Post 349.

The Darryl Smith fiasco seems like a model example of cover up after cover up. The fact that there’s still no commitment on behalf of state officials or political leadership to provide the truth of the matter, leaving more questions than answers, signals lack of commitment to ensuring that sexual harassment is a form of injustice that will not be tolerated or excused.

This is not surprising, if this was an issue taken seriously, political parties would all have their own sexual harassment policies, but the fact that these are as far away as legislation glaringly shows exactly how much impunity is an accepted reality.

We’ve heard about faults in the process of producing the report, but not that we can rely on the government and ministry to ensure that the public knows what really happened. It’s like the apparent faultiness of the report, which is based on the argument that Mr. Smith wasn’t given fair hearing, is more important than whether an employee of the ministry experienced sexual violence, which is what sexual harassment is, at the hands of a still-sitting Member of Parliament.

It’s like the lack of clarity about whether Michael Quamina was advising Mr. Smith or the ministry is as excusable as the $150 000 of public funds spent without accountability for the correctness of the process or its outcome. Who will ensure that the public knows the truth?

At this point, the hope seems to be that the whole thing will blow over and no answers will ever have to be provided. Sexual harassment legislation, if it ever comes, will not address this present injustice so the call should be for immediate answers as much as for longer term solutions. Those solutions include legislation, but require much more.

As the Equal Opportunity Commission, in its Guidelines on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, has rightly stated, “It should be noted that criminalising sexual harassment does not address the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace as it does not speak clearly to employers, does not advise them of their duties, nor does it provide recourse to the victims.The criminal law does not achieve these goals”.

The public service now has a sexual harassment policy which requires the state to embark on widespread effort to create buy-in so that state agencies understand their responsibility, not only to victims, but also for creating workplace cultures that prevent such sexual violence in the first place. The key to preventing sexual harassment is for employers and managers to adopt a zero-tolerance position. This position is represented by having trained harassment response teams, inclusion of sexual harassment protections in collective labour agreements, informal and formal grievance procedures, and counselling support.

All these are necessary, but still not sufficient. While sexual harassment may be committed by an individual of any sex, largely it is a form of gender-based violence perpetrated by men, whether in workplaces or on the street. Primarily, it’s what Jackson Katz would refer to as male violence against women, often younger or more vulnerable or with fewer economic options. Ultimately tackling this issue requires change in men’s engagement with gender-based violence – whether as perpetrators or as allies in creating change.

The Prime Minister should have used this moment to explicitly state that sexual harassment is a form of labour exploitation that his government is committed to preventing, and can be held accountable for in terms of its leadership on this issue. The AG should have committed to legislation that doesn’t leave women mired in the limitations of a whistle-blower process.

I was surprised at accusations of women’s complicity in this injustice, and would like to instead take a break from demanding women’s responsibility for fixing everything and welcome men’s role in speaking out and taking action on these issues in a way that sees real, measurable change.

Post 343.

Our current problems, from last week’s heatwave to this week’s flooding, are created by us – globally, regionally and nationally. Hurricanes and flooding are natural processes in our part of the hemisphere. Even with the expected increase in storms, it is poor land planning and development which really put us at risk.

The solution to this is public vigilance. We must pull ourselves together to insist on the information and power needed for our new reality. Citizens have to start developing an expertise on their watershed: where the rivers flow, how to prevent garbage clogging them, what settlements are planned, what inequalities exist, and how to reduce neighbourhood footprint. It’s like every community and local government needs an environmental impact assessment to operate from a plan.

I think of how no one cared when the mangroves were razed for Movietowne, but when the ocean washes over it all, we will act surprised. Or maybe, we can wake up and insist on changing what we can now.

I think of when activists stage sit-ins in the EMA to get social and environmental impact analyses, and people call them crazy. Every one of us should be insisting on those analyses for housing settlements and highways, for when the impacts hit us, does it help to hold our heads and bawl?

