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.

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Post 280.

I sat three rows from Theresa May when, as part of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, she apologized for Britain’s role in criminalizing same-sex conduct in former colonies. “I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country,” she said, “They were wrong then and they are wrong now.”

Apologies by Britain should come hard and fast, for colonialism itself, the slave trade, inconceivably vast economic extraction and impoverishment, antidemocratic laws kept in place by a ‘savings clause’, and more.

This apology should not be diminished, for it results from courageous and sustained global South struggle, across at least thirty-six countries. Nonetheless, as Justice Rampersad pointed out in his April 12th decision, changing discriminatory laws is a matter for emancipatory Caribbean jurisprudence. We didn’t need the British empire’s ‘benevolent’ mission of colonising and civilising. We don’t need a 21st century version of civilising now.

On the same stage that morning, Jamaica’s PM Andrew Holness spoke, quite brilliantly, highlighting what sustainability, prosperity, inclusiveness and security mean from a Caribbean perspective in which equity and accountability among nations count.

In an earlier response on having gays in his Cabinet, Holness said, “I think that the first step is that the State protect the human rights of every citizen, regardless of sexual orientation or inclination”.  This was a major shift in public position from Bruce Golding’s infamous “not in my Cabinet” statement, and highlights increasing openings for equitable and accountable Caribbean leadership.

Here at home, President Weekes herself has said, “I think in terms of the State and the law all citizens and all persons under the protection of our jurisdiction should have equal treatment whatever their gender, whatever their sexual orientation, whatever their race we need to have absolute equality across the board in terms of State obligations and constitutional rights”.

Having been involved in LBGTI rights advocacy since about 2005, I didn’t expect to hear such public declarations in my lifetime. I have a beautiful memory of CAISO’s 2010 campaign, conceptualized in many ways by Colin Robinson’s politics of claiming belonging to a nation of ‘many bodies’, and the dual flying of national and rainbow flags high in the air at massive UNC rallies.

It wasn’t an easy space, and the PNM campaign trail would have been significantly worse, for those were the infamous ‘big C’ days, but to publicly declare equal citizenship involved great courage. There are forgotten foot soldiers, among many, who have moved popular culture forward over the last decade.

I thought about all this in relation to Guardian’s front-page expose on Michelle Lee-Ahye. There’s much to disparage about ‘rescuing’ someone from social media smearing, and doing this using her partner’s photos, in a still homophobic society and without consent. There’s much to say about the problems of prying into the private lives of women in public life though that’s long been debunked as illegitimate, irrelevant and sexist.

However, more important, was the public backlash to the newspaper, rather than Lee-Ahye’s choices. Many were clear that her sexuality was a non-story, and were outraged it would be headlined, supposedly and misguidedly for her protection. Being a woman-loving woman, or any woman who has sex outside of heterosexual marriage, might be a basis for idle gossip, but it doesn’t tarnish her achievement of gold nor does it reduce her right to privacy. That this could be expressed as a widely held view was an unintended, progressive outcome of that story.

In 2005, I couldn’t predict all this. Advocacy felt exhausting and ongoing without any progress. Even seeing hundreds proudly, joyfully gathering with rainbow flags over these past weeks was unimaginable as late as 2010.

Hope has been reborn in me. Yet, the evictions and firings of LBGTI citizens following Justice Rampersad’s decision signal continued need to tirelessly press back against continued vulnerability, believing that together we can actually aspire and achieve.

Post 279.

An attuned ear hears a shackle when it falls. It’s a surreal sound, when an instrument of inhumanity hits the ground broken, clanging with its iron weight of history. Instinctively listen for the heart-piercing exultations of emotion that echo out powerfully. Also be stopped still by a black hole of quiet horror that you may yet again hear that shackle clink close around a human body.

If the pores on your skin raised, as did mine when I heard Justice Devindra Rampersad’s judgment on Thursday, it’s because I never anticipated that a shackle’s fall could sound and feel like the force of a supernova when it collapses, its vibration sheer disintegrating your heart, leaving you in breathless tremors and shaking tears.

