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.

Advertisements

Post 260.

You haven’t encountered gangster until you’ve met the Indo-Caribbean grannies of Toronto’s Jane and Finch area. Originally from locations such as Berbice, Wakenaam and Beterverwagting in Guyana, these wizened ladies helped to fill the audience at Thursday’s University of Toronto launch of the collection, Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought, which I co-edited with Guyanese scholar Lisa Outar.

In their sweaters and wool hats, their sharp gaze was nothing less than inquisitive and intimidating. They looked like is two good whack for any backchat, for belonging to the wrong kind of mafia, for dotishly playing gunman like you have nothing better to do, or for not knowing how to conduct yourself like a fearless and good-speaking beti when your family sacrifice to send you to school.

Especially when you edit a collection with a lofty word like ‘thought’ in the title, you have to be able to convince nanis and ajis, with more common sense and experience than you, why that book matters. That’s what we set out to do in an event less like an academic book launch, and more like a chutney fete. Not because there was rum and ‘Coolie Bai’, though there was roti and coolie boys, but because the gathering was community-centered, multiethnic, multigenerational, and joyfully inclusive of multiple expressions of sexualities.

There was the girl, just seven, dancing in garara and gold after women musicians played sitar and tabla, and while a young woman painted, because art and film give us language when words fail. There were bright, next generation students, confident, political and completing PhD theses. Now playing the role of mentors, were mothers with professional careers, able to be there because grandmothers were at home with our children. There were Indian women writers whose ideas provided a home, since the 1980s, for nurturing our thinking about Caribbean theory. In this choka, were feminist badjohns with their solidarities and their laughter, who teach with love across racial divides. Then, in the centre, were these matriarchs, representing their community organization and its challenges to immigrant experiences of violence and poverty.

So, why should the collection matter? It’s a jahahin bundle, crossing oceans with many inheritances knotted in its pages. Tucked within are the legacies of Indian women in the Caribbean, and all the ways that they and indentureship have transformed us all in the region. It’s a remembering of foremothers who wanted more and pursued better for themselves and those who came after. It’s a warm enfolding of douglas and other mixes who are just as Indian too. There are cuttings of everything from carnival freedoms to matikor celebrations, from trance spiritualities to poetry. Finally, it’s a package tied with the gold threads of feminist work to live without violence, inequality or hunger, and to live with respect for matriarchal leadership and power.

And, were we able to talk good and show that education might not alienate us from our cultural histories as much as empower us to remake their relevance anew? ‘Is how much fuh this book?’, shouted one granny, at question time. And another, later, “I getting one too?”

So, in this collection’s travels from Guyana to Trinidad to New York, this week’s encounter is with the elder women of Jane and Finch’s concrete suburbs, our toughest crowd yet, who we managed to convince that another book mattered.

They left with copies because they came up and asked after, knowing it was deserved, and we were too honoured and terrified to say no. Lisa and I just handed over books, forget their cost or sale. Despite our degrees, when facing steely-eyed, no-nonsense grannies, who could wield a bilna like a gangster, we default to betis who know you just keep quiet and do what you are told. Our jahajin bundle was an inheritance from them, and our book might be the rare kind in which they recognize themselves as knowledge-bearers, feeling warm pride amidst Toronto’s cold.

 

 

 

Post 252.

An historic victory was won last week when child marriage was prohibited by amendments to the marriage laws of Trinidad and Tobago. This was a victory for the women’s movement, supported by male allies and working across race, class and religion, despite how fraught that can be. I was relieved both PNM and UNC MPs voted for an amended law. I was sorry the change failed to happen under Kamla Persad-Bissessar as early as 2010.

The call first came from the Hindu Women’s Organisation (HWO) more than six years ago. Organisations such as the IGDS and FPATT became involved by 2013. Lobbying expanded over the last two years, as a coalition of civil society organizations, including Womantra, CAISO, the Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, the Association of Female Executives of Trinidad and Tobago (AFETT), the YMCA, CAFRA and more, was brought together by Folade Mutota and WINAD.

