Diary of a mothering worker.

Post 209.

At last week Wednesday’s forum, ‘Reflecting on Gender and Politics in the 2015 Election Campaign’, young people filled the room, many of them lesbian and gay, who I hope felt that the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI created a safe space for public deliberation, for once not defined by their marginality.

The event was inspired by ‘the marginals’ in national talk about the election. How could we instead think about politics beyond polls and ‘the numbers’, to see multiple kinds of ‘margins’ in our landscape, especially in the deeply connected experiences of women and the LBGTI community? How could we encourage public reflection that no other site in the country would, precisely because feminist academia is founded on solidarity with these groups’ continuing struggles for equal citizenship? How could we build on civil society efforts to bring us together across political party divides?

There was the history of the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women to build on. Twenty years of producing a Women’s Manifesto and trying to get campaigning parties to commit to its goals. Twenty years of funding women candidates in the hopes that they would see the women who helped to get them into power as an important constituency. More years of encouraging a women’s cross-party caucus, where women politicians could gather as allies, rather than adversaries.

There was also the history of organisations like Caiso, Friends for Life, Women’s Caucus, Silver Lining Foundation and I am One to support. More than a decade of advocacy to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2010, Caiso produced a manifesto, ‘6 in 6’, which outlined six policy and leadership steps they hoped that the new government would take in its first half year in office. Five years later, with those all unfulfilled, whether in terms of police treatment of LGBTI crime victims, the creation of safe schools or the community’s greater vulnerability to homelessness, they were still challenging their marginality. Now as part of a new network of groups called Allies for Justice and Diversity, a rights-we-deserve-not-what-rights-we-are-allowed manifesto was again created in 2015.

In a country where ‘the marginals’ decide the victor, it made sense for a post-election forum to bring together marginal groups to document their overlapping analyses and strategies, as they both contested how ideals of masculinity and femininity shape the lived realities of political life. Sexism cannot be ended without also ending homophobia, and advancing emancipation requires us to fearlessly document, understand and defy an unjust status quo. Where else then, would we discuss the homophobic bullying and stereotyping experienced by gay male candidates, from the population, their own political parties, and our headline-hungry media? Where else would we share how campaigning is experienced by women as they negotiate the significance of their family roles, femininity, and sexual respectability for their acceptability as representatives and leaders? Where else would the nation’s first transgender electoral candidate affirm her right to all the rights of citizenship, including public office?

As an act of university solidarity, and to strengthen the alliance between women’s and LGBTI rights advocates, Nafeesa Mohammed, Khadijah Ameen, Sabrina Mowlah-Baksh, Luke Sinnette, Colin Robinson and Jowelle de Souza were all on one panel. Watching representatives of the PNM and UNC sit with these citizens, knowing their parties had unjustly abandoned them in their National Gender Policy drafts and in the Equal Opportunity Act, I hoped that the young people there could see that legitimacy and space is created incrementally, relentlessly, despite setbacks and disappointments. There was more than fifty years of activist history of holding the baton in that room, from Hazel Brown in her 70s to Afro-Trinidadian, lesbian, working class young women in their 20s. A generation coming after me should know that a path continues to be cut for them to run.

On election night, Dr. Keith Rowley, said that he is the Prime Minister of all of us, and “that we are all in this together”. We lead him by our example. Those young people came because they aspire for an equal place. Acknowledgment of that is what ‘all in this together’ means for politics in our nation.

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Post 186.

Though most days I don’t leave work until 6.30pm, my mid-week classes end even later and I don’t get home until Ziya is already asleep.

At that point, the best part of the day is finally having the chance to snuggle close to her, smell her eyebrows, neck and hair, and feel her reposition her warm, soft self all around me, with all the entitlement of familiarity.

In these moments, I wonder if the long hours are worth it, and what kind of sacrifices would be necessary to organize life otherwise.

