Post 337.

As a child, the white handkerchief in the right back pocket of my dad’s pants would dry my tears. Collecting his belongings, after he unexpectedly died of a heart attack on Thursday in St. Vincent, in a pair of his pants folded on a shelf, I found his handkerchief, soft and familiar.

I slid it into my own right back pocket, his habit giving me comfort and connection. At the morgue, I stood bewildered, clutching that small cotton square, willing his eyes to open, contemplating the hard metaphysics that we can be here and not here at the same time.

I said all the things one says, it’s okay, I forgive you, I forgive myself, I’m sorry some people hurt you, I’m so glad some people treated you well, I wish you peace, I thank you, I love you. When I couldn’t think in words anymore, I stroked his hair and his head, breathing for us both, breathing, breathing.

My dad, Azad Nazar Hosein (February 9, 1943 – June 6, 2019) was brilliant. He was devastatingly logical, had an absorbed and dominating mind, and could sharply envision both a far end and each step in between. He opened the first computer school in the country, called ComTech, and I distinctly remember him teaching students to code, standing at a wooden podium with a gold plaque printed with the word, “Think”.

For decades, he worked with governments on strategic planning and project management like a guru in the field. He was a workaholic, committed to the region, his students, preventing fiscal mis-management, and empowering civil servants with whom he collaborated.

He was also difficult and unpredictable, and for a long time I struggled. I learned forgiveness and compassion from loving him as I grew older, but I also learned how to protect my boundaries, how I wanted to be loved, and what it means to both be a survivor and be who I am because of his strengths. Fathers are not always easy.

Stroking his hair, time fell away, and I was no longer the adult intimate with his gifts and failings. The more his cold body became real, the more insubstantial I felt, like I was dissipating into a ghost of myself at five or six years old, crumpling his handkerchief and drying my tears. I had not stroked his hair so gently like that for nearly forty years, with the entirety of a child’s adoration and affection. It was visceral and mutual, he adored me then too.

I saw him on Monday in a chance encounter in the Tobago airport. He was fasting for Ramadan and had just swum in the ocean. He looked tall, confident and well for his seventy-six years. We spent time discussing procurement and corruption. He started the conversation by saying he hadn’t seen me write in the newspaper about the new US laws against abortion, and launched into a short speech about how he strongly believed in a woman’s right to choose.

How did he manage to believe that his work with Caribbean governments would change how we strategise, implement and evaluate when it had not as yet? He said, you have to have eternal optimism that things will improve in the region. I looked at him, smiling to myself, so clearly the child of my parents’ politics and commitments, features and mannerisms.

Working at UWI reminds me of my dad, who also once lectured there. I think of him striding long-legged across the field to the mainframe computers on campus, with boxes of punch cards in his arms, while I ran alongside to keep up at six or seven years old. I think of him helping me learn to ride my bicycle on Dash Street, opposite UWI school, where I climbed trees in the lush backyards of campus housing. I think of him calling me ‘sugarplum’ when I would leap into his arms and touch his hair.

Before he boarded the plane on Monday, he retold the story of his happiness on the day I was born. I was the girl he wanted. Now I think I should have taken a picture of us, should have hugged him longer, but all I have is that he kissed me on the cheek and I saw him smile for the last time. He was not perfect, but he was mine.

In the morgue on Friday morning, the pathologist came out with my dad’s heart covered in a bowl in his hand. While he explained the autopsy results, I kept looking at his wrapped heart. This was the heart beating in his body on Monday. This was the heart I wanted to love me. Here for the last time was his heart. Now, there would be only memory and acceptance. No more chances to make anything right.

I was four years old when I stood next to my dad at his mother’s funeral, his handkerchief on his head while he prayed. For the first time I will be there again, on Thursday, his handkerchief drying my tears as he is laid to rest in his mother’s grave.

 

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Post 226. RED CARD RAPE CULTURE.

UWI’s responsibility is to transform the Caribbean by nurturing students’ commitment to fairness, justice, non-violence and sustainability. Young men have as much role as young women in creating gender equality and ending cultures of domination founded on sexism and homophobia. Indeed, this is my answer to the oft-asked question, ‘What about the men?’

Men have power to end violence against women at the staggering rates at which it occurs, just as they have responsibility to collectively organize to transform masculinities that create risk in boys and men’s lives. Young men have the opportunity to define their own identities by different ideals from those of past generations, creating future Caribbean male leaders willing to exchange the perks of privilege for the politics of justice for all, and a legacy in which women’s rights are never left behind.

