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 451.

THE SLOGAN “my body, my choice” was popularised by decades of outcry by global feminist movements. In particular, it described women’s struggle against state and religious denial of their right to safe and legal abortion. 

Watching it get taken up by the religious right, anti-vaxxers and the vaccine-hesitant today, and being printed on t-shirts sold on Charlotte Street, is nothing short of ironic. Where were these marchers when it came to women’s bodies and rights during all these decades? 

Looking at the First Wave movement, led by Umar Abdullah, I can only wonder at the convenience of a partial, patriarchal take-up of the idea of bodily sovereignty and integrity. Such appropriation is happening all over the world, including by those who resist masking, quarantines and vaccines. 

He’s now leading hundreds who seem to get the concept of choice, but will it continue being a right worth defending when it comes to choices experienced by and denied to women? 

“My body, my choice” has named women’s resistance to rape culture, which normalises sexual violence, and blames and silences victims for an act which fundamentally violates their right to consent. It has articulated pushback against an array of examples of women’s subordination. 

It includes calls for lesbian women’s protection from discrimination (denied to them in Trinidad and Tobago today), First Nations’ women’s freedom from forced sterilisation across the Americas, legal inclusion of African women’s right to consent to marital sex, social recognition of South Asian women’s choice whether to marry and have children, and respect for Arab women’s refusal of the repressive ways that family honour is tied to their dress, respectability and sexuality. 

The fundamental principle is that women should exercise final decision over their bodies, sexual and reproductive health, and life. They should have a satisfying and safe sex life, and power and freedom regarding if, when and how often to reproduce. 

This would mean having the equal power of self-determination as men, without domination, duress or constraint whether by social norms, law, institutions or individuals. Such equality is currently denied in the majority of countries, including in TT. 

It would mean having access to public health support to make such decisions regardless of women’s sexuality, nationality, livelihood, religion, class, age or marital status. It also includes access to safe and nurturing communities, access to affordable housing and food, and access to work opportunities, which all impact women’s sexual and reproductive options and decisions.

This bold statement has also been about a demand to live without the harms that are experienced by so many women and girls in our world today, including rape, lack of access to contraception, forced unions and pregnancies, unwanted births, botched abortions, and maternal death. 

As our old slogan picks up renewed momentum in the contentious politics of the pandemic, I want to remind vaccine marchers of its history and the feminist labour that has gone into giving it familiarity and an ease with which it can be championed, even as its radical gender justice and social justice roots and more emancipatory feminist vision appear to be forgotten, ignored, undervalued or still foreclosed. 

I’m curious about how those now carrying this message on their placards will respond to this reminder. When does choice matter? Whose choices matter? What kinds of choices are matters of human rights and public health? What are your underlying conceptions of community, care and justice? And, what explains when state domination of bodies is considered morally right and when is it not okay?

Of course, it would be brilliant to see civic solidarity emerge from this moment and its leadership. Now that this slogan has reached diverse constituencies and communities, and is being broadly demanded, can there be an opening for a more inclusive conception of what it aims to articulate and achieve? 

Recent history suggests not. In the US, such groups bring together Christian fundamentalists who are anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, highly individualistic and opposed to gender, sexual, reproductive and racial justice. This is who local groups are aligning with ideologically, whether they realise it or not. So, it is possible that we can gain local feminist allies but, alas, unlikely. 

Arundhati Roy asked us to imagine the pandemic as a portal. We can “choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred,” she wrote. “Or we can walk through lightly…ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

For me, all this is what “my body, my choice” really requires and means.

Post 438.

AMONG our political elites, man, woman and dog attacking man, woman and dog.

It’s remarkable to see how gender and womanhood have been being flung in this fight. Let’s start with Dr Rowley.

“The way she loves the accolade of being the first woman prime minister, one would think that she would behave properly and with a modicum of respect for the first female President, her superior,” he lambasted, invoking the Opposition Leader and the President’s womanhood as definitive of their public identities, roles and relationship.

For Persad-Bissessar, this gendered accolade was always a double-edged sword.

Rowley could have said the Opposition leader was being disrespectful or any of his usual litany of insults.

However, he highlighted her sex and the sex of the President as a disciplinary tactic. It is one thing to fail as a politician and a next to fail as a woman, and to be the first woman in the nation to do so.

