Post 268.

Comandantas from Mexico’s Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) recently called for a global gathering of rebellious women. Their language reflected centuries of radical leadership of Indigenous women in the Caribbean.

“With regard to the Zapatista men”, they wrote, “we are going to put them to work on all the necessary tasks so that we can play, talk, sing, dance, recite poetry, and engage in any other forms of art and culture that we want to share without embarrassment. The men will be in charge of all necessary kitchen and cleaning duties”.

Here at home, I had just had one of those conversations about how feminists should make our work more about men and more relevant to men, but no words were said about them manning the kitchens.

This pressure is ironic. In all its diversity, feminism is the only social movement in history to put women’s rights and their challenge to patriarchal power first, and it emerged specifically because other movements, from unions to political parties, aimed for merely halfway liberation, and still do.

The millions of women who are the majority labouring in feminism’s trenches must unapologetically prioritize women’s freedom from sexual violence and equity in political and economic power, both still to be won.

Yet, this movement has also been active on issues of peace, nuclear disarmament, trade agreements, gang violence, literacy, conservation, and other areas which impact both women and men’s lives. Additionally, feminists have long been active on ‘men’s issues’ whether they are arguing for greater paternity leave, for greater care for boys’ emotions, prison reform, and much more.

And, it’s worth noting that men’s violence against women and women’s under-representation in global and national decision-making are not ‘women’s issues’. They are issues of men’s occupation and exercise of unequal power, and they should be solved by men with an iota of commitment to justice because that’s what manhood, in all its diversity, love and strengths, brings.

Do we appeal to a majority of men by leaving traditional notions of manhood and womanhood unchallenged or by prioritizing men’s needs, cleaving feminism’s radical vision and analytic challenge to precisely these from its mobilization and power?

We know that’s not necessary because men all over the world are involved and doing great work in feminist movements without us even trying to “put men and boys more to the centre of our policy solutions”, or pretend there is anything equal in experiences of domestic violence, or that one woman President is enough when women have never been 50% of our parliament.

These are brothers-in-struggle who don’t need women to exercise power behind the scenes, in the home, while rocking the cradle, or nicely because they know that commitment is about justice, not comfort, not a battle of the sexes, nor a decentering of women from feminism, even as we also care about our children, brothers, nation and planet.

In a final irony, marking feminist success by men’s visibility risks becoming vulnerable to those demanding newspaper space for gender – meaning only men – while failing to get definitions, facts or analysis right. Because of word space, I won’t dust out those SFATT soundboys tonight*.  

We don’t get men on our side by softening, repackaging or marginalising accurate analyses of power, but because collective transformation of patriarchal ideals of manhood and womanhood, which ultimately harm both women and men, is necessary.  

To quote these Zapatista Comandantas, “We greet you with respect and affection as the women that we are—women who struggle, resist, and rebel against the chauvinist and patriarchal state. We know well that the bad system not only exploits, represses, robs, and disrespects us as human beings, but that it exploits, represses, robs, and disrespects us all over again as women…Yet we are not fearful, or if we are, we control our fear, and we do not give in, we don’t give up, and we don’t sell out.”

 

*An earlier critique of comments in the article highlighted: 1. Murders of women do not occur when fathers are alienated from their children and respond in a wrong manner. Fathers may become alienated from their children when women end abusive relationships. Intimate partner violence, without accountability, which includes threats to women’s lives and their families created that alienation, at least in this case. 2. Withholding sex from a spouse is NOT abuse. It may mean the relationship should end but nowhere in any UN position or national law is choosing not to have sex with a violent partner an example of sexual abuse. 3. “In most cases, the perpetrator would not have murdered before or had a criminal record”. This is vastly missing the point. Anyone who is going to murder their ex/partner needed help long before that relationship or its ending, anger doesn’t turn to murder without pre-existing controlling and abusive behaviour, which may indeed be recognised and reported on…in this case, police and family were aware of reports. 4. The argument that women’s abusive behaviour to men is the “true offense”, much worse that physical violence (for which is harm is unequally borne by women), more widespread, more harmful and more at fault when cases of woman-murder happen absolves men of responsibility for femicide. 5. Men and women can be abusive. Both need access to counseling and life without violence, but when women are run down and murdered, they are not responsible. Wrapping valid arguments in equally irresponsible victim-blame does more harm than good.