Something would have to give, but what? Maybe my support to Caribbean feminisms, without which I’d feel empty of passion and meaning, or this diary, which provides crucial oxygen for creativity, or the greater sanity resulting from exercise, which women over forty need to do just to survive. Maybe, I’d just have to choose slower career advancement, with implications both for my worries about making ends meet as well as for my fulfillment of dreams that demanded fourteen years in university.

Truth is, as much as I miss irreplaceable moments with Zi, there are also other identities, as activist, writer and worker, which matter. As we entangle under the covers, I wonder if that’s okay or whether I’m being selfish, whether I’ll regret or defend these choices, even just for giving Zi reason to be proud of me.

I had decided my searching the dark for answers was privileged fluff, best kept to myself, for there are more important issues to talk about, like the fact that police shouldn’t have to engage in civil disobedience to get pay and benefits that are overdue, or the fact that come election day, our choices are between two political parties that have proven records of overseeing and overlooking massive corruption, waste and mismanagement, or the fact that we have a mere six months to make sure that the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources and EMA actually put everything in place for proper, promised national recycling to become reality.

Yet, over this weekend, so many other women shared similar negotiations, I was reminded that our collective experiences tell us about the times in which we live, and deserve more than self-conscious silence.

On Saturday, at the Fearless Politics conference honouring Hazel Brown, both Nicole Dyer-Griffith and Khadijah Ameen spoke about the challenge of balancing mothering with public life, especially given politics’ history as male dominated and defined, where parliamentary hours are set by the assumption that someone else is caring for your family and where parliament has no crèche, daycare or breastfeeding space, as if the business of the House is not answerable to the business of the home.

On Sunday, at Zi’s school friend’s birthday party, all the women there were also mothering workers; teachers, administrators, lawyers, web designers, flight attendants and more. Women who leave work at 5pm, spend evenings with their children, and then complete their deliverables from 9pm to 1am. Women who have no choice but to collect their children at 2.30pm and bring them to work for two hours, despite their boss’ annoyance, for between traffic and cost, what else could they do? Women who leave their children with their mother or sister while they and their husbands fulfill their scheduled shifts. Women whose wish to have more than one child came at exactly the age when they wished to achieve their professional aspirations.

It is much worse for more disadvantaged women and I’m not describing dire circumstances here. Just late night recognition that reconciling work and family is less simple than it appears.

Post 185.

HazelBrwownStamp

It’s the stories that I love.

Stories told by women who spent decades pressing for social change, and stories of solidarity by men sometimes almost twice my age. Stories that challenge myths that women of two generations ago were less radical than now and myths that feminist men didn’t exist throughout our history.

I love the stories of activists who came before because they bring our history to life, to their own lives, with laughter and commiseration, with passion and pain, with irony and unexpected twists, making us learn more about successful strategies or forgotten beginnings or our responsibilities to our future.

I love their stories because these efforts, connections and memories are our legacy, as much as the lasting reforms they created, or gains which we must still protect, are our legacy. They are a legacy because too often we think that it takes people who others consider political leaders, or people with university degrees, or those who seem to have more privilege or power to challenge everyday injustices.

Yet, stories by indomitable citizens of all classes and creeds remind us that is not true. These are stories by people who get up and do, working together to provide help or change unequal rules. Such collective love and labour by citizens is also ‘politics’ because it aims to defend their dreams for an emancipated nation and region, and their commitment to equality, independence and rights for women. These stories remind that the struggle for government by the people and for the people is not new.

Fearless Politics: The Life and Times of Hazel Brown is just the conference for those of you who also love everyday stories of those around us who got up and did, just like we do or wish to. The public is invited to attend and participate in this gathering to honour a woman who has spent four decades tirelessly fighting for social change, along with hundreds of others whose names should not be forgotten. But, helping us to remember is precisely what stories do.

Hazel’s own stories include sitting in Port of Spain City Council meetings when she was a child as she waited for the Mayor to sign her report book, because in those days the Council sponsored children’s education. It is here she began to understand government, reminding us maybe we should take our children to watch these meetings as part of their civic empowerment and critical education. Her story of running for election in the 1970s along with women of the Housewives Association of Trinidad and Tobago is a lesson in strategy for those thinking about politics today.There’s hope in working with women to buy, iron, exchange and affordably sell used schoolbooks. Then, heartbreak in her plan for a solar powered radio station that was undermined and never came to be. And there will be more than her stories.

