by organisations in our communities and nation. My mantra in this series, over the next weeks, is that we should first strengthen the work of those groups with long experience in gender-based violence prevention, amplifying the leadership and impact they have been making over these decades.

New groups have a real contribution to make, but also a lot to learn in terms of analyses and strategies. That’s okay too, movements are meant to be inclusive and evolving, bringing in new ideas, voices and leaders and connecting them with the expertise and knowledge generated by those speaking out and organising for a longer time.

We always have an opportunity to make a difference, and this series points you to some ways we can. If you recently attended a vigil or a march, walked with your placard, or called for solutions, you may now have a greater connection to your power to create change. Know that you can do more than cry out on social media, and there are organisations that can help turn frustration into ongoing action that heals, helps and provides hope.

So many groups are now providing charity, helping to secure housing or even providing tech-solutions for transportation. Nonetheless, the core work of ending violence against women and girls also always changes our beliefs and values about manhood and womanhood, addresses the vulnerabilities and traumas created by those beliefs, differently socialises girls and boys, and holds states accountable for socio-economic decisions that promote equality, meet family needs, and build paths to peace.

This week, I’m first highlighting the Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, a network of women’s groups that has taught me so much since the mid-1990s. Over the years, I’d have an idea and asked Hazel Brown and others about it, only to find out it had been tried and there were already important lessons learned, that I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel and could get excellent wisdom to guide my own approach. For those even wanting to chart a path for their own newly-formed group, the Network is a resource. Reach out for mentorship.

Currently, the Network is trying to estimate the economic cost of violence to women and girls, and to get help for a project that measures those costs. As convenor Jacquie Burgess says, “Measuring the costs of VAWG (violence against women and girls) enables policymakers to make data-driven decisions about resource allocations, test effectiveness of various strategies and provide a rationale for private sector involvement. It also strengthens the argument for ending VAWG because it is a violation of women’s human rights which we can show sets back society both socially and economically.” (Contact Jacquie Burgess at 678-7549.)

“Girl Power” is another Network project which was rolled out in one urban and two rural districts in Trinidad, targeting adolescents and young adults. This project provided a safe space where young women and girls could develop into citizens safe from sexual and physical violence, and the burden of unwanted pregnancies. Participants benefitted from sex and sexuality, and physical security modules which were incorporated into sports and physical activity along with a module on financial literacy and empowerment. Network plans to adapt that project to target girls ten years old over the next year, as a prevention measure. For this work in the area of violence against women and girls, your help is needed.

Women Working for Social Progress (Workingwomen), another stalwart women’s organisation established in the 1980s, with a focus on cross-race and cross-class solidarity, has a drop-in centre. Insufficient human and financial resources have left it unable to be fully operational for over two years. The centre once provided a space where families found solace and remedies for their problems in a community setting. The drop-in centre is located along the east-west corridor, which may better meet the needs of those for whom reaching Port of Spain is a challenge.

Workingwomen takes the kind of whole family approach in which so many believe, so while primary focus is on women and girls, their model also engages boys and men as allies. It also identifies where boys and men are hurting so healing can reduce harmful behaviours that perpetuate violence. Those of you interested in creating spaces for healing among men and boys may find a home with the non-judgmental approach of Workingwomen.

To maintain momentum, let’s put our desires for change where our energies can make a transformation.

Post 409.

SOCIAL movements always need both action and reflection. The protests and vigils of the past two weeks have been immense. It was unbelievably powerful to see thousands take to the streets to express their horror at continued violence against women. This was a landmark moment in Trinidad and Tobago history, one which we should take some time to understand.

Many ideas mixed in those crowds, from those who believe mothers have primary responsibility for whom sons become to those who think that boys need strong male role models to become better men. Looking on, the confluence of views and messages was complex, and at times problematic.

I was intrigued by women and men’s hope that such public outcry, including businesses closing or women staying home, would result in real change. I was hopeful too, but more focused on the work that would continue after everyone went home. Would our advocacy be more immediately effective following these massive numbers? Would the Government make soothing pronouncements on which it didn’t follow up? Would those who came out also try to make a difference in the long term, and in what ways? What opportunities had we gained for systemic change?

