Post 281.

For all its imperfections, the Guardian has been good to me. In 2012, Editor Judy Raymond offered to publish my diary about working motherhood. Since then, I’ve encountered many, mostly mothers, who were emboldened by someone writing about the quiet, isolated experiences and emotions that they have, but feared weren’t important or collective enough for public print.

Grandmothers have seemed to be my most regular readers. This often left me negotiating badass with good beti even while the radical example and words of older, wiser feminist foot soldiers, including those in hijab and those leading domestic worker unions, emboldened me.

I began in Features, yet my sense of citizenship often led my diary to political analysis and advocacy. Slowly, as Ziya grew, I had space to think about more than sleeplessness, breastfeeding, baby steps and birthdays. Like most women, including ones whose educational and occupational empowerment seems to set them to achieve everything women could want, I worried about being a good mother, making ends meet and managing my career. This continues, even with just one child, having had to live with the loss of not having more.

Yet, I rebelled, writing in 2014, “Some days you spend whole conversations on love and sex. Other days you connect ethically and emotionally with other women over delays in passing procurement legislation, the state failure and corruption that has allowed illegal quarrying, and the social and economic costs of badly planned urban development. When women resist because representation remains our right and responsibility, some days our diaries will say nothing about husbands or babies”.

Still, the column wasn’t not focused enough on governance, in the style of my long-time UWI mentor Prof Selwyn Ryan. Indeed, I was composing fictional creation-stories, delving into the deeply emotional art of Jabs such as Ronald and Sherry Alfred, and Fancy Indians like Rose and Lionel Jagessar, and still mulling over marriage, fatherhood, primary schooling, connection to nature, and love.

I thought hard about genre and experimented with writing. The form of a diary is so often associated with women’s private thoughts and feelings, held close and secret with a small symbolic lock. Bringing this genre into the public domain was a deliberate act against male-defined Op-Ed expectations which position the oil sector, the constitution and politics as the serious topics of the nation.

For most people, managing family life, feeling safe in their homes, and negotiating aspirations and disappointments matter most and are the most pressing issues in their lives. The diary moved from Features, taking these concerns with it, and challenging divisions between public and private, and their unequal value.

The form also built on historical examples of colonial logs, and journals such as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which I read as a graduate student, but with substance grounded in emancipatory, Caribbean feminist observations and Political Leader-less, worker and citizen people-power.

Readers wrote to me, wondering if I was a PMN, a UNC, a COP, a knife and fork Indian, too Indian, and too feminist. Amidst calling for an end to child marriage, programmes to end violence against women, and policies to protect women workers from sexual harassment, I wrote twenty columns in which lesbians were named as part of the nation and region, precisely because no one else would, because every woman matters, not just the ones that meet patriarchal expectations, and because these women, who were not allowed to exist in law, would here defiantly exist in public record as having the right to be.

I learned that to write a diary, which wrestles with life, love, rights and justice, is to risk repetitive, aggressive attack. I owe Editor Shelly Dass public thanks for skillfully stopping Kevin Baldeosingh from using the Guardian to legitimize his bizarre and obsessive stalking of me in the press, always to harm.

I’ve grown, as has Ziya, in these pages. I’ve learned to look around the landscape, appreciating all its heartfelt and difficult growing pains, like my own, in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Diary of a Mothering Worker departs from the Guardian, but will continue to walk good, gratefully carrying the lessons from Guardian and its readers’ years of nurturing wrapped in its jahajin bundle.

 

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Post 269.

Carnival has always been about negotiation of gendered and sexual power. Think of jamettes long confrontation with middle-class and religious expectations of respectability. Think of a cross-dressing mas tradition long enabling performance of transgressive identities.

The charge has historically been directed at women ‘wining like that’ with century after century of commentators repetitively raging about (women’s) vulgarity and the potential for bam bam to make all social order bend over.

Ignoring the hysteria of such emasculated morality, women increasingly came together in movements tens of thousands strong to declare a desire for sexual freedom and pleasure, and an expectation of state responsibility for protection of these, as ‘rights’.