Speaking on Saturday are long time activists in areas from women’s health to community and consumer rights, from sustainable food provision, including solar cooking and grow box agriculture, to women’s political participation and leadership, and from Baby Doll mas to the National Gender Policy.

This conference is for anyone who wishes to know more about struggles for social justice, artists and cultural workers interested in social transformation, activists of all eras and issues, and citizens whose dream for our world remains greater equality, justice, sustainability, cooperation and peace.

Come for stories about roads walked and paths still to be cut, in the spirit of our fearless legacy. This column was published prior to the conference, Fearless Politics: The Life and Times of Hazel Brown. Videos, photos and other conference information are available on the IGDS website and Youtube page. http://sta.uwi.edu/conferences/15/fearlesspolitics/index.asp. https://www.youtube.com/user/igdsuwistaugustine

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Post 110.

Hopefully the day that Ziya leaves home, she won’t do so in anger and rebellion, but with maturity. Hopefully, before that happens, I will have learned how to be that person that she looks up to and feels will listen without misrecognizing her message or putting it down.

I will have confronted how I must grow, change, mature and reflect if I want us to actually have the relationship that I say that we do. I will do the difficult work of seeing us and me through her eyes, and taking responsibility for my limitations, blind spots and hypocrisies.

 I will have been truthful that I need help and support, not because it is due to the parent or mother and not because traditions or God or rules demand it and not because those were the sacrifices I made which she must too. Hopefully, I will have enabled her to make her contribution to who I am because I recognize that she has wisdom, reciprocity, power and insight which I need, which are uniquely hers to bring, and without which our negotiations would be unfair, superficial and hollow.

 Hopefully, when she leaves, it will not be for worse circumstances, but for better, and it will not really be a leaving. May this home respect her rights and wishes, allow her to challenge and choose, and to feel safe. Whatever our mistakes, it will be here that she belongs because she wants to.

These were my thoughts as I sat on set at CNC3, on the morning after Jack Warner’s by-election win, listening to Basdeo Panday talk about the difference between the old and new UNC. I’ve never been a member of a political party, but I definitely don’t want back the old UNC.  Neither do the members who voted against it finally in 2010. That old UNC is where Rudy, the PM, Glen, Chandresh and all the others learned how to politick. I saw it up close these last weeks. CEPEP and URP workers compelled and paid to attend walkabouts and rallies, race and religion talk on the platform, exchange of cups, pencils and t-shirts for votes, speakers’ demands for loyalty at all costs, intolerance for dissent with the party family, corralling the Youth Arm for the campaign without empowering them with anything close to an ideology, a failure to defend real party democracy, and the unaccounted spending of hovering business men’s money. The new UNC is strapped for strategies that work because their tactics are textbook old UNC. They add insult to injury. That’s why UNC Indians of all ages, religions and creeds are yet again rejecting that kind of leadership by any means necessary.

My analysis here isn’t balanced and fair, but personal and fearless. I hope that Jack Warner’s win sparks a mass ‘spring’ for representation and local-level accountability. Given the heavy hand of our Governor-mode political system, that could be revolutionary.  Consolidation of Jack Warner’s power would not be. I think he is ruthless and not trustworthy. I think he can become the Dudus of Laventille, the Don of Chaguanas West, the authoritarian that gets the trains to run on time while establishing a police state like Mussolini. That said, I completely support voters’ mutiny and I think it’s breathtaking that before burning tires they have first tried the vox dei of democracy.  

For the UNC, these are lessons about the emotion of withdrawal, the heart-break of home failing to be a refuge, the ego-crushing work it takes for relationships to be based on empowerment rather than exploitation, ignorance and dishonesty.