The boldness of the judgment and the interval of freedom it created for the first time in hundreds of years, like a slash in colonial space-time continuum, can’t be anything but celebrated.

There are thousands of bodies in the nation which had been existing in fear, shame and silence and which, for the first time, felt included, protected and free. It is like the future time-traveled and arrived to rock the vibrational field of the present, in a way so many citizens dared to dream, but despaired they wouldn’t live to see.

Justice Rampersad’s judgment in Jones v TT ruled that Sections 13 and 16 of the Sexual Offences Act, which criminalize buggery, or acts of anal sex, and same-sex genital touching, are unconstitutional. He held that the “savings clause”, which retains the legality of colonial law despite our republican status, doesn’t apply. This is because, in 1986, the Sexual Offences Act was repealed and “replaced”, thus creating new, post-1976 law.

Also new law was created with the unprecedented extension of penalties for buggery from 5 years to 25 years and creation of a new prohibition, titled “serious indecency”, and explicitly meant to criminalise lesbianism for the first time (by legislating that only men could have sexual access to women). In other words, this is new law, not simply a re-enactment and continuity from 1925.

Second, he argued that even if the savings clause could hold, its intention was to continue and preserve protections of citizens’ rights in the move from colonial subjection to independent nationhood, not deny rights, discriminate or victimize. In this case, relying on the savings clause as justification goes against its spirit.

Additionally, he agreed that Jason Jones’ right to privacy was denied, observing that such privacy had not been conceptualized in early colonial law, but was now an accepted ideal. Use of the savings clause to deny that right again defies its intention.

Regarding the Act itself, its violation of Sections 4 and 5 of the constitution were already acknowledged by parliament in 1986. It is possible to infringe upon individuals’ constitutional rights, under Section 13 of the constitution, but the burden is on the parliament to fully justify its necessity, which it has not done. Passage of legislation by 3/5 majority, however procedurally legitimate, isn’t enough.  Religious or majority view and public opinion isn’t enough. Political expediency is far short of enough in the face of signed international conventions and global and liberalizing standards of dignity, decency, equality and human rights. Claiming parliamentary prerogative isn’t enough, or might be enough in Britain where no constitution exists so parliamentary law is highest authority, but not in Trinidad and Tobago where the constitution should be supreme.

In other words, Jah bless our republican status and the possibilities for future-facing Caribbean jurisprudence. Why rely on British law when we have our own constitution? Why still carry habits of prisoners when we are freed from such imprisonment?

Without the savings clause as a defense, the 1986 Act was always unconstitutional and unjustified, and unreasonably and arbitrarily denied rights to privacy, family, intimacy and equality to all citizens and couples. Its legitimacy was founded on its own fiction and presumptions, like the emperor with no clothes.

To write that race, colour, gender, age or sexual orientation is not all that encompasses a person’s soul nor their value to society or themselves is to wield something other than the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. This is the ultimate dream of Caribbean emancipation.

For this to occur in real life and in our generation is overwhelmingly beautiful, and feels cosmically huge. On appeal, we hope the disturbing metallic edge of manacles, re-clasped on those who call for our love, is not something we have to hear. To them, do not turn a deaf ear.

Post 278.

Twenty-year-old Christine Chuniesingh lost her life to intimate partner violence this week. She won’t be the last woman for the year to die at the hands of her male partner.

A month ago, the National Security Minister reported to the Senate that police were focusing on responding to violence against women through a visible presence, marked and unmarked vehicles, town meetings and more.

These steps are good news, but as the State Minister for National Security in Jamaica pointed out last year, violence against women is not a police issue, it’s a national issue.

This should be kept in mind by the AG and the National Security Minister when they want to put this problem in the hands of cops instead of recognizing that approval of a coherent strategy is Cabinet’s responsibility.

