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I suppose the question I am asking is why do the young women who do it, want to show their bodies to the world?

Every year the exposure goes to another level. This year in Barbados, many young women attached small, bejewelled pieces of fabric that drew, no, compelled, attention to their breasts and vaginas.

And every year like a recurring decimal, there are those like me who wonder about this, what seems like self-perpetuation of the grossest reduction of women’s sexuality.  But the push back is forceful as well  including by the next generations of feminists who argue that women can and should do what they like with their bodies, whether in burqa or bikini.  Questioning and judgment are akin to constriction of women’s agency.

I look at these young women in their crop over costumes on Facebook. They are ambitious, a creative lot, hard-working and striving for meaning in their lives. They are the product of mothers who lived the generational shift in women’s access to freedoms and rights.

Many of these young women embrace this representation of femininity that seems  to me (of my generation of feminist activism) inextricably connected to patriarchy and to misogyny. They do so with gleeful literalness, not with tongue in cheek. This is no ironic performance.

Are they living in the matrix, imagining and therefore forcing a new reality of non-exploitative celebration of women’s sexualities and bodies? What does this full frontal exposure mean to them? And what does it mean to the young men watching , all with their trousers on?

 

There are times when words are not enough, cannot express the insult to the soul of humanity. Such it is for the gang rape and hanging of those teenage girls in India; such it is for the stoning to death of Farzana by her unrepentant father; such it is for the girls of Nigeria, still missing. Such it is for the daily killing of women in the Caribbean.

But words are what we have, the main tool in our kit to grow the knowledge and outrage to mobilize all of us and our states to take effective action against the perpetrators so that, if nothing else the families of these girls and women get some comfort. That they know that the world has not looked away from monstrous cruelties.

What can we do? What is to be done? So many words already, more than ever before about violence against women and girls. In laws, in conventions, in national action plans, in the media, in poems, in research papers, in posters, on YouTube, in campaigns…. So many words already.

We can go into the development speak about political will, effective implementation of laws and policies, awareness building. And yes it is all needed.  But what we must have now, as much as we have always needed it and not got it, is for more of our menfolk to see this as their issue.

We need more of them to organise the marches, make the statements, go as delegations to Ministers of government, call out their friends who abuse women, seek appointments with parliamentarians, refuse to laugh at sexism, obsess about violence against women and girls, about how to stop it without any buts about women raising boys, or being perpetrators or whatever.

We need more men to defend a shared vision of a world intolerant of violence against women and girls, not to be defensive. There are men doing this work already. Praises. Just not enough.

The mind can hardly process what the eyes see in the image of these girls hanging from that tree. Strange and bitter, bitter fruit. Murderous misogyny.

In her Ode to the UN, Maya Angelou ends with these words:

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

 

Maya Angelou lived a long, lovely life, full of daring, accomplishment and acclaim. I did not know that her grandfather was a Trinidadian.

Still I Rise was the first poem in my under-educated literary life that moved me with its direct relevance to my own life  as a descendant of enslaved peoples and perhaps more so, because it so expressed the exuberant defiance which black women need (ed) to leap over sexism and marginalisation. It has that poem of its time resonance,  full of  black feminist power vibes.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

The lines  come to you at moments: “You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies…”  and it is a poem of such triumph “Out of history’s shame, I Rise…..

Now, I am thinking of the last line, “I am the dream and the hope of the slave” as the region struggles with inequalities and with discrimination, especially against the LGBT community. That we would wish to perpetuate laws that make criminals of people who love other people of their own sex seems far enough away from the dream of emancipation. Can we not remember that slavery was also justified in the name of religion?

A Random Post

 They say the young people dem done with Facebook. The crowd is older, less cool. Certainly the young people in my life hardly ever go on and so my position of maternal macoist is compromised.

But I am still an avid FBer. And maybe that has something to do with being far away and needing the Caribbean energy in the 24/7 kind of way that one gets on FB. But that energy comes in all kinds of waves.

Today I lucked into two posts, both generationally-specific. From the brief one-liner, I understand that friend Marsha (actual friend) went to a back in times school fete. She used FB to express her annoyance that the  DJs played some ‘bun out batty man” music, from the nineties I suppose. She was calling them to account, implicitly asking them to use their privileged access to be more thoughtful and intentional about what they played.

What followed (and is ongoing) is so interesting. The responses are a good guide to the changing cultural atmosphere. The DJs accept that bigoted, violent and homophobic music is unacceptable even as one of them cautions that Caribbean music is chock-ful of discriminatory attitudes and especially against women.

