Post 298.

The Prime Minister has finally apologized for the PNM’s Family Day debacle. Unfortunately, in this being made a Hindu issue, with apologies to the Hindu community, all and sundry have missed the broader injuries.

Overzealousness from the newly expanded Tabaquite base and collective enjoyment of violent picong by the wider, more established base led to this tangled web.

It’s an interesting example of the complexities of traditionally Indian and UNC constituencies changing party loyalty, and reflects deep disregard and disgust for the UNC amongst those willing to turn against the hierarchy that was once their own.

Indeed, the scene was a premier example of pre-election gutter politics, which is why it was received as uproarious bacchanal among the PNM and high-handed terror among the UNC. If Tabaquite has turned against you, do you have any chance of winning Tunapuna?

Both Stuart Young and the PM could have avoided a wrong and strong approach. Meaning, a wrong happened, but shouldn’t persist with impunity and both acknowledgement and humility, or recognition and apology, were the right first instincts to have in communication with the nation.

Instead, trivializing the skit, as public statements by Womantra, CAFRA and the Hindu Women’s Organisation pointed out, reflected a failure to understand how rape culture, or treating sexual violence as normal fun by women asking for it, continues to powerfully and instinctively work in our society.

This doesn’t mean that individual men, such as the PM, are themselves being labeled rapists – which it seems only letter-writer Kevin Baldeosingh and ex-Central Bank Governor Jwala Rambarran – found it hysterically and stupidly important to say.

Rather, the term rape culture refers to the possibility of a scene where a women’s public disrobing can be made into an acceptable show of political power, and many not see how profoundly predatory that is.

This is standard stuff in tribal politics, so well entrenched that we don’t think of it explicitly. In inter-ethnic, cross-caste and multi-national conflicts, it’s the conquering of ‘their’ women that are the signs of triumph, for women remain objects of ownership and exchange, and controlling them remains a sign of man power and status.

At the same time, the nation is considered to be feminine, under rightful masculine or at least patriarchal authority, so the wider symbolism was not only of conquering UNC bodies, but also the body of the nation one constituency at a time, rescuing it from potentially becoming too Indian of the wrong kind.

In the discomfort of seeing women’s disrobing as political fun, its religious and racial marking was clear, but its not just an Indian or Hindu or UNC insult, and treating it this way divides women along racial, religious and political lines.

These wider implications seem to have missed the PM and the party. There was also the discomfort of seeing party faithful depicted as gorillas, which is unimaginably racist, and shouldn’t happen with impunity either, but that injury has disappeared from the narrative entirely and unfortunately, but conveniently.

The UNC and Kamla Persad-Bissessar seized on this issue as an opportunity to rally their base, and were right to do so. The skit was meant to directly symbolize a public dress down of Persad-Bissessar, as the most visible and vilified Indian woman in the nation, and the stripping of other Indian, Hindu and UNC women from these identities in order for them to become truly PNM through replacement of an obsolete yellow sari by the modernity of a red t-shirt.

Underneath it all must also have been a realization that the UNC is imploding or at least bleeding from within, and the protest was necessary to show morally respectable leadership and resilient political power, covering what should be internal party worry, for if ex-UNC Indians will turn against still-UNC Indians so publicly, and if Beetham will rather flood as PNM, despite their own disgust, than go yellow at the ballot-box, where will votes come from in 2020?

So, as the world turns, the PM is yet again denying he is a rapist, while being clueless about rape culture. He’s playing the ground war in placating Hindus while the UNC is rallying the Hinduvata and broader race-baited ire for whatever mileage it can offer, especially in the face of the SDMS’ grumpy withholding of support.

And, the issues of how women are seen, included and represented in public life, as shaped by the tangled web of sexism, racism and violence, yet again make front page, though nothing in Trinidad and Tobago appears about to change.

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Post 229.

If I could wish on a December super moon, large and bright enough to grant both Christmas requests and New Year resolutions, I’d wish for a Trinidad and Tobago where I didn’t have to write so repeatedly about sexual violence.

I’d lift spirits with a story of Ziya discovering Queen Latifah and Monie Love’s 1989 feminist hit, ‘Ladies First’, and it rolling on repeat through this week’s traffic while she excessively bops her neck and spits like they do, “Some think that we can’t flow (can’t flow)/ Stereotypes, they got to go (got to go)”.

It’s all in that song. Opening shots of women rebels like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis and a young Winnie Mandela. ‘Ain’t I a Woman’, they would ask, and don’t I deserve every right due to me, every moment of equality and every experience of unthreatened freedom? Later, a chorus follows that flips ‘ladies first’ into reverse, from mere precious chivalry to women exercising self-defining political and lyrical power.

The video backdrop is a bombed-out housing project which, when we cut to BBC world radio, mixes straight to breaking images of a bombed-out Aleppo. Queen La foregrounds news footage of armed struggle against apartheid in South Africa. I show Zi Google images of children on the other side of the world so that she can make sense of today’s news.

Truth is, I haven’t yet figured out how to script for what’s present and here. After remembering the names of 47 women killed this year, at last Saturday’s Life in Leggings gathering, I returned home feeling despair. Ziya knows about patriarchy, simplified as ‘when men think they are more powerful than women’, but I don’t have adequate language to talk to her about why the flow of some women’s lives is abruptly stopped or how much longer it will take to end stereotypes that got to go.