So, the question is, what is our national response? And, how is this national response rolling out through the school system, the health care system, collaboration with the private sector, and more? How are we explaining the paradox of these murders of women even while reports of domestic violence have been falling?

Is the state’s position that it has no idea how to prevent deaths in these numbers, given that we are already at 50% of the women murdered by their partners for all of last year?

It’s well-established that intimate partner violence is founded in our current ideas about masculinity and femininity, and the association between manhood and power over women. Violence is simply a way to keep this in place when its being challenged in interpersonal relationships.

Already, there’s denial of this association by representatives of the men’s rights movement, who against all national data, including the numbers of intimate partner killings, argue that women are more violent than men.

Already, there’s a myth that women have taken over the state, the court system, the labour market, and the education system, and that men are now the real victims of gender inequality.

Already, there’s a backlash to women doing well in education and employment, with many bringing all this empowerment back to a mythical marginalization of men, and the necessity of making women account to men’s feelings about their goals for autonomy.

This wider societal backlash to women wanting a life beyond male control plays out in relationships too. Containment of women’s empowerment explains intimate partner physical and sexual violence (the male backlash model), such as when women are earning more than men or pursuing qualifications beyond men’s own.

Men also don’t believe women have a right to leave relationships whenever they chose, and deal with feelings of rejection and failure with a reassertion of masculinity and control.

These dynamics get established in childhood, through big processes such as the socialization of children to differences between women and men, and their meanings and their value.

Such socialization isn’t only by mothers, but by all family members, media, peers, educators, neighbourhood members, and more. It is also learned through specific experiences such as witnessing or experiencing familial violence or child abuse.

But, at the heart of all these is a resilient belief in the notions of manhood and womanhood we take to be normal, and in the kinds of respect women should have for male authority and power that we take to be natural. The police cannot transform these beliefs.

As Cabinet is dominated by men, I can legitimately say that it takes balls to decide to go against what falsely appears to be God-given, and instead wake up to what ending this problem really needs.

Somewhere in Trinidad and Tobago, there’s a woman who is going to be the next one killed. It’s just a waiting game until we know her name.

We don’t have an urgent, coherent, cross-sectoral, national strategy to prevent or even systematically reduce this violence against women. I’ll be relieved but surprised if we do by the time we hear that news.

 

Post 277.

-1

I got home very late from work and ready to collapse only to find the bed under a low-hanging, tent-like sheet, apparently making a ‘fort’.

I deliberated whether, out of sheer nostalgia and love, to shuffle underneath for a night of claustrophobic, but cuddly sleep (the kind where there’s always a small, brown limb thrown across one’s neck), leaving the sheet at its angle about a foot from my head.

Or, whether to take it down because, while there was space for her, she being the size of Donkey to Shrek (me being Shrek), at least I wouldn’t die of suffocation while she sleeps peacefully and would be alive and breathing enough to risk her seven-year-old disappointment in the morning.

There are few adults who didn’t build ‘forts’ of some kind growing up. Obliging parents let us take sofa cushions, lean them against each other in squares and then spread sheets across, with the greatest of joys being crawling under there with books, toys, a flash light, friends or siblings, and those Chinese shrimp chips that expand when fried and taste like childhood bliss.

Childhood has changed. No children I know still play ‘elastic’, and those worldly girls of today look like you are describing a rotary dial phone, a wholly foreign thing none of them have seen, when you ask.

Yet, there are some things that remain consistent and, unfortunately, one of them is bullying. Still, we now think about it differently from before, and can help children grow into kinder, gentler human beings than we are, perhaps creating a more golden experience of growing up than what nostalgia allows us to recollect.

If you want to get a picture of what bullying looks like, at least in secondary schools, look up The Silver Lining Foundation’s just released Trinidad and Tobago School Climate Report on Bullying and Gender-Based Violence in Secondary Schools. Overseen by a team of young researchers and activists, 651 students from 20 schools were surveyed, with the majority of respondents being 13-16 years old.