It was discriminatory for girls to be marriageable earlier than boys. There was no contemporary reason for this other than girls’ sexual vulnerability at a younger age. The solution isn’t marriage, it’s transforming such vulnerability to older male sexual predation. That this was overwhelmingly an issue affecting adolescent girls points squarely to how gender inequality leads to denial of full self-determination at a much younger age for girls than boys.

The majority of these marriages were between girls under sixteen, and boys and men who were, at times, much older.  This is not the Ram and Sita or Romeo and Juliet story of two teen secret lovers nor of their unwed adolescent sexual experimentation nor of family protection of two secondary students supported to finish both this and tertiary schooling.

Largely working class girls, perhaps with limited educational support or options, and definitely limited prospects for occupational advancement, were experiencing the greatest vulnerability to early sexual initiation by adult men, who usually also had low educational or occupational achievement.

Marriage may have seemed like a secure economic option because an older man promised to look after them. Perhaps, they were seduced by a feeling of adulthood that sexual relationships bring. Maybe they were in love or escaping oppressive and insecure family conditions, or they got pregnant and marriage seemed the next step. It’s likely they didn’t have a clue about the compromises, conflicts and responsibilities that come with partnership with a hardback man.

Rather than “the destruction of family life”, what was destroyed was the legal access of adult men to teen girls. This was necessary if we recognize how gender, religion and class unequally impacted thousands from lower-income families.

There were recommendations that teenagers over sixteen, but within three years of age, be allowed to marry. Such an exception had merit. That the exception didn’t make it to the legislation is a complicated story about the AG vs the HWO and the coalition.

What happens to the babies of unwed mothers? Families and partners can still love and support them such that teenage girls finish schooling, can secure their own income and can decide what they want out of their lives. A change to the marriage law in no way affects this.

If lack of respectability associated with unwed pregnancy is a major fear, then the solution is to give girls knowledge, support and access to contraception.

Adult hypocrisy, rather than “strict family values”, is at stake here for no one wants to girls to have sex, whether by choice and desire or by grooming and predation, without the threat and likelihood of dire consequences. So no one wants to prepare them to protect themselves if they do. When they are made pregnant, everyone can treat them as if they are responsible for the shame. The solution can’t be marriage to the same adult man who didn’t know or care enough to use condoms or protect a teenage girl’s future freedom in the first place.

Too early pregnancy isn’t a more important issue than too early marriage. Like child sexual abuse, they are consequences of adult failures to acknowledge girls’ sexual vulnerability and empower even poor girls to secure better options. If we care as much as we say, all the other work must now gain momentum.

 

AR-150629813

Post 250.

Recently leaked documents reveal a top-secret operations control centre, known as the Deep Impact Group or DIG, housed in a non-descript room within WASA’s offices. Peeling paint on the outer walls is mere diversion. This Centre is outfitted with the most sophisticated GIS and communication technology of any state agency, appearing almost like Tom Cruise’s intel capacity in the film, Minority Report.

Its entire purpose is to instantly direct WASA workers, those mysterious blue-uniformed men with digging equipment, to any recently paved road. Revelation of this wholly underground, yet well-funded strategic base, will no doubt provide answers to many questions long asked by citizens, such as: How come WASA waits until a road is finally paved to dig it up? Is there is some conspiracy within the state to unnecessarily create potholes to oppress school children with twice-daily traffic, and ruin car shocks and bushings? Fishily, is the Bamboo the unexpected headquarters for a used car parts mafia controlling the government?

Picture interactive screen technology in an array of blinking glass billboards throughout the room. Phones ring constantly, the screens ping wherever arch-nemeses such as private contractors hired by the Ministry of Transport appear with their subversive illegal gravel and unsustainable use of Pitch Lake asphalt.

One Minister or another is inevitably shouting down secure phone lines, for roads left properly paved will no longer need to be pointlessly resurfaced in six months. And, what would there be to boast about when one can build only so many overpasses and roundabouts? The situation would be untenable, possibly leading to a palace coup by party once-faithful. The pressure in the enclosed office is palpable, frenzied by the constant pinging indicating that, surely, nowhere in the country is truly safe.

