Post 247.

Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 1.03.41 PM.png

Seen from the air, Guyana’s forested beauty is epic. The plane’s shadow buzzed over the treetops like a gnat, insignificant in afternoon sun and in comparison to such wondrously vast tree cover.

In between, bare red rock or white sand pockmarked the surface where old forest had been razed. Mining, quarrying or logging is making some rich in the present while leaving children in the future without this inheritance, for all your generation has to give is this one precious planet.

Such wounds seem small from the plane window, but are matters of life and death, of community traditions and contemporary rights, for Indigenous women continuing to resist in Guyana even as I write.

The taxi driver couldn’t figure out where all Guyana’s money went, for a country with gold, diamonds and timber should be the wealthiest in the Caribbean. ‘It don’t make sense’, he told me.

Not in Trinidad either where our resources made some rich while leaving the place poor: hospitals dirty, public transportation insufficient, prisons over-crowded, landfills unregulated, families violent and schools failing a third of the youth.

Given deals struck with Exxon and other companies, will Guyana’s oil just pass through the country like a dose of salts? If only others could learn the Trinidad lesson that wealth makes you shallow, wasteful, corrupt and consumerist as a nation; changes values so that the main ethic becomes private gain; and erodes attention and commitment to public responsibility, public utilities and public space.

As we drove, I tried to reconcile a Guyana I knew as a teenager when my mother joined Caricom.  At the same time back then, I moved to Barbados to start secondary school at Queen’s College, leaving Trinidad to become, first, a nowherian and, later, a regionalist.

It’s as a regionalist I listened to Christopher Ram, after a television interview in a neglected studio building, talk about his time in the Grenada Revolution and the hurt he still carries at its death.

It’s hard to imagine a generation from across the Caribbean traveled to Grenada to contribute to one island state’s aspiration to get independence right. It’s difficult to identify how much that aspiration was crushed and never quite returned. From Jamaica to Guyana, you can meet people who know what the fire of hope feels like and who carry the failures of that political experiment like the loss of a loved one, in their mind’s eye when they look into distance.

Arriving in Georgetown, there were areas I didn’t recognize. ‘We get modern’, said the driver, ‘we almost like foreign’.  There are better-lit highways, burgeoning suburbs, big cars, money laundering and ostentatious religious buildings. At best, the poor people, who remain the majority, struggling with VAT and joblessness, can hope to one day inherit the earth, but not tomorrow, next year or the next decade.

Such a dream deferred isn’t good enough. So, it’s important to cast our lot with those who remain indefatigable, rather than defeated, often women, often feminists.

One of them is Vanda Radzik, who drew the University of Guyana and the Women and Gender Equality Commission together to launch the collection, ‘Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought’, which I edited with Lisa Outar, a Guyanese born feminist scholar.

I first met Vanda thirty years ago, as I became aware of the anti-violence, ecological sustainability and economic empowerment work of the Guyanese women’s movement. Today, I’m simply and inadequately, like that small plane over such vast terrain, carrying these women’s legacy, trying to always remember and learn from their dream for a different future.

Similarly, the book collection’s premise is that Indo-Caribbean feminist thought requires us to look back as part of gathering our resources for the work ahead. The ways we imagine alternatives to all forms of oppression are richer when they draw on multi-ethnic, woman-centred, solidarity-based legacies of indentureship. This is the real wealth that arrival bequeathed.

The book is being launched in Guyana this week, and on Tuesday at 6pm, in UWI’s Law Faculty Auditorium, in Trinidad. All are welcome, for all these complex and tenuous threads, from Guyana to Trinidad to Grenada to elsewhere, some of which you may be gently holding over all these decades, are woven together there.

Advertisements

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”.

Post 101.

This week, listening to 30 year old memories of the Grenada Revolution, all I could think about is the legacy of forgetting. My generation feels almost no connection to the vision of the revolution, the sweat and solidarities of the women and men involved, and the reverberations of pain that rippled across the entire Caribbean when gunshots, assassinations, US occupation, and fear, secrets and loss marked the end.

Being as intimate with that history as we are with the long plot of Game of Thrones or the personal sagas of the Kardashians could change us all. Claiming Cuba’s attempt to strike out against passivity about our economies and lives would help us realise that what happens in Chaguanas West matters less than what deals our Ministers sign, without a study to stand on, for highways to be built or tar sands to be mined.

Party school wouldn’t be about the history of the party but about the history of political attempts to free us from the kind of development that creates more who have but, inevitably, many who will not. It would be a place for establishing adult education at night in every school or mobilising community campaigns to grow the vitamins we need in our backyards or advocating for an end to criminalization of young people’s same sex desires in the law.

The Youth Arm of the UNC or the PNM wouldn’t be limited to election campaigning or proving loyalty to the leadership.  Imagine if those very youth learned about the bloody resistances that mark the country from Sangre Chiquito to San Fernando. They would start roaming the nation and the region to fill up on lessons of how politics can be and has been done differently. Party schools that teach them etiquette, correct dress and their leaders’ biographies would be rightfully empty.

If the Women’s Arms of the parties were even once taught about the role that women can play beyond waving flags, you think housewives would be running around in hot sun securing votes for a parliament and a Cabinet that remains indecently, overwhelmingly dominated by men? Knowing their power, these women would rise up and say no to inequity at the top because party school taught them this is what they do. They would wield the names of women from Elma Francois to Jacqueline Creft like a bilna and a balisier, symbolizing to their parties that it is these women’s struggles that they came to continue.

For all their participation in their political parties, not a PNM or UNC Women’s Arm activist can stand on a corner, while Celine Dion or Bryan Adams blares from the loudspeakers, and ex-tempo about how women and men from little two by four countries dreamed for more and then fought for those dreams until big stick diplomacy beat them into their corner. This is why today’s leadership will not organize for all out regional self-determination. Caribbean people have not recovered from the economic and political punishments and pain of Haiti, Guyana, Cuba and Grenada.

What can my generation could do to remember Grenada, plan a new revolution that promises never to leave women behind and invent a regionalism that fits our realities thirty years later? I know young feminist women and men from Guyana to Barbados to Jamaica. We can mine our islands and our seas for more than oil, we can mine them for memories. All those still alive, who are holding them safe and close, are just waiting for us to ask the right questions. I’m humbled by how much there is for us to know and to still achieve.