The PM deliberately tapped into debasement of females who don’t know how to behave with deference and propriety in public. When schoolboys fight, we shake our heads. When schoolgirls fight, we bawl that all broughtupcy in the world has collapsed.

When two public officials, one already “inferior,” are pitted against each other and their sex is made the basis of comparison, it’s a gendered weapon in a war of words.

PNM PRO Laurel Lezama-Lee Sing called the Opposition Leader “an embarrassment to women,” again invoking her womanhood and expanding the wielding of gender by referencing all other women in the nation, who may have been foolishly considering an issue of how today we have no Commissioner of Police, for the first time in our history, and missed the relevance of femininity to the public call for answers.

The PM’s “imps, pimps and chimps” line again brought both gender and sexuality into political mud-slinging. Pimps are usually (but not only) men who (sometimes violently) force women to have sex for their profit. But what does prostitution have to do with 19 parliamentarians? Who is or are the whores? Aspersions of licentiousness and immorality land implicitly.

In his latest salvo, the PM described the Opposition Leader as an “abusive man,” continuing, “It’s like some of them fellas outside there…if I can’t get you I go mash it up. If I can’t get you I go kill you. I will mark your face with a knife…I go throw acid on you. That is what you are seeing there.”

This was a move from womanhood in disrepute to the kind of violent and depraved manhood that brought historic crowds to the streets in protest just earlier this year. This was highly cynical from a man who has blamed women for their choice of men, without apology.

It was also highly consistent in its blame on the population and women, and a warning against choosing someone who will kill you, stab you and throw acid on you, politically speaking.

It’s like we are all, or perhaps just us women, witnessing a woman being battered for being a woman, rather than pressured because of a brouhaha. The violence of the analogy was desperate, even for Dr Rowley.

The reference to “domestic” abuse is again deliberate, for this is the domain of women and one we are called on to protect. In such times, the solidarity of women against degeneracy and abuse is necessary to save us all.

It makes sense, then, for him to urge women to “stand up and support their female counterparts instead of bringing each other down,” like Persad-Bissessar.

We all know that women who bring each other down are “our own worst enemy.” The PM even brought up her failure to protect young girls from child marriage, throwing in the whole kitchen sink. But what does that have to do with the CoP?

Finally, Nizam Mohammed described the President, who is not a mother and was not appointed because of her representation of or identification with mothering or reproductive issues, as expected to connect with the public in a “motherly and exalted” fashion.

Idealisation of “good motherhood” here is bizarre to say the least.

I’m not defending the Opposition Leader or the UNC. There’s atrociousness on all sides. Rather, I’m observing how sex, gender (often femininity), and sexuality are being politically mobilised.

Such logic, like much of what I have highlighted, reveals the labels and stereotypes still targeted at and governing women in political life.

Post 434.

WITH ZI now in the throes of SEA preparation for March 2022, and with us managing all the anxiety which people critique every year, I’ve started thinking about secondary-school choices, what we know about gender and violence in secondary schools, and what would enable her to feel safest and least bullied. 

I’ve also been working on integrating gender-based violence awareness into the health and family life (HFLE) curriculum, and I am deeply aware of how much public advocacy is needed to counter resistance to teaching about gender and sexuality in adolescent lives. Caribbean research can valuably strengthen activist calls for acceptance, support and education that protects adolescents from vulnerability to discrimination, homophobia and sexual violence. 

Just last month, the Silver Lining Foundation (SLFTT) published its 2019 Bullying and Gender-Based Violence in Secondary Schools Report, with support from the European Union Delegation to TT and the Sexual Culture of Justice project. Whether as an activist or parent, there’s much that’s useful in its findings. 

The survey measured the types of bullying to which students are subjected and those they perpetrated, as well as students’ sense of personal safety, self-esteem and empowerment. A total of 2,284 surveys were collected from 42 secondary schools across TT. 

Most of the participating students were in third form and half were from nuclear families. Most identified as Christian, heterosexual and mixed-race (with about 33 per cent of Indian descent and 20 per cent of African descent). Boys and girls were fairly equally represented.

What emerged from this study is that violence perpetration is higher by boys and victimisation is higher among girls. Boys may also be victims and girls perpetrators, but the inequalities we are trying to transform are apparent by adolescence. 

