Post 239.

Organised by Christina Lewis, the first International Women’s Day march in Trinidad was held in 1958 . This year’s IWD march, which will be held tomorrow, almost sixty years later, speaks to continued work over these decades to make gender equality and equity, and women’s rights, a reality.

Come to the Savannah, opposite Whitehall, from 3pm tomorrow, and see a new generation of young women and men, from organisations as diverse as Womantra and the National Council of Indian Culture Youth Arm, take their turn in this long history.

The years between 1958 and now were not perfect for the women’s movement, and the women who continued the struggle were their own fallible and imperfect beings, but their commitment to a vision for the world, that was larger than the ups and downs of both patriarchy and collective efforts to resist it, was real.

Roberta Clarke, a feminist foremother to this younger generation, like so many other women, observed: “I remember when IWD was a handful of women marching (single file) in Woodford Square in Trinidad. We felt compelled to be visibly commemorating the day though we perhaps internally and silently wondered at its impact. Praises to CAFRA (the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action), Working Women, WINAD, DAWN (Development Alternatives for a New Era), the National Union of Domestic Employees and so many others”.

Many won’t know of or remember these organisations, but without them we wouldn’t be marching tomorrow, because, for a baton to be passed on, it has to be carried. We are supported by the Office of the Prime Minister (Gender and Child Affairs), which is the legacy of a global women’s movement pressing states to create a bureau that would advance gender justice, with the first being established in Jamaica in 1975. And, help coordinating simultaneous marches on Saturday across five Caribbean countries was provided by the Caribbean office of UN Women, itself a creation of a visionary women’s movement. Even the IGDS, which could bring the kind of support that universities should provide to social movements, is a result of twenty four years of feminist women and men labouring so we could have the resources, experience and fearlessness we do today.

My first IWD March was in the mid-1990s, just when the world and its governments were being galvanized by the Beijing World Conference on Women. There were hundreds in the marches in those years, with state branches such as the police and defense force represented, Muslim women’s associations and women leaders in their communities; men against violence against women (MAVAW); and towering figures such as Joan Yuille-Williams marching right next to Hazel Brown and the women of the ‘Network’.

I was younger and more fiery then, always buffing the gender bureau for doing too little. Time has taught me greater appreciation for those years, and the challenges which ministries of gender across the region face in being a feminist voice within the state, actively pressing against the status quo to end gender-based violence, transform our notions of manhood and womanhood, and insist there cannot be development for all, while sexism, homophobia and their dehumanizing effects on women and men persist.

This year’s march is in solidarity with the Life in Leggings movement, started by two young Barbadian women, to break silences around sexual violence. It is in solidarity with the goal of  equal pay for work of equal value, equity in terms of women and men’s participation and leadership in business and politics, and women’s economic empowerment. It is also in solidarity with the issues each of us sees as a denial of women’s rights and the solutions we want to see implemented.

We are inviting the nation’s religious, sports, youth, school, cultural and other groups; families and communities traumatized by the murder of girls and women in their midst; and individuals, who want to add to the people power we need, to “bring your message and come!” Women’s rights are everyone’s responsibility and this march is to gather our strength to boldly pursue changes we need.

Over years, I’ve learned that every effort does count, and you will be surprised who notices and feels less alone. I’ve learned to work across our differences, including with the state, for we need every ally we can get.

Tomorrow, a coalition of almost twenty organisations is giving momentum to another generation. Join us from across the nation. Together, we can make the future better for girls and women.

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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 228.

Almost forty years ago, Audre Lorde wrote, “we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and still we will be no less afraid”. Around the region today, women are posting sexual harassment, abuse and assault survival stories as part of the #lifeinleggings movement, precisely to overcome that silencing and fear.

The hashtag and postings were started by Barbadian women Ronelle King and Allyson Benn to highlight the pervasiveness of sexual violence. Can any of us say that we don’t know one woman who has experienced such threat, fear, harm and denial of choice, possibly many times?

They linked their initiative to Barbados’ 50th independence and, therefore, to the impossibility of ‘development’ without also ending gender inequalities. Caribbean states have paid scant attention to the realities of rape culture while reframing twenty years of lip service into a story of “too much focus on women”. Yet, the courage it takes to share these stories suggests that silencing remains more dominant than safe space for women’s truths about their relationships, families, communities and nation.

Breaking these silences remains a risk. Families are invested in hiding stories of sexual predation, telling women that it happened in the past or that it’s more important to just keep peace. People respond that, somehow, you must have looked for that because of your clothes, your job or smile. Others’ trauma at hearing what happened to you has to be managed, sometimes making it easier to say nothing. It’s common to not be believed or to be blamed or seen as bringing down shame or wanting attention or, worse, as a joke.

Now isn’t the time to say not all men rape, assault or harass. Women are not accusing all men, they are simply no longer hiding what actually happened to them. Women are not responsible for protecting themselves, for ‘men don’t molest decent girls’. These stories begin when we are children and modesty provides no safety. Women don’t want men’s protection, we want their solidarity. There’s one message that can change women’s #lifeinleggings, and that is that men’s sexual self-responsibility has no excuses.

From Bajan politicians to Guyanese indigenous women to Jamaican reggae singers to Trinidadian university educators to policewomen in St. Vincent to disabled girls across the region, every kind of Caribbean woman has stories. Imagine what it means when education, class privilege, fame, age, ethnicity or profession makes no difference?

Audre Lorde has written, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you”. Almost forty years later, in support of #lifeinleggings, Tonya Haynes, in the Caribbean feminist blog, Code Red for Gender Justice, wrote,

“Women broke every silence. We spoke of street harassment: girl, yuh pussy fat! Principals who made no room for comprehensive sexuality education but slut-shamed girls who were themselves sexually abused. Rape by current and former partners. Years of sexual abuse by fathers, step-fathers, uncles, cousins. Stories of men who told us that they’re waiting for our four-year-old daughters to grow up. Men who offered jobs or rides or food or protection only to demand sex. Only to split our bodies open when we refused. Men who raped us because we are lesbian, because we are women, because we are girls, because they could. We exploded every myth about how good girls and good women are protected from this violence. That good men will protect us.  That all we have to do is call in our squad of brothers and uncles and fathers. We asked, and who will women and girls call when our fathers and brothers and uncles assault them? We affirmed that asking men to protect us from male violence is not freedom. All men benefit from male privilege and unequal relations of gender which disadvantage and devalue women and girls. We demand autonomy not protection! We split this island open for every woman and girl who has had her body split open. We split this island open and let all the secrets fall out”.

If you want to break your own silences, there is a #lifeinleggings gathering, on Saturday from 4-6pm, at the Big Black Box on Murray Street in Woodbrook. Go. Listen. Share. Let all our own islands’ secrets fall out.