Commentators who bemoaned Carnival’s loss of political punch completely misread decades of bikini mas because they were not the mouth-piece for Afro-Trinidadian working class men in the tradition of pan and calypso. They missed the significance of year after year of multi-class and multi-ethnic bands of bubblicious women in agreement about such rights as a modern Caribbean feminist politics predating ‘Slutwalks’, ‘Life in Leggings’ or ‘Me Too’ responses to sexual harassment.

‘Carnival is woman’ on the one hand was about commodifying and marketing women’s bodies as the nation’s economic stimulus package, but on the other it marked a decisive shift to a contemporary social order in which jamette resistance had become fully nationalized.

TTPS’ public position on consent in Carnival is the jamette’s desire and right to sexual autonomy and freedom from sexual violence, both denied by the very foundations of colonial authority, now articulated by law.

It’s a historically significant signal of change and power not to be by-passed, a legacy of Carnival becoming woman, now penetrating into state authority. It should stop anyone from declaring that Carnival is no longer political because the renegotiation of power in the democratic density of a ram fete or in the middle of rough wine on the road is politics itself, from rather than in ‘yuh pweffin’.

A debate with all expected hullabaloo followed the police press statement. Iwer declared, “If you look at all the history about Carnival, we never had an issue with anybody wining on anyone”. Not true. Thousands of women can tell you about fellas not taking a ‘no’ or a ‘move away’, others pulling your wrists or your waist when you on the road for Jouvay, needing to roll with a crew of fellas for protection, and playing mas within ropes and with security precisely to be free of being pursued and grabbed.

Fay-Ann’s concern was about the right to consent being abused by ‘a lot of women in the stations’ falsely claiming a man tried to wine on them, though reports of sexual violence have never worked that way. Machel was criticised for his instructions before his management instructed him to back back. The police were above the fray and dead clear. It’s assault to touch someone without her or his consent.

Police Service Asst. Supt. Michael Jackman went further than advising permission to wine: “Even when a person is already engaged in dancing or wining or gyrating with another person, with a partner, a friend, family member or stranger, at some point in time that person says, “Okay, I want to stop”, and they indicate that verbally or by action, that action may be by stepping away or saying, “no”, verbally, “I had enough”, then the person who they were engaged with at that point in time ought to respect that decision and stop”. In his statement were echoes of Explainer’s ‘Rasta Chick’, Singing Sandra’s ‘Die with My Dignity’, Destra’s ‘Wrong Bam Bam’ and even Sharlene Boodram’s, ‘Ask It’.

Wining is an old jamette language now brilliantly informing interpretation of law by police brass. The body talks, and the lesson is to become literate in woman-centred traditions of lyrical and waist skill, or Dan is the man in the van on his way to make a jail.

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Post 262.

Joy without Justice

The real tief head is when a company has a sexual harassment policy in place, and yet a victim can’t get justice. It says a lot about the risks of speaking out about sexual violence as a working, even professional-level, woman. The risks are that a series of power plays occurs which mean that an incident that may have actually happened gets buried under messy and even irrelevant information. In the end, a victim may be left without the safety of proper protocols and maybe even without a job.

The idea that claiming sexual harassment is an easy win against men is, of course, a myth. Claims of sexual harassment are always going to cost women who make them, whether to their professional or public reputation or to their chances of career success or simply to their emotional resilience. Even if you are telling the truth, even if you are believed, even if you can show complete innocence, even if correct processes are followed, there is no way that claiming sexual harassment will not come at a cost to you and you alone.

It may be that your work performance gets dragged into the corporate conversation or a smear campaign follows you in an attempt to restore the hierarchy and order which your complaint challenged. It may be that an independent committee established to assess your complaint gets disbanded, on spurious grounds that feminists are biased against men, for example, and an individual substituted to complete the process simply doesn’t convey the same sense of trust to you or, later, the public. It may be that your bosses believe you, but their advice is to not make it a big deal, given the costs, stress and gossip about you and the company. And, so, your vulnerability isn’t decreased, it’s just mismanaged.

