Post 224.

It isn’t often that Caribbean people who support struggles for equality get good news. On August 10, 2016, the Belize Supreme Court struck down the country’s sodomy law as unconstitutional. This is an historic victory for our region and reflects home-grown leadership and strategizing to secure greater justice through our institutions.

The movement to take a case to the courts was started by UWI Faculty, of whom we should be proud. In 2007, Jamaican legal feminist scholar Tracy Robinson, then at Cave Hill’s Faculty of Law, opened a conversation about litigation as a strategy.

Later discussion with Joel Simpson, then of the Guyanese LBGT organisation SASOD, Douglas Mendes SC, and Godfrey Smith, former Attorney General of Belize, led to the formation of the Lawyers from the UWI Rights Advocacy Project (U-Rap). However, U-Rap’s litigation possibilities were first outlined in an UWI LLB research paper by Conway Blake in 2004, and drew on Jamaican lawyer Philip Dayle’s legal assessment of laws criminalising same-sex sex in the Caribbean in 2006.

U-Rap member, Guyanese Arif Bulkan, now at the Law Faculty in St. Augustine, also worked with claimant, Caleb Orozco, a long-time LGBT activist, in this case against Section 53 of Belize’s Criminal Code. Counsel were Trinidadians Christopher Hamel-Smith and Westmin James, now Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Law at Cave Hill.

We need such fearless regionality, which included the community-based strength of Belizean LBGT and HIV Advocacy groups such as UNIBAM (United Belize Advocacy Movement ) and PETAL (Promoting Empowerment Through Awareness for Lesbian and Bisexual women), as well as Caribbean scholars and activists.

Following Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin’s decision, Caleb Orozco is quoted as saying, “This is the first day of my life in which it is legal for me to be me.” I can’t think of a more over-due experience, one which we can imagine enslaved ancestors felt as far back as 1834 when they were first formally recognized as human. We wait to see how this momentous precedent will affect law across the region as the long struggle for full emancipation for all, and recognition of the equal humanity of all, is re-energised with hope.

In another U-Rap case, four transgender women challenged an 1893 law against cross-dressing in Guyana, arguing that it reproduced discrimination on the basis of gender. In 2013, in what LBGT advocates decried as a ‘dubious decision’, the judge ruled that cross-dressing is a criminal offense only if it’s done for an “improper purpose”, which could include prostitution. The law was considered to already allow cross-dressing to express or accentuate one’s sexual orientation. In essence, the law was reinterpreted and upheld instead of being struck down as unconstitutional.

The Belizean case also comes after decades of work by a range of groups, from feminists to scholars to HIV/AIDS activists to public health advocates, to create constitutional reform recommendations, policy positions and OAS resolutions committed to ending discrimination, inequity, stigma, vulnerability and human rights violations on the basis of sex, gender and sexuality.

Indeed, the Belize decision recognized that Section 53 of the Criminal Code, which banned “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” and primarily targeted same-sex sexual activities, denied a right to dignity, privacy, equality and freedom.

Consenting adults of the same sex are now free from arbitrary or unlawful interference with their privacy and are due equal protection under the law, meaning simply what everyone else already expects and gets.

Key about the Chief Justice’s ruling was his view that the bill of right’s protection of sex from discrimination includes sexual orientation. This reflects part of a larger, nuanced critique of legislation that polices sexual orientation as fundamentally and unfairly policing how LBGT persons live their own conceptions of sexual rights and human rights as well as manhood and womanhood.

These legal challenges continue, pressing for discriminatory legislation to be taken off the books. Earlier this year, a CCJ ruling made clear that Caribbean homosexuals must be allowed the right of free movement within CARICOM, and that immigration laws banning their entry, for example to Trinidad and Tobago, should be repealed.

Every generation, resistance against unjust laws and policies ignites across the region. That spark burns bright, fed by last week’s decision.

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Post 217.

Contemporary celebrity-led, liberal feminism mass markets a super-feminine image to young women today. This brand of empowerment-on-stilettos shouts out independent ladies who make their own money and it promotes unapologetic sexiness as ultimate self-expression and woman power.
 
