Post 350.

As Carnival takes over airwaves, we can explore its representations of music, culture and sexual pleasure. These representations are often contradictory, drawing us into debate. They are sometimes more important than first appears, charting a historical moment, or highlighting generational change or US influence, or showing what adolescents, tuned in on Instagram and Youtube, are learning from us about empowerment and gender.

Destra’s recently released ‘Rum and Soca’ video is an intriguing mix of representations that signal much about our time. The video’s narrative is basically like the African-American movie, ‘Girls Trip’, which is a story of women’s friendship and a wild weekend of dancing, drinking, and romancing to excess.

This narrative is at home here in Trinidad and Tobago, with its long history of “girls’ limes”, and women drinking and wining with each other in fetes and on the road. It’s a welcome story as there are far too few videos of women enjoying themselves without performing at men’s command or for men’s pleasure or to attract men or as backdrop to a dominant male voice. “Party done” may have been the last time women were out like this on their own.

There are almost no men in Destra’s video and none on the mic. Those in the scenes are mere background to the social intimacy that affirms a right to woman-centred fun. The take up of a particular brand of consumer and celebrity feminism in Port of Spain is symbolized by the wealth and status of a limo, mansion, long blond wig and closet full of clothes combined with the Carnivalesque bacchanal of bam bam, and its emphasis on women’s licentious freedom as empowerment.

There’s much to say about such empowerment. It seems to be symbolized by drinking to excess, a privilege traditionally reserved for men. Destra herself has at least eight drinks, and I found myself wondering about the messages to adolescent girls. Such drinking has historically costed those who may find themselves assaulted and then blamed for getting to a point where they can’t remember their last name. Such risks of victim blaming are real and I wondered about the counter warning to young women that excessive alcohol consumption easily turns a sense of power into vulnerability.

The drunkenness is simply Destra keeping up. Men have been triumphing such excess for decades, from “Drunk and Disorderly” to “Rum till I Die”, and it’s debatable whether it’s fair to hold women to a higher standard. Indeed, one can argue that the video is also an Afro-creole version of a matikor, the Caribbean’s longest and most iconic historical expression of rum-drinking, women-only wining and queer potential in a safe space created by women themselves.

Yet, one can’t be naïve about alcohol marketing in the Caribbean. Only four brands are visible in the video. It’s almost blatantly an extended Angostura ad, following in the footsteps of Machel, who introduced advertising for his own rum into his repertoire of songs, because scraping the barrel in this way as an artist makes good business sense. Company branding conflated with cultural production should compel us to question the role that alcohol companies play in sponsoring and profiteering from fetes, bands, artists and videos, and encouraging young adults to become drinkers.

The video’s major intervention, however, is its erotic intimacy among women. Women’s same sex sexual attraction has been going mainstream with videos by Rihanna and Shakira, Shenseea, Rita Ora and Cardi B, Kehlani and Teyana Taylor, Janelle Monae, and more.

In these videos and in Destra’s, women are also holding hands, near kissing, and touching bodies in ways that blur the line between heterosexuality, bisexuality and lesbianism, or in ways that ‘queer’ being straight. Whether it’s alcohol, or sexual experimentation, or sexual fluidity, Destra’s video can be simultaneously read as straight and gay, as deliberately ambiguous, and as defying easy identity labels.

Such queering has a long history in the region. Yet, for lesbians in Trinidad and Tobago, same-sex desire isn’t something that happens when you’re drunk or that is about a night out. It’s an identity that isn’t taken on and off, and still carries great social stigma. One can only hope that women celebrities’ openness to ambiguity, play and enjoyment normalises challenges to homophobia and an inclusive world for women beyond its rules.

Cultural representations of empowerment, sexuality, womanhood and feminism in the Caribbean can be problematic as well as emancipatory, but shouldn’t simply be dismissed. Signs of our times, and their shifts and debates, continue to come in Carnival music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post 232.

Dear Karian,

As a woman who has been followed on the street by men even after ignoring them or polite ‘no thank you’. A woman who has had men yell at her from Independence Sq. KFC about her ‘box’ and how it looking like lunch. A woman who was sexually harassed in the TV6 newsroom and until today, when I see that cameraman in public, I’m angry at his indecency and harm. Just as I’m angry at the ex-Minister who thought his unwanted touching on the campaign trail would be accepted because of his status, rather than refused because of mine.