Such commitment requires social movements that challenge the status quo and its tolerance for inequitable social norms. It requires role models and collective reward for positive change, thus changing young men’s options, solidarities, strategies and dreams.

Boys are now growing up conscious of themselves as gendered beings because of conversations about womanhood and manhood which feminism introduced into contemporary culture. This means that there’s potential among young men still working out their truths and transformations against educational advancements of young women and, yet, resilience of sexual violence against them. Such contradictions mark a cultural crossroads, and chance for young men to strike out directions that lead to dead ends.

Last Friday, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, St. Augustine Campus, collaborated with the young men of the dorm, Canada Hall, to give young men a non-judgmental space to imagine a world without sexual violence against women. ‘Red Card Rape Culture’ wasn’t just a workshop with male students from ten Caribbean countries, or a hashtag that could go viral, it was a metaphor for men’s power to refuse the impunity of such violence. For, the field could never be level with such pervasive foul play, and their best selves would never let things run that way.

Rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence is glamorized, trivialized and excused in media and popular culture, leaving no guarantees for women regarding freedom from objectification of their bodies, disregard for their rights, unwanted advances, dehumanization or male domination. It’s the imposition of what men want and how they want it on girls and women.

Given that this is one of the issues most raised by their young, female peers, International Men’s Day, commemorated on November 19th, provided an ideal moment to meet young men’s needs for politically-progressive mentorship and to encourage their contributions to movement-building.

The workshop tackled beliefs, blame, consent, shaming and normalization. It went through a range of statements that included: “There are situations when a girl says no but she means yes”, “Rapists think differently from other men”, “It is a woman’s responsibility to not get raped”, “It’s wrong to lead him on and when he is ready… say “no””, “She sent me pics. She should have known I would share it”, “Nothing wrong with lyrics from songs like Kick Een She Back Door”, and “Women bring out a part in men that they cannot control.”

Young men could ‘red card’ the statements they disagreed with, ‘yellow card’ those they were not sure about, and ‘green card’ those they considered right. They could see each other doing it, noting when they shared views or differed, and observing both consensus and individual resistance. At the end, they wrote their own counter-messages. Some of these were: “A Man Is Like A Taxi Driver, He Knows When To Stop”, “Women Should Not Live In Fear, How She’s Dressed Does Not Mean Yes”, “If She Says No, Get Up and Go”, and “No Doesn’t Mean Yes”.

For International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, commemorated today, these statements are now on social media as memes and across the campus as posters, giving these young men’s words visibility, as part of transforming the kinds of commitments UWI men articulate as ideal.

End violence. Empower women and men to create gender equality. Transform our Caribbean future. #redcardrapeculture.

Post 221.

The failure rate in my most effective first year course was the highest in ten years. There’s something going on in our education system, before students get to UWI, which has led them to check out of an investment in their own learning. I don’t think this deterioration is slowing down.

In 2006, students were assigned four readings per week, and mostly completed them in time for class. By this year, we were down to two readings per week, and even then, by mid-semester, the majority had stopped reading both or even one in entirety.

The course explicitly includes multiple learning opportunities, levels and styles. It asks students to do their own internet research and to present what they have learned about concepts and definitions to their peers to compare what I teach with their own findings. Assignments also require students to read newspapers or scan on-line media, and to present gendered analyses of its content based on articles or images they choose. These are also presented as a basis for peer learning, and tutors both facilitate discussion and provide feedback.

In addition to encouraging self-directed on-line research, analysis of media and peer-teaching, the course also provides students with an opportunity to undertake original historical research using sources in their midst. We teach them how to logically organize a short essay, define and apply key concepts, conduct an interview, and analyze their data. And, the end of term project is a group assignment that requires them to engage others on the campus in well-researched, creative and interactive ways in order to raise awareness about an issue of their choice. For six weeks, we lead students through the process of putting together this final project which is especially good for those who are better at discussion than essay writing.

Over the years, we have provided more and more detailed guidance. This year, I gave the students as close an approximation to the exam questions as ethical, along with rubric that identified how each question should be answered, and the list of three readings that provided core parts of the answer. There were four compulsory questions and no surprises or tricks. A depressing number of students failed, not just 19 out of 40 fail, but with marks ranging from 4 to 14 out of 40. We reviewed these exams three times and were unable to salvage any extra marks on students’ behalf.

