Post 391.

As a young woman entering Caribbean feminism in the 1990s, I was inspired and guided by the Trinidad and Tobago chapter of the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA TT). I learned as much from listening and watching these sharp, wise and conscious Caribbean women as I did from university. They weren’t easy, but those rose coloured days are full of memories of seemingly-older women gnashing at oppressive relations just as much as sharing a laugh, perhaps as a survival strategy, over the foolishness of it all. 

They loved the ‘tea parties’ I found quaint, believed in the power of letters to the editor, were firm that women’s groups worth their salt were grounded in paid membership and active members, and held the broad aspiration of justice for women and men everywhere. 

Conversations included global struggles, labour struggles and women’s struggles. There were often cross-ethnic conversations with differences in experience and opinion, and they navigated a slew of strong personalities that didn’t always get along, often debated and even disagreed, but were highly protective of each other. I learned the basic decency of this feminist ethic of refusing to attack each other publicly the way that men do. I saw both their tensions and undercurrents, and commitment to collaboration through it all.  

From 2003 to 2016, Tara Ramoutar was National Representative of the TT chapter of CAFRA. This column honours her contribution to Caribbean feminist movement-building.  A small, sharply astute and fiery woman, I admired her quiet leadership, her quick movements and her ready laughter. 

Tara’s family grew cane, rice and garden vegetables. Her father would listen to parliamentary debates on the radio, and they would discuss everything from politics to sports. It highlights the paucity of stereotypes that insufficiently recognise how rural and agricultural Indian families nurtured children’s vociferousness and challenge to injustice, and supported Indian daughters’ participation in Black Power and labour movements in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Tara tells a story of a march from Paramount Building in San Fernando, in March 1974 around 10 o’clock. Instead of putting on her school uniform, she told her mother she was going to join the OWTU, ending up directly facing a barrage of policemen with shields, bayonets and tear gas, and getting home near night. Imagine secondary school girls choosing to march with workers, and parents accepting a daughter so outspoken against authority. 

In the 1970s, Tara began working with the Transport and Industrial Workers’ Union, and developed a consciousness of women workers’ struggles with low wages from local businesses and factories, from Bata to Neal and Massy car plant, Amalgamated Industries, and other companies long closed. Women were encouraged to become shop stewards, branch presidents, and treasurers in the union, building their sense of strength to end poverty, violence and inequity. Shaffira Hosein, past shop steward with the Bank and General Workers’ Union and CAFRA member, tells a similar story of the close networks among union and feminist movements.  

From there, Tara joined Concerned Women for Progress, formed by such women as Patricia Mohmmed, Pat Bynoe, Rhoda Reddock, Gaietry Pargass, Carol Gobin, Cathy Shepherd and Linda Rajpaul, which highlighted issues facing women farmers, and women’s health and reproductive rights, and which held the first forum on rape. With women like Cynthia Reddock, Tara helped to form the Consumer Protection Movement, focusing on concerns such as food prices, and helping to write its constitution. She was in the Cuba Friendship Association with Michael Als, James Millette, and Vincent Cabera. 

By the time CAFRA was founded in 1985, first coordinated by Rawwida Baksh, structural adjustment was crippling Caribbean industries, workers and women. Mentored by Cathy Shepherd at CAFRA TT, Tara went on to be the small-built Indian woman I saw at the helm throughout many of my early feminist years. 

In a 2014 interview on IGDS’ YouTube page, Tara called for us to continue conversation with each other directly, in the way that once strengthened and consolidated women’s groups and which, despite or perhaps because of social media, we need more than ever today. 

For her, CAFRA’s work is also to continue to build consciousness in women so they can chart their own course and never be afraid of anything.  

Women’s contribution to social movements is often forgotten, and many can’t name women like Tara, or anticipate histories and politics like hers. Her contribution is vivid in my memory, and remembering contributes to our multi-ethnic legacy. 

Tara Ramoutar, comrade and sister in struggle, please accept my heartfelt respect. 

