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Archive for the ‘Feminism’ Category

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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I have, as it turns out now that I am writing this, enough memories of televised beauty pageants, watching young women walk sure-footed in high heels across a stage, listening to them in the ‘question round’ straining to transmit the obvious – that they have fine minds and interested hearts, doh mind the swimsuit.

Beauty pageants are cringe-inducing  on many levels. Yet even when we are quite uninterested, they will commandeer  attention as when Jennifer Hosten won Miss World in 1970. I mean, from that tiny island of Grenada? And what about Penny, Giselle, Wendy and Lisa? Those ‘crownings’  had  some political significance, in the sense of experiences that transcend the person involved. They were moments when other people might get to know that we exist, in a world, as David Rudder puts it, “that don’t need islands no more”. And there is no denying the politics of race and ethnicity in the definition of beauty. Our Caribbean women winning affirmed especally in the 70’s and 80’s for those who needed it, that black is beautiful.

If you had asked me, well even up to August this year, whether I would be attending Miss World, I would have been bemused. A joke perhaps? But there I was on Saturday, two rows from the stage in a hall in Bali, sandwiched between two beautifully clad women, both waving a huge Dominican flag. I think you saw me on TV? I was sitting directly in front the mother of the person who eventually won, Miss Philippines.

ShowCan I say that I had an experience, one that I will remember for several reasons? For watching Lassa, composed, seeing dimensions of her young womanhood, some absolutely consistent with the 10-year-old Lassa – her certainty,  her ease with people,  her clarity on the beauty of her naturalness.

I was sitting in front the support contingent from the Philippines and participated in their utter delight, observed the mother’s tension and her release. I shared in those seconds of contagious pure maternal satisfaction. The families around, those supporting Miss Dominica and Miss Botswana, would have felt some disappointment for their daughters, nieces, god-daughter, but they were proud and taking pictures.   

The show, the concept, is a curiosity, out of time, yet it resonates,  springing to  life oddly.  Like for Dominica, having a contestant for the first time in 35 years, one who has in the last year, won four other competitions in the Caribbean. Someone who represents a country so tiny, so often confused with Dominican Republic, giving an opportunity for others to see the country’s specialness, its natural grace.

The feminist critique of the beauty competition is for the smallness of its vision of femininity, for its reinforcement and validation of male attention to young women’s sexuality, whether or not men even watch the shows.  They exploit the dominant gender culture’s preoccupation with the compare and contrast of women’s bodies.

We lament the constructed idealization of beauty – thin, fair, straight hair. There is something fundamentally disquieting and reductive about judging young women for how they look. It mirrors our daily reality as women across the life cycle, that we are first of all, the sum of what we look like. Whatever our feminist gains, the profitability of the cosmetics industry reminds of the durability of the notion of beauty as a woman’s primary attribute and asset.

We tell young women that they are entitled to the range of life’s opportunities without discriminatory barriers. And indeed depending on the country and depending on socio-economic factors, more women have and are breaking ceilings, pushing back walls, constructing reservoirs of self-reliance, designing whole edifices to integrated life.

So these beauty competitions  try to refresh and reinvent themselves, promoting beauty with a purpose, beauty with brains, beauty with muscle, beauty with talent.  I wonder about this, about this promotion of Superwoman.  Now these young women must be purposeful, strong, smart and beautiful.  More fields of judgement.

Still, this is what the social scientists call a negotiated space  and we see young women (and those who support them) seek ways to use this experience to make common cause on issues that they care about.

Leslassa has started an NGO through which she advocates for holistic education. Over this last year, she used her platform to speak about domestic violence and child abuse. and she will continue to do so.  Her world has opened up and in that opening she is telling young women to stay true.  Her fabulous head of unprocessed natural African hair such a thing of beauty.

Others in the competition used their professions to bring services to the excluded as dentists, as midwives. Miss Barbados contributes to  an organization that brings happy experiences to children who are terminally ill.

I judged them all to have won. And yes I was happy to be there with Team Lassa.

Bali

 

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ImageToday, still in the West it is IWD. I woke up in the East with some resignation, accustomed as I am to experiencing this day as one in which the sisters gather in small groups and say the things that we say to each other on every other day.

But on facebook, reflections from the wise and committed much larger community:

Svenn: It’s Inter/Outer-national Women’s Day! Ask yourself… Can she take a walk at night? Does she get equal pay for equal work? Can she access  the best reproductive and sexual health services no matter her income? Add more questions here… If the answers aren’t looking so good, just work on it. I am sure we can all find a few organisations working these issues and more.

Keshan: I love my feminist sisters ….who are working towards ending all forms of violence and oppression against women and girls! Let’s celebrate our feminists in society who are the ones in the struggle to end such oppression! They are working toward a positive and beautiful society to live in!

Liana: International Women’s Day is not so much happy as bittersweet. It is a day to help bring awareness to a cause that doesn’t often have a voice, because it is about a group of people, who don’t often have the chance to speak out. Today is about the women who don’t have access to education, reproductive rights, rights to their own opinions. It can be trivialized due to the fact that many people treat it like a big ol’ girls only valentine’s day, but in reality we should be focusing on the women who got us where we are, being grateful for how far we have come, and thinking about how we can be like those women who gained us our rights.