This ideal didn’t come from nowhere. In the last decades, as women began to enter the formal economy in droves, they encountered a backlash telling them they were stepping out of their pre-ordained, natural spaces, jobs and roles, and were acting like men or like they wanted to be men. Imagine the pressure to find ways to not be de-sexed, to not be considered the wrong kind of too-mannish woman, to access the validation of femininity as well as education and the economy. Women were, after all, still being brought up to identify with and desire all three.
 
They had to be better than boys at school and men at work to get to the top, but they also had to make sure they didn’t end up without a man, marriage and children, in case they failed to be ‘real’ women. In addition to leaving room for men to be men, desirability was the other key balance all women had to negotiate, or be labeled too masculine. Failure to be successful in this way came with myriad costs. The fashion industry stepped in to make sure that brains in no way made beauty obsolete.
 
This brief history explains how smart, qualified women all over can today be seen in offices in five-inch heels, unheard of thirty years ago. It explains how women came to see shoes and makeup as empowering, and why so much hard-earned money is cycled back into lipstick rather than owning land. Do as well as they could in the job market, women would be left feeling like the carpet if they were also not responsible enough to become ‘appropriately’ feminine, meaning as they are expected and are told.
 
Women get endless messages that being sexualized remains important and defines our worth. Scan months of Carnival photos, magazines that stare from racks, billboards and commercials. We produce a brilliant array of women’s mas, yet one newspaper’s Carnival Wednesday front page was a full-page photo of Amber Rose. You are invisible and undervalued if you are not sexy and beautiful. Even independent ladies hear this loud and clear.
 
Except Shannon Gomes. She’s among young women denied by such packaging. Intending to be beautiful without stilettos. Looking good and being empowered on her own terms, wherever she goes. Wanting to be seen and valued as a woman without Maybelline making her ‘you, only better’. What happens to her form of femininity in this terrain of empowered womanhood as stereotypically sexy?
 
Unsurprisingly, it becomes cast as failure, as disallowed, as inappropriate, as ‘man’. And, there are costs for such women. There was a cost for Shannon. Denied her womanhood. Denied her femininity. Denied self-determination regarding her body. Stigmatized for not obeying the fashion fix. Told that this is private property, you have no rights. Made to pay.
 
Imagine your daughter or sister being told that if she does not make herself desirable on the most patriarchal of terms, then she is not a woman at all. This is how sexism and homophobia police sexuality and gender.
 
For months I wanted to write this column, highlighting the risks of selling women’s empowerment within hyper-femininity, sexiness and beauty. These normalize and glamorize narrowed options for women to challenge power. They create hierarchies between women. Exclusions are borne by those who don’t conform. Aria Lounge’s petty tyranny isn’t just theory.
 
Young people are protesting there on Friday night, as they should, for sexist discrimination is worth shaming wherever it occurs. Support them with engagement rather than ridicule. Shannon’s experience is but another example of negations reproduced in media images, religious messages, workplace expectations and relationship negotiations. This is why feminists challenge the beauty myth, though its glamour appears innocent. This is why schooling and jobs don’t mean women are yet free. Women should not be forced to fit stereotypical femininity, and feminist bright lights should also highlight those who don’t live by such rules, and who more greatly face a reality of being denied and demeaned. #solidaritywithshannon

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 206.

Is the sudden loss of the word ‘gender’, in any Ministry title under the Rowley government, a sign of gender equality’s oncoming policy demise?

This new invisibility, which reverses decades of state practice and Caribbean advocacy, isn’t a matter of letterhead. It shows lack of familiarity with Caribbean history, misunderstanding of why ‘gender’ was made independently visible, and a step out of time with the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2015 to 2030, to be adopted at the General Assembly meeting in New York in just two weeks.

Some have argued that, under the last administration, ‘gender’ was in a Ministry title, but “nothing” effective was tried or achieved, so why keep it in? But, “nothing” achieved, or more to achieve, is more, not less, reason for gender equality’s visibility while following through on the budgetary allocations, and cross-ministerial policies and programmes that its inclusion signals.

Others have argued that disappearance of a Ministry, with visible leadership for integrating women’s empowerment and gender equality across all planning, is a message that the government is serving all. But this “serving all” defense assumes that women and gender represent special interests. Not true.