Postscript.

Tara passed away on Saturday 19 September 2020. I was lucky to visit her, with with Rhoda Reddock, on Friday 11 September when she was sitting up, recognising us and chatting happily, with familiar brightness in her eyes. May she rest in peace.

In response to this column, Alissa Trotz sent me these two pieces from the In the Diaspora column. The first on another working-class, Indo-Caribbean woman, Basmattee “Desiree” Dharamlall, who crossed boundaries of all kinds in her life. And, the second on the revolutionary and healing promise of courtesy, a nearly forgotten skill in a time of social media, and one with which I’m sure a woman like Tara would agree.

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Post 310.

It was entirely an old familiarity, recalled by the smell of airplane fuel in morning heat. You know when a drifting scent or shade of light suddenly puts both your feet back in the past?

As I crossed Piarco’s tarmac, I glanced up into the brightness and the yellow-painted side of the airport made me look twice, the first time mistakenly seeing a waving gallery and, the second time, vividly remembering the old one, from the old airport, as if it was there in front of me. I breathed, feeling goosebumps, maybe because of the hot wind blowing along my arms or from being caught momentarily convinced by this mirage.

As a child, I’d marvel at so many beloved families and friends crowding that second-floor verandah to share an experience of travel, to emotionally wave at their loved ones until they disappeared through the plane door, or excitedly identify them from the line of rumpled travelers as soon as they disembarked.

Something in the new airport design, whether for modernization, security or cost-cutting, lost sight of this Caribbean custom or never understood or valued ordinary Caribbean cultural expressions of connection and community, and the narrow, barricaded gate at which one now says quick goodbyes has shut such a space for sharing into the past.

I was coming home from commemorating the 25th anniversary of The UWI’s Institute for Gender and Development Studies on the Cave Hill campus in Barbados. The three founding professors of the IGDS, Patricia Mohammed, Rhoda Reddock and Eudine Barriteau were being honoured, and I sat at the conference with graduate students who, in just two years’ time, would never have these Caribbean feminist foremothers on the campus with them. After nearly forty years, such passing of a generation that built scholarship, institutional strength and academic activism from scratch was the end of an era.

For twenty years on campus, I was under their wing, gaining invaluable guidance, compassion and protection. Looking through the shimmering above the tarmac, and blindly seeing a memory instead of the present, I thought about the past and what makes it live on.

These women tried to understand and value Caribbean customs and cultural practices, treated them like the true richness of theory and the deep wealth of scholarship and, in so doing, created a homegrown feminism that connected countries and generations in our region, crossing from one tarmac to another.

This homegrown Caribbean feminism’s head cornerstone was the one that the builder refused. It looked for what was ours, found the everyday ways ordinary people cared and created citizen coalitions, and built that into the design that my graduate students and I inherited.

The head cornerstone’s strength was its grounding in gendered analysis of the region and its realities; women’s rights histories and stories; mothers’ and grandmothers’, godmothers’ and aunties’ ways of raising up and nurturing; daughters’ aspirations to improve on the past; and the solidarities of male allies. None of these are yet taken seriously or valued in economics, social sciences and political theories in the Caribbean today.

Yet, somewhere, that window to our lives as they crisscross the Caribbean hasn’t disappeared. Twenty-five years on, in IGDS, it’s still here. Honouring these three women, I treasured the homegrown feminist foundation laid for us to remember to examine and empower the ways we make time and space for love, family, survival, connection and equality as well as the little traditions through which we recognize each others’ heart and humanity.

As I entered the airport’s cool interior, the past, present and future walked through with me. I thought about whether we educate both for Caribbean transformation as well as recognition of what most matters to Caribbean people, whether in terms of how we design our built environments or our social policies.

I thought about how few places teach another generation to understand, and protect from new ideas about modernization, foreign models or almighty profit, the spaces and practices that can be so easily relegated to obsolescence even when they have significance for care, connection and community. Now we get to decide what to keep.