There are parallels of the personal and political in our nation and our families. I see lessons about the demands of love and solidarity in watershed moments in our Republic and in the momentous trivialities of my negotiations with Zi. 

 

Post 109.

No single constituency has had such political attention paid to the state of roads, drains, recreation grounds and schools. People remain distrustful, cynical that the politicians they meet today will return tomorrow. The UNC knows that their heartland is emboldened to walk away with their jahaji bundle of votes if current campaign promises are not kept. Whatever the national consequences, and regardless of which candidate wins, Chaguanas West will benefit from today’s by-election. 

Since campaigning began, I’ve talked to more than 200 voters, primarily women. That number seems small, but the data is repetitive, suggesting clear trends. The majority of the women and men interviewed are either voting for Jack Warner or undecided. They think that Jack will succeed or it will be razor close. However, win, lose or draw, the by-election is a loss for the UNC.

Jack Warner will get too much popular vote to make a UNC win a genuine triumph. He will undermine Khadijah Ameen’s success by establishing a parallel state that delivers through his own and other private resources, ceaselessly wooing devotees across the nation, monopolizing headlines like a many-headed hydra, and flinging open his Pandora’s Box of exposes.

He is already campaigning for Local Government elections, and the government will get neither peace nor sleep until 2015. There’s karma here, no doubt. The nation will decide whether the UNC confronts it honestly through strengthening accountable and responsible party and governance structures, and re-connecting to grass-roots empowerment, or through expensive and ultimately unconvincing propaganda.

People wearing UNC jerseys are voting for Jack, and even those who “came back home” over the last few days will nurture off-script loyalties to him. Many of these are Muslims, almost all are Indians, and increasing numbers are youth who came of age under his shadow. I’ve watched them shake Khadijah’s hand and wave yellow flags, then quietly shake their heads. I’ve seen them tell campaigners one thing and me another, reassured I’m not part of the politics.

Green-shirted residents love Jack for helping them personally and for attending every wedding or funeral that mattered to them. One man said to me: “Indians are not a neemakeram people. Didn’t Jack help dem to win de election? Didn’t Jack do plenty for people in here?” Their hearts are at odds with the UNC versus PNM math in their minds. Even people who felt Jack didn’t help want to give him a chance to do for them what he did for, say, Felicity and Warner Village. Some on both sides hope that the UNC and ILP can reconcile before true fratricide – and matricide – ensues. They’ve hated the shame of watching party leaders, once hugging up like family, brawl on TV.

The UNC blames Jack for his betrayals, but rightly or wrongly many people blame Kamla for things falling apart. Every time Kamla Persad-Bissessar lashed Jack Warner on the platform, it disgusted those who felt that she should show more respectability as a woman, as PM and for a man they felt best represented his constituency while shining as ‘action man’ for the nation. Kamla has also appeared a “neemakeram” for turning on him after his support for the party.

Those who voted for her in 2010 did so because they wanted change and because she was a woman they felt could usher it in. Few women are voting to put a woman in power in this election, though doubtlessly the PM still has star status that was crucial to the campaign. Many felt that Khadijah should have campaigned alone, but that is naïve when at stake is Persad-Bissessar’s hold on the government and its credibility. One woman assured me that she is “voting for Kamla”, highlighting Khadijah’s place at the periphery.

Kamla has put all her energies to supporting Khadijah, pointing to the possible impact a woman party leader and Prime Minister can have in advancing especially loyal and competent young women’s political leadership, with the support of highly experienced women campaigners at the heart of the party machine. Most people I spoke to agreed, it is harder for a woman in politics because they are seen as “soft” and “have to constantly prove themselves” to not be seen as “weak” or get “fight down” by men. Jack’s personal attacks on Khadijah, with photos, records and rumours show this exactly, and he lost respect for turning so nasty.

Some voters’ decisions are based on UNC loyalty, but this is not the main rationale. They want to prevent a return to the PNM. They also don’t know how Jack will swing, whatever his protestations that the PNM is “the enemy”. Others think Jack neglected their street and that he will be unable to be the best representative unless he is in government. Thinking historically, many of these voters keenly remember the decades of struggle it took to get into power. They are emotionally attached to the narrative of their grandparents and parents voting for the DLP and ULF, and now the UNC.  