The message to girls is to learn to protect themselves, but how to explain why they are so vulnerable to sexual harm, and why self-defense classes are as much a solution as Aleppo’s destruction.

TTPS report that, in 2015, there were 180 female rape victims under eighteen years old plus 109 over eighteen. Officially classified as ‘rape’, though indicating a different kind of vulnerability, particularly without proper sex education in schools, sex with females 14-16 years old accounted for 137 cases while sex with females under 14 years old accounted for 112 cases. That was last year alone, and only rape cases that reached the police. The last thing those girls need to be asked is, why didn’t you fight back, like an out of timing tune whose refrain is, what more could you have done to stop this happening to you.

In war-free T and T, I’m clear about which lyrics to flip. The first is that girls and women have personal responsibility for our safety. No. We do not open ourselves up to attack anytime. Sex crimes are the responsibility of the attacker, whether it happens at home by someone a girl knows or on in public by a stranger. Sexual violence is neither normal nor inevitable. It is not ‘just the way things are’. Sexuality spliced with everyday violence is fundamentally a sign of things not being as they should be.

This creates rape culture, where gender-based violence is sexualized, and where there is pervasive and passive acceptance of female vulnerability, victim-blaming and hyper-masculinity.

Verse after verse, voice after voice, we must hold government’s accountable, whether in relation to the never-approved national gender policy or in relation to the never implemented National Strategic Action Plan on Gender Based and Sexual Violence. Back-up voices must pitch for police and judiciary accountability, and successful prosecution of the majority of cases, stopping in its tracks such repetitive impunity.

In the dark-night sky that will usher in a new year, enough stars will be visible for every one of these wishes, though all they really require is state and social will. When Zi asks, why violence against women, why Aleppo, and I turn off the radio, not knowing exactly what to say, you’ll understand why some mornings I turn up the volume and set ‘Ladies First’ on replay.

Post 226. RED CARD RAPE CULTURE.

UWI’s responsibility is to transform the Caribbean by nurturing students’ commitment to fairness, justice, non-violence and sustainability. Young men have as much role as young women in creating gender equality and ending cultures of domination founded on sexism and homophobia. Indeed, this is my answer to the oft-asked question, ‘What about the men?’

Men have power to end violence against women at the staggering rates at which it occurs, just as they have responsibility to collectively organize to transform masculinities that create risk in boys and men’s lives. Young men have the opportunity to define their own identities by different ideals from those of past generations, creating future Caribbean male leaders willing to exchange the perks of privilege for the politics of justice for all, and a legacy in which women’s rights are never left behind.

Such commitment requires social movements that challenge the status quo and its tolerance for inequitable social norms. It requires role models and collective reward for positive change, thus changing young men’s options, solidarities, strategies and dreams.

Boys are now growing up conscious of themselves as gendered beings because of conversations about womanhood and manhood which feminism introduced into contemporary culture. This means that there’s potential among young men still working out their truths and transformations against educational advancements of young women and, yet, resilience of sexual violence against them. Such contradictions mark a cultural crossroads, and chance for young men to strike out directions that lead to dead ends.

Last Friday, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, St. Augustine Campus, collaborated with the young men of the dorm, Canada Hall, to give young men a non-judgmental space to imagine a world without sexual violence against women. ‘Red Card Rape Culture’ wasn’t just a workshop with male students from ten Caribbean countries, or a hashtag that could go viral, it was a metaphor for men’s power to refuse the impunity of such violence. For, the field could never be level with such pervasive foul play, and their best selves would never let things run that way.

Rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence is glamorized, trivialized and excused in media and popular culture, leaving no guarantees for women regarding freedom from objectification of their bodies, disregard for their rights, unwanted advances, dehumanization or male domination. It’s the imposition of what men want and how they want it on girls and women.

Given that this is one of the issues most raised by their young, female peers, International Men’s Day, commemorated on November 19th, provided an ideal moment to meet young men’s needs for politically-progressive mentorship and to encourage their contributions to movement-building.

The workshop tackled beliefs, blame, consent, shaming and normalization. It went through a range of statements that included: “There are situations when a girl says no but she means yes”, “Rapists think differently from other men”, “It is a woman’s responsibility to not get raped”, “It’s wrong to lead him on and when he is ready… say “no””, “She sent me pics. She should have known I would share it”, “Nothing wrong with lyrics from songs like Kick Een She Back Door”, and “Women bring out a part in men that they cannot control.”

Young men could ‘red card’ the statements they disagreed with, ‘yellow card’ those they were not sure about, and ‘green card’ those they considered right. They could see each other doing it, noting when they shared views or differed, and observing both consensus and individual resistance. At the end, they wrote their own counter-messages. Some of these were: “A Man Is Like A Taxi Driver, He Knows When To Stop”, “Women Should Not Live In Fear, How She’s Dressed Does Not Mean Yes”, “If She Says No, Get Up and Go”, and “No Doesn’t Mean Yes”.

For International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, commemorated today, these statements are now on social media as memes and across the campus as posters, giving these young men’s words visibility, as part of transforming the kinds of commitments UWI men articulate as ideal.

End violence. Empower women and men to create gender equality. Transform our Caribbean future. #redcardrapeculture.

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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