Post 391.

As a young woman entering Caribbean feminism in the 1990s, I was inspired and guided by the Trinidad and Tobago chapter of the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA TT). I learned as much from listening and watching these sharp, wise and conscious Caribbean women as I did from university. They weren’t easy, but those rose coloured days are full of memories of seemingly-older women gnashing at oppressive relations just as much as sharing a laugh, perhaps as a survival strategy, over the foolishness of it all. 

They loved the ‘tea parties’ I found quaint, believed in the power of letters to the editor, were firm that women’s groups worth their salt were grounded in paid membership and active members, and held the broad aspiration of justice for women and men everywhere. 

Conversations included global struggles, labour struggles and women’s struggles. There were often cross-ethnic conversations with differences in experience and opinion, and they navigated a slew of strong personalities that didn’t always get along, often debated and even disagreed, but were highly protective of each other. I learned the basic decency of this feminist ethic of refusing to attack each other publicly the way that men do. I saw both their tensions and undercurrents, and commitment to collaboration through it all.  

From 2003 to 2016, Tara Ramoutar was National Representative of the TT chapter of CAFRA. This column honours her contribution to Caribbean feminist movement-building.  A small, sharply astute and fiery woman, I admired her quiet leadership, her quick movements and her ready laughter. 

Tara’s family grew cane, rice and garden vegetables. Her father would listen to parliamentary debates on the radio, and they would discuss everything from politics to sports. It highlights the paucity of stereotypes that insufficiently recognise how rural and agricultural Indian families nurtured children’s vociferousness and challenge to injustice, and supported Indian daughters’ participation in Black Power and labour movements in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Tara tells a story of a march from Paramount Building in San Fernando, in March 1974 around 10 o’clock. Instead of putting on her school uniform, she told her mother she was going to join the OWTU, ending up directly facing a barrage of policemen with shields, bayonets and tear gas, and getting home near night. Imagine secondary school girls choosing to march with workers, and parents accepting a daughter so outspoken against authority. 

In the 1970s, Tara began working with the Transport and Industrial Workers’ Union, and developed a consciousness of women workers’ struggles with low wages from local businesses and factories, from Bata to Neal and Massy car plant, Amalgamated Industries, and other companies long closed. Women were encouraged to become shop stewards, branch presidents, and treasurers in the union, building their sense of strength to end poverty, violence and inequity. Shaffira Hosein, past shop steward with the Bank and General Workers’ Union and CAFRA member, tells a similar story of the close networks among union and feminist movements.  

From there, Tara joined Concerned Women for Progress, formed by such women as Patricia Mohmmed, Pat Bynoe, Rhoda Reddock, Gaietry Pargass, Carol Gobin, Cathy Shepherd and Linda Rajpaul, which highlighted issues facing women farmers, and women’s health and reproductive rights, and which held the first forum on rape. With women like Cynthia Reddock, Tara helped to form the Consumer Protection Movement, focusing on concerns such as food prices, and helping to write its constitution. She was in the Cuba Friendship Association with Michael Als, James Millette, and Vincent Cabera. 

By the time CAFRA was founded in 1985, first coordinated by Rawwida Baksh, structural adjustment was crippling Caribbean industries, workers and women. Mentored by Cathy Shepherd at CAFRA TT, Tara went on to be the small-built Indian woman I saw at the helm throughout many of my early feminist years. 

In a 2014 interview on IGDS’ YouTube page, Tara called for us to continue conversation with each other directly, in the way that once strengthened and consolidated women’s groups and which, despite or perhaps because of social media, we need more than ever today. 

For her, CAFRA’s work is also to continue to build consciousness in women so they can chart their own course and never be afraid of anything.  

Women’s contribution to social movements is often forgotten, and many can’t name women like Tara, or anticipate histories and politics like hers. Her contribution is vivid in my memory, and remembering contributes to our multi-ethnic legacy. 

Tara Ramoutar, comrade and sister in struggle, please accept my heartfelt respect. 

Postscript.

Tara passed away on Saturday 19 September 2020. I was lucky to visit her, with with Rhoda Reddock, on Friday 11 September when she was sitting up, recognising us and chatting happily, with familiar brightness in her eyes. May she rest in peace.