A woman who has walked past many men’s unwanted comments that degrade more than compliment, and knew it could become worse if only I said no or stop or insisted on respect. A woman who doesn’t feel safe in her neighborhood or workplace or on streets, and not only at night, because men, whether a few or many, present a sexual threat.

A woman whose woman friends tell story after story of growing up with harassment on the streets, at work, at the gym, in Carnival, in meetings, in churches, in mosques, in temples, in training programmes, outside of schools, inside of schools, in libraries, in ministers’ offices, in parties and in every other location.

Women whose stories are an angering tale of negotiating self-silencing and fear, speaking out and risk: those who said nothing and wished they could and did, those who spoke back and had abuse or a bottle thrown back at them, those who cuss out those specific men knowing that they were borrowing from the energy required to cuss out more tomorrow.

Women who are called ‘lesbian’, ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’ repeatedly, as an insult, as part of a threat, as a consequence of dismissing unwanted advances, from men they know and complete strangers. Women whose stories abounded everywhere but in the press, for more than a few days, though those stories occur every single day.  Women who were not yet women when they began to have these stories to tell.

As that woman, I write with everything women feel, knowing another one of us is being wronged in ways with which we are too familiar. All emotions are here. Sorrow that one time won’t be your first or last. Anger that you are not the first or last. Anger at the complicity of men and their failure to collectively break the bro code, to say no to all forms of sexism and sexual harassment that harm women and deny that harm.

Men’s collective and public failure to acknowledge the normalcy of predatory masculinity allows so many to pretend, with insistence, authority and pride, they don’t know the difference between harassment and compliment, between unwanted and chosen. I despair at their denial of rape culture in all its forms, playing it down as unreal because it’s an inconvenient truth.

I am sorry and angry that you had to be brave, that you had to get angry, that you had to protect yourself because your society fails to protect women. You are a fighter, though you should not have to be simply to walk on the streets. You are an example to all fearful young women I tell to speak out and tell their harassers to stop, though you shouldn’t have to shame men for their violence, knowing that even more around you are secure in their impunity.

You were right to cuss those men hard, loud and stink, though the cuss out is really, rightly, for the whole society. You don’t have to be a daughter or wife to deserve respect. You are a person, with your own honour and you don’t have to business about whose bad behaviour that checks. But, you know all that already. We all do.

You are right to think that your story will make little difference to legislators, policy-makers, police officers and more, for sexual and street harassment will remain an unprosecuted and pervasive reality.  You are right to simply want to be left to walk free. All I can say, young sister, is that you owe shame, silence, respectability and fear nothing. And, know, lioness, that you are not alone.

Post 196. LGBT Hinduism.

When one of Trinidad and Tobago’s best known contemporary authors, Shani Mootoo, was reading from her work at Alice Yard in Woodbrook, she expressed amazement that the word ‘lesbian’ was now being said openly in Trinidad, in a way she never imagined when she left for Canada all those years ago. The audience promptly affirmed, collectively shouting ‘lesbian!’ at the urging of Vahni Capildeo, a younger Indo-Trinidadian woman living in the UK, and author of several published collections of poetry.

While the readings continued, I reflected on the many incremental efforts that make such major shifts occur, almost without us noticing. And I wondered what a student might examine if she or he had to try to document the causes of such change. To what extent would focus be on the work of LBGT organisations which have been systematically nudging the public toward acknowledging their claims to human rights, equality and freedom from discrimination? To what extent would the decade of debate over the Draft National Gender Policy, and advocacy led by the women’s movement, explain wider discussion of homosexuality? To what extent is it the impact of global and regional advocacy or US popular culture? How much is from younger generations just living as they choose?

Someone once asked me why my column talks about lesbians all the time. It doesn’t of course, but I also deliberately place the presence and realities of those women who remain unjustly silenced and criminalized into the public domain.  So, yes, the word lesbian occupies more space in national press than it would have otherwise. In a small way, this normalizes the kinds of citizens who continue to hope they can be accepted for who they are. The citizens who should be safe to discuss their lives and loves just as much as their responsibilities for care of parents or their dissatisfaction with that new crumbly Crix, or, come election time, who they go put.

It was one of those moments of opening and occupying at the NCIC’s Divali Nagar compound on Saturday. How amazing to hear a new generation quoting religious texts to justify anti-homophobic Hinduism, to learn from Krystal Ghisyawan’s research on lesbian women’s desires for a sense of safety in their families and nation, and to watch Shalini Seereeram talk about representing women’s intimacies in art and the risks she takes in being true to her vision of the world. This panel could never be found fifteen years ago when I was searching for it. I wondered how and when such Hindu feminism had found its Caribbean footing.

