Post 269.

Carnival has always been about negotiation of gendered and sexual power. Think of jamettes long confrontation with middle-class and religious expectations of respectability. Think of a cross-dressing mas tradition long enabling performance of transgressive identities.

The charge has historically been directed at women ‘wining like that’ with century after century of commentators repetitively raging about (women’s) vulgarity and the potential for bam bam to make all social order bend over.

Ignoring the hysteria of such emasculated morality, women increasingly came together in movements tens of thousands strong to declare a desire for sexual freedom and pleasure, and an expectation of state responsibility for protection of these, as ‘rights’.

Commentators who bemoaned Carnival’s loss of political punch completely misread decades of bikini mas because they were not the mouth-piece for Afro-Trinidadian working class men in the tradition of pan and calypso. They missed the significance of year after year of multi-class and multi-ethnic bands of bubblicious women in agreement about such rights as a modern Caribbean feminist politics predating ‘Slutwalks’, ‘Life in Leggings’ or ‘Me Too’ responses to sexual harassment.

‘Carnival is woman’ on the one hand was about commodifying and marketing women’s bodies as the nation’s economic stimulus package, but on the other it marked a decisive shift to a contemporary social order in which jamette resistance had become fully nationalized.

TTPS’ public position on consent in Carnival is the jamette’s desire and right to sexual autonomy and freedom from sexual violence, both denied by the very foundations of colonial authority, now articulated by law.

It’s a historically significant signal of change and power not to be by-passed, a legacy of Carnival becoming woman, now penetrating into state authority. It should stop anyone from declaring that Carnival is no longer political because the renegotiation of power in the democratic density of a ram fete or in the middle of rough wine on the road is politics itself, from rather than in ‘yuh pweffin’.

A debate with all expected hullabaloo followed the police press statement. Iwer declared, “If you look at all the history about Carnival, we never had an issue with anybody wining on anyone”. Not true. Thousands of women can tell you about fellas not taking a ‘no’ or a ‘move away’, others pulling your wrists or your waist when you on the road for Jouvay, needing to roll with a crew of fellas for protection, and playing mas within ropes and with security precisely to be free of being pursued and grabbed.

Fay-Ann’s concern was about the right to consent being abused by ‘a lot of women in the stations’ falsely claiming a man tried to wine on them, though reports of sexual violence have never worked that way. Machel was criticised for his instructions before his management instructed him to back back. The police were above the fray and dead clear. It’s assault to touch someone without her or his consent.

Police Service Asst. Supt. Michael Jackman went further than advising permission to wine: “Even when a person is already engaged in dancing or wining or gyrating with another person, with a partner, a friend, family member or stranger, at some point in time that person says, “Okay, I want to stop”, and they indicate that verbally or by action, that action may be by stepping away or saying, “no”, verbally, “I had enough”, then the person who they were engaged with at that point in time ought to respect that decision and stop”. In his statement were echoes of Explainer’s ‘Rasta Chick’, Singing Sandra’s ‘Die with My Dignity’, Destra’s ‘Wrong Bam Bam’ and even Sharlene Boodram’s, ‘Ask It’.

Wining is an old jamette language now brilliantly informing interpretation of law by police brass. The body talks, and the lesson is to become literate in woman-centred traditions of lyrical and waist skill, or Dan is the man in the van on his way to make a jail.

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Post 236.

Over the last three decades, the rise of bikini mas has been considered a sign of Carnival’s loss of politics.  In this view, gone was the costuming skill and performance that defined mas itself, to be replaced by wining skill and body display, with the heyday of top male bandleaders replaced by bottom and ‘Carnival is woman’.

The feminization of Carnival was an unrepentant fall from high mas, and women’s ‘vulgarity’ was obsessively interlocked with the downfall of decency and order in the wider society. This easily fit the misbegotten myth that all the world’s troubles would be solved if only women never misbehave.

Women disagreed by the tens of thousands.

The past thirty or so years of bikini mas, which is now typical for an entire generation of young women, could therefore instead be thought of as a massive women’s movement taking cultural form, indeed ‘taking over’ Carnival, to continue traditions of self-affirmation, resistance to subordination, and renegotiation of the rules of public space.

Observers of the ‘jamette’ tradition point to the fact that women in Carnival always combined the folk politics of ‘playing mas’ with the gender and sexual politics of ‘playing yuhself’ in ways that were typically disallowed to women, and that women took both these politics into their challenges to the state.

What’s evident over the last decades is that such ‘jamette’ performance has crossed racial, religious and class differences amongst women, becoming national, and therefore even more disturbing for men as diverse as Sat Maharaj, Tim Kee, Keith Rowley and Father Harvey, with their patriarchal passion for women’s responsibility, decency, dignity and prayer.

Women’s annual occupation of the nation’s streets over Carnival, to experience sexual control, bodily pleasure and freedom from respectability, predates anti-‘slut shaming’ or ‘slut walk’ marches in the North by decades. Unexpectedly, bikini mas helped powerfully cultivate contemporary women’s opposition to rape culture, or a society where sexual domination of women and their vulnerability to sexual violence is seen as natural and normal. Though globalized, this creative expression of women’s rights is homegrown.

