Entry 286.

Beyond the Bullet.

I met Caron Asgarali under the hot sun on International Women’s Day this year. We were standing amidst booths in Woodford Square when she told me her story of being shot in a robbery; the bullet shattering her jaw. Its path missed her heart, but near fatally pierced her soul. Such horror stories crisscross our landscape today, like terrible scars.

I glanced at her face while she spoke, seeing only an incredibly beautiful and courageous woman. Somewhere in a corner of my mind, I thought about how we associate beauty with flawlessness and perfection, until we meet those individuals who show us that it is far more a light that shines from within. It was a reminder to pay attention to and respect unexpected lessons.

Caron spoke with the gentleness of a lamb, but the fierceness of a lion and I imagined how I may never have had the privilege of meeting her. You never know which person next to you is the walking wounded or whose force of spirit can hold you rooted to the spot while all you do is listen. Maybe you have to feel it to know how humbling it can be to simply look someone in the eye.

I learned about her efforts to establish Project R.A.R.E. ‘Raising Awareness on the Ripple Effect of gun violence: promoting peace and building resilience’ is the longer title, and ‘transforming hurt into hope’ is her vision. I have a huge amount of respect for groups like this, led and sustained by citizens from across the country, who are individually committed to helping us all develop empathy, humility, forgiveness, respect, gratitude, and personal and community responsibility.

Connecting to her seemed to open a door to connecting with other survivors. On Monday, RARE organized a forum on gun violence at UTT. I came in just in time to hear the testimonies of Kyle Phillip of East Mucurapo Secondary School, and Jeremiah Ferguson of El Dorado Life Centre, run by Servol.

Both young men told stories of having family members shot at and killed. Kyle himself lost a cousin the night before his speech, and broke down at the microphone, his grief holding his audience still in their seats with its oppressive weight.

It’s such singular stories that pierce your heart because violence and its scars seem in our day and age to have become so ordinary. It’s worse to hear those stories from youth still in school uniform, and to understand that they can’t carry the future of the nation in their school bags if we callously break their spirit and strength.

“Guns are like cell phones in my community”, said Kyle. He described “serious peer pressure from youths in my community that are in my age bracket to get involved in that life”. It was clear that he knew that only education could get him out, though he was “not sure to be here tomorrow”.

“Even now a scratch bomb still sends me into a panic”, said Jeremiah. “The youth of this country are traumatized. The national as a whole is traumatized. It is almost like we are living in a war zone. Is this how a war zone feels?”

His advice is worth repeating: “Youth, if you want to lime on a block, make the library your block. If you want to steal, steal words from a dictionary. You will learn some new words and their meanings. If you want to kill, kill all your negative thoughts. We need change. We need to create opportunities for youth so they can choose other pathways. I lost my brother. Because of a Gun”.

We need to think about gun and gang violence not only as problems, but as solutions for many boys and men who want to access status, respect, money, brotherhood and other markers of real manhood. This is particularly true because poverty emasculates, creating both pressure and temptation to live and die by a gun in a glamourous and profitable, but dehumanizing and wasted life. The traditional association between manhood, toughness and authority, in which we are all still invested, is the real problem. It’s an ideal we teach which is also toxic to boys and men’s souls.

Until manhood becomes also about nurturing, care, emotions and equality, schools will churn our shooters who have found shortcuts to manhood and power, rather than brokenness and failure. Recognising this one day, we will have to forgive them as we forgive ourselves for not quietly listening to this humble truth.

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Post 277.

-1

I got home very late from work and ready to collapse only to find the bed under a low-hanging, tent-like sheet, apparently making a ‘fort’.

I deliberated whether, out of sheer nostalgia and love, to shuffle underneath for a night of claustrophobic, but cuddly sleep (the kind where there’s always a small, brown limb thrown across one’s neck), leaving the sheet at its angle about a foot from my head.

Or, whether to take it down because, while there was space for her, she being the size of Donkey to Shrek (me being Shrek), at least I wouldn’t die of suffocation while she sleeps peacefully and would be alive and breathing enough to risk her seven-year-old disappointment in the morning.

There are few adults who didn’t build ‘forts’ of some kind growing up. Obliging parents let us take sofa cushions, lean them against each other in squares and then spread sheets across, with the greatest of joys being crawling under there with books, toys, a flash light, friends or siblings, and those Chinese shrimp chips that expand when fried and taste like childhood bliss.

Childhood has changed. No children I know still play ‘elastic’, and those worldly girls of today look like you are describing a rotary dial phone, a wholly foreign thing none of them have seen, when you ask.

Yet, there are some things that remain consistent and, unfortunately, one of them is bullying. Still, we now think about it differently from before, and can help children grow into kinder, gentler human beings than we are, perhaps creating a more golden experience of growing up than what nostalgia allows us to recollect.

If you want to get a picture of what bullying looks like, at least in secondary schools, look up The Silver Lining Foundation’s just released Trinidad and Tobago School Climate Report on Bullying and Gender-Based Violence in Secondary Schools. Overseen by a team of young researchers and activists, 651 students from 20 schools were surveyed, with the majority of respondents being 13-16 years old.