This is a point. As much as I love Sparrow, some of his songs have become indigestible to me. Much in the same way that I cannot watch Casablanca (with all of its intelligent wit) and feel comfortable with Elsa asking about the ‘boy’ playing the piano.

With the modern day soca, I have to convince myself that the lyrics are saying something more complex than the plain meaning of the words or otherwise the music is soooo sweet that the rest of my body will be moved,  overcoming the objections of my brain. For example, ‘Too real’ by Kerwin Dubois is all about a woman’s backside. But I reach for a more romantic reading, imagining that he is singing about social  chemistry, about that special fleeting frisson that happens in carnival fetes between women and men unknown to each other perhaps but  culturally connected. I imagine that Kerwin is singing about carnival magic. Bumper becomes a metaphor. Yes, well.

Today I am reading one of the many biographies on Bob Marley and remembering how intelligent and  poetic all of his music was, not some, all. Is the state of Caribbean popular music another manifestation of the failure of imagination and rigour of post-independence education?

I will tell you all about the second post tomorrow.

What is to be done

 Recently, book club player that I am, I met in one of the 3 book clubs which I attend in fits and starts, all found online. This nameless one meets in a food court, because where else in this city of food, “can one meet without having to buy food and drinks”? A resolutely undistractable book club, members and itinerant readers do not bother with the niceties of making acquaintance, still less sowing the seeds of friendship. They are incurious about each other. Like some kind of spy network, we all get emails from the convener about the venue of the meeting and the name of the book, blind copied at that lest we be  tempted to bother each other with salutations. No phone numbers are exchanged. Just the book, ma’am!

Anyways, we discussed “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Kathleen Boo. This is a book about life in a slum close to the Mumbai airport and behind a concrete wall peddling some product that  promises beautiful forevers. Many questions arise such as the ethics of the outside gaze which I thought was careful. The author, not an Indian, (meaning Caribbean generalists, not from India) embedded herself in the slum and within families. She chronicles the mostly bleak and sometimes quite tragic lives of those living there. We get a sense of the auto-pilot instinct for survival, the not even acknowledged daily courage needed to fight up for the small and finite leftovers. Rancor and jealously hang malevolently over the community. Boys, starting as early as 6 years, hone the skills of  scavenging, sorting and valuing  waste for recycling. This is the pathway into manhood, a manhood that offers just more of  the same, even while everyone dreams of breaking out, breaking away into the beautiful forever, meaning maybe, a service job in a hotel.

At the book club someone who was from Mumbai but has lived outside for quite a while reflected that growing up there she was not aware of this kind of poverty. And then the BC mulled over the awareness of poverty. My first response was skepticism. I find it hard to believe that anyone can be unaware of the grinding poverty that courses through and circles mega city life, any city for that matter.  But no doubt privilege can act as a blinder or a soporific shielding us from angst. How many of us know much about the details of the lives of those in our hard-pressed urban areas and rural villages?

 I thought about this later reading an editorial, by Russell Brand, a popular culture artiste of some variety, but known to me only as a social justice provocateur and engaging writer. In an article in New Statesman on inequality he confessed to being way more outraged by his cell phone charges than by the exploitation of those making his cell phone. He was being glib-cute to make a point about human nature.  How the suffering of others can be abstract or abstracted; how we can be overwhelmed by the scale of the change needed and by the inconvenience to us personally that such a change would require.

This week gone I was in another country and had the opportunity to visit a community of women who have migrated to the city in search of economic opportunity. Theirs is a life of work, hard work, manual labour, responsibility, obligation. Their histories and presents are ones of limited and exacting choices. They do what they must, they make do with what they have. Some are recyclers, scouring the city to pick out the value from the discarded, others work long night hours moving heavy freighted bundles  within markets as porters. There is no concept of weekend; an unaffordable luxury for those who only get paid when they work.

I have no point in writing this and I am rambling, but it is weighing on me.

 This week I am in the Cook Islands at a meeting convened by the Pacific equivalent of CARICOM. Unlike elsewhere in Asia, everyone at this meeting knows the Caribbean, and indeed CARICOM. That is, the policy makers do. Most recently, Pacific states met in Barbados in a Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) meeting.