Men joined with signs and statements in numbers I’ve never seen, organising rallies and sharing their solutions as citizens, police, business leaders, and poets. Others became women’s-rights activists overnight, leaving us to hope they understand the painstaking work it takes to shift gender socialisation, ensure women’s reproductive rights, end homophobia, reduce male domination in leadership, and orient state policy and action toward advancing gender equality and social justice, for that is what it will actually take to end gender-based violence.

Machel put out a song about protecting women, despite the fact that women don’t want protection. What we want are rights, justice and freedom.

It was amazing how many ideas people had. We found taxi drivers leading in creating safer transport for women and girls, through their own self-organisation. Others recommended finally filling vacant positions in social services and policing, which can help improve state response. Some recommended mandatory mediation between victims seeking protection orders and abusers, despite the fact that this potentially further endangers individuals who fear for their life.

The State approved pepper spray, now putting women’s protection even more in their own terrified hands. There was no promise of a gender-sensitive transport policy, though measures such as a mobile app, lights which would be fixed to hired vehicles, a QR code which could be scanned, and a renewed registration exercise for all drivers were announced.

Fascinatingly, the PNM used the moment to reintroduce the old idea of a monorail, even though that wouldn’t help women get to the far reaches of the country where transportation is most insecure.

Andrea Bharatt’s casting as a “perfect victim” perhaps also allowed us to cross a line forever in victim-blaming, but it saddened me that 18-year-old Ashanti Riley, going to her grandmother’s on a Sunday, was not equally considered to have been perfect or a tipping point for us all.

These weeks achieved something, perhaps many things, but we are not entirely sure what.

Varying agendas gained ground. It’s clear that there has been some social-norm change. It was heartening to see feminist language about women’s rights and transformation of masculinities on placards across the country. State language may become more careful, for what prime minister will again tell women that he is “not in their choice of men,” given how many girls go missing, how many serial rapists roam, the increase in women’s reports of domestic violence since March last year, and state culpability in failing to adequately resource any real prevention strategy thus far?

What is not clear is whether our society is actually any safer. I’d be surprised if anyone thinks it is. There were attempted kidnappings of women travelling by taxi last week alone.

Our challenge now is not about ideas, but implementation and accountability. Rather than mushrooming into disparate initiatives, we need to partner with core groups working on these issues for decades. There is more work going on than most realise and this is the moment to build impact and reach.

Over the next weeks, I will be highlighting such work, and invite groups pursuing solutions to share them with me. If we agree that our society is no safer than before, what are our next steps?

We need to know what each other is doing, share our analyses, strengthen our collaboration, and agree on effective strategies.

Post 361.

Basketballers like Kobe Bryant become larger than life icons even for those who don’t  follow the sport or its athletes. At school, Ziya had an assignment on basketball requiring her to draw a court, map the positions, and profile a player. She got in the car talking about Kobe Bryant. I was certain that she had no idea who he was, but he was a name that she sensed was popular among the children, so she had a personality to describe that carried pop cultural cool.

Does it have to be a male player, I asked. No, it doesn’t, she responded tentatively, like thought of any other kind never occurred to her. Will any of the children focus on women basketballers, I ventured. No, she said, definitively, as if horrified. I think you should focus on players in the WNBA, I volleyed back, launching, as feminist mothers do, into a whole explanation of why.

I’m always concerned about androcentrism – or male-centredness – in children’s hidden curriculum. For the little class gazette which Zi and her classmates started, we had repeated conversations about why the sports section shouldn’t only focus on men’s football leagues. Your whole editorial team, both boys and girls, should make reporting inclusive and fair, and not let women in sports be less visible or valued, I’d encourage her.

In an age with Serena Williams, Simone Biles, and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, news about women in sport reports on athletic excellence, worth knowing by all. That boys don’t instinctively know this and that girls have to be pressed into even raising it tells us much about gender socialisation and its early normalising of gender inequality.

Tears burst out at my suggestion of profiling a woman basketball player. Kobe Bryant, she insisted, everyone else will be doing players like him. You can’t have a class where no students choose any women at all, I persisted. Why does it have to be me, she wailed. You have a responsibility, I said, we all do.

After so many readings of ‘Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls’, where she could see how so many women scientists, architects, inventors, athletes and activists are never taught to us, appear to not have made the vastly significant impacts they did, and seem to never have existed at all, this was a moment bringing home how knowledge matters.