Physical assaults, pushing and hitting were perpetrated and experienced more by boys than girls. Greater percentages of boys than girls reported being touched in private body areas without consent and receiving sexually explicit gestures, although boys also did most of the touching. 

Boys engaged in more teasing and name-calling than girls, based on others’ appearance, race, sexual orientation and religion, and were more often victims of such teasing on the basis of their abilities or inabilities. Boys were more likely to use cell phones and social media for teasing, name-calling and starting rumours, and engaged in ostracism of peers at higher rates than girls.

About two per cent of boys had forced someone to perform sex acts on them or others, and girls were more likely to be forced to perform sexual acts and to experience verbal abuse and insults if they turned down a sexual advance. Girls were slightly more likely to be targets of teasing because of their appearance, and the subject of name-calling and rumours through use of cellphones and social media, and were more often ostracised from social groups. 

Significantly, sexually explicit comments were made at a slightly higher rate online and on phones than in face-to-face contact. 

At least one in five students surveyed reported experiencing physical violence at school and just less than one in three resorted to hitting and pushing others. As well, nearly one in five students teased others because of how they dressed, looked or walked. 

While more than 90 per cent did not perpetrate or experience sexual violence, one in 20 students reported perpetrating sexual violence and one in ten experienced sexual violence. 

These issues are experienced by both girls and boys, though in highly gendered ways. Comprehensive sexuality education would help these students and create peer environments that nurture protection and prevention.

Good news is that homophobia is waning. Students who expressed same-sex desire, bisexuality and queer desire comprised about one-seventh of the surveyed population, but their reporting of these desires means shame and silence are being broken for another generation. 

The majority of students were aware of LBGTQ students at their school and the majority agreed that the LGBTQ people deserved to be treated with respect. Students with positive attitudes towards LGBTQ people were less likely to engage in bullying. 

Ahead of religious leaders, parents and politicians in Cabinet, 64 per cent of students noted the value of sex education for helping them feel prepared for sexual situations and reducing challenges regarding consent. 

As this report shows and as I’ll be writing about again, without comprehensive sexuality education, students rely on peers (46 per cent), media (45 per cent), or pornography (30.7 per cent) to answer questions. 

This kind of data is crucial to understanding how we can and why we should make our children feel safe in schools.i

Entry 384.

Gender and sexuality often become weaponised in electoral campaigns, providing a chance to observe contesting values in democratic life.

Women, and particularly young women, remain vulnerable to attacks on the basis of their bodies, dress, marital and parental status, and sexuality. One man, in the year 2020, thought it appropriate to ask on Facebook, “Should unmarried women with children be allowed to contest the general elections?”

This highlights how much patriarchal conjugality, and wifehood, police women’s citizenship. Such a question is not innocent. Women were once considered to be unfit for employment if unmarried mothers. They had to fight to vote, and run for office, because they were considered to be represented by their husband, as his subordinate whose responsibility was to rock the cradle, not rule the world.

Take the social media attack on UNC’s Toco/Sangre Grande candidate, Nabila Greene. It’s actually irrelevant what women, and young women, do in private, legal and consensual entanglements. It’s irrelevant whether they do it married or unmarried, with same-sex partners, naked or covered in money.

Undermining women’s aspirations for political leadership, through breaking their trust and violating their privacy, is a deliberate containment of their democratic participation. And, it works. It’s one disturbing reason why there are fewer women in political leadership today.

Decades of feminist activism, against sexism in leadership, double standards regarding respectability and “slut” shaming, has enabled a generation of young women and men to grow up aware that shame should be placed on perpetrators of “revenge pornography” and those who turn to personal attacks on women’s gender and sexuality to win.

UNC PRO, and herself a young woman, Anita Haynes was “on the money” when she responded, “What I have seen is that for female candidates, in particular, the attacks are always personal. They always attempt to put us in positions to have us confirm or deny things from what could be from your private life.” There was “nothing in the video that debars someone from holding office. The goal there is to shame someone…And that shame will prevent you from running and will prevent you from representing your people.”

By contrast, Camille Robinson-Regis, playing old-school marm, described the video as raising questions about the moral compass of a person who engages in this kind of conduct and as raising “serious questions about the person’s ability to exercise sound judgment.” The chairman of the PNM’s Women’s League missed the opportunity for a non-partisan message, to all young women entering politics, that women should be judged by their qualifications, contribution, capacity and potential, and that all parties should hold to this standard. Isn’t this precisely what a Women’s League should stand for?