What’s amazing is how one badly handled incident sends a hopeless message to a nation of women that there’s little reason to tell the truth in your own self-defense against sexual harassment. It also tells other women to mind their business and keep their distance in case the smear hits them too or in case HR messiness takes over and choosing the right side becomes a minefield even angels fear to tread.

There’s a close connection between men’s institutional and economic status, authority and power, and women’s experiences of sexual harassment that makes this issue of both gender inequality and gender-based violence, even where the details are slightly different across an entire planet full of cases.

There’s also a close connection between male power and the lack of sexual harassment legislation or widely-adopted sexual harassment policies. It’s not that there are no progressive men in power in business or politics, It’s that prioritizing the right ways to deal with sexual harassment requires changing whole organizational cultures on the basis of women workers’ rights, and that requires commitment, leadership, extra effort and the will to challenge a bro-code governing well-connected and powerful men.

Anybody can sexually harass anybody, but this is power men unequally wield because, at least in Trinidad and Tobago, on corporate boards and senior management, they outnumber women, and in political party hierarchies as well as parliament and Cabinet, they outnumber women. And, indeed, when sexual harassment remains primarily an issue of men’s power over women, even women are likely to reproduce the lens of the powerful, and victim-blame too.

In a season of pastells and parang, widespread and messy experiences of gender-based violence mean that not everyone has access to comfort, security, trust and fair outcome.

Amidst Christmas merriment, there are women living in fear despite holding protection orders. There are women afraid to speak up about inappropriate behavior in their offices or on streets. What will be our gift to them, for without institutionalizing effective protections for those more vulnerable, we are being tightfisted with our sharing of both justice and joy.

Post 256.

I won’t belabor the blatant objectification of women in the Prime Minister’s block-talk guffaw that “a golf course is like a woman, you have to groom her everyday otherwise it turns into a pasture”. Objection means seeing or referring to someone as a commodity or object, you know, like a pasture. Or, seeing women as an object of male sexual desire, you know, like sexual offenders’ practice of grooming girls to enable their acquiescence to sexual predation.

On national TV, of the many things we saw is that even Parliament isn’t a workplace where women are safe from sexist jokes by powerful men. Tells you a lot about the likelihood of that kind of discomforting bro-code language and power being similarly wielded across our nation’s workplaces in addition to its street corners. It also tells you a lot about the myth of women achieving all they want. You could get your education and your career, but you are out of order to expect ideals of manhood to change in acknowledgement of the fact that you are not just meant for men’s bedrooms, groomed.

However, above all, it’s his unapologetic impunity that makes me want to throw a teacup in Dr. Rowley’s direction.

The guy is a UWI graduate, a grandfather, political party leader, and the most influential elected official in the land. Parliament was in a supposedly serious debate about responses to an economic crisis which is extremely likely to exacerbate intimate partner violence as household insecurity increases. And, finally, a woman is neither like a golf course nor a pasture, because she is a person.

Impunity is freedom from punishment for harm caused, and its pervasive, making you wonder if all women and girls should arm themselves with a driving iron to unhesitatingly use in response to sexist language, harassment and violence. The extremely low conviction rates for domestic violence and sexual assault tell us much about the extent of that impunity, for there are no real consequences for wrong-and-strong men. In the context of such state-enforced gender inequality, Dr. Rowley’s lack of real accountability further asserts, hope for solidarity and expect salt, for bad man doh account to women and doh give no apology.

Ironically, in the same week, the ‘me too’ campaign circulated across the lives of millions on the planet. Started by activist Tarana Burke ten years ago, the words are meant to show that girls and women who have survived sexual abuse and exploitation are not ashamed and are not alone. Revived as a social media status, women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted disclosed their own survival, with far too many in Trinidad and Tobago either adding their post or reading others with which they could identify.

I had been lucky enough to attend the third match between the Sri Lankan and West Indies cricket teams last week Friday, but unlucky enough to see Sam, a longtime cameraman, and sexual assaulter from my youthful newsroom days, there also. I pointed him out to Ziya and told her what he had done so she could know, her mom is educated, employed and empowered, but look at what impunity looks like because he never faced consequences. Yes, ‘me too’.