With each call, a WASA secret agent dashes to Google Map the exact section of highway or rural trace which has somehow escaped their oversight and is being paved by enthusiastic fellas on overtime, entirely unaware of their sabotaging of DIG’s national mission. The harried strategist in charge rushes from screen to screen, yelling commands and rapidly diverting limited men and trucks to avert the disaster of possible paving that successfully covers over cracks and craters, leading to a heady but dangerous sense of contentment, comfort and first-world status among drivers. It’s almost too much to imagine the risk.

Papers are strewn everywhere for there is hardly enough time to get permissions and signatures. This leads to diabolically unaccountable levels of spending as oversight cannot keep up with the pace of such disaster management. The problem is so large, both political parties have secretly agreed that DIG will never be made known nor report to a Joint Select Committee, and you will find that it has never been mentioned in any Auditor-General’s report. Check for yourself as far as records go. Uncanny absence corroborates this truth.

As personnel are rapidly diverted to new locations, and with drone-directed precision, alternatively left, then centre, then right sides of freshly-smoothed roads are efficiently gutted, there is hardly a moment to sleep. Election seasons inevitably result in one or more supervisors’ death by exhaustion.

Carlos John was particularly responsible for discomforting numbers of collapsing Ops Control directors, not to mention those who crumpled to their feet upon receiving orders to pave the Savannah’s precious green space. Now you understand the de-sensitization, MI5-style programming received by the driver who robotically poured gravel on a heroic Eden Shand, injuring him forever. It suddenly makes sense, right?

Crisis after crisis is averted as rumfled, frustrated staff track the trucks on the screens, in real-time, as they dreevay to a parlour, then a doubles man, and then to the emergency site. They hold their breath until the first split of pitch. Yet, their work is never done for the electronic map unendingly lights up seemingly everywhere in turn, pinging all the while.

A WASA insider, disgruntled because of recession cutbacks to this secret service, emailed photos, phone records and an audio memo of the pinging to me. I will not reveal my source, but it is clear that this story explains a reality long denied, but apparent to all with eyes to see and anywhere to reach in a hurry.

Post 248.

La Diablesse sat on a fallen branch in a dappled part of a forest and wondered if she was lonely.

She loved the forest. The air was alive with birdsong, both solos and chorus. The tree leaves were always dancing with her as she hummed. The wind was her best friend, sometimes breathing quietly at her side while she slept, rushing about as they played hide and seek, howling at some injustice and even murmuring in a corner when they fought and had not yet made up. The sky bathed her like a scrubby child or a soft woman or breakable crystal. The animals, snakes and insects kept watch over her; an army on which she had only to call for protection.

La Diablesse knew she was beautiful. Treading carefully over roots and rocks, she walked naked, knelt by shallow pools that mirrored the sky, and saw her brown skin reflect all the beauty and life growing around her. She could speak all the languages of her companions. Through all of time, this was her home. She wanted for nothing. She felt deeply at peace.

One full moon night, there was a horrific killing in her forest. A man dragged a woman through the bushes and threw her against some dark, mossy rocks. There was one gunshot. The man spit and left, stumbling and casting his weight about without coordination.

La Diablesse had crept up to the woman, wondered whether it was the deep insight of her third eye which the man wished to blow away, and shuddered as the pores on her skin, from her foot to her scalp, grew cold as if overtaken by a sickly fever.

She surveyed the woman’s long white dress and the wide-brimmed white hat still gripped in one hand, and began to tug them away from her, pulling at the rim, then buttons, then skirt. She held up the dress and the moon shone through, so it appeared ghostly and alive, like a second skin that could lessen the cold she felt down to her bones. Shaking, she picked up the woman’s fallen shoe and put it on.

Many moons later, she again heard slow and deliberate footsteps, and turned quickly to hide within the folds of a large silk cotton tree trunk. A man was coming closer. He had not seen her, for the focus of his rifle was on a young deer that had only just grown to resemble its mother. Over his shoulder were iguanas, torturously tied but alive. The shot ricocheted off every held breath in the clearing. Birds screamed. The wind started to softly weep.