The area by Grand Bazaar flooded exactly as expected. If the engineers knew this, why didn’t we? Greenvale was always going to flood. Town and Country planners told the PM so when he was Minister of Housing, and he went ahead because regulatory agencies and people’s lives be damned.

There’s a reason why people used to build their houses on stilts through the Caroni plains. This should have been insisted on for all housing developments, and would have spared ordinary, hard-working people endless loss. It should be insisted on now.

The loss from floods is only part natural disaster, the other part is wholly man-made. It’s convenient when we can cut whichever hillside we want or fill in whatever watercourse or throw away a stove in the river or build our house where and however we choose. It’s agony when our folly comes back to us. We are being told to pay attention. Take responsibility.

Forget whether the Prime Minister wades through water in his boots, it’s not the political leadership we should be looking to for empathy and compensation. Rowley or whoever replaces him is irrelevant. Instead, we have to take ownership of the institutions and regulations meant to protect us.

We’ve been inattentive for too long because we can’t be bothered with rules or stopping corruption when it’s our friends or mobilizing across race and party. Institutions that tell us what we can and can’t do to land and watercourses are treated as an inconvenience to be ignored.

While the terrible devastation of people’s homes, cars and livelihoods grabs headlines and hearts, we have to use this moment to demand a different kind of news and public life even after rainy, and hurricane, season passes.

In her Tedx speech last year, Greta Thunberg makes the point that, though the climate is in crisis, we hardly hear anything about it in the press and from political and economic leaders.

If it mattered, if it was understood to be a war against all living species, our countries and our children, from a global economy driven by consumption, growth and fossil extraction, the solutions would dominate all our news.

They would dominate every political platform in every election with parties competing to convince voters they have the most commitment to the best plan for both preventing and addressing climate-related disasters. Will that happen? Only if we demand it.

What we need is a news cycle that doesn’t focus on the crisis, but on prevention and protection, making them the most important story of our time. Citizen oversight of land use planning, new housing specifications, the start of national recycling collection, a near ban on plastic or insistence on the polluter pays principle for importers and producers, a demand for clean, drinkable water as a public right, replanting of mangroves, and more. Our public institutions should be flooded by citizens wanting oversight and say over the plans and the books.

All of this is possible, making the man-made part of our crises preventable. If hope is what we think we need to weather this new normal, Thunberg says, “The one thing we need more than hope is action…once we start to act, hope is everywhere”.

Post 342.

It seems an ability to identify true love will best protect women from murder. It doesn’t matter that women don’t smother or chop themselves, and that the only one responsible for their death, as a result of partner violence, is the man himself.

His responsibility for his own actions is irrelevant. It appears nowhere in the story. We focus on Mary the battered woman, and conversation becomes about her, her choices and her mistakes. In this case, her failure at one thing at which women should be best, which is love.

As Jackson Katz outlines, John kills Mary gets represented as Mary was killed by John. Mary becomes the subject and poor John becomes a passive character with no power who was merely responding to Mary’s provocation or trying to restore a lost sense of order and control or couldn’t help himself when he felt sad and angry or was the victim of Mary’s disrespect when she exercised her right to find a better man.

Then, it simply becomes Mary was killed (because of some mysterious sequence of events for which she holds responsibility). John as the problem, along with the other Johns who cause so much harm and fear that thousands of protection orders are sought each year, becomes invisible entirely. So do the social beliefs and state failures that produce them in the first place. Finally, in the public eye, Mary becomes remembered as an abused woman who got and kept herself in this situation when she should have known better.

John, who killed Mary, escapes analysis and blame. Did he have a history of violence? He did stop her or promise to change when she tried to leave? Did he refuse advice and help? Did he stalk and harass? Did he coldly choose violence and homicide when he didn’t get his way? Why did John feel any right to so dominate another person? Did he also dominate other men or was this a sense of power he only wanted to wield over women?