Tears and quarrelling from the backseat. The teacher wouldn’t allow it. No other children would have women players. No one would know her player. Everyone would say she is weird. They would make fun of her. She was terrified of being different and not fitting in.

You’re a lioness, not a sheep, I said. I’m an amoeba floating in the ocean, she grumped, a reference to a different rant I have about being too passive, becoming dominated and bullied, and understanding her capacity to control what happens to her.  Every time she protested, I made baa-ing sounds. I said all I am hearing is sheep. You are a lioness. Roar. The baa-ing made her laugh despite her hysterics.

At home, we looked up women basketball players. Just look, I said, then you can do Kobe Bryant, it’s fine. As we searched, she discovered how many of these women have amazing stories, how they are as ambitious about winning as they are about being team players, and how many won Olympic gold medals. One of them is only five feet six inches and her team boasted about her playing like she’s 6’5. Ziya’s tiny and that caught her eye. It was like a world of inconceivable achievement opened up for the first time.

Then, as a cool evening breeze circled around us, she quietly chose a player and copied her biography. No fuss. No self-doubt. No fear about being weird. I’m proud of you, I said.

We have a similar struggle with adult media. It shows why norms are so hard to change, why those pursuing change are derided for being the odd and difficult ones, why girls are so likely to conform and boys so likely to consider gender equality a struggle which isn’t theirs, for nowhere are men under-represented in sports, politics or business nor is their over-representation even noticed.

Some may think that nine years old is too young to confront these issues, but these issues are already socialising children before they have the capacity to recognise they should resist. In the end, it wasn’t Kobe. It was Dawn Staley. Zi coolly finished her homework like a small, tentative roar.

Post 231.

Imagine my amazement that Zi would be familiar with the playlist of songs currently topping charts, by everyone from Rihanna to Taylor Swift to Meghan Trainor. These were songs I didn’t know and don’t play. Yet, she was singing along to chorus and sometimes verse. Where did such socialization happen?

First, older cousins who opened her eyes to the Disney channel world of tween pop music and culture, playing the role that older, adored cousins have somehow always played for little girls.

Then, friends. I overheard one playdate asking for Zi’s Barbies, and describing the details of how many she owns. Given that she has none herself, Zi pulled out some White, blond doll someone gave her, and it passed the test, preserving her street cred.

She listens in on the sidelines of school conversations and figures out what information she needs to know for next rounds, then comes home and asks me for the Hastek sisters’ cover of Spice Girls’ songs. I tried to show her the global girl power version, highlighting rights to education, marriage after childhood and more. She just said, no mummy, that’s the wrong one.

Stone thought I shouldn’t have looked up Lego Friends when Zi wanted to see who the characters were in Lego’s girls’ line of products, which is annoyingly pink and purple, but also features one of the few black girls with curly hair in any of their collections. Ha! Another friend came over and was already into the series of short, addictive videos that the company produces about the characters. All I did was route her to being in the know.

As I buy clothes in bigger sizes, she complains about the ones that look like boys’ T-shirts, refusing black, greens and blue, and insisting on pink. It’s all to match the outfits her best friends have. It’s all about their approval. So and so will like these shiny gold shoes. So and so and I can wear our pink skirts together next time.

My sister, who is with us, and went through stages from Goth to army surplus store chic, was just as amazed at how important approval and belonging had become, on narrow, gendered terms. There’s only so much a feminist mom can do when hyper-feminization of girlhood is part of the life stages of patriarchy. Six year olds wear shoes with heels. She wants nail polish because other five year olds wear nail polish on weekends.

I bought dinosaur-themed birthday materials. In all seriousness, Zi asked if I thought her friends would want to go home when they realized that it wasn’t a princess party. My choices for her get evaluated by these standards of hip. This is how you know your sapodilla is no longer a baby. Girl culture, in all its stereotypical colours, obsessions, conversations and criteria, has taken over. It was always going to happen. I just didn’t think it would happen so early.

My sister asked me why I give in to the colours or videos Zi has decided she’s into. I don’t know that I have much choice. Did you want to be that kid, among your peers, dressed in your parents’ ideological warfare against the world? Moms tell me that they give in because their girls are going to get exposed to whatever others are allowed anyway. They play jazz, like I do, but also Justin Bieber. They give them make-up to pretend, but they also sign them up for football.

