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This weekend gone, the women’s movement in Trinidad and Tobago, led by IGDS, held a conference honouring the activism of Hazel Brown, about whom I have written here. Here is my reflection on Hazel and the significance of her work:

There are some who wake up every day to make change. Those persons, driven by a vision of a different world, keep focus, even when the rest of us pull away, distracted by the dimensions of our daily lives. Hazel Brown is one such person. Utterly compelled to be engaged with her communities, forcing action by her unrelenting attention to injustice. I say communities because over the time I have known her, Hazel has focused my attention variously on cancer support, on consumer rights, on solar cookers, on politics and mostly on gender equality.

What connects all of that is her conviction that we must be better and do better. That Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean must live up to its historical obligation of ending discriminations and inequalities- whether gender, colour, race, sexual orientation, disability.

Hazel asks us that we live sustainably and engage politically to ensure democracy, equitable development, rule of law, access to information and social integration.

Over time, some have been discomforted by her singular focus on increasing the numbers of women in parliament and local government, arguing that numbers are not enough and that what we need as much or even more is women’s transformative leadership, a leadership that would both model and demand greater equality and accountability.

And Hazel does not disagree though she holds fast to the view that without critical mass in parliament, patriarchy triumphs every time.

And so we have all come to take for granted that she will be there, holding the placard, making press statements, and seeking meetings with the decision makers to push our common agenda. And when troubles erupt, when misogyny outs, people will say “What Hazel Brown have to say about that?” As if she is carrying the whole side. But simply, her voice matters to the body politic.

Hazel will be the first to say that she does all of this with the sisterhood and indeed the brothers working on social justice and rights. This Conference with its title Fearless Politics asks us to stop taking for granted the voices and actions of those who speak to our conscience. To stop making invisible the courage and leadership of women, like Hazel, like Asha Kambon, like Rhoda Reddock, like Brenda Gopeesingh, like Merle Hodge, like Andaiye to name just a few.

Let us celebrate them all by joining in social movements.

Say Enough

What else is there to be said about domestic violence that has not been said over and over? So much advocacy, yearly campaigns, law reform and yet, I understand in Trinidad in January  4 women were killed by partners or former partners. Most women murdered in the Caribbean are killed by men with whom they have had an intimate relationship. Every day on Facebook, a page titled Walking into Walls shares the horror story from the region. This is a deeply dispiriting reality.

When I was a lawyer, I had the opportunity to speak to many men who had been accused of domestic violence. There would have been a variety of circumstances but without exception, the men all confirmed that they had indeed perpetrated violence. That was never in dispute though there was always a ‘but’ as men articulated their inherent right to violate women. But she went liming. But she laughed at me. But she was nagging me. But she have a next man. And then the lawyer would add other buts in defence. But he was drunk. But he was stressed, under pressure. But yes, she have a next man and you know how man can’t take horn.

Years later, working with a fabulous group of psychologists, social workers and lawyers, a psycho-educational batterer intervention programme was adapted for the Caribbean. Partnership for Peace seeks to assure the safety of women but also to hold the mirror up for men to self-reflect on the social meaning of their behavior as a pathway to behavioural change. For there is no doubt that we cannot eradicate domestic and sexual violence as long as men view control over women as central to their sense of being a man. As long as men and yes women, continue to think of women’s difference from men as not just biological but also social, of different and lesser value.

There is so much in our culture that reinforces this. From man-as-head of household demands reiterated every day in faith-based institutions to rejection by state institutions that women are autonomous, self-determining beings, as in hospitals which (unconstitutionally it must be said) refuse to do tubal ligations without a male partner’s consent. The private sector pays men more than women and most especially, because its influence is so pervasive, so much of our music advances a crude and sexualised version of femininity and indeed of masculinity.

We will not reach widespread safety for women and girls in the home or streets so long as most men stay distant from the advocacy for gender equality. We will not get there unless our socializing institutions (the schools especially) consistently contribute to civic values of respect, equality and peace. We will not get there so long as so many women, themselves also breathing in patriarchal monoxide, keep sending the mixed messages, opting in and out of the obligation for self-determination.

And we not get there so long as individuals, communities and institutions fail women when they say they are afraid.

Let us keep talking and talking out.

Sometime in 1985, new to Trinidad and searching for an activist home, Rhoda Reddock invited me to a meeting of Women Working for Social Progress (Workingwomen). On a dreary afternoon, in a desolate room on St. Augustine Campus, I met five or six other people sitting in a circle- Liz, Jacqui, Lyris, Shelleen, Naomi and Gertrude. Rhoda with her historian self, took notes. I do not remember what we discussed but I recall leaving the meeting knowing that I had found my people.

Over time and with increasing core membership, under Merle and Rhoda’s co-chairing we moved from meeting at Merle’s home to a house on the outskirts of Curepe. Workingwomen’s membership expanded with quite a bit of diversity of age, occupation, education and interests, though mostly ‘easternerish’. The members struggled earnestly to take account of power dynamics, seeking internal democracy and individual accountability for inclusion and participation. Sometimes finding the balance, other times disappointing ourselves. But trying to apply what we were demanding from public decision-makers.

Workingwomen pioneered the commemoration of IWD in Woodford Square and the November 25th candlelight marches around the Savannah, always with children of the membership in tow. And true to the forward looking spirit of the members, we agreed that IWD should be an event convened by the Network of NGOs, and while difficult to release, release it we did.

We started a newsletter. The Group mobilized and worked with trade unions, trekking down to Fyzabad, on June 19th and to the OWTU hall for discussions on structural adjustment. Our members led deeply felt advocacy to end corporal punishment in schools and we made submissions in 1987 to the Constitution Reform Commission chaired by Sir Hyatali. There was always lots of internal education going on and at a session on reproductive rights, the sisters left me, big pregnant, to snore away in front the presenter.

Workingwomen has a realized vision to be largely self-sufficient. With the contribution of Lyris and Gertrude, we started a second-hand store cleverly named “New to You” on Charlotte Street. And through the credibility of its work and consistency of courageous activism Workingwomen secured a permanent home.

As the years passed and the number of children increased, I became less and less involved, until in effect my involvement ceased completely. But, can I say, I have never stopped considering myself a member of Workingwomen.

With all its achievements and challenges, the membership has remained steadfast in their contribution to a Trinidad and Tobago in which all have fair and equal opportunities for well-being; where men understand their responsibility to end sexism and women are empowered to claim autonomy, safety and equal voice in the public and private spheres.

Workingwomen expects accountable government; it demands that political parties represent the people and not the powerful; that the private sector engage in decent employment practices; that the education sector prepares youth for critical thinking, empathy and productivity; and that everyone is responsible for living ethically, respectfully and peacefully.

This is an organization whose membership indeed, never get weary yet. The long name says it all- Women working for social progress. Happy 30th Anniversary.

A luta continua.

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.

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