Shouldn’t John have avoided getting into a relationship or left when he became violent, knowing he was putting a woman and mother he supposedly loved at risk? John chose to show his ultimate control over Mary by killing her. Is it considered a right of manhood to kill those women who men cannot control? These and other questions about domination and violence, and even masculinity, require critical spotlight on John.

Yet, public talk about women’s murder misses this mark. On Monday, an Express piece titled, “Where is Susan’s killer?’, interviewed Susan Ramphal’s brother. He described his sister, mother of a seven-year-old girl at the time of her death, as “unable to identify true love”. Ramphal was being compared to Neisha Cyleane Sanker.

Neisha Sankar, only 20 years old when she had her son, had been preyed on as a teenager by a violent man fifteen years older who became her husband and killer. The Express story on Neisha Sankar, on September 6, 2019, had drawn the quote and headline from her eulogy: “She couldn’t identify true love”. Also drawing from the eulogy, Guardian’s headline added, “Let Cyleane’s life be a lesson”.

A lesson to whom? To Mary or to John? Should some men exercise greater care and responsibility in their relationships? Should all men collectively change the masculine ideals that produce such deaths worldwide? Whose choices and behavior are meant to improve? Our daughters or controlling men? Is the lesson that men are violent, and like the National Security Minister laments, there is nothing we can do?

In a third story, the Express headline, “Fatal Love”, documented the Florida killing of twenty-year-old Kiara Alleyne, mother of a one-year-old girl, at the hands of her partner and baby’s father. She too was trying to leave. Was it Mary’s love that was fatal? Or was it John’s? And, if it was ultimately John’s, is such homicidal behaviour really love at all?

From the press to the Prime Minister who infamously said, “I am not in your bed­room, I am not in your choice of men“, we must stop blaming both women and love for men’s murder of women.

Women die for loving, for standing up for themselves, for staying, for leaving, and for just being. One out of five women in Trinidad and Tobago report one experience of non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Ironically, this is predominantly male violence from men they didn’t even choose.

Make John visible and accountable when women’s murder makes news.

 

Post 256.

I won’t belabor the blatant objectification of women in the Prime Minister’s block-talk guffaw that “a golf course is like a woman, you have to groom her everyday otherwise it turns into a pasture”. Objection means seeing or referring to someone as a commodity or object, you know, like a pasture. Or, seeing women as an object of male sexual desire, you know, like sexual offenders’ practice of grooming girls to enable their acquiescence to sexual predation.

On national TV, of the many things we saw is that even Parliament isn’t a workplace where women are safe from sexist jokes by powerful men. Tells you a lot about the likelihood of that kind of discomforting bro-code language and power being similarly wielded across our nation’s workplaces in addition to its street corners. It also tells you a lot about the myth of women achieving all they want. You could get your education and your career, but you are out of order to expect ideals of manhood to change in acknowledgement of the fact that you are not just meant for men’s bedrooms, groomed.

However, above all, it’s his unapologetic impunity that makes me want to throw a teacup in Dr. Rowley’s direction.

The guy is a UWI graduate, a grandfather, political party leader, and the most influential elected official in the land. Parliament was in a supposedly serious debate about responses to an economic crisis which is extremely likely to exacerbate intimate partner violence as household insecurity increases. And, finally, a woman is neither like a golf course nor a pasture, because she is a person.

Impunity is freedom from punishment for harm caused, and its pervasive, making you wonder if all women and girls should arm themselves with a driving iron to unhesitatingly use in response to sexist language, harassment and violence. The extremely low conviction rates for domestic violence and sexual assault tell us much about the extent of that impunity, for there are no real consequences for wrong-and-strong men. In the context of such state-enforced gender inequality, Dr. Rowley’s lack of real accountability further asserts, hope for solidarity and expect salt, for bad man doh account to women and doh give no apology.