Any mom will tell you, each stage is a new negotiation. This one is when the world takes socialization from your full control. You catch up and keep up. Stone might decide there’s no way he’s playing Katy Perry. I’m going to have to know all the words. That’s what moms I know do. You also start those conversations about what it means to decide for yourself who you are and what’s cool.

Why does any of this matter? Any anthropologist will tell you that the micro reveals the macro. We should pay attention to the British Prime Minister’s gender politics, but insights as legitimate come from observing globalized sub-cultures shaping terms and options for a new generation of our girls.

 

Post 212.

Picture Paul-Keen’s Douglas’ script for “Party Nice”, with him insisting “is only a little ting we having”.

Ziya turns five next week. A birthday party is expected. If not by her then by my mother, who takes the memorability of the party personally, like Ziya’s public advocate on all things grandchildren rightfully deserve. For her part, Zi buffed me up for buying her dinosaur-themed party paraphernalia, asking me if I think her friends would want to go back home when they realize there were no princesses or little ponies. Who tell me buy dat?

I’ve spent the last two years emphasizing the coolness of dinosaurs, science and outer space, bought books with awesome paleontology facts, watched endless episodes of “Dinosaur Train’, drove to school on a morning letting her label every person we saw as a different kind of dinosaur. She has been genuinely into it. Not for her party. Here gender socialization, keeping up with friends, worry about fitting in and others’ approval prevail.

This seems inconsequential, but it highlights how narrow the options for girls remain, in their own peer circles and among parents, despite decades of women pushing the frontiers of femininity. This seems obvious from separate distribution of pink and camouflage-printed goods in toy store aisles. A few months ago, it had me poised between sets of Lego, in the ‘boys’ aisle defined by Jurassic Park and Minecraft, and, in the girls’ aisle, defined by limousines, make-up dressers complete with mirrors and lipstick, multiple kinds of hair styles, and leisure settings, like liming in a yacht. Eventually, I bought a submarine, with no girl figures in it, but satisfyingly complex, and neither about violence nor beauty.

It’s like Caribbean women’s rights is in a gendered war with Disney Corporation, and with Disney mass marketing across both media and merchandising, my messages of imagining a girl’s self beyond the most stereotypical are of little worth. If I had more time, I’d publish my own character, called Empress Sapodilla Sugarplum, whose series of stories I’ve already written in my head, and who imagines herself in backyard adventures as Jamaican warrior leader Nanny of the Maroons as much as she dresses up as Camille Alleyne, Trinidad and Tobago’s own awesome astronaut, up and away in a box with the sounds of a rocket launch streaming from Youtube. Thank goddess for Doc McStuffins, we reached a truce. As the mother of a brown sapodilla, who wishes for anything other than white mermaids and princesses, both Zi and I love this character, her message and music.

Good. Snacks. Cake. Drinks. I’m all like, you can invite five friends and we will play ‘pass the parcel’ and musical chairs. The child squinted up her eyes at my clearly last- generation idea of a party, unsurprisingly, for everyone else’s had a bouncy castle, and face painting. Indeed, I wondered if the handful of children I let her invite would all appear and stand around not knowing what to do with themselves.

“Is only a little ting we having” isn’t what parents put out at children’s parties anymore, and these are working middle-class people, with no businesses or trust funds. I’ve watched professional moms, in particular, turn up totally put together and triumphant, but completely exhausted, having baked, packaged, put up, handmade, ordered and organized everything, with it all costing about $5000, and me there, both awed and appreciative, but askance that the same might be expected of me.

I think Zi can have a big party when she has a job and can save for it herself. At this point, my mother prepares to look offended on her behalf, like Thelma when Keens-Douglas says, we go have the party, just buy some “cheeweez”. I don’t blame her, if I had my way, there would be a yard for kids to play, snacks, and the other parents, Stone and I would watch our children tire themselves out while we dressed back with drinks. US media dominance, middle-class pressures, working mom’s aspirations, and resilient gender stereotypes are all there to be managed even at such seemingly ideologically-innocent times. Whatever little ting she gets, Zi better end her birthday like Tantie Merle, only saying “party nice”.