These voters agree that Jack should have cleared FIFA allegations and some are concerned about the murky sources of his seemingly unending wealth. Love and admiration for Kamla Persad-Bissessar as first woman party leader and Prime Minister and icon of motherhood and care remain, but those are not deal-breakers. If Khadijah Ameen wins the by-election, it will be because voters were convinced that the UNC needs to retain the seat in order for constituency needs to be met and in order for the UNC and People’s Partnership to remain in government.

History is not on the side of independents, but Jack’s supporters admire his out-of-pocket paternalism, cultivate personal obligation to him, love his common touch, and are utterly indifferent to local or international accusations. They say they are choosing corruption plus delivery instead of corruption plus neglect. They do not care about destabilizing the government. “Let them worry about that,” they say, also noting the UNC’s safe majority of seats, “if the constituency is not in the party, they will have to work harder in 2015” or, alternatively, “yes, bring dem down, is Jack for PM!”

UNC campaigners say that Jack is promoting a ‘gimme’ culture, politicking through handouts and playing on emotion. The UNC finds itself in the moral quandary of the PNM, unable to high-handedly accuse of what they do too. The green brigade symbolizes national need and euphoria for “change”, and they are clearly sending an angry message about arrogance, inaccessibility and nepotism. Party insiders were saying this already.

Late-night road-paving, targeted visits to the Muslim community, and Prime Ministerial presence may enable popularity to peak on schedule, but “performance” means Jack in this constituency. People are clamouring for the kind of representation they haven’t seen in the UNC. After the motorcades and the rallies, divisive emotions, desires and directions define today’s victory, and the national momentum now rolling out from Chaguanas West’s new reality.

Post 108.

In 2005, I invented a feminist movement-building game called Steppin’ Up. Groups of players encounter different scenarios and have to choose from among a range of options. 

The option they choose determines how fast they progress through a range of issues and challenges until they reach the winning square. 

Interestingly, when players open the responses telling them how much each option enables them to move forward, or not, they often start off reading the feedback to all possible choices. 

However, half way through the game, many start only reading the feedback to the option they picked. 

Not long after, I see them only reading the line that says how many steps to move forward on the board, entirely ignoring not only the explanation, but the information that would enable them to understand how much there is to learn from the scenario, the options available and all of the consequences. 

At fault is a focus on winning at all costs. I tell the players the objective is to win, and they assume only one group can win, but there is nothing preventing them from stepping on the board with a different vision. 

It’s much like this in the Chaguanas West by-election. I’ve spent these weeks on the streets, behind Khadijah and Jack, observing their campaigns and talking to voters. 

Today, there are only two options, Jack’s performance as MP will sweep the UNC, like dry season dust, out of the House of the Rising Sun’s safest seat or the UNC’s party-politics will win the battle, but send them wounded into unrelenting warfare. 

As I watch the candidates’ strategies, what’s clear is that there is no time to really read the dissatisfaction that characterises the terrain or assess the costs of the options chosen. 

There is only time to move ahead, though not to understand why, nor reflect on implications. Both campaigns have chosen to win at all costs, and this is the stark indicator of their actual vision. 

If the UNC wins, it is because they’ve put almost the entire Cabinet on the streets; they’ve told people it’s their “dharma” to vote for the party; they’ve terrified them with histories of “cow-shed” schools; they’ve said honour our Indian names and our beautiful women and fear the threat to our dhal and aloo; they’ve warned that if you are not a UNC, you are a PNM, and they have pulled that most polarising tactic of all, they’ve declared that everywhere, from Caroni to Felicity, is war.

On the board, Jack is master of rule-bending and mauvais-langue, tossing Khadijah’s supposed medical records into the public domain and then acting all coy, loving the PM on the one hand while firing scatter-bombs at her competence and her leadership, wise about the direction that the shrapnel will land, which is everywhere. 