In other lead-up moments, there were two instances of homophobic electioneering, first in San Juan/Barataria, and then in the recirculation of an old Jack Warner diatribe from 2015. The less said about Warner, the better.

In response to the first instance, PrideTT called on all parties to refrain from personal attacks based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, asserting that these have “no bearing on their ability and qualifications to do any job in T&T.” Homophobia is widespread and real, yet I was impressed by the Nur E Islam’s disavowal of its power to exclude good citizens from office, particularly if they are practising Muslims. These are the community-level nuances of democracy in action, not captured by polls.

Two final examples highlight continued tolerance for gender-based and sexual violence, which are not yet considered so abhorrent that they deny men political legitimacy. An interim protection order was granted against candidate Winston Peters by a woman who publicly stated she feared for her life and has made a report to the GBV Unit. This time, PNM’s Robinson-Regis defended Gypsy, saying the allegations were not an election issue. Then, there are Watson Duke’s charges of rape and sexual assault.

Weighing in, Womantra and allied feminist organisations called on “all political parties to give an undertaking that persons who are accused of domestic violence and sexual offences, including sexual harassment, will not be nominated as candidates pending their exoneration by the relevant authorities.” If nothing else, understand young women’s fear that these could be the men who hold power over them and to whom they must pay respect, like those abusive uncles who somehow retain their place and authority in the family.

Elections provide historic ground for struggles over citizenship and democracy. Such struggles are always interwoven with public deliberation and negotiation over gender and sexuality.

Post 115.

Ziya is two, but she’s clear about sex, her body and reproduction. That gives her a language to ask questions, assess knowledge, think about herself, identify her rights and break silences around all too common phenomena such as child sexual abuse.

If you ask her how babies are made, she’ll say that the daddy puts his penis in the mummy’s vagina, that a liquid comes out with sperm, that the sperm go up the vagina to mummy’s tummy where it “makes friends” with mummy’s egg (this part she came up with, not me), and a baby grows before coming out through mummy’s vagina. She’s seen natural births on Youtube. She knows where she came out of from my body, in the driveway no less. She’s got basic information to answer her question of where she came from, and she has gone on with life like it’s no big deal.

She also knows what to say if anyone touches her vagina or bum bum. We tell her to shout ‘No! I will tell my mummy’ and I tell her that if she feels she needs to, scrap it out as much as she can. When she throws a tantrum, she’s all flailing arms and legs, hitting everything in sight, acting like Scoobie Doo’s nephew Scrappy Doo. I tell her to hit and kick just like that if she has too, and we practice so that, if it ever happens, asserting herself won’t be new. Girls, and boys, need to be empowered from early to powerfully defend themselves from abuse.

The other day, she said to me, ‘Mummy, I have a nipple on my vagina’. I said, ‘that’s your clitoris’. She asked, ‘what’s it for?’ I had to laugh. I said, ‘it’s for you to feel good and you will discover how later on’. I’m not going to feed her nonsense about her genitals being only for reproduction and not for pleasure, because whatever hypocritical adults think, she’ll naturally discover that just as all children do.

She’s got to learn to own and love her body completely if she’s going to be the most capable of making it through life in ways that are healthy and chosen. She takes all this in stride, like learning anything else. It makes you wonder why we act like this stuff is taboo.

When we are not open about sex, when children do not learn to name the most vulnerable parts of their bodies, and when we pretend that children are too young for facts about reproduction, we are perpetuating other silences too.

We wouldn’t give children a lack of clarity about geography or history, why do that about sexuality? Don’t we want them to understand themselves better or to tell us when something is happening to them that they don’t agree to? We are also acting as if children are not living in an adult world already, learning more than we realize about it and figuring out how to talk about it through what they overhear or from TV.

Stone likes to tell me that all this is all well and good, but wait until Ziya starts school and other parents who don’t want their kids to know about their bodies or sexuality complain about Ziya’s upfront explanatory honesty.

What can I say? In a world where sexual violence is everywhere, and where children are not safe, this is one girl who is going to all the information she needs to know. Words, truth, self-knowledge, safety and power are her right and I’m going to help her to make it so.