Last year was swept with ‘Life in Leggings’ stories from Caribbean women harassed and harmed. Then, as now, I find myself asking the ‘what about the men’ question that occupies everyone when girls are doing well because they worked hard, but not when women are being dehumanized and threatened. Don’t men want a world where no girl or women has to again say ‘me too’? Isn’t speaking out for approval of a national plan to end gender-based and sexual violence, or for higher conviction rates for sexual offenses, or across the board workplace and political party sexual harassment policies also men’s responsibility? Isn’t also publicly insisting on better from Dr. Rowley?

His words may seem harmless, but they land on a nation full of girls and women still struggling to break silences about harm, and still hoping for men’s solidarity. Lack of consequences is part of something much greater, that gets far more dangerous. That is why a Prime Minister’s impunity must be taken seriously.

 

 

Post 240.

On International Women’s Day, one radio call-in discussion debated whether women and men’s biological differences meant that they are supposed to be unequal. As if equality requires biological sameness or, for women, that they be like men. As if our differences as women and men legitimize the status quo of unequal value, power, status, rights and authority.

This backhanded involvement in engaging women’s rights issues is worrisome, yet common, and often unchecked. For example, Single Father’s Association of Trinidad and Tobago (SFATT)’s march is themed men against “all violence from all to all others”, which seems common-sense, valid and laudable. For, who isn’t against all forms of violence, and who isn’t glad to see men taking action?

Yet, behind this seemingly progressive engagement is unchecked denial of women’s empirical realities and long-sought transformations.

In one comment on the march, Rondell Feeles, head of the group, wrote, “So why are so many PUBLIC ADVOCATES intent on separating the issue to deal with domestic violence against women only, when statistics have shown that both children and men are victims of the same. Are we saying violence in the home is unacceptable to one party but acceptable to everyone else in the family? A HOLISTIC Issue warrants a HOLISTIC Approach”.

First, public advocates don’t “separate” the issue of domestic violence against women, they bring an analysis of how our notions of manhood and womanhood shape power and vulnerability, and take into account the fact that women suffer serious injury and death in disproportionate numbers at the hands of male partners. This means that while both men and women may be violent in domestic relationships, the consequences are different, requiring recognition and specific strategies.

Second, statistics show that girls and boys also experience violence in gendered ways, not only in terms of physical and sexual abuse, but in terms of perpetrators and silencing. Third, no one has ever said that violence in the home is unacceptable for women, but acceptable for everyone else. This is a ‘straw woman’ set up solely to knock down.

Women are being murdered in increasing numbers, with the majority related to intimate partner violence. Women and men have been calling for an end of violence against women, not only in relation to domestic violence offenses, but also in relation to violence as it daily affects women traveling by taxi, on the street, at work and in other public places. Violence is committed at very high levels against women because they are women.

What’s gained in presenting activists as exclusionary? What’s at stake in calling for a focus on psychological and emotional violence, for example, when severity of injury and death show women’s inequality in terms of harm from their relationships? What’s at stake in focusing on violence by all when all are not equally perpetrating violence, nor are the harm and increasing rates of murder from DV offenses equal? Finally, what’s at stake in SFATT insisting that men are the “greatest victims of violence in Trinidad and Tobago”?

The overwhelming murders of men, which occur primarily by men, are horrific and must be stopped. Men also face violence in heterosexual relationships and it can be hard for them to report it and seek help.  Yet domestic violence by women and men also show distinctly different patterns. For example, women’s violence to men usually ends when the relationship ends. Male partner violence generally escalates and becomes most dangerous then.

SFATT has been arguing that women are as violent to men as men are to women, citing CAPA data which shows that, between 2010 and 2016, 56% of the Domestic Violence murders were of women and 44% were of men. However, this data doesn’t say those murders were at women’s hands, and it can’t be assumed.