Passive-aggression on the platform is his forte. He’s wagering his own resources as if he doesn’t know how much that fundamentally undermines state institutions. 

He’s rock star to the humble masses, a saviour higher than the state, a reluctant and dubious Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and an unlikely pious pundit for integrity, all along knowing these are mere high mas.

With their politics defined by staying a step ahead, both candidates’ campaigns are oblivious to wider consequences for other players, meaning us. 

Constituency voters invested in better representation will likely benefit from all this attention and the dice have only now begun to roll. 

As an independent observer on the ground, however, I’m convinced that all this strategic hyperbole points to a greater, more desperately needed vision being left two steps behind.

Post 106.

Playing the ‘Gender Card’

As I walk through Chaguanas West, Jack Warner’s trucks blare ‘Jack is de Man’ and ‘Uncle Jack’. These songs mobilise the respect, seniority and authority seen as rightfully due to such paternal roles. Being ‘the Man’ additionally symbolizes a macho figure of command and leadership, one to follow and admire. Only men can be ‘the Man’. There’s no equivalent for women. Being ‘de woman’ mainly refers to sexiness, and ‘woman is boss’ or ‘Iron Lady’ returns us to women trumping men at a standard they once and still set.

Khadijah Ameen’s soundtrack is Alicia Key’s ‘Girl on Fire’. Jack calls her a giggly child, an image easily available in a society where four year old boys are hailed as ‘small man’ and where total strangers can call hardback women ‘baby’ as they walk by. ‘Girl on Fire’ attempts to neutralise Jack’s wielding of the ‘gender card’ to trivialize Khadijah, and re-frames her as young, but unstoppable. Nonetheless, as an experienced adult and mother, note that she’s still positioned as only a girl.

Whenever women talk about their struggles to be seen as more than girls, but to not have to become ‘the Man’ like men, people think they invent the ‘gender card’ from nowhere, using it for unfair advantage, as if ‘a girl’ and ‘the Man’ compete on an equal playing field. Even male politicians I’ve interviewed argue that sexism makes it harder for women in politics, partly explaining why there are so few.

When Jack plies the associations between power and manhood, and attacks Khadijah’s reputation as a woman, no one sees him as playing the ‘gender card’. We think such resonance is inconsequential to elections, but in a world still overwhelmingly defined by male dominance and double-standards, such wars are inescapably battles of the sexes too.

Khadijah’s story parallels Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s experience of the ‘gender card’. On platforms, Kamla narrates how male leadership undermined her, put men before her and called her “a little girl from Siparia”, but she turned stereotypically feminine virtues of patience, loyalty and commitment into swords worthy of any vampire-slayer. Khadijah also has stories of being discouraged from leadership positions in the party, in favour of more powerful men, but she obediently accepted to rise another day.

When Roodal says that voters must protect Kamla with their “life” and “blood” and when Kamla says that mothers, fathers and brothers must defend Khadijah as a “our daughter” and “our sister”, that strategy trades on traditional beliefs about women’s need for protection. Troublingly, it interlocks gender with religion, and the need to protect Sita from Rawan. It interlocks gender with race and culture, and the extended family’s protection of their females from attack, perhaps particularly by African men. Kamla and Khadijah perform an ideal womanhood that is strong, but not so independent that, like Jack and Ramesh, they will ever betray.

The ‘gender card’ is littered all over the campaign trail, showing how our ideas of masculinity and femininity organize meaning and access to status, resources and power. Kamla continually struggles against accusations of weakness and indecisiveness, labels long flung at women whether or not they are true. Yet, she remains popularly celebrated for woman power, caring and motherly leadership, beauty and even “charm”. This has its risks, opening her to censure for firing words sounding “too much like Panday”.

At the polls, women are unlikely to vote for Khadijah because she’s a woman even if that mythical “subordinated Indian woman” no longer votes as her husband tells her to. Women will vote for performance or party. Perhaps, playing the ‘gender card’ requires knowing how those yet undecided must still be skillfully and successfully wooed.