Honouring the professors and the past would live on in our design for a future of Caribbean living and loving. For, one bright morning, the right hazy mix of scent and hue could fully return an old, familiar flutter of emotion and eagerness, along with nostalgia for what was simply deconstructed out of our collective memory.

It’s such an unnoticeable thing, the disappearance of that waving gallery.

 

Post 292.

Imagine your little one in a pre-school graduation. The room is decorated with sparkly “congratulations” signs and balloons. The children are fresh-faced and lovely.

Reading Rainbow Preschool from San Fernando has been doing this for 23 years. Ziya had a school celebration when she moved on, but it wasn’t Americanized, as is fashionable now, with gowns and caps and all.

Here, at my first time attending a formal ‘graduation’ of this kind, there weren’t any gowns, just lacy white dresses, socks and shoes for girls, and little boys in crisp white shirts, black pants and black ties. It was classic Caribbean propriety for children, the kind that makes respectable grandparents feel all is still right with the world.

I was there as a guest speaker, following in the footsteps of school principals Patricia Ramgoolam and Dr. Michael Dowlath, politicians such as Razia Ahmed and Gillian Lucky, and past Mayor Gerald Ferreira.

Sitting to my left was Reverend Joy Abdul-Mohan, who not only spoke at the first graduation, but who suggested the school motto: Do the best…to be the best.

On my right was boxing world champion Ria Ramnarine. Her story of pursuing martial arts as a young girl, despite family wishes, is legendary. In an excellent skit, little Ria pretended to knock out her opponent in the cutest way imaginable, with the whole room of parents beaming with pride and laughter. Later, her biography was recited while she received her gold belt.

One scene depicted a courthouse where lawyer Kamla Persad Bissessar, dressed in yellow, and Justice Paula Mae-Weekes, in robes, disciplined bad driver ‘Motilal Baboolal’. In other scenes, Shanntol Ince, paraolympic swimmer, and Jean Pierre, acted out their winning athletics, receiving awards while tiny presenters described their achievements.

For the past two years, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) has helped organize a march for International Women’s Day. Scene Three was this march for women’s rights, gender equality and an end to violence against women. There were about eight children who all received placards handed out by a teacher, encouraging their learning about protest for peace and justice.

The first march took place exactly sixty years ago in San Fernando. I knew that we were continuing its legacy, but I didn’t believe I’d ever see feminist struggles taught in pre-school. Tears kind of came to my eyes.

On stage, Reverend Joy and two IGDS faculty, Professor Rhoda Reddock and myself, were interviewed by, of course, little Akash Samaroo and Khamal Georges.

The children’s lines consisted of actual text from the press. The little girl, whose costuming made her look uncannily like me, recited March 2018 data on one in three women experiencing violence in their lifetime. She provided accurate analysis, focusing on gender and economic inequality and failure of services.

On stage, little Joy was dressed in her make-believe priest’s collar. Humorously, Reverend Joy herself looked exactly the same. I was won over by the idea of a preschool graduation all at once, if this is what they would be.

Children portrayed beauty queens, and iconic singers such as Daisy Voisin, Drupatee Ramgoonai and Calypso Rose. Impressively, ignoring homophobia, Michelle Lee Ahye was also honoured and adorably displayed by a girl with braids, and a flag for a cape, highlighting that women’s achievements really can most matter.

In my talk, I celebrated five other women whose steps we should also follow.

First, Anacoana. Haitian Taino queen and mother who fought the Spanish to her death. She was only 29 years old. Second, Queen Nanny of the Maroons, an Asante who escaped plantation slavery and is considered to have freed another thousand enslaved Africans in colonial Jamaica. Third, Claudia Jones, born in Belmont, the mother of Notting Hill Carnival, and so influential in the international Communist Party that she’s buried to immediately left of Karl Marx, Communism’s founder.