I know this is a trend. Many other lecturers, and possibly also secondary school teachers and parents, will attest to this. In my own experience in university twenty years ago, I read books. In my second year Political Science class alone, I read Plato, Bentham, Rousseau, Mill and Marx. Whole books. There is no chance that could happen here today. Learning specialists suggest using more audio-visual materials and tech tools, but reading remains fundamental, and we see the limitations of students’ inability to deal with reading material when they enter both workplaces and graduate school.

Folks like Minister Imbert and others with more opinion than understanding resort to quick explanations for such failure, which often rely on blaming lecturers. Yet, we get students whose writing skills are far below the starting point we need, who read superficially, haphazardly or not at all, and who seem not too bothered about the idea of being responsible for your own education. Against uninformed stereotypes, many of us at UWI are passionate teachers who aim for that place that encourages students to question everything, to think about their contribution to our society, and to grow intellectually and professionally, rather than being a certification mill.

My course was designed specifically to connect classroom learning to the outside world and to make sure that learning is relevant, passionate, personal and collective. Yet, increasingly, that is hard to accomplish. My high expectations of students, that they will aim to be the best in the world, that they will read what we assign and perhaps more, seem less and less shared.

As I plan for a semester of teaching that begins next week, I hope to both understand this trend and be able to better address it in the mere twelve weeks of undergraduate life that lie ahead.

Post 188.

Last Thursday, my Men and Masculinities in the Caribbean students were out on campus learning through engagement with pro-feminist men’s movement-building. These were students who never imagined they would choose to publicly critique homophobia for hurting both gay and straight men. Students who never imagined they would become passionate about raising boys, not to be men, but to be good people, considered to be nurturers just as naturally as women.

Students who never imagined they would commit to the idea that men’s issues are best addressed through men and women’s solidarity to dismantle and transform men’s unequal privilege and power. Older men who never imagined they would play Midnight Robber breaking down patriarchy and younger men who never imagined they would say that this is what a feminist looks like, referring to themselves.

You might think this kind of movement-building is not possible, or too feminist for folks of all religions, races, ages and creeds to connect to. But, it’s amazing how students change once it clicks that patriarchy and the culture of male domination both benefit and hurt boys and men. For, different men occupy different positions of power and status that give them uneven access to resources, rights and respect.

While students saw men’s issues as their higher rates of suicide and alcoholism, high rates of prostate cancer, high risk behaviours, lower investments in schooling, and greater silence about experiences of child sexual abuse, they also understood women’s experiences of male domestic abuse, sexual violence and sexual harassment as men’s issues.

Such movement-building creates greater consciousness of the idea that men, not just women, are responsible for advancing women’s rights to equality and equity in politics and the economy, challenging women’s sexual vulnerability to men, and breaking the interlock between femininity, housework and care of children. It sees women’s full freedom to choose whatever happens to their bodies as a question of justice in which men should invest. For, what kind of manhood is proudly invested in injustice?

Such movement-building aims to end notions of manhood based in the beliefs of men’s natural headship of families, religious communities, the economy, the public sphere and the state. It reaches out to male allies willing to end sexism and homophobia, both of which teach that manhood is and should be nothing like womanhood, leading men to seek refuge in a macho, heterosexual ideal, despite the stigma, shame, and fears of harm it creates among men who don’t measure up, regardless of their sexuality.

Recognising men’s feelings of emasculation because of shifting relations between females and males, such movement building engages men in a conversation with women and amongst themselves about the long struggle against sexism in which men need to get involved.

In this conversation, the misleading ‘men’s rights’ myth that men are now marginalized, meaning oppressed by women and excluded from power, is questioned. Girls are not wrongly be blamed for boys’ choices regarding school work, women for earning qualifications to compete with men in the legal job market, mothers and wives for men’s resort to crime and violence, or feminists for “too much equality”. Students know that ending women’s subordination would end the pressure men face to avoid appearing too feminine or too ‘gay’, enabling men to be valued for simply being human beings.

What are men’s issues? What are our most creative, interactive and analytically sound strategies for tackling them without reproducing a battle of the sexes? And, what will a Caribbean men’s movement look like after a thousand students have learned how to explain why pro-feminist movement-building is necessary? In the decade ahead, watch and see.

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Post 187.

Universities are special. So too are university students, often the young, poised to choose from between the old and new.

Because intellectual freedom as the basis for political engagement remains a core philosophy, students can claim campus space in a way much harder to negotiate when they are younger and in schools where rules, discipline and adult authority are more valued.