The study is nationally generalizable so note that in the three months prior to the survey: 73% of students indicated they had been teased or harassed at least once; 24% indicated that they had been pushed or hit at least once; 40% indicated that their belongings were stolen or damaged, 29% were victims of sexually explicit taunts or advances; and 28% reported being inappropriately touched by another. Primarily, appearance, ability, and sexual orientation and gender expression were the most common causes of verbal teasing, harassment or intimidation.

What was just as disturbing was that these numbers were matched by students indicating that they had actively participated in teasing, harassment, stealing, pushing or hitting, threatening and sexual aggression. Boys were more likely to engage in bullying than girls, but also experienced verbal and physical bullying at slightly higher rates than girls who experienced greater sexual and cyber bullying. Boys’ experiences centered around attacks on their masculinity which targeted their sexuality or gender expression, and LBGT students experienced bullying at higher rates than others.

Significantly, 63% of students never or rarely reported incidents of bullying because they didn’t want to be seen as tell-tales, did not trust teachers, did not want bullying by teachers or peers to worsen, or reported and felt too little was done.

Now think back to children’s familiar instinct for creating ‘forts’ as part of play or over their bed. Their desire to construct safe spaces, whether from cushions at home or in terms of relationships with family, teachers and peers, continues as they grow into adolescence. Without options for feeling sheltered, and because bullying still exists, vulnerability can easily outweigh young bliss.

I stood tiredly at the bedroom door, my shadow crossing the sloping sheet, thinking of the dream that children could both feel and be safe. You understand now why I decided to leave her ‘fort’ in place.

Post 220.

There are many reasons why people don’t understand what sexual harassment looks like. First is widespread confusion about the difference between seduction and coercion, the old ‘she’s saying no but she really likes it’ interpretation.

Second is that we live in a world where women’s consent to men’s sexual advances is less important than men’s freedom to make those advances when, where and how they choose. Women all over the world, en masse, can attest to repeated, unwanted sexual advances they have experienced, from strangers on the street to those they know. In the end, shame and responsibility isn’t shouldered by those who roughshod over the boundary of respect, but by many women who then check themselves in an attempt to prevent it from happening again.

Third, the workplace, like most of the public sphere remains a masculine one where women may be talked to and about in sexualized ways even when their work has nothing to do with their vagina. It’s dehumanizing, meaning it reduces humans, in this case women, to their sexual value. It’s unprofessional, meaning it trivializes their status and identity as workers while they are on the job. This happens across the Caribbean, from Jamaica to St. Vincent to Trinidad to Guyana, and it is especially true in traditionally masculine fields such as politics, sports and the military.

Once, I was leading a research team collecting data on election campaigning. One minister, who barely knew me, walked up from behind and slid his hand into mine as I stood on the street with party activists who were canvassing the constituency. ‘I missed you, where have you been?’ he declared loudly, rubbing my hand in both of his own. In that second, I had many decisions to make, in front of everyone watching to see how I’d react. I pulled my hand back and said, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about’ and discreetly stepped away, but I was blue vex that I was put in that position of having to refuse and be polite. I didn’t care that this Minister was a powerful player and I didn’t need to cater to his ego to get ahead, having already earned three more degrees than he had. I was there as an experienced professional to do a job, not as some sexy female groupie.

Chris Gayle’s attacking shot to sports journalist Mel McLaughlin provides a similar example of sexual harassment. Both Gayle and McLaughlin were at work, on the cricket field. She clearly didn’t expect or appreciate being publicly hit on, then told, ‘Don’t blush, baby’, in front of the entire cricketing world. ‘I’m not blushing’, she clarified; a professional had to remind another professional that she was actually a professional, and that they were having a professional – not after work jokes – encounter in full view of millions.

Indeed, one commentator described the moment as Chris Gayle taking ‘shots on and off the field’, like McLaughlin was inviting a hit mid-wicket. Another described him as ‘amorous’ while she ‘scurries off with bright red cheeks’, embarrassed. And the comments ended with the view that “Mel is a strong and independent woman and might have enjoyed it’, but that this wasn’t what was needed on the cricket field. Only she didn’t look as if she enjoyed it. Though McLaughlin was reported to have told her boss she was uncomfortable, Gayle felt it was his right to decide that ‘no harm was done’. All this signals sexual harassment unrecognized.

Gayle was unapologetically apologetic, missing an opening to score as a regional icon by acknowledging his step out of crease. He lost an opportunity to send a message to Caribbean boys following his stardom that big men have a role in stopping sexual harassment, even as they come to understand it better, sometimes in difficult ways. He dropped the ball when he could have shown an example of ideal manhood as more than hyper-sexuality, as also self-reflection and responsibility. No surprise, this is a sportsman who posts, “If u don’t have a strip club at home, U ain’t a cricket ‘Player’”.

West Indians need to recognize sexual harassment when it exists. And, Gayle needs to know that predation and professionalism don’t mix.

For some other commentaries see:

http://www.amilcarsanatan.com/letter-to-chris-gayle/

http://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/commentary/20160106/editorial-churlish-chris-gayle-and-sexual-harassment#.Vo0MQ3GX9Cd.twitter

https://globalvoices.org/2016/01/07/could-cricketer-chris-gayles-gaffe-inspire-caribbean-men-to-man-up-and-know-how-to-behave/

 

 

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