Fourth, Dr. Stella Abidh, the first Indo-Trinidadian woman to become a doctor despite Presbyterian clergy’s protestations against women’s advanced education. Her father was a unionist and County Council representative who supported her dream. Fifth, Ruth Seukeran, former San Fernando Councilor and political organizer whom few know was one of the speakers at the first international women’s day march, oranised by Christina Lewis and the Caribbean Women’s National Assembly, in 1958.

Pre-school education is more powerful than I credited, and the ideas more progressive than I’d ever hoped. Sparkly congratulations to pre-schools who put such love and commitment to making not only children and parents, but path-breaking women, honoured and proud.

Post 139.

Girl Guides Rock

Photo: Nikki Johnson

It was the Girl Guides who rocked the International Women’s Day (IWD) march, held on March 8 in Arima and organized by Ida le Blanc and the National Union of Domestic Employees (NUDE).

Under midday sun, these young women carried us forward on their songs. Caught up by their camaraderie, all I could see was them making the right steps to becoming the faces of future Caribbean feminisms.

An earlier generation of committed women’s rights advocates was there, women like Jacquie Burgess, Hazel Brown, Rhoda Reddock, Folade Mutota and others. Those younger than me, Marcus Kissoon of the Rape Crisis Society, long time reproductive rights activist Nicole Hendrickson, and UWI students Stephanie Leitch and Sommer Hunte, were in the intergenerational mix. Besides the women, there were men from the OWTU, Shiraz Khan representing Trinidad Unified Farmers Association, and more.

We were continuing the path cut by women like Daisy Crick and Elma Francois, Thelma Williams, considered the ‘mother’ of the OWTU, international socialist and pan-Africanist Claudia Jones, Christina Lewis, of the Caribbean Women’s National Assembly, who first started International Women’s Day commemorations in Trinidad in 1958, and Clotil Walcott, founder of NUDE.

These were women who knew that neither they, nor we, could get weary until labour held the reins of power, legislated the rules and wages that created decent conditions of employment, and transformed the kinds of injustice that affected all workers and especially women, unequal workers in their own homes, in other people’s homes and in the lowest paid sectors of the economy.

Fifty years after our first IWD march, commentators were proclaiming feminism’s demise. Once needed, now obsolete. Once outspoken, now silent. Once everywhere, now abandoned. Such ‘post-feminist’ premature ejaculations should have been kept zipped up. Around the region, my generation and those upcoming are unapologetic about diverse and critical feminist-movement building.

From Barbados, Tonya Haynes of Code Red for Gender Justice and CatchAFyah. Sherlina Nageer of the Red Thread Women: Crossroads Women’s Centre and Vidyaratha Kissoon of the International Resource Network, both working from Guyana. Malaika Brooks-Smith-Lowe of Groundation Grenada. Angeline Jackson of Quality of Citizenship and Tracy Robinson, an LGBT rights scholar-activist, both based in Jamaica. Kenita Placide of United and Strong, St. Lucia. Nikki Johnson of the OWTU in Trinidad. Our own activist teaching with students of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, UWI, St. Augustine. Local LGBT organizations like CAISO and Women’s Caucus.

Alissa Trotz in Toronto. Jahajee Sisters, with their cross-race, anti-violence work in New York. US based scholars like Angelique Nixon, working with communities in Haiti, while challenging sexism and homophobia. Caribbean feminist writers and artists from my generation are fire-starting through words, music and culture. We don’t just work in one organization, but across many kinds. And, we are more. Many more.

We are here. We are not afraid. Our numbers include men as our allies. Our feminisms are rooted in our legacies and in contemporary realities, as defined by the power of the World Bank, yes, but also by those domestic workers marching in Arima.

One day, politicians and Muslims will openly march with sex workers who come out of well-known brothels to demand their lesser-known rights.  One day, farmers and unionists will walk with lesbians, gays and transgender folks desiring equality, because the struggle for emancipation cannot end with inhumanity.

Generation with generation, in spirit and in solidarity, across race and across the region, those Girl Guides need to know that such politics is theirs to carry forward in their power to lead. One day, I hope we will add their names to this long march of history.