La Diablesse watched the man’s boots as they crushed decaying leaves, raising the scent of death. She saw him lean over the fallen deer, but unable to stomach its cold killing, she quietly crawled away, anger clawing her insides. She started to tremble just as she had when she bent over the woman and her hands crumpled the dress wrapped around her as she tried to contain her rage. She was a woman who now knew the terror of such unjust death. Who this man was did not matter. He could not do this and live.

For the first time, she began to head out of the forest, following the man, slowed by the unevenness of her legs. She reached the edge of the road and stood tall, the hat tilted against the sinking glare of the sun, the dress dancing around her. The wind sidled up to the man and whispered. He twisted and squinted into darkening forest. La Diablesse waved. She stepped back. He came closer. She moved back and the dress trailed.

The man never returned to the road. Neither did dozens of others, until these men became like grotesque companions, obsessed, then lost, then mad, then dead, with their eyes open in fear. Maybe it was a satisfying revenge in the beginning, but it soon became a feverish habit and, not long after, a terrifying fate.

Once an unknown emotion, now beautiful La Diablesse always felt lonely. Reminding her of her charm, and her wrath, the wind took her hand and ushered her to the edge of the road.

 

Post 247.

Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 1.03.41 PM.png

Seen from the air, Guyana’s forested beauty is epic. The plane’s shadow buzzed over the treetops like a gnat, insignificant in afternoon sun and in comparison to such wondrously vast tree cover.

In between, bare red rock or white sand pockmarked the surface where old forest had been razed. Mining, quarrying or logging is making some rich in the present while leaving children in the future without this inheritance, for all your generation has to give is this one precious planet.

Such wounds seem small from the plane window, but are matters of life and death, of community traditions and contemporary rights, for Indigenous women continuing to resist in Guyana even as I write.

The taxi driver couldn’t figure out where all Guyana’s money went, for a country with gold, diamonds and timber should be the wealthiest in the Caribbean. ‘It don’t make sense’, he told me.

Not in Trinidad either where our resources made some rich while leaving the place poor: hospitals dirty, public transportation insufficient, prisons over-crowded, landfills unregulated, families violent and schools failing a third of the youth.

Given deals struck with Exxon and other companies, will Guyana’s oil just pass through the country like a dose of salts? If only others could learn the Trinidad lesson that wealth makes you shallow, wasteful, corrupt and consumerist as a nation; changes values so that the main ethic becomes private gain; and erodes attention and commitment to public responsibility, public utilities and public space.

As we drove, I tried to reconcile a Guyana I knew as a teenager when my mother joined Caricom.  At the same time back then, I moved to Barbados to start secondary school at Queen’s College, leaving Trinidad to become, first, a nowherian and, later, a regionalist.

It’s as a regionalist I listened to Christopher Ram, after a television interview in a neglected studio building, talk about his time in the Grenada Revolution and the hurt he still carries at its death.

It’s hard to imagine a generation from across the Caribbean traveled to Grenada to contribute to one island state’s aspiration to get independence right. It’s difficult to identify how much that aspiration was crushed and never quite returned. From Jamaica to Guyana, you can meet people who know what the fire of hope feels like and who carry the failures of that political experiment like the loss of a loved one, in their mind’s eye when they look into distance.

Arriving in Georgetown, there were areas I didn’t recognize. ‘We get modern’, said the driver, ‘we almost like foreign’.  There are better-lit highways, burgeoning suburbs, big cars, money laundering and ostentatious religious buildings. At best, the poor people, who remain the majority, struggling with VAT and joblessness, can hope to one day inherit the earth, but not tomorrow, next year or the next decade.

Such a dream deferred isn’t good enough. So, it’s important to cast our lot with those who remain indefatigable, rather than defeated, often women, often feminists.

One of them is Vanda Radzik, who drew the University of Guyana and the Women and Gender Equality Commission together to launch the collection, ‘Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought’, which I edited with Lisa Outar, a Guyanese born feminist scholar.

I first met Vanda thirty years ago, as I became aware of the anti-violence, ecological sustainability and economic empowerment work of the Guyanese women’s movement. Today, I’m simply and inadequately, like that small plane over such vast terrain, carrying these women’s legacy, trying to always remember and learn from their dream for a different future.