Enlargened by those watching the live online broadcast and asking questions via Facebook, we heard about a sruti paradigm in Hindu theology which focuses on the eternal and is unconcerned about sexuality and gender, female incarnations of male deities like Vishnu, and bodily transformations from one sex to another, like Arjun becoming temporarily female to experience Krishna’s love, or Sikhandini honoring her bride’s wishes by becoming male. And how these, not Sita’s chastity, influenced women’s claims to LGBT, Hindu, Indian and Trinidadian identities as all parts of a right to be.

Like Pandita Indrani Rampersad’s theological support for same sex marriage when other religious groups quote scripture to reproduce prejudicial legislation, this gathering, titled ‘Queerying Hinduism’ and led by young married couple, Aneela Bhagwat and Arvind Singh of the Centre for Indic Studies, was another small step transforming the space, language and solidarities available to and beyond lesbian Indo-Caribbean women.

I thought of Shani Mootoo, acclimatizing to the fact that engagements with sexuality and gender have moved outside of fiction. And, I wanted this column to be its own moment, tracing and placing into public record the Indo-Caribbean feminisms now inspiring me.

‘Why aren’t the older heads here?, someone asked. But, more important was the circle of young women present, without judgment, with laughter, with pride, as I never imagined I’d see.

Check out the Centre for Indic Studies on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/centreforindicstudies.

Post 170.

After rainy season, Ziya, her Amerindian godmother and I are going to roam the country taking selfies. Also taking the practice of being ‘independent ladies’ seriously, we are stopping at sites where colonial names replaced Amerindian ones and bad ass posing next to those signs with the little remembered Amerindian ones held high. Why?

I had wanted to give Zi a map of the country with as many of the original names as possible, replacing the Spanish, French, British and other names that were imposed through conquest. I wanted her to see her belonging beyond its colonial representation. To understand that this place where the contemporary meaning of ‘dougla’ was invented and could be positively claimed, only existed through the historical meeting of Indians and Africans on once indigenous people’s lands.

That those names have disappeared from our knowledge remains a colonizing act, one claimed as our right at the birth of our independent nation, one for which we remain responsible today.

Because that map doesn’t exist, Zi, her godmother and I were going to make it ourselves, not as a flat, sepia etching as if Amerindians only existed in the past, but as if they continue to live and breathe in the making of Zi’s own memories. For how does teaching an Indian-African mixed girl to connect her navel string to the Mother Trinidad and Tobago of her indigenous godmother enable her to love here differently?

If she became Prime Minister, might she value Parliament’s grounds more for its Amerindian rather than Westminster heritage? If she became a judge, how would she adjudicate future Warao land claims?  As a citizen thinking about highway development, how would she understand the significance of the skeleton found in Banwari Trace being known as the “Mother of the Caribbean”?

Planning this decolonizing adventure, I’ve been reflecting on Eric William’s words that there is no Mother Africa nor India, England, China, Syria or Lebanon, only Mother Trinidad and Tobago, an Amerindian Mother still not called by her original woman’s name.

And, in questioning Mother Trinidad and Tobago’s genesis as conceived by the men who doctored her birth, I’ve also been reflecting on who Mother Trinidad and Tobago has been allowed to be by those who since ruled.

Independent Mother Trinidad and Tobago hasn’t been allowed to be lesbian, for example, which is why women’s desire for other women is criminalized, not since colonial times, but from as late as 1986 when the jackets in Parliament decided that the sole purpose of this Mother’s sexuality was to service a mister or face a jail.

And, except for between 2010 and the present, Mother Trinidad and Tobago has been dominated by men, mostly elite, mostly African and Indian, mostly against their Mother championing too much feminism. So, from 1956 to today, Mother Trinidad and Tobago continues to end up in public hospitals from unsafe abortions along with thousands of other women.  Even with a grandmother holding prime ministerial power, Mother Trinidad and Tobago can’t yet get a gender policy approved or sexual orientation explicitly protected in the Equal Opportunities Act or reproductive rights.

In a little girl’s reconceiving of Mother Trinidad and Tobago on more feminist, more indigenous terms, for she may have only one mother, but she has a godmother too, in telling her that being an independent lady isn’t about your relationship to men and money, but to emancipation, and in making selfies that frame all this in Ziya’s inherited mix, you’ll be surprised at the political potential for the young to imaginatively play with the power of self-definition, even in relation to citizenship.