Here, students have greater freedom to decide what knowledge and power they want to exercise, to practice strategizing about everything from marches to teach-ins, and to publish their own newspapers, speak out through their own radio stations or manage a budget to finance their own social movements.

It was at university that I was first inspired by a global mix of young people who ran a radical campus women’s centre, gave radio waves to lesbian and gay performers’ poetry and music, and were astoundingly well informed about injustices against Palestinians, small farmers’ challenges to corporate control of agriculture or UN conventions on human rights.

Later, at UWI, I’d just decide to set up a tent in the quadrangle and facilitate workshops, for example on masculinities, media, or the global political economy. Gender studies undergrads were there with me then and later on when they led their own consciousness raising workshops and marches on campus, freely and without fear.

Over the past decade of my students’ engagement in creative advocacy, many have used chalk graffiti to write messages, raise questions and create game boards on UWI’s concrete walls and passageways, for where else would they be able to do that legitimately? They’d lie on the ground in enough numbers to represent women killed by their partners or shout out against patriarchal debasement of female bodies, without anybody ever writing to administration or police for permission. University life gives many a first, rare chance to safely practice a politics of public engagement.

Even with assignments and faculty to maneuver, nothing stops students from also pursuing an education in defending rights, justice and peace, and for cultivating leadership in ways that draw on universities’ long history of internationalism.

With such spirit in mind, from today, Thursday 9th April, UWI students and the public are invited to show their solidarity with Kenyan Garissa University students.

Exactly one week ago, from dawn, 148 students were killed by al-Shabab, a Somali militant group, which attacked their campus.

So, from 5.30am, we will have placed a small, simple memorial next to the North gate. The public and students are asked to stop for a few moments anytime over the next week to mourn, and to attach a pen to the fence as a symbol of solidarity

Pens are not just for defending cartoonists, but are a symbol of learning that crosses geographical, ethnic, gender and religious boundaries. Pens are a symbol of budding students’ self-expression and self-empowerment. Mightier than any sword, they allow personal articulation as well as universal representation of outrage. Pens symbolize a wish to prevent erasure.

We can’t but stop to remember a massacre of university students so like our own. We can’t but think about why states’ wars over power, borders and resources, and the inflammatory mix of religion, masculinity and militarism, must be challenged.

Universities exist amidst killings in the name of nation, wealth or God, and amidst pervasive violence that strikes the most vulnerable. Yet, it is not everyday that 148 university students are amongst the world’s fallen, starkly reminding us that injustice can include attacks on schools anywhere, threatening both justice and education everywhere.

Our losses and struggles are connected. Add your pen. Make our memorial and solidarity collective.

For more info see the FB event page: Memorial and Solidarity: For Kenyan Garissa University Students #147notjustanumber.

Post 182.

At one primary school, the friendly teacher interviewing Ziya looked up from reading her form when, under religion, I listed ‘none’. ‘None?’ she clarified incredulously, examining me anew, like I was a zaboca that beguiled with firm, green potential, only to appear blackened when cut open.

Inside I chuckled, sometimes Zi decide she’s Christian, and the other day asked me what a soul was. Other times, she loves the azan, making up her own sounds to the call to prayer, and asking to learn Arabic. Yet, she’s being raised by an anthropologist who will teach her to value the cultural richness of religious cosmologies while emphasizing that the earth, with its sky, rivers, seas and forests, is her most inclusive temple, mosque and church. Modern world religions have historically considered that kind of peasant approach to the divine ‘pagan’, but no need to write that on the form, right?

At another school, the kindly principal asked me what I teach at UWI and, when I responded that I teach feminist theory, nodded sagely as she observed me closer, concluding that that explained a lot, gesturing with both hands at something seemingly telling about my appearance.

Another chuckle, because before our interview, Ziya’s teachers had neatened her hair and reminded me to smile, likely noting that it hadn’t occurred to me to dress either of us any different than we would for a normal school or work day, dressing to impress enough to get into a school not how I roll.

It was news to me that children had to even interview to get into a primary school. Suddenly, I discovered the conversations long being had by parents of other little brown sapodillas, focusing on the strictness of teachers, the friendliness of principals, the school’s SEA results, and the balance between academic and other activities.

Choosing private schools reinforces class segregation, but sometimes you weigh your politics against the learning environment best for your child, focusing not on pass rates, but on music or science opportunities or school teaching philosophy.

