Post 325.

YOUNG PEOPLE were the most joyous part of Saturday’s International Women’s Day march. Many were university students bringing their friends, their homemade posters, their radiant energy, and their sense of participating in their moment in history.

The goal was always to provide a space in our nation for younger generations to experience the safety and inclusiveness, yet fearless politics, of a global feminist movement long challenging violence, gendered divisions of labour, homophobia, and domination of women and nature. It was to carry a legacy, begun in San Fernando in 1958, just long enough and lovingly enough to hand it on.

It was to provide an example of wide public representation, creative expression, diverse concerns, and intimacy with the dreams and labour of home-grown Caribbean feminisms. It was to bring young women and men together at a time when we already know men can be feminist. Finally, it was to remind about the humbling lessons of cross-class solidarity, for we march without registration, without ropes, and always mindful of women workers’ realities. Just bring your message and come.

Riffling through our visual archives, young people’s posters show them far ahead of the ruling generation of obsolete men and complicit women, together holding back on their promise of equal and inclusive citizenship, and holding onto an old order that upcoming ages have already transcended.

In the decades of the IWD march, the issues have expanded from a focus on girls and women’s rights to include those of transgender persons – those who dis-identify with the dominant expectations of masculinity and femininity or the identities of male and female or the category of heterosexual.

Sounds like they just want to be human, observed my eight-year-old, something a parliament of representatives isn’t brave enough to see. Meanwhile, we too must keep learning to challenge our privileges in our leadership, improving our accountability to people with disabilities, First Nations’ Peoples and refugees.

Caribbean feminism was always the region’s most radical struggle to recognise us as human beings, however we choose to live and love as families, neighbours and citizens consenting and contributing to a greater good. And, some moments, it seems like that message rings clear.

Though today only a few hundred, in a decade there may be thousands marching. Just enough to open the corridors of power in our homes, schools, corporate boardrooms and Cabinet.

Nurtured amongst those who have come of age in TT’s most progressive big tent where Soroptomists march with ASJA Ladies who march with the National Union of Government and Federated Workers’ Women’s Executive Council who march with Womantra who march with CAISO who march with the Breastfeeding Association of TT who march with the UWI Guild of Students who march with the Silver Lining Foundation who march with the Single Mothers’ Association of TT who march with TTUTA, all carrying flags that call for gender justice.

The full list of organisations is much longer, showing a feminist movement that endures despite the precariousness of NGO survival. The Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, Women Working for Social Progress, the Women’s Institute for Alternative Development, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Conflict Women, Mamatoto, the CEDAW Committee of TT, the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action, the Family Planning Association of TT, the Association of Female Executives of TT, and more were all there.

These long-established women’s organisations held on through the decades to see another generation, that doesn’t even know their history or their name, spring fresh, certain and strong.

Women’s inter-generational mentoring of civic challenge to all the harms of patriarchal power, and radical impatience for a world already possible can be seen in those youthful posters.

There are many reasons to march. To protest or to add public power to public outcry. To build a movement. To inspire those who didn’t know they were imaginable and their dreams realisable.

To make our numbers a source of strength for when we return to everyday struggle. To simply take up public space. To find that woven into the labour, despair, risk, exhaustion and hard lessons are also community, hope, successes and joy.

When students come, on their own, it is a sign of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. They marched for better for themselves and each other, for better without violence or silence, fear or favour. The struggle continues. Next year, we will be here so they grow stronger.

 

 

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 273.

Minshall mas was an iconic meeting of national colours, the red confined to the band’s massive banners while all else was the white of sailor mas combined with deep blackness of God’s omniscient eye. Who knew that white and black pared down to absolute essentials could feel so epic in a sea of multi-colour? Who knew a Burroquite, derived from the Spanish word burroquito, could play the immortal, winged Pegasus from Greek mythology, as if the little donkey of traditional mas could aspire to be a stallion, like Aldrick and his dragon, just to cross the stage?

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Hurrying from a fete to the Savannah to see Exodus competing at pan finals with moko jumbies and Minshall’s banners hovering overhead, I thought about the headiness of the stage. Hard to define, but like music, when its vortex envelopes you and that wind coming down from the Northern Range hits your skin, it’s like you feel no pain.

If you don’t play Carnival, you don’t realize how much beauty there is to miss. The heart of the moment remains with traditional mas and with small brilliantly creative bands. Like with pan, our best cultural values are practiced in traditional mas making, their outcomes worn on the body like sacred thread.

Mas making involves intense commitment to long hours of hard work, community-building and collective happiness. It involves grounded theorizing as highfalutin as anything found in a museum, and political clap back through direct satire or alternate envisioning for nation, history, ecology and dignity.

It involves immense skill. You might think the same thing is being repeated every year and fail to see the nuanced experiments with weight, beadwork, painting, colour, rope-making, wire and cloth that characterize a lifetime of work with art.

Besides sacred threads, the high mass of jouvay brought its ethereal bliss right when the sun begins to rise over the hills and your pores raise with indescribable gratitude that religious orthodoxy doesn’t have a stranglehold on all that is holy, for the separation between the sacred and profane is merely one form of social order, and it’s possible to feel fully alive and free and God-given while dutty and in old clothes and keenly aware of how much of the world is a hell we should turn upside down. So much is going on as you move through town, you can see how Lovelace couldn’t limit himself to short sentences for a spirit seems to fill the streets like words jumbieing a full stop.

