Post 463.

LAST WEEKEND, I chose Maya Cozier’s She Paradise over MovieTowne’s Hollywood blockbusters, determined to show cinemas that audiences want local films. It’s only when we fill the house to see our own productions that movie theatres will follow demand, offering showtimes over longer periods and in more locations. 

Endless numbers of our youth have never seen anyone who looks like them or anywhere that looks like their reality in a cinema, made gritty or beautiful, shown as larger than petty or painful and in ways that actually humanise, so that we look at each other with more understanding or compassion and a sense that each of us carries a complex story. 

We portray ourselves in music videos, but the majority are so stereotyped, they misrepresent as much as they show. We see ourselves on the news, but as success or tragedy, hardly in relation to everyday Trinidadian life.

By contrast, She Paradise focuses on impoverished and working class black and mixed women (two have Indian last names), from 17-year-old Sparkle, the film’s protagonist, to the crew of three dancers she joins in an attempt to use her youthful sexuality to put food on the table instead of cooking discarded vegetables from the market. 

Black and mixed Trinidadian women are predominantly hypersexualised in our region’s visual landscape. Less often do we see them as subjects, rather than objects, navigating these stereotypes and their own families, emotions, traumas and aspirations. 

Sparkle lives with her granddad, once a thriving goldsmith. She auditions for and then befriends the dance crew, seeking money, appeal and adulthood. She’s still inexperienced, however, and despite being warned about a local soca celebrity, believes that sex with him might have genuine and mutual intimacy. 

Instead, he rapes her one night at a party when drugs and alcohol make her nearly unconscious and, though she tries to fight back, she learns there’s little empathy for naïve teenage girls, those seeking to express and enjoy their sexuality or those becoming a woman among predatory men. Maya Cozier highlights these sexual politics poignantly; the other women in the dance crew were also raped or used and discarded, and had to learn to tough it out to survive. 

The women in this story are not perfect. They are in, what the band Freetown would describe as, their fully human form. Sparkle steals from her grandfather, but later promises to pay him back. He locks her out of the house one night, calling her a jamette, but his home remains her safe place in the world. Diamond, Shan and Mica protect her as they do each other, but also abandon her, creating a betrayal that stops Sparkle from wanting to go back. They are in control of lives that appear out of their control. 

Sparkle finds her erotic power, earning money she needs, but walks away from the nightlife of a dancer, though to what isn’t clear. She understands men will pay for sex and will provide enough for a car and apartment, dancers can earn more than they ever had before, and parties can be exciting, but she also discovers that none of it is as nice as she imagined it might be. 

Sparkle’s story is real. Across the Caribbean, mostly because they are poor, girls are trading their sexuality for survival. For them, as for Sparkle, there is power and pleasure as much as there is exploitation and vulnerability. 

All this reckoning is set to the film’s bad-gyal soundtrack, pumping with dancehall and soca music as its own aural narrative. Cozier’s camera also uses close-ups and movement to keep audiences connected. 

The film’s performances are believable, from Kimberly Crichton as Diamond, the hardened mother-figure of the sisterhood of women, Denisia Latchman as tough Shan with dancehall queen moves, Chelsey Rampersad as the softer Mica who fled family violence and whose bisexuality is fully accepted by her crew, and Onessa Nestor, who plays Sparkle and who comes of age in front of our eyes. Michael Cherrie, as Papa, creates as identifiable a character as one would expect from such an experienced actor. 

As a first, full-length feature by a young woman, She Paradise is ambitious. Cozier is a filmmaker with a future. Few were in the cinema, which was unfortunate because her film is hugely worth watching as a Caribbean viewer, perhaps out on a date night. It’s up to us to value the thrill of scenes and people that look like who and what we know, shown on a big screen.

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.

Post 225.

We must set our eye on the way ahead, even as horror holds us in the present at news of this week’s acid attack on Rachael Chadee. This February, two girls were sexually assaulted in secondary schools, and the wife of a police officer was threatened with rape and murder. Norma Holder was raped and killed returning from church. Asami Nagakiya was strangled. Rachael Sukdeo took to social media to escape assault. And, those were not the entirety of reports or incidences, just the ones that made headlines, just this month.

This trend signals that the major problem in our society occurs within the family. Under Reports of Domestic Violence Offences for 2015, which refer to offences committed against a spouse, child, any other person who is a member of the household or dependant, there were 15 murder/homicides, 38 cases of sexual abuse, 808 cases of assault by beating, 526 cases of threats and 62 cases of verbal abuse worth reporting to police, and 95 breaches of protection orders.

Generalised violence, but particularly sexualized violence, is in our homes, schools and streets, and if all women stopped flinging waist, it would make no difference. Until we acknowledge that men’s violence against each other and women is a men’s issue and a men’s movement-building issue, we will be in trouble.

What’s happening with boys and men, as victims and as perpetrators, is connected to what’s happening in terms of violence against women. The crisis of masculinity isn’t one of girls doing well in school, its one of the continued association between manhood, power and violence, starting at home.

The first problem is economic inequality, and the vulnerability to risk, insecurity and harm that it creates in women and men’s lives. The second issue is state failure to adequately address criminality, whether through schools, policing, social services, prisons or the courts. But, what gives these vulnerabilities and failures different meanings for women, men, girls and boys are the forms of manhood that are dominant, rewarded, tolerated and excused.

If you hear how we should be paying more attention to the murders of boys and men, as they occur in greater numbers, than the everyday, more invisible harm faced by women and girls, which is far more sexualized and includes murder, walk away. If you hear how the solution is men playing their rightful, leading roles in the family, church, schools and state, walk away. If recommendations prioritize more dominant men as role models or military boot camp or youth imprisonment, walk away. If you hear anyone framing the violence being experienced by boys and the violence being experienced by girls in terms of a battle of the sexes for attention and resources, walk away.

There is a single overarching issue at the heart of both and it is forms of manhood that idealise dominance, toxicity, authority and impunity. Their normality creates the context for more extreme forms of these qualities, which result in harm to both women and men, and widespread enactment of inhumane masculinities.

It will take decades of workshops, community trainings, counseling, fundraising, scholarships, marches, curriculum change, mentorship and skill building to challenge the deeply embedded toxicity of patriarchal rules. And, it cannot happen until men and women are willing to accept what’s at stake, which is challenge to male dominance and power. It’s a choice for men: a less violent society in which completely different masculine ideals underlie children’s gender socialization, or a hold on privilege and, with it, a continued status quo. And if religious and state leaders don’t wake up to their own complicity with such toxicity, they will continue to trade justice for respectability, while berating the rest of us for it no longer hitting home.

For the conversation about violence against women to not go cold, we need concrete deliverables and deadlines from a range of state officials.  They have the greatest power to implement policies, change protocols, provide resources, reach communities, and enact the solutions we propose.

Those solutions include gender training across local government, and gender policies for each Regional or City Corporation, gender-based violence curriculum for young people, and a targeted strategy at a new generation which needs different gender roles.