In response to this column, Alissa Trotz sent me these two pieces from the In the Diaspora column. The first on another working-class, Indo-Caribbean woman, Basmattee “Desiree” Dharamlall, who crossed boundaries of all kinds in her life. And, the second on the revolutionary and healing promise of courtesy, a nearly forgotten skill in a time of social media, and one with which I’m sure a woman like Tara would agree.

Post 385.

For three decades, there have been calls for more equal representation of women in Parliament, our nation’s highest decision-making body. This has never been taken seriously despite ritual lip service to women’s rights and gender equality.

Most citizens just want a leader, regardless of sex, who is committed to fairness and who won’t become corrupt. There’s also significant public scepticism about whether women improve the policies and legislation that are introduced.

We haven’t seen most elected women make transformational differences across the Caribbean. Some have. Billie Miller in Barbados and Gail Teixeira in Guyana fearlessly legalised women’s right to safe termination. Joan Yuille-Williams uniquely championed the draft National Gender Policy, before it was crushed by Patrick Manning, and left without approval to this day.

Often, people also want elected women to exercise greater independence in the face of their political leaders, other men, and the kinds of sexist and homophobic political culture they blithely entrench. Yet, from childhood, women are deeply socialised to conform to and uphold male power and patriarchal standards. They are demonised, stereotyped, discredited and sidelined when they don’t. This operates in Cabinet and Parliament just as much as it does every day in our families, workplaces, places of worship and communities.

Women and men are socialised by and often share the same beliefs, but face different and unequal risks for challenging them. Simply being a woman in public life is a risk, and given the authoritarian style of party leaders, women are much more likely to tow the party line and to prove their loyalty, a quality long associated with femininity.

Last week, I highlighted victim-blaming by the PNM Women’s League, and their defence of violent masculinity. As Colin Robinson pointed out on Sunday, such loyalty may also extend to being a “respectable” mouthpiece for sexist and homophobic politics on the hustings, rather than opting to “go high” as women across party divides.

Women are also likely to prioritise respectability that other powerful men, such as those controlling religious constituencies, will accept. For to do otherwise is peril. My deep disappointments about Kamla Persad-Bissessar were, among others, that she failed to end legal child marriage, approve a national gender policy, and create a Children’s Act that wasn’t discriminatory, all to keep patriarchal religious leadership on side the UNC.

Will this election bring any change? What do voter trends and predictions regarding “marginal” constituencies mean for women’s leadership and gender equality?

The PNM is fielding 14 women candidates. With expected wins in Arima, Arouca/Maloney, St Ann’s East, Tobago West and D’Abadie/O’Meara, they can count on five women on the PNM side. Tobago East is being contested by Watson Duke so Ayana Webster-Roy may or may not make the sixth.

None of these are Indian women, which speaks to this group’s lower inclusion in the party as well as the fact that five of them are being fielded in constituencies they can’t win: Siparia, Oropouche West, Fyzabad, St Augustine, Couva North, Chaguanas West, and Princes Town.

Of the 14 women candidates, eight are sacrificial lambs. Indeed, one can argue that women candidates were primarily placed in losing seats. This is typical globally, and is also one of the reasons for women’s lower levels of public office.

The UNC is fielding 12 women candidates. Of these, four are likely wins: Chaguanas East, Siparia, St Augustine and Tabaquite. Three are not clear: La Horquetta/Talparo, Moruga/Tableland, and Toco/Sangre Grande. There’s ethnic mix among those who can win. The five put in unwinnable seats are mainly non-Indian.

If these numbers hold, nine women will be in the Lower House, with possibly four more. Together, at the most, that makes 13 of 41, or 32 per cent. Of these, two will be Indian women, far fewer than either their numbers or qualifications deserve, suggesting a complex mix of racialised and gendered push-and-pull factors at play.

Increasing the numbers of women in politics remains a symbolic and substantive goal. Women, who are half of the population, deserve to be more than one-third of decision-makers, particularly in a country where they have dominated tertiary education for the last 20 years, and are certifiably more qualified by the thousands. If men historically hit this glass ceiling up to today, there would be a national outcry about entrenched male marginalisation.

For women to advance greater gender equality and social justice in policy, law and society, as we hope they will, Caribbean scholarship shows they need a critical mass of much more than 30 per cent, they need the freedom to vote by conscience rather than in ways beholden to a political leader, and they need a groundswell of citizens and male political allies, for whom equality, inclusion, non-discrimination and human rights matter, to be the wind beneath their wings. This election will not achieve that, illuminating the limits of our democracy.