Post 229.

I spend a lot of time asking questions about numbers. The low numbers of women in political leadership and why such inequity seems to matter so little. The high numbers of women in low-waged, insecure, nonunionized, informal work, and why such clustering seems to change too slowly or barely at all. The low numbers of women who own property in their own name, only about 15% in Trinidad and Tobago, and how that limits their options in life. The high number women who experience any form of violence, from sexual harassment on the street to death at the hands of intimate partners, and the explanations that seem sufficient amidst popular perception that equality has been already won.

Those numbers reveal clear realities. Equality has not been won. Decades of women’s work has been allowed to have only partial effect on dismantling institutionalized male domination and the status afforded to dominant ideals of manhood. The pace of securing rights and justice is indefensibly slow. We desperately need transformational leadership to stop us from repeating these mistakes of the past.

What makes such leadership transformational is not simply its individually empowered or empowering qualities. It is that it is committed to working to end all hierarchies on the basis of sex, gender or sexuality, and their role in reinforcing asymmetries of access to or allocation of status, power and material resources. It is that it recognizes these asymmetries are deeply entrenched in political parties, elite business culture, the economy and households, as well as in law, religion and media.

Transformation doesn’t mean strategizing to get to the top, but using whatever power you get to lessen the pains and losses of the majority in public life. It means recognising that class doesn’t protect any of us from destruction of the commons, whether in relation to public drinking water, public hospitals, public safety or an ecology that our children are systematically being denied. All of us, in the end, live downstream of the poisons, whether social problems or environmental pollution, that we do not fix today.

I’ve become impatient at how little social, economic, environmental or gender justice we seem to achieve. How infrequently those with the most power act decisively to democratize this small place, in the widest sense of what that means to each of us. I struggle to remain optimistic while watching influential anti-feminist discourses, which first denied women’s right to choice, freedom and authority because of ‘tradition’, morph into more contemporary anti-feminist discourses, which now deny that women need more choice, freedom and authority than they have.

Masculinism is the currently popular, if empirically wrong, position that “men are in crisis and suffering because of women in general and feminists in particular”, with the solution involving “curbing the influence of feminism and revalorizing masculinity”. We have seen this in “ongoing attempts by institutions and individuals to maintain conditions of women’s inequality”, from successive prime ministers to successive adult men married to girl children under sixteen.

More girls are graduating from UWI? More women are managers? Didn’t we have one woman Prime Minister? Aren’t women the backbone of political parties? These numbers tell us little about why legislation, draft gender policies, budgets and gendered bureaucracies haven’t become transformational leadership tools in women’s hands. They also tell us little about why manhood remains defined by privilege when it is everyone’s work, not simply women’s, to make the world less violent, less exclusionary, and less unfairly waged for women.

As Caribbean scholars point out, “Ongoing projects of nation-state building that promote allegedly gender free notions of nationalist cohesion should be contested and unmasked as skillful projections of modern masculine political power”. Note, secondly, “a welfarist modus operandi of ‘what you are doing for women’” cannot substitute for “addressing the more critical question of ‘how we are creating systemic change for women’” and their communities.

The numbers regarding women’s lives do not show a transformed reality. Individual empowerment and charity aren’t enough when beliefs and structures still protect inequality. Referenda and consultations that go nowhere are excuses, for rights are not won through popularity. Transformational leadership isn’t an idea. It is a necessity yet to be achieved.

Powerful women out there, who’s ready?

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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 206.

Is the sudden loss of the word ‘gender’, in any Ministry title under the Rowley government, a sign of gender equality’s oncoming policy demise?

This new invisibility, which reverses decades of state practice and Caribbean advocacy, isn’t a matter of letterhead. It shows lack of familiarity with Caribbean history, misunderstanding of why ‘gender’ was made independently visible, and a step out of time with the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2015 to 2030, to be adopted at the General Assembly meeting in New York in just two weeks.

Some have argued that, under the last administration, ‘gender’ was in a Ministry title, but “nothing” effective was tried or achieved, so why keep it in? But, “nothing” achieved, or more to achieve, is more, not less, reason for gender equality’s visibility while following through on the budgetary allocations, and cross-ministerial policies and programmes that its inclusion signals.

Others have argued that disappearance of a Ministry, with visible leadership for integrating women’s empowerment and gender equality across all planning, is a message that the government is serving all. But this “serving all” defense assumes that women and gender represent special interests. Not true.

Everyone’s entire lives, including how we access power, are shaped by ideals of masculinity and femininity, across everything from the economy to schooling. And women are not a special interest group, for what happens to women similarly affects everything from the economy to schooling. To fix the problem of boy’s educational underachievement, end women’s subordination and the low status of femininity. Same for sex inequality in the labour market which affects the health and wealth also of men and families.

Except where efforts are well integrated, a single Ministry still needs to push technical recommendations and expertise across other parts of government, which might be adopting agendas based on inaccurate analyses, personal biases or unfamiliarity with global conventions.

There are also major problems with subordinating gender equality to ‘social development’ or ‘family services’; a move that regresses to pre-1975. Gender equality and women’s empowerment are their own goals, whether or not they advance a state’s ‘development’ or ‘family’ agenda. What if the development plan includes an ‘Export Processing Zone’ where goods are made, but unions are forbidden, and what if the majority of workers are women? Here their right to organize as women workers, for everything from day care to decent conditions, will be at odds with a development plan.

Gender equality may also be at odds with ‘family services’, particularly where women’s resistance to all forms of male domination in religion or violence in the family, or the right of LGBT citizens to equally choose who they love, or the justice of providing safe and legal access to pregnancy termination as a public health policy, is cast as a threat to the ideal of ‘family’. Women’s rights are human rights to be pursued regardless. They are not reducible to service provision, nor justified by women being “half our resources”, nor legitimate only for heterosexuals, wives or mothers.

Caribbean feminists fought since at least the 1970s to get gender visible at a ministerial level. Jamaica led the world with a Women’s Desk in 1973 and decade after decade of regional struggle and advocacy won a Bureau, then a Division and finally a Ministry. There was data and logic backing this, for Caribbean states are historically patriarchal and the Ministry of Gender was to be the radically transformative site for internal reform that had inched past the glass ceiling right to the top, to struggle there for change.

How will a Ministry of Social Development and Family Services fill the mandate of a Ministry of Gender Affairs to challenge patriarchal beliefs, values and organization of power, as they create sexism and homophobia, in and out of the state? Can we expect the ministry to stop ungendered priorities flinging wrong resources in wrong directions, costing the treasury? Will the Minister lobby within Cabinet for gender equality, as if that is a headline mission of her Ministry, not simply a division under the manners of social welfare and family?

What’s in a name? At minimum, a public commitment to women’s rights and gender equality. What has been lost? Disappointingly, Cabinet-level representation, leadership and accountability.