My dream is for a primary school where children learn through play, experimentation, interaction, innovation and unselfconscious creativity. I wish that primary schools would spend more time on agriculture and biodiversity, for what knowledge is more important than how to grow food and save our planet’s ecology. I’d love desks in circles or cool-shaped collective tables, rather than the efficient and militarized organization of rows of student bodies.

Mostly, I hope for a primary school where Zi learns about care, cooperation and self-confidence and not just competition, where she learns how to be responsible for her rights and freedom, not just obedient to discipline, and where she learns to value speaking up for social justice more than her own social mobility.

When some of the top scoring students in the country come to UWI, I meet them mostly unwilling to speak out publicly, mostly inattentive to global affairs, mostly disconnected from our region’s ecology, mostly without compelling inner curiosity, and mostly familiar with treating each other like widgets rather than interconnected, fearless human beings. Students are clearer on exams than comprehension, critique or how to connect seemingly disparate ideas.

With one more interesting school interview to go, I’m wondering what options are best and what decision to make. Passing tests is considered important, but I’m interested in passion for and openness to all forms of knowledge, whether from making mushrooms grow, observing how mas is made, googling social movements or practicing meditation. Education should make us better selves and world citizens, and such understanding starts with how we school our children.

Post 127.

On Saturday, at Central Bank, I gave a talk on why we should end sexism and homophobia. The talk explains why ending them would improve life for everyone, and is aimed at those in power. It’s pitched to all the people who think that they are not hurt by sexism and homophobia, and to those people who don’t want to be treated unequally. The talk includes statistics, legislative review, stories, quotes, cool pics and performance poetry.

Shout outs to my students are the sub-text of the entire presentation. The slide background was the awesome logo for the student feminist group, ‘Consciousness Raising’, which was active from 2007-2009 and was the first group to come out of my women’s studies class.  They held campus marches for two years for International Women’s Day and International Day Against Violence for Women. The words in their logo are ‘solidarity’, ‘freedom’, ‘take action’ and ‘change’.

The students I quoted in my talk also formed groups such as ‘Support for Change’, in 2011, to advocate for the national gender policy. They run Facebook discussion safe spaces like ‘Womantra’.  They start campaigns of all kinds such as a Port of Spain and UWI slutwalk action to show that women’s sexuality in no way justifies rape. They initiated the CARICOM-targeted campaign to end homophobia and transphobia. These students are also active in the gender studies-led Break the Silence campaign to end child sexual abuse and incest. When people ask for feminism, these are its young leaders in their actively expanding numbers. Women and men working in a wide range of movements. Rock on, radical university youth!

Among the coolest things I showed was the picture of my Introduction to Women’s Studies class of 2013. This is the seventh year that my students have done popular actions on women’s rights at UWI, in a course first taught in 1982. These are the people doing movement engaging and building, and I got to put their faces in her/history. My students this year were open-minded, thoughtful, ethical and courageous. It’s wonderful to see a politically conscious, Caribbean feminist generation coming out of UWI.

I hope the PNM, in its upcoming Parliamentary critique, doesn’t miss this kind of national contribution, particularly in light of the party’s anti-choice and homophobic prejudice, simply so they can score political points. We will see.

I struggled a lot with the words in my talk. In Caribbean feminist academia and activism, there is lively debate about whether to use words like ‘equality’ or words like ‘equity’, or even ‘transformation’, also whether to use ‘homophobia’, which actually misrepresents the issue but is at least commonly known, or whether to use ‘heterosexism’. I also wrestled a lot with my talk’s absence of direct reference to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered persons and women, though it is hard-core anti-sexism activism.

There is a lot of talk in the country, not all of it constructive. The TEDx Port of Spain 2013 event featured an inspiring line up of speakers, including Etienne Charles, Attillah Springer, Wayne Kublalsingh, Rondel Benjamin and Keegan Taylor, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, Father Clyde Harvey, Erle Rahaman-Noronha, Debrah Lewis and Dominique Le Gendre. In about a week, Google TEDx POS 2013, sit back and check them out.

There are also past talks by Sunity Maharaj, Verna St. Rose Greaves, Christopher Laird of Gayelle and others. My talk included Episode 4 of my ‘If I was Prime Minister’ series, started in 2009. For Mrs. Persad-Bissessar’s Cabinet, it’s a must-see.

It’s also for those with homophobic religious beliefs, or who care about children, the economy and creating safe communities. Watch it with an eye to the leadership we will need beyond 2015.