The study is nationally generalizable so note that in the three months prior to the survey: 73% of students indicated they had been teased or harassed at least once; 24% indicated that they had been pushed or hit at least once; 40% indicated that their belongings were stolen or damaged, 29% were victims of sexually explicit taunts or advances; and 28% reported being inappropriately touched by another. Primarily, appearance, ability, and sexual orientation and gender expression were the most common causes of verbal teasing, harassment or intimidation.

What was just as disturbing was that these numbers were matched by students indicating that they had actively participated in teasing, harassment, stealing, pushing or hitting, threatening and sexual aggression. Boys were more likely to engage in bullying than girls, but also experienced verbal and physical bullying at slightly higher rates than girls who experienced greater sexual and cyber bullying. Boys’ experiences centered around attacks on their masculinity which targeted their sexuality or gender expression, and LBGT students experienced bullying at higher rates than others.

Significantly, 63% of students never or rarely reported incidents of bullying because they didn’t want to be seen as tell-tales, did not trust teachers, did not want bullying by teachers or peers to worsen, or reported and felt too little was done.

Now think back to children’s familiar instinct for creating ‘forts’ as part of play or over their bed. Their desire to construct safe spaces, whether from cushions at home or in terms of relationships with family, teachers and peers, continues as they grow into adolescence. Without options for feeling sheltered, and because bullying still exists, vulnerability can easily outweigh young bliss.

I stood tiredly at the bedroom door, my shadow crossing the sloping sheet, thinking of the dream that children could both feel and be safe. You understand now why I decided to leave her ‘fort’ in place.

Post 276.

Class has always been an issue in the women’s movement. Crossing class divisions among women, and empowering working class women to have the pick-up-the-phone power of wealthy businessmen, remains the challenge today.

This, despite organisations such as Women Working for Social Progress (Working Women) with an explicit politics of working class women’s empowerment since the 1980s.

Media wished us all ‘Happy International Women’s Day’ on Thursday. I reflected on whether I’d prefer being wished a ‘powerful’ or ‘fearless’ IWD, instead of ‘happy’.

‘Happy’ doesn’t require acknowledging how much more people need to contribute to changes to our ecological and economic decision-making, corruption, social services, transportation options, and gang violence, which is what women really want. Happy isn’t a statement of commitment or solidarity, it’s a celebration, which is cool, but it’s apolitical, which is not.

This day was born from garment women workers’ public and unapologetic protests for better wages and working conditions, and from socialist women’s struggles in relation to class inequities in the economy and politics, women’s unequal responsibility for care work, violence, and more.

Radio hosts, particularly male ones who dominate the talk show terrain, discussed IWD, often combining progressive positions on consent, violence and women’s leadership with stereotypical and problematic block talk on women’s ‘natural’ characteristics, lesbianism and abortion.

The slew of activities that filled last week spoke to a growing national will to see respect, honour and safety as part of women’s rights. This is a success that has taken 110 years of blood, sweat and tears globally.

In the present, many months go into planning activities so that women get direct access to political leadership or so that it’s the women from rural South and Cashew Gardens whose work is amplified or so that men are called on to be vocal and visible allies.

In addition, IWD cocktails and fashion shows, and sisterhood with Proseco events, pop up; some very last minute and some quite costly, as if IWD is trending or another all-inclusive or about etiquette or a day which women should pay to access.

Rather, IWD is built on long-term and even year-round commitment to transforming a world in which women do not yet have full human rights, choice and freedoms in conditions of their choosing.

While there is joy in gathering over food and drinks, there is a risk when the costs separate women rather than bringing them together. Finally, when events appear a week before on the calendar, as if it only just occurred to the organisers, it makes you wonder if they took the time to find out what the long term work, and collaboration with and support to that, could have helped accomplish instead of another separate event.