Raratonga (one of the Cook Islands) is Caribbean beautiful, though I suppose it could be said in the reverse. All depends on who is doing the comparison. Skies are crystalline, light is squinting bright, the sea, variations of blue – royal blue deep, light aquamarine, and the breezes are constant and cool.

photo sea

side

I feel definitely a belonger in the environment, flora the same as home, green hills in the background. This could be Tobago, St.Kitts or Grenada. Except, a very small population of about 10,000.  Yesterday, with no vehicles behind ours, one in front and two motor bikes to the side, the driver told me that when he wants peace and quiet, he goes to another island. Raratonga is too busy. I sighed, me the Bangkok transplant, living with people, traffic, noise, light, happenings.

pacific-mapWhile there is some sense that we are all SIDS people together in similar waters, in fact the Pacific SIDS are in a  geography that challenges the reach of globalisation. Spread across the most vast of oceans, there are some 20,000 plus islands. Even nation states can be comprised of hundreds of islands, like the Bahamas, but dotted over a large expanse of ocean. There is no  equivalent of our little LIAT which can and usually, reliably does (despite all the ungrateful hating we lump on it),  impeding the kind of connectivity which we take so for granted.  Pacific Islanders have to travel through hubs, New Zealand, or Australia, or Honolulu or Fiji to move within their region. What ought to be a 4 hour direct flight may take 20 hours and two connections. The expense of it all.

The Pacific is also facing climate change with rising sea levels threatening to submerge islands. With a small population, the region grapples with diseconomies of scale. Economic and social opportunities for young people are limited, the big countries attract and the brain drain goes on.

But Pacific Islanders are hopeful. They speak like many of us do, with a fervent passion and commitment to their space in the ocean and the world.

Yet the truth is, that to most people, Pacific islands are like Caribbean islands, too small to know or think about, low growth, donor dependent, indebted, food importers and questionably economically sustainable, at least in the neo-liberal market framework.

Ever so sensitive about those ignorant people who do not know where we are from, (who would not know the difference between Dominica and Dominican Republic????) we also do not know too much, if anything, about the Pacific.

 At the conference I picked up a brochure on Wallis and Futuna. Could that be a product, like chocolates or an ice cream brand???? Maybe a finance firm or engineering company?

Too shame. Here is the Pacific Islands lesson of the day taken from Wikipedia:

Wallis and Futuna, officially the Territory of the Wallis and Futuna Islands(Uvea mo Futuna), is an  island collectivity  in the South Pacific . Its land area is 264 km2 (102 sq mi) with a population of about 15,000. Mata-Utu is the capital and biggest city. The territory is made up of three main volcanic tropical islands along with a number of tiny islets, and is split into two island groups that lie about 260 km (160 mi) apart, namely Wallis Islands (Uvea) in the northeast, and Hoorn Islands (also called the Futuna Islands) in the southwest, including Futuna Island proper and the mostly uninhabited Alofi Island. Since 2001 it has the status of a French overseas territory.

So can we say that gooseberries are to cherries what Wallis and Futuna is to Turks and  Caicos .

Or that gooseberries are to cherries what Wallis and Futuna is to Martinique and Guadeloupe.

Didi Bahini

There is a somewhat dispiriting conversation which plagues feminism in the Caribbean. Are we transformational enough in our thinking and action? Are we so concentrated on a simplistic reading of gender equality (add numbers of women to the mix and stir) that we lose the script of other inequalities, failing to understand how dominant free market, neo-liberal economics diminishes the redistributive capacity of the state, reinforcing other inequalities. Is our analytical lens wide enough to take on the whole of governance deficits – corruption, exclusion, power capture?

But feminism as practiced has delivered some real change. Of course it has. Though no doubt we have made less of a dent to the surrounding political, economic , social and cultural environment than we hoped, thinking that working on gender equality would give an entry into disrupting and confronting other inequalities. “Gender as a suggestion” as Tracy has said somewhat enigmatically.

Hazel and GabrielleThis March 8th, on Facebook, I came across this picture of Hazel Brown and Gabrielle Hosein. I kept looking at Hazel’s face, weary but determined because  making change can take one a whole lifetime of work, and without any guarantee of victory.

In making change we seek companions across our diversities. Why am I posting this which I wrote in March and forgot? Because this last week I met someone from a Nepalese organization called Didi Bahini (Big sister little sister). And I remembered this image.

It is humbling, this gift of a life of effort. You wonder how social justice activists  do not become  cynical. Maybe they do from time to time. But for the warriors, their nature is to fight.

 

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