Similarly, the book collection’s premise is that Indo-Caribbean feminist thought requires us to look back as part of gathering our resources for the work ahead. The ways we imagine alternatives to all forms of oppression are richer when they draw on multi-ethnic, woman-centred, solidarity-based legacies of indentureship. This is the real wealth that arrival bequeathed.

The book is being launched in Guyana this week, and on Tuesday at 6pm, in UWI’s Law Faculty Auditorium, in Trinidad. All are welcome, for all these complex and tenuous threads, from Guyana to Trinidad to Grenada to elsewhere, some of which you may be gently holding over all these decades, are woven together there.

Post 246.

Have you heard of the ‘precariat’? This term names the experience of employment or under-employment for many, and maybe for you also, in the next decade.

The precariat comprises those who are salaried, but working in conditions of extreme insecurity. Workers on one month or three month contracts, whose year-long contracted jobs with benefits have been reduced to six or nine-months without benefits, those working longer hours for the same pay, in jobs not guaranteed to be funded another year. Such people could be any of us, working in government offices or as a newspaper columnist or in the university. No chance of loans or a mortgage; uncertainty regarding whether you can pay school costs, health bills or rent; fear of whistle-blowing corruption, mismanagement or ineptitude; undercut collective bargaining power; and demoralization follow.

Think of all the workers on the breadline since fossil revenues fell away, the impact on families, and the absolute futility of underfunded social services unable to respond. From this, expect an oncoming rise of drug and human trafficking, gun crimes, gang and intimate partner violence, and religious fundamentalism as gutted governments find nations increasingly ungovernable.

But, here, the precariat is lucky because they haven’t been laid off, just underpaid and without job security. They’ve joined those already making ends meet in the informal economy, in daily-paid jobs, in home-based work, or in the poor conditions of the retail sector – where women predominate. It’s worse for the young, and worst of all for young women, despite their greater investment in education. We have yet to see whether managers and bosses will fight for fair salaries for their staff or bow to a logic that exploits those earning the least with pride that they are, at least, still salaried. It’s a loss-loss scenario and fails the standard of a human-centred economy, for people with stability are much more likely to show vision, investment and leadership in their jobs and community.

And, we can’t legitimately throw entrepreneurial language at these folks, though such tiefhead is all the rage. Entrepreneurship or self-employment has a long, proud history in the region, as farmers, market vendors, seamstresses, bakers, broom-makers, designers, music producers and others will tell you, but it comes without health or maternity benefits, clear work hours, legal protections, and a strong social safety net, and results in lower lifetime savings.

Cadres of stable jobs, particularly in institutions, are necessary, as insecure workers find it hard to think or live beyond the present and their own bottom line – a major problem in our national culture already. Such precarity is what would have been considered exploitation in better times, but what you better be grateful for today. Although, the truth is, the rise of precarious work gives rise to a precarious society.

Yet, keep these in mind.

Globally, while the incomes of poor and middle-class have risen incrementally (though precarity is reversing this), the incomes of the wealthiest have risen exponentially under neoliberal capitalism (a term which you should get off Facebook and go google). The problem isn’t one of lack of money globally or in Trinidad and Tobago.

It’s that wealth is concentrated or wielded rather than equitably or responsibly distributed, particularly to workers of all kinds. In 2002, our budget was almost 50 billion less than today, yet our population is only marginally larger. Waste, corruption and irresponsible elites have left us in this state. We must learn to follow every dollar. For, workers pay the price.

Third, though corporations, investment and equity firms, and banks, rather than governments, rule the global political economy, the state has huge responsibility for managing this moment, through its education, prison reform, border protection, gender, environmental, agricultural, public transport and other policies.

Better governmental management for greater public good is totally possible as anyone familiar with dozens of unimplemented and common sense recommendations made over the past thirty years knows. Every kind of worker must hold political elites accountable for state failures and suffering that follows.

New movements must thus emerge, for this growing group of workers can organize for greater collective power and decision-making over this increasingly insecure and unequal economy.

Welcome to the precariat for whom the struggle is present and real.