CAPA data also shows that, between 2010 and 2016, women reported 100% of the sexual offenses, 80% of the assaults and beatings recorded, 82% of the breaches of protection orders, 66% of threats recorded, and 72% of the cases of verbal abuse. The data suggests that women experience fear, threat, injury, severe harm and death to a greater extent where they should be safe in their families, relationships and homes.

The bait and switch at work here goes like this: It’s separatist to focus on violence against women. So, let’s focus on violence against all. However, let’s emphasize where the real violence is. It’s not against women. Men experience the real sexism and are the real “victims”. Too much attention has been given to women. It’s time for that “discrimination against boys and men” to end. It’s time to focus on men.

It’s a myth that sufficient resources have ever  been put to ending violence against women. Activism by men’s organisations to end such violence remains welcome and necessary. What we hope for in these efforts is true solidarity.

For a fuller discussion, see my presentation on IWD 2016 at the SALISES Forum: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pTVhzYKF88

 

 

 

 

 

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 232.

Dear Karian,

As a woman who has been followed on the street by men even after ignoring them or polite ‘no thank you’. A woman who has had men yell at her from Independence Sq. KFC about her ‘box’ and how it looking like lunch. A woman who was sexually harassed in the TV6 newsroom and until today, when I see that cameraman in public, I’m angry at his indecency and harm. Just as I’m angry at the ex-Minister who thought his unwanted touching on the campaign trail would be accepted because of his status, rather than refused because of mine.

A woman who has walked past many men’s unwanted comments that degrade more than compliment, and knew it could become worse if only I said no or stop or insisted on respect. A woman who doesn’t feel safe in her neighborhood or workplace or on streets, and not only at night, because men, whether a few or many, present a sexual threat.

A woman whose woman friends tell story after story of growing up with harassment on the streets, at work, at the gym, in Carnival, in meetings, in churches, in mosques, in temples, in training programmes, outside of schools, inside of schools, in libraries, in ministers’ offices, in parties and in every other location.

Women whose stories are an angering tale of negotiating self-silencing and fear, speaking out and risk: those who said nothing and wished they could and did, those who spoke back and had abuse or a bottle thrown back at them, those who cuss out those specific men knowing that they were borrowing from the energy required to cuss out more tomorrow.

Women who are called ‘lesbian’, ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’ repeatedly, as an insult, as part of a threat, as a consequence of dismissing unwanted advances, from men they know and complete strangers. Women whose stories abounded everywhere but in the press, for more than a few days, though those stories occur every single day.  Women who were not yet women when they began to have these stories to tell.

As that woman, I write with everything women feel, knowing another one of us is being wronged in ways with which we are too familiar. All emotions are here. Sorrow that one time won’t be your first or last. Anger that you are not the first or last. Anger at the complicity of men and their failure to collectively break the bro code, to say no to all forms of sexism and sexual harassment that harm women and deny that harm.

Men’s collective and public failure to acknowledge the normalcy of predatory masculinity allows so many to pretend, with insistence, authority and pride, they don’t know the difference between harassment and compliment, between unwanted and chosen. I despair at their denial of rape culture in all its forms, playing it down as unreal because it’s an inconvenient truth.

I am sorry and angry that you had to be brave, that you had to get angry, that you had to protect yourself because your society fails to protect women. You are a fighter, though you should not have to be simply to walk on the streets. You are an example to all fearful young women I tell to speak out and tell their harassers to stop, though you shouldn’t have to shame men for their violence, knowing that even more around you are secure in their impunity.

You were right to cuss those men hard, loud and stink, though the cuss out is really, rightly, for the whole society. You don’t have to be a daughter or wife to deserve respect. You are a person, with your own honour and you don’t have to business about whose bad behaviour that checks. But, you know all that already. We all do.

You are right to think that your story will make little difference to legislators, policy-makers, police officers and more, for sexual and street harassment will remain an unprosecuted and pervasive reality.  You are right to simply want to be left to walk free. All I can say, young sister, is that you owe shame, silence, respectability and fear nothing. And, know, lioness, that you are not alone.