Everyone’s entire lives, including how we access power, are shaped by ideals of masculinity and femininity, across everything from the economy to schooling. And women are not a special interest group, for what happens to women similarly affects everything from the economy to schooling. To fix the problem of boy’s educational underachievement, end women’s subordination and the low status of femininity. Same for sex inequality in the labour market which affects the health and wealth also of men and families.

Except where efforts are well integrated, a single Ministry still needs to push technical recommendations and expertise across other parts of government, which might be adopting agendas based on inaccurate analyses, personal biases or unfamiliarity with global conventions.

There are also major problems with subordinating gender equality to ‘social development’ or ‘family services’; a move that regresses to pre-1975. Gender equality and women’s empowerment are their own goals, whether or not they advance a state’s ‘development’ or ‘family’ agenda. What if the development plan includes an ‘Export Processing Zone’ where goods are made, but unions are forbidden, and what if the majority of workers are women? Here their right to organize as women workers, for everything from day care to decent conditions, will be at odds with a development plan.

Gender equality may also be at odds with ‘family services’, particularly where women’s resistance to all forms of male domination in religion or violence in the family, or the right of LGBT citizens to equally choose who they love, or the justice of providing safe and legal access to pregnancy termination as a public health policy, is cast as a threat to the ideal of ‘family’. Women’s rights are human rights to be pursued regardless. They are not reducible to service provision, nor justified by women being “half our resources”, nor legitimate only for heterosexuals, wives or mothers.

Caribbean feminists fought since at least the 1970s to get gender visible at a ministerial level. Jamaica led the world with a Women’s Desk in 1973 and decade after decade of regional struggle and advocacy won a Bureau, then a Division and finally a Ministry. There was data and logic backing this, for Caribbean states are historically patriarchal and the Ministry of Gender was to be the radically transformative site for internal reform that had inched past the glass ceiling right to the top, to struggle there for change.

How will a Ministry of Social Development and Family Services fill the mandate of a Ministry of Gender Affairs to challenge patriarchal beliefs, values and organization of power, as they create sexism and homophobia, in and out of the state? Can we expect the ministry to stop ungendered priorities flinging wrong resources in wrong directions, costing the treasury? Will the Minister lobby within Cabinet for gender equality, as if that is a headline mission of her Ministry, not simply a division under the manners of social welfare and family?

What’s in a name? At minimum, a public commitment to women’s rights and gender equality. What has been lost? Disappointingly, Cabinet-level representation, leadership and accountability.

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 183.

Ziya's first Phagwa

Ziya’s first Phagwa. Photo: Nadia Huggins

For years I stopped attending Phagwa celebrations, finding my own experience too full of male aggression for me to want to return. Some, though not all, young men seemed to find an excuse to touch women in ways that they, not the women, decided was ‘fun’, in ways they were unlikely to touch men they don’t know, and in ways that race, religion, tradition or culture seemed to justify as their right, even if it was unwanted.

Unwanted touching for any reason by anyone determines that line between what is acceptable and what is harassment and violence. Males could gleefully romp with their bredren, even grab other men they didn’t know in the same way or to the same extent, but I wasn’t comfortable with masculine norms setting the rules of consent regarding my body.

This, in a society where women, like 34-year-old Jessica Brereton, can’t consent to leave relationships without being harmed, where Magella Moreau and I stood covered in Phagwa’s jubilant yellows and pinks, remembering how consent was denied to Marcia Henville.

This, in a society where hundreds of girls are sexually abused yearly, many within Indian families whose preference for silence over shame teaches girls to live without a right to consent. This, in a society, where we are so undecided about the terms of consent that adult male sex with a fourteen or twelve year old girl constitutes rape unless it is legalized under common law or the Hindu or Muslim marriage acts. This, in a society where no sexual harassment legislation exists to protect women workers’ consent.

I was done with wondering each Phagwa how many men would try to clamp their hands completely over my mouth and eyes. And, as much as women also filled their pichakarees and flung bagfuls of abeer at friends and strangers, none ever left me choking on mouthfuls of powder, desperately trying to stop my eyes from burning or angry that ‘no’, ‘don’t’ or ‘stop’ meant little.