Ironically, in the same week, the ‘me too’ campaign circulated across the lives of millions on the planet. Started by activist Tarana Burke ten years ago, the words are meant to show that girls and women who have survived sexual abuse and exploitation are not ashamed and are not alone. Revived as a social media status, women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted disclosed their own survival, with far too many in Trinidad and Tobago either adding their post or reading others with which they could identify.

I had been lucky enough to attend the third match between the Sri Lankan and West Indies cricket teams last week Friday, but unlucky enough to see Sam, a longtime cameraman, and sexual assaulter from my youthful newsroom days, there also. I pointed him out to Ziya and told her what he had done so she could know, her mom is educated, employed and empowered, but look at what impunity looks like because he never faced consequences. Yes, ‘me too’.

Last year was swept with ‘Life in Leggings’ stories from Caribbean women harassed and harmed. Then, as now, I find myself asking the ‘what about the men’ question that occupies everyone when girls are doing well because they worked hard, but not when women are being dehumanized and threatened. Don’t men want a world where no girl or women has to again say ‘me too’? Isn’t speaking out for approval of a national plan to end gender-based and sexual violence, or for higher conviction rates for sexual offenses, or across the board workplace and political party sexual harassment policies also men’s responsibility? Isn’t also publicly insisting on better from Dr. Rowley?

His words may seem harmless, but they land on a nation full of girls and women still struggling to break silences about harm, and still hoping for men’s solidarity. Lack of consequences is part of something much greater, that gets far more dangerous. That is why a Prime Minister’s impunity must be taken seriously.

 

 

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 235.

The PNM’s media machine experienced a disastrous week of damage control in relation to PM Rowley’s words, “I am not in your bedroom, I’m not in your choice of men. You have a responsibility to determine who you associate with, and know when to get out, and the state will try to help, but then, when the tragedy occurs, and it becomes the police, the police must now go the extra mile…”

The AG said that Mr. Rowley said nothing wrong, how the PM speak is how he does speak, and that it was true that a person was “equally responsible” for his or her situation. Fitzgerald Hinds said, without irony, that he didn’t understand gender sensitivity, but he didn’t see any offense in telling women they should leave when they begin to see signs of violence, despite the fact that many women don’t leave because of economic insecurity, children or straight-up fear.

The OPM awkwardly angled the story in terms of the PM offering “empowering advice to our women” so that women could “make smart choices”. Though, these choices do not include safe and legal termination of pregnancy in situations where violent relationships may make women feel another child will mean less ability to leave.

The press release then listed Gender Affairs Division programmes which have long been in existence and are unrelated to Dr. Rowley’s leadership, and pointed to the Community Based Action Plan to End Gender Based Violence in Trinidad and Tobago, which has not yet been approved, and needs adequate resources from F&GPC to succeed.

All Mr. Rowley needed to say was, he understands how traumatized people are feeling about violence against women, he’s sorry his comments may not have been phrased in the most sensitive way, it wasn’t intentional, and he’s prepared to grow and improve in his engagement with gender-based violence, as we all should. All the spin would have been unnecessary. We are all fallible. We can all practice accountability.

Nonetheless, the problem isn’t Mr. Rowley.  It’s pervasive myths about violence against women that feel like common-sense: that women deserve it when they are abused or killed and their bad decisions are where accountability lies.

However, women have no responsibility for male violence. Men’s enactment of violence is entirely their responsibility and occurs in situations where they are taking control of a woman, not losing control of themselves. We should nonetheless consider that male violence takes place in a wider context where male supremacy is considered normal and natural. This kind of gender inequality shapes what boys learn about manhood and power as they become adults, leading to invisibility of male domination and violence except in situations where it becomes severe.

Second, women do not get into relationships with men who are abusive. Abuse develops over the course of relationships and may start when women get pregnant, the more children they have, when they become economically dependent, when they get their own jobs, when men lose their jobs, when women try to leave, and when they take out protection orders.