With 3 Canal, and against the backdrop of the Laventille Rhythm Section, there’s a haute couture that you’ll never see on any Vogue runway. People paint, weave and sew masks, veils, jackets, dresses, headdresses and produce home-made devil horns of every beautiful kind. Someday someone’s going to build a career on documenting the specific aesthetic of jouvay high fashion.

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Photo: Elliot Francois

As he does every year, Stone made me a standard, this time with the Eye of God, to play a Monday mas, to ironically position it watching police as they watched me, and to remind that mas doesn’t have to be a big production. Just a bamboo stick, box for cardboard and some paint.

Review of the road this year must mention the power of messaging about a culture of consent. I saw the women of Womantra with their signs. I saw a renegotiation of body politics and permission, significant considering how many men come to town ‘for woman’. I watched ‘Bishops’ girls’, sing their school song, now as hardback, jamette-style flag women. Profound shifts everywhere.

Finally, Ziya’s calypso competition song, which earned second place, “Pencil cases in the air!” gave Stone and I chance to experiment; going full Iwer, throwing in a Destra-style bridge and adding memorable hooks for school children everywhere. Calypso will only survive if people can’t stop singing its refrain. Tents may be dying, but in children, calypso traditions may rise again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post 271.

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Painting by Susan Mains           

Justice for Yugge!

There are some ways of wielding power that should end a political dynasty, for they are so cynical, manipulative and unethical that collective disgust should rise up with toppling momentum. The injustice experienced by 22-year-old Yugge Farrell in St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a blatent example of such advantageousness in our midst, and we should not let it occur without consequences.

Yugge was charged for using abusive language to Karen Duncan-Gonsalves, wife of Minister of Finance Camillo Gonsalves, daughter in law of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, and Senior Crown Counsel in the Attorney General’s office. After Yugge pleaded not guilty, the prosecutor requested that she be sent to a psychiatric facility for evaluation. The magistrate agreed without any evidence of mental health issues presented to justify court-ordered evaluation and confinement. Indeed, if Yugge’s mental health were an issue, the charge and court process should not have proceeded as it did in the first place.

Yugge spent three weeks in a mental health centre. According to newspapers reports, she was administered a cocktail of medication outside of the court order and against her will, without proper or independent evaluation, without trained psychiatrists on staff, and despite the fact that the Mental Health Act only speaks to observation and evaluation and not to involuntary admission and treatment.

The St. Vincent and Grenadines Human Rights Association, a petition hosted online by Code Red for Gender Justice and continuing to be signed by hundreds across the region, and a collective statement created by Womantra in Trinidad and Tobago all point to misuse of political power, questionable judicial process and integrity, and human rights violation in this situation.

The petition asks whether commitment to a mental institution for use of insulting language is a regular occurrence or, instead, irresponsible and heavy-handed state force. Yugge has publicly claimed she was in a romantic relationship with Minister Gonsalves up to 2016, but as the petition points out, “state entities can easily use the excuse of mental instability to vilify, discredit, and institutionalize any critic or person(s) deemed a threat or embarrassment to the established political order”.

Regional calls are therefore for a formal investigation into the decision to detain and medicate Yugge Farrell, an immediate review of the Mental Health Act in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the dropping of all charges, and public resistance to such state persecution to silence truth.

Shockingly, Prime Minister and Minister of Legal Affairs Ralph Gonsalves, despite his clear conflict of interest in protecting his political heir, has been brazenly commenting on the case in media. On January 24th, SVG’s iWitness News described him as arguing that “a magistrate can decide to commit someone to the psychiatric hospital based on information that the prosecutor gives the magistrate outside of the court proceedings and which is not disclosed to either the defendant or to their lawyer”.

Ralph Gonsalves is no neutral bystander here and himself has been accused of sexual predation and harassment. What we are seeing in St. Vincent and the Grenadines is another cover-up strategy to hide sexual impropriety by powerful men in government.

As Leave out Violence in SVG (LOVNSVG), a group which focuses on gender-based violence and violence against women has put it, “Yugge’s story highlights the subjection of the poor and those on the margins to the whims and fancies of the political elite and ruling class”.

If the region had not been horrified and acted in solidarity, Yugge’s experience and confinement may have passed with impunity. Now that Yugge has been released on bail, her defense, protection and wellness are priorities. Additionally, as Womantra put it, we are “closely watching the further conduct of this case and stand ready to speak out against the slightest hint of malfeasance by any agent of the state”.

Find and sign the petition on the Code Red for Gender Justice webpage. Support the fundraising campaign for Yugge at: https://www.gofundme.com/justiceforyugge.

https://www.facebook.com/justiceforyugge

http://www.looptt.com/content/update-yugge-farrell-relieved-be-granted-bail-2

https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2014/1 /24/the_dark_side_of_the_sunny_caribbean.html

http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/opinion/st-vincent-jamaica-and-a-tale-of-two-entitled-families-in-politics

https://www.iwnsvg.com/2018/01/17/ralph-is-wrong/

https://www.iwnsvg.com/2018/01/25/yugge-could-spend-years-in-psychiatric-hospital-lawyer/

https://www.iwnsvg.com/2018/01/23/former-model-yugge-farrell-screams-as-she-is-sent-back-to-psych-hospital-videos/

https://www.iwnsvg.com/2018/01/23/farrell-given-antipsychotic-drugs-against-lawyers-advice-video/

http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/opinion/st-vincent-jamaica-and-a-tale-of-two-entitled-families-in-politics_123551?profile=1444%3Fprofile%3D1444

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.

 

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.