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.