Post 312.

With its latest publication, “Justice through a Gender Lens”, the Judicial Education Institute has signaled its intention to resist gendered biases, stereotyping and discrimination in our courts. This is because these can result in decisions, and their consequences, that are ultimately unfair, dehumanizing and unconstitutional.

Stereotypes may be directed at women, men and transgender persons, ultimately denying them equality and justice. For example, men – like women – are meant to naturally fulfill the role of nurturer. Yet, gender stereotypes that associate manhood with being only a provider may lead to court decisions regarding custody that don’t reflect men’s equal responsibility and role as caregivers. This could lead to feelings of rejection among fathers, and to the development of men’s groups organized around their anger.

In another example, sex workers may find it more difficult to prove they have been raped because victims are often required to be respectable and above moral reproach to be believed or not held responsible. However, like other women workers, they do not give up rights to consent and freedom from violence, even in transactional sex encounters.

This position alone goes against common stereotypes about which women are truly undeserving of male sexual assault, and which women can be violated with greater impunity. Here, sexual stereotypes create a biased system to which different women cannot equally turn for justice.

Gender biases of all kinds exist in our courts. In a Caribbean Judicial Officers survey in 2015, 53% of Judicial Officers surveyed believed women should be given custody of children and 41% thought that a man’s primary role is to provide financial support for his family.

This is fascinating because it reproduces women’s unequal responsibility for child care and all the planning, time management, emotional and mental labour, daily and nightly exhaustion, and career sacrifice involved. It also wrongly assumes that women have not historically also carried the burden of financial support for families across the Caribbean. The myth of the male breadwinner is illustrated every time men fail to provide regular and sufficient maintenance support to meet children’s needs, which is a widespread social phenomenon and familiar to Judicial Officers themselves.

In a Trinidad and Tobago survey of Judicial Officers, 44% of those surveyed believed homosexuality was against ‘God’s laws’ while 52% thought that attitudes regarding appropriate roles of men and women influence Judicial Officers’ decisions.

Yet, both our local courts and the Caribbean Court of Justice are upholding rights to a legal system in which personal or religious beliefs cannot prevent access to impartiality, respect and dignity for all. In the JEI’s publication, this includes referring to transgender persons as they themselves identify. It also includes enabling litigants to access courts even when they are dressed in ways that do not fit stereotypes regarding how a person of their sex ought to dress. After all, the nail in the coffin for this country surely cannot be people’s choice of clothes.

The TT Council of Evangelical Churches may maintain that God created only two genders, but this is a specifically Biblical position, in a multi-religious society which occupies First People’s land, and in a world in which many other cultures hold different and equally valid beliefs regarding gender.

In both Indian and African religions, there are gods and goddesses which combine male and female qualities, characteristics and identities. In our modern country are also people for whom secular decision-making protects from patriarchal and theocratic authoritarianism, and the self-righteousness of its violence and violation.

The global conventions and treaties to which we are signatory, and even our 1976 Republican constitution, create state obligation to recognize the human rights of every individual and to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual and gender orientation, not just race, creed or religion.

This isn’t about a current push to normalize LBGTQIA behavior in the country. It’s about strengthening tolerance and inclusion, extending trust in our institutions, and enacting due protection from prejudices that harm.

It’s heartening to see the judiciary deal a severe moral blow to gender bias and the vulnerabilities it produces. Righteousness exalts a nation when state institutions, whose sole purpose is to ensure justice, show that they hold this expectation in good faith.

It will be interesting to see if and how the Gender Equality Protocol for Judicial Officers plays out in the real life of the courts. For now, a whole guideline exists to enable judges and others to recognize something very simple.  Each of us wants the right to live safely and equally as we choose.

 

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Post 282.

Think of your love for lyrics, and how the right words can draw your attention, change your opinion or just cause your heart to pulse a little harder.

We know well the compelling wordplay of calypso and extempo, but are less familiar with the tradition of rapso or what the community refers to as “the power of de word in the riddim of de word”. Even lesser known, though long kept alive is a local tradition of spoken word. It has just as much to make a politician cringe. Strike poetry, like a match to the sulphur of your tongue, and watch how paper can turn to fire.

I sat in Sunday’s audience at NAPA, enraptured by the energy at 2 Cents Movement’s spoken word finals, and the sixteen voices of another generation continuing this poetry tradition.

Deneka Thomas, the winner of the competition, confidently flung fire like sparks from black, sharp, flint stones. Her piece described all that is contained in a closet, all that is hung in it besides clothes, haunting like monsters whose shadows fall out and reach for your bed, highlighting how unsafe one can feel and be even in our own bedrooms. Closets are where secrets are held and abuse is buried, leaving you no less afraid. Closets are where LBGTI youth exist in fear of hate just outside the door. Closets are places that many hide, hoping the dark will protect.

Deneka was brilliant, which is only to be expected from a young, but experienced poet, who has visibly gone from strength to strength over these last years. She championed over a slew of other pieces by both women and men which focused on consent, violence and equal rights across sexual orientation. Young poets also spent their three minutes on economic injustice, like poetry thrown to blow open the stereotypes and status quo of gang-defined zones.

Young women in particular highlighted changing aspects of childhood brought on by inter-generational addiction to electronic devices, represented the voice of the earth rebelling against our destruction, and described the experience of being asked for a dance that seems stilted, much like the democratic act of voting for a party that you mistakenly think knows the right steps.

These women, and Deneka herself, are part of women’s spoken word history. Cheryl Byron was the first woman to peform rapso in a calypso tent in 1976. Kiskadee Karavan famously burst on the scene, with the band Homefront, featuring Gillian Moor alongside Ozzi Majiq and Kinky Dan, and their hit, “Free Yuhself (Give Yuhself a Chance)” in 1992. Brother Resistance carried the movement for decades, supporting other rapso women like Sister Ava and her band, when they began to perform in the 1990s.

As I’ve written before, I know the story well from about 1997 when I ‘broke new ground’ with Brother Resistance’s movement, which trained young poets for the stage, bringing in the expertise of Ataklan, Wendell Manwarren, Brother Book, and Kareja Mandela. Deneka’s fearless and decriminalized woman power built on the first pieces about women’s sexuality performed as part of Izavibes, imagined into being by Lisa Allen-Agostini and her brother, Dennis, following the earlier ‘Holy Underground’. Izavibes was midwife to the Ten Sisters Poetry and Song Movement which produced the only CD collection of women’s poetry in the country. Conceptualised by Paula Obe and Aneesa Baksh, from North to South Trinidad between 2000 and 2004, same-sex desire was defiantly delivered alongside other women’s wise words.

Ten Sisters begat the Speak Easy, hosted by Dara Njeri, which was continued by Songshine, led by Gillian Moor. From there, UWI Speak, Writers’ Block and other young collectives emerged, nurturing another generation of women like Ivory Hayes, now a young veteran to the stage. Those young women on stage last night, and the young men continuing to use poetry to promote conscious lyrics and politics, are inheritors of this women’s history of protecting and performing poetry.

Poets love lyrics because words can be stripped, like torn sentences, to softly bind pain like bandages. As Deneka showed, words also provide the kind of glinting steel that make closets openings for more imaginative worlds and for subversive escape routes long mapped by underground passages.