Third, gender-based violence is a societal, public health and citizenship issue when women’s inequality, and their greater vulnerability to violence defines their experience of belonging to the country. Intimate partner violence is only one kind of violence that women experience by the thousands each year. Yet, state response to violence against women has never been adequate at the level of policing, social services, anti-gender based violence training in schools, and in the court system. The protection order system needs to be completed revised. Programmes for perpetrators or men who want to address their own violence, or its potential, need to be in place.

The fact is that its women’s refusal, whether on the street, in gyms, in offices or in relationships – not choosing of men – that often provokes violence. And, state officials need to be clear that women are at risk at work, in transportation to and from work, and when they become unemployed and are searching for work. Women are already choosing to leave when they can, and being stalked, harassed and even killed because of it. Right now, “empowering advice” from the PM simply is not what all these women need.

Post 228.

“On behalf of the Government and People of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, I wish to convey heartfelt condolences to the President of the United States of America and the American People with respect to the unspeakable horrors of the June 12th attack on an Orlando, Florida nightclub, the worst mass shooting in twentieth century US history.

Today, we urge the American people to acknowledge the national and global danger of their pro-gun culture; religiously-legitimized sexism and homophobia; embedded racism and classism against African-descended persons, people of colour and immigrants; and pervasive realities of violence against women. Violence against persons, who do not fit dominant ideals of manhood, womanhood and heterosexuality, profoundly intersects these other issues and experiences. True greatness is showing fearless will to dismantle these points where oppression and fear meet, instead making them meeting points for cross-cutting transformation.

The People of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago recognize that members of the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender communities share the right of all citizens of all nations to live in conditions of safety, respect and equality, and to create spaces for affirmation, empowerment and joy. Members of these communities are part of our nations’ families, civil society organizations, workplaces, religions and schools. We understand that threat to their lives also harms those who know and love them, and whose solidarities are with them.

As the Government and people of the United States of America struggle to come to terms with this terrible tragedy, Trinidad and Tobago is also gripped by shock, sadness and outrage. This strengthens our resolve to collaborate across the region and hemisphere to fulfill the dream of full emancipation born out of the subjugation experienced, refused and resisted by so many of our resilient peoples. The lesson to us is that violence to one constitutes violence to all as it violates the hope of a world of greater justice and peace.

No doubt, members of Trinidad and Tobago’s LBGT community wish to hear even greater government commitment to ending discrimination and criminalization on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, knowing that such laws perpetuate the conditions for many forms of gender based violence, which harm citizens, including children, across all sexualities.

Without commitment behind them, words remain just such. They offer little genuine solace or solidarity on behalf of the nation’s representatives, highlighting above all our own fears of challenging homophobia and surviving in political life.

Acknowledging this vulnerability means being truthful about what it takes for LBGT persons to survive and thrive daily. Therefore, my government takes this moment to conscientiously state its commitment to ending the conditions within which such an American massacre becomes possible. It is not enough to say may it never happen or should never happen in Trinidad and Tobago. True leadership means taking action so that it does not. Prejudice will not keep us from acting, for our watchword of tolerance does not extend to inhumanity and inequity.

Our hearts are also heavy at the loss of so many young, promising lives. We are reminded that protection of children and youth includes those who are lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender, for they face greater vulnerability. As Prime Minister, I assure our own LBGT young people that we honour your need for safe spaces to grow and flourish, whether in schools or other public places.

No nation should ever have to face such tragedy and it is hoped that nothing of this nature will ever befall any nation again. I call on everyone, from religious leaders to teachers, from youth to parliamentarians, to affirm a place for the human rights of all.

Join me in assuring the LGBT community that the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago will unite to treat each other as we wish to be treated, to choose compassion instead of conflict, and to tolerate and protect gender and sexual diversity as we do religious and cultural diversity. May we strengthen our resolve to create a nation where each of us is surrounded by love, and safe within our shared home.”

Dr. Gabrielle Hosein for Dr the Honourable Keith Rowley
Prime Minister of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago