Post 239.

Organised by Christina Lewis, the first International Women’s Day march in Trinidad was held in 1958 . This year’s IWD march, which will be held tomorrow, almost sixty years later, speaks to continued work over these decades to make gender equality and equity, and women’s rights, a reality.

Come to the Savannah, opposite Whitehall, from 3pm tomorrow, and see a new generation of young women and men, from organisations as diverse as Womantra and the National Council of Indian Culture Youth Arm, take their turn in this long history.

The years between 1958 and now were not perfect for the women’s movement, and the women who continued the struggle were their own fallible and imperfect beings, but their commitment to a vision for the world, that was larger than the ups and downs of both patriarchy and collective efforts to resist it, was real.

Roberta Clarke, a feminist foremother to this younger generation, like so many other women, observed: “I remember when IWD was a handful of women marching (single file) in Woodford Square in Trinidad. We felt compelled to be visibly commemorating the day though we perhaps internally and silently wondered at its impact. Praises to CAFRA (the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action), Working Women, WINAD, DAWN (Development Alternatives for a New Era), the National Union of Domestic Employees and so many others”.

Many won’t know of or remember these organisations, but without them we wouldn’t be marching tomorrow, because, for a baton to be passed on, it has to be carried. We are supported by the Office of the Prime Minister (Gender and Child Affairs), which is the legacy of a global women’s movement pressing states to create a bureau that would advance gender justice, with the first being established in Jamaica in 1975. And, help coordinating simultaneous marches on Saturday across five Caribbean countries was provided by the Caribbean office of UN Women, itself a creation of a visionary women’s movement. Even the IGDS, which could bring the kind of support that universities should provide to social movements, is a result of twenty four years of feminist women and men labouring so we could have the resources, experience and fearlessness we do today.

My first IWD March was in the mid-1990s, just when the world and its governments were being galvanized by the Beijing World Conference on Women. There were hundreds in the marches in those years, with state branches such as the police and defense force represented, Muslim women’s associations and women leaders in their communities; men against violence against women (MAVAW); and towering figures such as Joan Yuille-Williams marching right next to Hazel Brown and the women of the ‘Network’.

I was younger and more fiery then, always buffing the gender bureau for doing too little. Time has taught me greater appreciation for those years, and the challenges which ministries of gender across the region face in being a feminist voice within the state, actively pressing against the status quo to end gender-based violence, transform our notions of manhood and womanhood, and insist there cannot be development for all, while sexism, homophobia and their dehumanizing effects on women and men persist.

This year’s march is in solidarity with the Life in Leggings movement, started by two young Barbadian women, to break silences around sexual violence. It is in solidarity with the goal of  equal pay for work of equal value, equity in terms of women and men’s participation and leadership in business and politics, and women’s economic empowerment. It is also in solidarity with the issues each of us sees as a denial of women’s rights and the solutions we want to see implemented.

We are inviting the nation’s religious, sports, youth, school, cultural and other groups; families and communities traumatized by the murder of girls and women in their midst; and individuals, who want to add to the people power we need, to “bring your message and come!” Women’s rights are everyone’s responsibility and this march is to gather our strength to boldly pursue changes we need.

Over years, I’ve learned that every effort does count, and you will be surprised who notices and feels less alone. I’ve learned to work across our differences, including with the state, for we need every ally we can get.

Tomorrow, a coalition of almost twenty organisations is giving momentum to another generation. Join us from across the nation. Together, we can make the future better for girls and women.

Post 236.

Over the last three decades, the rise of bikini mas has been considered a sign of Carnival’s loss of politics.  In this view, gone was the costuming skill and performance that defined mas itself, to be replaced by wining skill and body display, with the heyday of top male bandleaders replaced by bottom and ‘Carnival is woman’.

The feminization of Carnival was an unrepentant fall from high mas, and women’s ‘vulgarity’ was obsessively interlocked with the downfall of decency and order in the wider society. This easily fit the misbegotten myth that all the world’s troubles would be solved if only women never misbehave.

Women disagreed by the tens of thousands.

The past thirty or so years of bikini mas, which is now typical for an entire generation of young women, could therefore instead be thought of as a massive women’s movement taking cultural form, indeed ‘taking over’ Carnival, to continue traditions of self-affirmation, resistance to subordination, and renegotiation of the rules of public space.

Observers of the ‘jamette’ tradition point to the fact that women in Carnival always combined the folk politics of ‘playing mas’ with the gender and sexual politics of ‘playing yuhself’ in ways that were typically disallowed to women, and that women took both these politics into their challenges to the state.

What’s evident over the last decades is that such ‘jamette’ performance has crossed racial, religious and class differences amongst women, becoming national, and therefore even more disturbing for men as diverse as Sat Maharaj, Tim Kee, Keith Rowley and Father Harvey, with their patriarchal passion for women’s responsibility, decency, dignity and prayer.

Women’s annual occupation of the nation’s streets over Carnival, to experience sexual control, bodily pleasure and freedom from respectability, predates anti-‘slut shaming’ or ‘slut walk’ marches in the North by decades. Unexpectedly, bikini mas helped powerfully cultivate contemporary women’s opposition to rape culture, or a society where sexual domination of women and their vulnerability to sexual violence is seen as natural and normal. Though globalized, this creative expression of women’s rights is homegrown.

We saw the force of such opposition when Asami Nagakiya was murdered and the groups Womantra and Say Something called for the resignation of the PoS Mayor. We have seen it in continued ‘not asking for it’ campaigns across the region, in a younger generation of women publicly refusing old men’s bad habits of victim-blaming, and in diverse support for #lifeinleggings’ call to break silences about sexual harassment. It’s part of Say Something’s current ‘Leave me alone’, ‘Leave she alone’ campaign, in collaboration with Calypso Rose, which encourages women to share “experiences of street harassment and violence during Carnival and also of positive moments when you felt defended or protected by your Carnival community…whether as revellers or frontline workers and service providers”.

The rise of bikini mas is complex. Women’s increasing income and economic independence are major factors. Desires to be affirmed as beautiful as black and brown women, not just as ascendant students and workers, is another. Expansion of women’s spaces for friendly sexual ribaldry, such as the maticoor, into the public domain is a third, bringing with it challenges to the hypocrisy of male privilege, which allowed men all kinds of license while keeping women in check.

There are also contradictions. Costs of bikini mas participation mean that class shapes access to these moments of freedom. Many women continue to play within ropes, reproducing historical ways that upper classes cut themselves off from others, while signaling the reality of sexual harassment which all classes of women continue to fear. Additionally, the marketing of hypersexuality over these very decades has reinforced hierarchies of beauty and the policing of women’s bodies in ways that complicate the radical potential of bikini mas to throw off pressures women face, embrace self-pleasure without judgment or justification, and defy nation-state commodification.

Against nostalgic anxieties, bikini mas has enabled serious woman politics of all kinds to take up space in Carnival. It is the largest movement of women to take to the streets in the country, bringing diverse aspirations for an equal place as gendered and sexual beings. And, it has cultural capital, empowering anti-violence activists’ demands that both men and the state better behave.

Post 235.

The PNM’s media machine experienced a disastrous week of damage control in relation to PM Rowley’s words, “I am not in your bedroom, I’m not in your choice of men. You have a responsibility to determine who you associate with, and know when to get out, and the state will try to help, but then, when the tragedy occurs, and it becomes the police, the police must now go the extra mile…”

The AG said that Mr. Rowley said nothing wrong, how the PM speak is how he does speak, and that it was true that a person was “equally responsible” for his or her situation. Fitzgerald Hinds said, without irony, that he didn’t understand gender sensitivity, but he didn’t see any offense in telling women they should leave when they begin to see signs of violence, despite the fact that many women don’t leave because of economic insecurity, children or straight-up fear.

The OPM awkwardly angled the story in terms of the PM offering “empowering advice to our women” so that women could “make smart choices”. Though, these choices do not include safe and legal termination of pregnancy in situations where violent relationships may make women feel another child will mean less ability to leave.

The press release then listed Gender Affairs Division programmes which have long been in existence and are unrelated to Dr. Rowley’s leadership, and pointed to the Community Based Action Plan to End Gender Based Violence in Trinidad and Tobago, which has not yet been approved, and needs adequate resources from F&GPC to succeed.

All Mr. Rowley needed to say was, he understands how traumatized people are feeling about violence against women, he’s sorry his comments may not have been phrased in the most sensitive way, it wasn’t intentional, and he’s prepared to grow and improve in his engagement with gender-based violence, as we all should. All the spin would have been unnecessary. We are all fallible. We can all practice accountability.

Nonetheless, the problem isn’t Mr. Rowley.  It’s pervasive myths about violence against women that feel like common-sense: that women deserve it when they are abused or killed and their bad decisions are where accountability lies.

However, women have no responsibility for male violence. Men’s enactment of violence is entirely their responsibility and occurs in situations where they are taking control of a woman, not losing control of themselves. We should nonetheless consider that male violence takes place in a wider context where male supremacy is considered normal and natural. This kind of gender inequality shapes what boys learn about manhood and power as they become adults, leading to invisibility of male domination and violence except in situations where it becomes severe.

Second, women do not get into relationships with men who are abusive. Abuse develops over the course of relationships and may start when women get pregnant, the more children they have, when they become economically dependent, when they get their own jobs, when men lose their jobs, when women try to leave, and when they take out protection orders.

Third, gender-based violence is a societal, public health and citizenship issue when women’s inequality, and their greater vulnerability to violence defines their experience of belonging to the country. Intimate partner violence is only one kind of violence that women experience by the thousands each year. Yet, state response to violence against women has never been adequate at the level of policing, social services, anti-gender based violence training in schools, and in the court system. The protection order system needs to be completed revised. Programmes for perpetrators or men who want to address their own violence, or its potential, need to be in place.

The fact is that its women’s refusal, whether on the street, in gyms, in offices or in relationships – not choosing of men – that often provokes violence. And, state officials need to be clear that women are at risk at work, in transportation to and from work, and when they become unemployed and are searching for work. Women are already choosing to leave when they can, and being stalked, harassed and even killed because of it. Right now, “empowering advice” from the PM simply is not what all these women need.

Post 224.

Vigilance. For, few victories are absolute.

From bloggers to protesters, a generation asserted itself in the call for Mayor Kee’s resignation. Women in their 20s and 30s, supported by men and older women, made a rare show of public power over sexist language regarding violence against women. One commentator compared it to the Black Power movement when an earlier generation mobilized against the mores of their parents’ status quo.

Others argued that protests should have been over the murder of Asami Nagakiya, rather than officialdom’s response. They missed the fact that this generation fully understands the interlock of both. The uproar was about another example of violence against women. Yet, everything said also protested commonplace sexual harassment, sexual assault and other kinds of public gender-based harm, precisely because these normalize violence, or fear and threat of violence, as a fact of women’s lives. Women are right to not only focus on single losses of life or single incidences of abuse when feelings of fear in public, and women’s lack of public and private safety, is pervasive, yet invisible to many or worse denied or, worse yet, blamed on women themselves.

The state is obligated to create conditions within which women, who are particular targets of violence, are safe, regardless. It is one thing to live in a nation where harassment, rape, beatings, trafficking and murder continue, with too few of these resulting in convictions or change. It is another when state officials use moments of such violence to point fingers away from state accountability. And do so with impunity, as if the consequences of state failure around violence are not experienced every day. That this was a moment of insisting on state officials’ answerability, in a country where its lack costs us billions, is not to be dismissed. Accountability to non-sexist language and decision-making might seem insignificant, but it at the core of women’s citizenship.

Women of this generation targeted the Mayor because they understood that they too were under attack. The supposed harm to decency and morality posed by women flinging waist is debated every year, and is a 150 year-old panic rooted in the tyranny of respectability hypocritically imposed on women, determining their status, meaning and value. Yet, the past decade’s noticeable trend among students is an overwhelming concern with women’s sexual and bodily liberty. Fueled by celebrity-led movements and world marches against slut shaming is the idea that women should be able to go wherever, however and whenever they choose. In 2013 for example, young women, led by Renelle White, held their own ‘slut walk’, titled a ‘Jammette March’, on the promenade, to insist that women’s sexuality doesn’t provoke male violence. Male violence explains male violence.

Between the emergence of ‘Carnival as woman’ and female students seeing educational and employment gains as insufficient in the face of continued sexual violence and shaming, an articulate power has been developing which clearly can amass. In questioning a trend that seemed to emphasise the right to choose without adequately engaging the contents of such choice, many missed its political potential. While Mayor Kee’s resignation was not a ‘solution’, it was thus a victory for a globalized generation for whom ‘slut’ or jamette shaming matters.

Luckily, international press was upon us. The PM had already affirmed Mayor Kee’s intention to resign. Public and media opinion put his comments as inappropriate, with his apology adding insult to injury. Over 10 000 signatures appeared on a petition, started by young feminist group Womantra, giving a mandate to momentum. Behind and in front the scenes, women from both political parties also weighed in.

But, vigilance.

Clyde Paul retains authority in Port Fortin despite responding, “What action must Tim Kee resign for. I hope when the truth of the young lady’s murder unfolds some people could handle it.”  Religious leaders are morbidly capitalizing on a woman’s murder to insist on women’s morality. This backlash strengthens the lie that covering up and being decent will protect women from harm.

To refuse that protection racket, a generation of gender-conscious women and men will have to be serious about successful organizing. One battle may be won, but a war over women’s freedom is one we cannot afford to lose.

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Post 217.

Contemporary celebrity-led, liberal feminism mass markets a super-feminine image to young women today. This brand of empowerment-on-stilettos shouts out independent ladies who make their own money and it promotes unapologetic sexiness as ultimate self-expression and woman power.
 
This ideal didn’t come from nowhere. In the last decades, as women began to enter the formal economy in droves, they encountered a backlash telling them they were stepping out of their pre-ordained, natural spaces, jobs and roles, and were acting like men or like they wanted to be men. Imagine the pressure to find ways to not be de-sexed, to not be considered the wrong kind of too-mannish woman, to access the validation of femininity as well as education and the economy. Women were, after all, still being brought up to identify with and desire all three.
 
They had to be better than boys at school and men at work to get to the top, but they also had to make sure they didn’t end up without a man, marriage and children, in case they failed to be ‘real’ women. In addition to leaving room for men to be men, desirability was the other key balance all women had to negotiate, or be labeled too masculine. Failure to be successful in this way came with myriad costs. The fashion industry stepped in to make sure that brains in no way made beauty obsolete.
 
This brief history explains how smart, qualified women all over can today be seen in offices in five-inch heels, unheard of thirty years ago. It explains how women came to see shoes and makeup as empowering, and why so much hard-earned money is cycled back into lipstick rather than owning land. Do as well as they could in the job market, women would be left feeling like the carpet if they were also not responsible enough to become ‘appropriately’ feminine, meaning as they are expected and are told.
 
Women get endless messages that being sexualized remains important and defines our worth. Scan months of Carnival photos, magazines that stare from racks, billboards and commercials. We produce a brilliant array of women’s mas, yet one newspaper’s Carnival Wednesday front page was a full-page photo of Amber Rose. You are invisible and undervalued if you are not sexy and beautiful. Even independent ladies hear this loud and clear.
 
Except Shannon Gomes. She’s among young women denied by such packaging. Intending to be beautiful without stilettos. Looking good and being empowered on her own terms, wherever she goes. Wanting to be seen and valued as a woman without Maybelline making her ‘you, only better’. What happens to her form of femininity in this terrain of empowered womanhood as stereotypically sexy?
 
Unsurprisingly, it becomes cast as failure, as disallowed, as inappropriate, as ‘man’. And, there are costs for such women. There was a cost for Shannon. Denied her womanhood. Denied her femininity. Denied self-determination regarding her body. Stigmatized for not obeying the fashion fix. Told that this is private property, you have no rights. Made to pay.
 
Imagine your daughter or sister being told that if she does not make herself desirable on the most patriarchal of terms, then she is not a woman at all. This is how sexism and homophobia police sexuality and gender.
 
For months I wanted to write this column, highlighting the risks of selling women’s empowerment within hyper-femininity, sexiness and beauty. These normalize and glamorize narrowed options for women to challenge power. They create hierarchies between women. Exclusions are borne by those who don’t conform. Aria Lounge’s petty tyranny isn’t just theory.
 
Young people are protesting there on Friday night, as they should, for sexist discrimination is worth shaming wherever it occurs. Support them with engagement rather than ridicule. Shannon’s experience is but another example of negations reproduced in media images, religious messages, workplace expectations and relationship negotiations. This is why feminists challenge the beauty myth, though its glamour appears innocent. This is why schooling and jobs don’t mean women are yet free. Women should not be forced to fit stereotypical femininity, and feminist bright lights should also highlight those who don’t live by such rules, and who more greatly face a reality of being denied and demeaned. #solidaritywithshannon

Post 190.

Election season. Hard-to-meet politicians on the street. Shaking hands and influencing people.

You decide you won’t let it be that easy. Too much injustice out here. You want to know exactly what this politician promises to do. You’re clear on your issues and you’re clear that these issues deserve serious answers.

So, you not staying quiet. Let politician skin teeth some next time. You rewriting the campaign script to show what people really saying. Families bawling. So you not feeling to be nice, but you plan to be powerful, not impolite. Now is to hear the people, not hush them, to earn each vote with honesty and humility. You not going to be dismissed because you defending rights.

Anyone who has ever been frustrated by long-term, avoidable, injurious governmental failing can surely identify with being so fed up and angry.

Now imagine that that same politician starts feeling badgered by you because he won’t answer your question, and it’s clear you not giving up or getting intimidated.

Annoyed, he calls you “an idiot” and “a little piece of shit”, and threatens, for others to hear, that he could “slap her ass…just for the fun of it”, that he could have you stripped by “some of my women”, because you keep interrupting his media interview with your demands to know what he’s going to do about so many mothers dying from childbirth.  He tells you to “shut up” and “eff off”. His later press release claims you provoked him into such violence. Shame.

Now imagine your name is Sherlina Nageer and you are confronting Guyana’s Minister of Health, Dr. Bheri Ramsaran, to hold his government accountable for providing safe, professional and respectful sexual and reproductive health services to women, a struggle being fought for decades and not yet won. You see exactly how fighting for women’s rights risks abuse, threats and intimidation.

Now, imagine this story is yours. Maybe because the tragic loss of first time mother, 24 year old Keisha Ayers, who died days after a C-section in Mount Hope hospital was finally too much. Maybe because it finally happened to someone you love.

Wouldn’t you then hope that the way that the politicians deal with ordinary citizens, the way that powerful men speak to women, the way that mothers are mistreated in the health system, the way that women’s deaths fail to provoke high level public recognition and response, is seen for what it is, drawing solidarity from all citizens across our region?

In 2013, Barbados had two maternity related deaths. One in 1100 women faced risk of maternal mortality. Jamaica had 40 deaths, but 1 in 540 women faced risk of maternal mortality. Trinidad and Tobago had 16 deaths, and a 1 in 640 chance of maternal mortality. Guyana had 40 deaths, with 1 in 150 women facing risk of maternal mortality, the highest rate in the English-speaking Caribbean. It matters that those numbers are falling, but that matters less than the women still unnecessarily dying.

Amidst our own wrong-and-strong election season, Sherlina Nageer, Trinidad and Tobago sends our solidarity to you in Guyana. As the petition written by young Caribbean feminist organisations, Code Red for Gender Justice and Womantra, stated, “We call on our state managers to denounce acts of violence wherever they occur. We caution our politicians throughout the region that their silence on these offences against its citizens speaks volumes to their commitment to gender justice and the rights of women. If they will not speak out due to a lack of political will, we will speak out in the knowledge of what is right.”

Sign the petition at: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/petition/All_Caribbean_people_Solidarity_with_Sherlina_Nageer_all_womens_human_rights_defenders/

On Wednesday 29 April, Ramsaran was fired: http://www.stabroeknews.com/2015/news/stories/04/29/ramsaran-fired/