We saw the force of such opposition when Asami Nagakiya was murdered and the groups Womantra and Say Something called for the resignation of the PoS Mayor. We have seen it in continued ‘not asking for it’ campaigns across the region, in a younger generation of women publicly refusing old men’s bad habits of victim-blaming, and in diverse support for #lifeinleggings’ call to break silences about sexual harassment. It’s part of Say Something’s current ‘Leave me alone’, ‘Leave she alone’ campaign, in collaboration with Calypso Rose, which encourages women to share “experiences of street harassment and violence during Carnival and also of positive moments when you felt defended or protected by your Carnival community…whether as revellers or frontline workers and service providers”.

The rise of bikini mas is complex. Women’s increasing income and economic independence are major factors. Desires to be affirmed as beautiful as black and brown women, not just as ascendant students and workers, is another. Expansion of women’s spaces for friendly sexual ribaldry, such as the maticoor, into the public domain is a third, bringing with it challenges to the hypocrisy of male privilege, which allowed men all kinds of license while keeping women in check.

There are also contradictions. Costs of bikini mas participation mean that class shapes access to these moments of freedom. Many women continue to play within ropes, reproducing historical ways that upper classes cut themselves off from others, while signaling the reality of sexual harassment which all classes of women continue to fear. Additionally, the marketing of hypersexuality over these very decades has reinforced hierarchies of beauty and the policing of women’s bodies in ways that complicate the radical potential of bikini mas to throw off pressures women face, embrace self-pleasure without judgment or justification, and defy nation-state commodification.

Against nostalgic anxieties, bikini mas has enabled serious woman politics of all kinds to take up space in Carnival. It is the largest movement of women to take to the streets in the country, bringing diverse aspirations for an equal place as gendered and sexual beings. And, it has cultural capital, empowering anti-violence activists’ demands that both men and the state better behave.

Post 224.

Vigilance. For, few victories are absolute.

From bloggers to protesters, a generation asserted itself in the call for Mayor Kee’s resignation. Women in their 20s and 30s, supported by men and older women, made a rare show of public power over sexist language regarding violence against women. One commentator compared it to the Black Power movement when an earlier generation mobilized against the mores of their parents’ status quo.

Others argued that protests should have been over the murder of Asami Nagakiya, rather than officialdom’s response. They missed the fact that this generation fully understands the interlock of both. The uproar was about another example of violence against women. Yet, everything said also protested commonplace sexual harassment, sexual assault and other kinds of public gender-based harm, precisely because these normalize violence, or fear and threat of violence, as a fact of women’s lives. Women are right to not only focus on single losses of life or single incidences of abuse when feelings of fear in public, and women’s lack of public and private safety, is pervasive, yet invisible to many or worse denied or, worse yet, blamed on women themselves.

The state is obligated to create conditions within which women, who are particular targets of violence, are safe, regardless. It is one thing to live in a nation where harassment, rape, beatings, trafficking and murder continue, with too few of these resulting in convictions or change. It is another when state officials use moments of such violence to point fingers away from state accountability. And do so with impunity, as if the consequences of state failure around violence are not experienced every day. That this was a moment of insisting on state officials’ answerability, in a country where its lack costs us billions, is not to be dismissed. Accountability to non-sexist language and decision-making might seem insignificant, but it at the core of women’s citizenship.

Women of this generation targeted the Mayor because they understood that they too were under attack. The supposed harm to decency and morality posed by women flinging waist is debated every year, and is a 150 year-old panic rooted in the tyranny of respectability hypocritically imposed on women, determining their status, meaning and value. Yet, the past decade’s noticeable trend among students is an overwhelming concern with women’s sexual and bodily liberty. Fueled by celebrity-led movements and world marches against slut shaming is the idea that women should be able to go wherever, however and whenever they choose. In 2013 for example, young women, led by Renelle White, held their own ‘slut walk’, titled a ‘Jammette March’, on the promenade, to insist that women’s sexuality doesn’t provoke male violence. Male violence explains male violence.

Between the emergence of ‘Carnival as woman’ and female students seeing educational and employment gains as insufficient in the face of continued sexual violence and shaming, an articulate power has been developing which clearly can amass. In questioning a trend that seemed to emphasise the right to choose without adequately engaging the contents of such choice, many missed its political potential. While Mayor Kee’s resignation was not a ‘solution’, it was thus a victory for a globalized generation for whom ‘slut’ or jamette shaming matters.

Luckily, international press was upon us. The PM had already affirmed Mayor Kee’s intention to resign. Public and media opinion put his comments as inappropriate, with his apology adding insult to injury. Over 10 000 signatures appeared on a petition, started by young feminist group Womantra, giving a mandate to momentum. Behind and in front the scenes, women from both political parties also weighed in.

But, vigilance.

Clyde Paul retains authority in Port Fortin despite responding, “What action must Tim Kee resign for. I hope when the truth of the young lady’s murder unfolds some people could handle it.”  Religious leaders are morbidly capitalizing on a woman’s murder to insist on women’s morality. This backlash strengthens the lie that covering up and being decent will protect women from harm.

To refuse that protection racket, a generation of gender-conscious women and men will have to be serious about successful organizing. One battle may be won, but a war over women’s freedom is one we cannot afford to lose.

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