 

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Post 247.

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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.

Post 242.

When you are in a gathering with women leaders from Akawaio, Garifuna, Kalinago, Lokono Arawak, Machushi, Maho, Mopan Maya, Q’eqchi Maya, Wapichan and Warrau First Peoples, it’s best to simply listen.

These women, some of them among the few women chiefs in the region’s Indigenous People’s communities, represent those who have belonged to the land and who the land has belonged to for many thousands of years. Most striking in their stories is their struggle against lack of recognition of such belonging.

Listen to women like Faye Fredericks, who is Wapichan and from what is now known as Guyana, and who has been passionately fighting mining and logging’s shocking destruction of the very forest her ancestors and community have drawn their sustenance and cosmologies from as long as they remember.

Next time you think approvingly of Guyana’s economic model, ask yourself how we can so ignore her evidence and her community’s right to fish from rivers which haven’t been poisoned. Ask yourself if such ‘necropolitics’, or wielding of political and social power to determine life and death, is truly ‘development’.

Listen to women, like Christina Coc, who is a spokesperson for the Mayan Leaders’ Alliance from what is now known as Belize, who has been battling the Belizean state for more than a decade to get back rights to land that was once theirs. The Alliance achieved an historic victory in 2015, affirming the right of 39 Q’eqchi and Mopan Maya indigenous communities of southern Belize to the lands that they have historically used and occupied. The MLA website states, “This historic legal affirmation – which states that traditional land rights constitute property, equal in legitimacy to any other form of property under Belizean law – is the first indigenous peoples land rights victory in the Caribbean region”.

As I listened, I reflected on how much the Westminster model, and the notions of leadership, property and rights it has protected, has failed our region. I kept wondering why not support these struggles and these women who are on the absolute frontline of defending rivers, forests, alternative forms of farming and exchange, and shared approaches to land.

Might Ziya’s life be better if she could still swim in Santa Cruz’s many rivers as children could at the turn of independence? Might her life be better under Indigenous systems of governance which value nature, and not just as a ‘resource’ but a source of life, and provide greater respect for communal land? Might the trails of the Northern Range be better protected if in the hands of First Peoples, as Tracy Assing dreams, rather than subject to the Ministry of Forestry?

These Indigenous women are engaged in absolutely contemporary political movements, against the states to which we declare loyalty, in battles in which we are entangled while pretending innocence about what outcome would be truly and historically just. They also struggle against corporate unsustainable practices and even banks that profit from their place in the region while providing no room for developmental loans unless communities allow themselves to be divided by the collateral of private property.

We must deepen our practices of recognition and inclusion, and welcome alternatives to our colonial inheritance. Think of Anacaona, a Taino chief or Cacica, who ruled the island of Kiskeya, now known as the Dominican Republic and Haiti. In 1503, during a meeting of eighty caciques, including Anacaona, the Spanish Governor ordered the meeting house to be set on fire to burn them alive, similar to what centuries later occurred to Rigoberta Menchu’s father and Indigenous Mayans in Guatemala in 1980. Cacica Anacaona was arrested and accused of conspiracy for resisting occupation, and sexual concubinage as an escape, and was executed. She was only twenty-nine years old.

In March 2016, Honduran environmentalist Berta Caceres, a leader with the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras, was assassinated for her defiance to mining and logging concessions, and proposed dams. Miriam Miranda Chamorro has taken over her work, moving in and out of hiding for her own safety.

These battles were being waged five hundred years ago as they are being waged today. It’s time we listen and stand with these women on the right side of history.

Stories and interviews with Indigenous Caribbean women, on their struggles and leadership, are on the IGDS Youtube page. Click, watch, and share them with our region’s citizens, students and children.