Yet, so many events last week democratize a feminist dream in a way that makes sense to different women wherever they are. Amidst this, professional women and those of wealth and means should be aware of gathering to celebrate sisterhood, but without sisters lacking wealth, professional status and networks.

I thought about this while putting on a good jacket to talk to women leaders and managers about a private sector approach to addressing intimate partner violence.

I also thought about it while reflecting on my own political goals to provide ways for women of all classes to participate in IWD, whether by cutting out an IWD poster printed on March 8 in the newspaper and making sure its up in the store where they work or the office where they clean; or by freely sharing all the #speakyourtruth and #caribbeanmencan messages created for Facebook and Instagram; or by marching as a nation of women and girls gathering across differences of class, age, ethnicity, sexuality, geography and ability.

As commemoration of IWD expands, let’s remember its history is not just about celebration, but affirming how we can put our power to empowering women still needing and pursuing what others have achieved.

Post 266.

‘Sans humanite’ is our most identifiable cultural refrain, crossing centuries with its compelling, swaying echo of dark humor, stoicism, lament, and aspiration. The cry expresses a desire for recognition, and seeks audience identification with lyrical sparring with pain, for to be a victor in conditions of defeat is to hold your humanity like your bois, and to be seen defying forces that thrive off breaking its strength.

Just to stay on your feet, answering back, fighting, insisting on the fact of your existence is to make demands which matter on the larger collective watching, cheering or calling for your head and blood. It’s a big deal; a call for acknowledgement that you are human too.

Such insistence is fundamentally important, even when it will hardly change dominant institutions, structures and elites, because in the skies between heaven and earth are ever-circling corbeaux, and you might not reach that holy place that honors the God in you if, before your final ascent, your spirit first gets torn apart limb by limb.

How to be a victor in conditions of defeat? How to hold your humanity firm as a bois? How to escape that oppressive shadow of corbeaux following you?

Insist on fairness and refuse advantage by setting humanity as our first ground rule.

Long before conceptions of rights formally established the terms of our still unjust order, notions of fairness trod the land, wafting like breeze against curtains, warm like the smell of homemade bread; carrying in the last notes of rum shop conversation, evaporating in the cool night along with salty tears; and dusting off fruit and vegetables like remnants of garden soil as police and vendors negotiate the informal line between committing a minor crime and making an honest dollar.

Legal scholars will tell you that people are more likely to accept judgments against them, with which they may still disagree, if they feel they have been treated fairly in the process of administering justice. People will turn their lives around if the opportunity they are given is truly fair, with all that encompasses.

Women will stay rather than leave if the deal they are asked to accept truly honors their sovereign and independent humanity, and offers only what is fair.

Enemies might find a middle way out of senseless killing if a sense of fairness can establish just enough mutual trust and cooperation. Elites may act out of greater social responsibility if they recognize that that there is wider profit in fairness, and putting people first.

On this new day with its invitation to a new year, there is no solution to our troubles ahead if ‘sans humanite’ remains the best description of our state and our selves.

Lawyers will continue to debate the crisis in the judiciary and create no greater fairness for those most experiencing its injustice. Cabinet will shadowbox with financiers, contracts and corruption, hitting the public below the belt, while telling us to tighten, tighten. Women will continue to die while state agencies avoid those changes necessary to give them a fair chance at love and life.

Keep refusing such advantage. Fairness is the one ideal we all understand, which can make us more humane, which might still save us from ourselves.

I could talk about necessary resolutions, reform and implementation, civic values, and programmes to nurture something other than the crushing of integrity under government boots.

But, still on our feet, our bois is the smooth, hard weapon of fairness, and its power can hold us accountable to each other as individuals and across institutions. Without fairness, advantage, with all the deaths that it brings, will continue to rule.

‘Sans humanite’ may be our most identifiable cultural refrain, but corbeaux are circling, and their shadow is filling us with terror and doubt. Fairness and humanity must be our answer from today. They are strengths neither our society nor spirits can live without.