I always wondered why no cultural organisers or religious elders used their microphone to say, listen, those colours are ceremonial gifts, not a threat, and this is a community space where women should feel asked and respected, not attacked or manhandled.

Yes, you can’t play mas and fraid powder, but I wasn’t afraid of the soaking or powder. And I’m a woman who has played many jouvays without anyone’s protection, enjoying a rite where the hands of men and women, including those I didn’t know, left me oil black and devil blue, and without feelings of violation.

I returned to Phagwa on Sunday, not at the Divali Nagar, but this time at the Hindu Prachar Kendra’s celebration in Cunupia, so that Ziya could experience Holi for herself, with her godmother, dad, and friendly children she knew.

It was beautiful. A living canvas undulating over rhythms and melodies of pichakaree singing. Collective art more valuable than anything on museum walls. Men and women, whose names I’d never know, playfully hand painting our clothes, arms and faces. We left, dusty and damp swirls of orange, purple and green, just as mixed circles began joyfully dancing.

I mostly kept Zi with me, because it made her feel safer and because I knew I’d be less of a target with her in my arms, but I know women there who had the same experience I never grew used to.

You learn how to try to stay safe, as all women have to, or to devalue your needs because there appears nothing you can do. Holi could provide one community where we don’t encounter such lessons too.

 

Post 182.

At one primary school, the friendly teacher interviewing Ziya looked up from reading her form when, under religion, I listed ‘none’. ‘None?’ she clarified incredulously, examining me anew, like I was a zaboca that beguiled with firm, green potential, only to appear blackened when cut open.

Inside I chuckled, sometimes Zi decide she’s Christian, and the other day asked me what a soul was. Other times, she loves the azan, making up her own sounds to the call to prayer, and asking to learn Arabic. Yet, she’s being raised by an anthropologist who will teach her to value the cultural richness of religious cosmologies while emphasizing that the earth, with its sky, rivers, seas and forests, is her most inclusive temple, mosque and church. Modern world religions have historically considered that kind of peasant approach to the divine ‘pagan’, but no need to write that on the form, right?

At another school, the kindly principal asked me what I teach at UWI and, when I responded that I teach feminist theory, nodded sagely as she observed me closer, concluding that that explained a lot, gesturing with both hands at something seemingly telling about my appearance.

Another chuckle, because before our interview, Ziya’s teachers had neatened her hair and reminded me to smile, likely noting that it hadn’t occurred to me to dress either of us any different than we would for a normal school or work day, dressing to impress enough to get into a school not how I roll.

It was news to me that children had to even interview to get into a primary school. Suddenly, I discovered the conversations long being had by parents of other little brown sapodillas, focusing on the strictness of teachers, the friendliness of principals, the school’s SEA results, and the balance between academic and other activities.

Choosing private schools reinforces class segregation, but sometimes you weigh your politics against the learning environment best for your child, focusing not on pass rates, but on music or science opportunities or school teaching philosophy.

My dream is for a primary school where children learn through play, experimentation, interaction, innovation and unselfconscious creativity. I wish that primary schools would spend more time on agriculture and biodiversity, for what knowledge is more important than how to grow food and save our planet’s ecology. I’d love desks in circles or cool-shaped collective tables, rather than the efficient and militarized organization of rows of student bodies.

Mostly, I hope for a primary school where Zi learns about care, cooperation and self-confidence and not just competition, where she learns how to be responsible for her rights and freedom, not just obedient to discipline, and where she learns to value speaking up for social justice more than her own social mobility.

When some of the top scoring students in the country come to UWI, I meet them mostly unwilling to speak out publicly, mostly inattentive to global affairs, mostly disconnected from our region’s ecology, mostly without compelling inner curiosity, and mostly familiar with treating each other like widgets rather than interconnected, fearless human beings. Students are clearer on exams than comprehension, critique or how to connect seemingly disparate ideas.

With one more interesting school interview to go, I’m wondering what options are best and what decision to make. Passing tests is considered important, but I’m interested in passion for and openness to all forms of knowledge, whether from making mushrooms grow, observing how mas is made, googling social movements or practicing meditation. Education should make us better selves and world citizens, and such understanding starts with how we school our children.