Michelle:  ..economic empowerment for our women, means less starvation for the world love and light

CARIMAN:CariMAN takes this opportunity to call on all the governments of the Caribbean to take a stand for improving women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services as well as respecting the rights of women to safely control their reproductive lives. CariMAN further urges our governments to protect women from the unequal treatment they receive in the economies of the Caribbean. …CariMAN remains committed to working in partnership with men, women and all groups who share a deep concern for ensuring the full recognition of women’s rights in the region

Vashty: It’s International Women’s Day! What have you done to to aid in changing the country or the world or your little part of the world (family, friends, fb friends) to help them understand that women and men must have equal rights and equal access? Or that women are not just boobs and butts and pretty faces but thinking, doing, achieving, amazing people who have equal rights to rule the world!

Jacqueline: When all women can believe that we are connect, can you imagine what an awesome world this will be?

Yao: My wish is that we carry International Womens’ Day beyond today, to every day after, into perpetuity. I love you mum.

 Aja: While not dwelling on the negative today, particular concern for me is the continual escalation of violence against women and girls around the world – the majority of times by their spouses – by the men in their lives. I plea, therefore, on this day that the World commits to eliminating violence against women and girls.

Alex: Women’s Day you say? Hoorah! For the young women of Barbados I say BE YOURSELF and KNOW YOUR VALUE at all times.

Crystal: Feliz dia internacional de mujer…en solidaridad! And for those who continue to bemoan the need for the day; please educate yourself on its origins and evolution. IWD shines a spotlight on the achievements of women and girls globally, contributes to invaluable discussion and spurs action which advances the agenda of empowerment and equality and facilitates opportunities for sourcing critical funds for those of us working to defend and preserve the rights of women and girls. CLARO???

Gregory: To the Women – Peace & Love

 Peter: ….. and wouldn’t it be great if men didn’t have to be reminded of their mothers and sisters and wives in order to be aware of and care about women!

Amina Mama quote

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I sometimes pessimistically think of women working with men on gender equality as a high risk endeavor, akin to walking on the verge of a precipice or a high tension wire. Similarly in our personal lives, you going good, good and then out of nowhere, a sexist joke and  some man friend telling you, ‘ like  you cyah take a joke?”

We know that to make change in our personal and public lives, both men and women have to reject patriarchy, to reject rigid gender roles, harmful stereotypes and inequality. For women this is hard too.  We breathe the same cultural air as men and are subject to the Mr. Darcy Syndrome, looking for the Benign Patriarch who will take care financially and protect. And more negatively, some construct an opportunistic image of men as the walking wallet.

Giving up dependency is difficult when it is perceived as an entitlement. Like when the woman in Big B Supermarket sighed in regret and said aloud in my direction, “There was a time I could bring a man here to pay my grocery bills”. The sexual economic exchange does have benefits for women and men that go both ways, though arguably, the benefits are more secure for men as this exchange reinforces power dynamics.

The journey for men is even harder because men know, really understand, that accepting equality means relinquishing privilege, power and accepting more work in the private sphere. In the long run, there are advantages to be gained, but in the short run, who can doubt that many men question the cost benefit of rejecting entitlement to women’s labour and bodies? Who can doubt that some lack the courage and moral clarity required to share power and influence? Recent events in the Anglican church bring this latter to mind.

And so for these reasons, men’s advocacy for equality is crucial, not only because men listen to men, but let’s be real, men control the levers of most influencing powers- whether as priests, parliamentarians, popular artists or private sector mavens.

Caribbean women have been attempting to engage with men in the emancipation project for quite a while. We have done so as active participants in ending slavery, in the colonial and independence struggles and we do not even complain when the accolades go to men as the architects of Caribbean emancipation.

And in the private sphere, women as disproportionate champions of men and boys is most apparent, if only because too many Caribbean men are not actively involved in children’s lives, reject commitment to family stability and reject responsibility for boy and girl children.

Are women saints? Well no. Many rage at a society that exploits, demeans and devalues their worth and work. And then in any normal distribution of humanity, some women will lack emotional intelligence, be neglectful, will be indifferent, will be more or less compassionate, more or less responsible. And because children go with women in Caribbean societies as a matched set, some children bear the brunt of these deficits, deficits that are not compensated by the presence of a another parent, because guess what? The fathers are absent.

And so today, looking at what appears as an affirmatory (if only because there is no accompanying comment) CARIMAN posting of Jamaica Gleaner article entitled “Anthropologist says societal neglect of J’can males breeds rapists”, I felt like I had been pushed off that precipice.

Could this be where we have arrived after two decades of working on ending violence against women? That the continuing violations of women’s bodies are to explained not by patriarchy, not by the experiences of multiple inequalities (which indeed are globally manifested) but by this notion that men who rape are victims of society’s indifference and more to the point of women’s inadequacies as mothers?

To be clear. For sure, the education system fails Caribbean boys, as it does Caribbean girls, especially of low income communities and families. And masculinity and traditional masculine privilege fail some boys who are not given an unequivocal message of self-discipline, respect for women and girls and for self.

And yes, some women also fail boys as inadequate socialisers, whether as mothers or as teachers in the schools.

And these are important discussions to have. But then we also need to talk about the elephant in the Caribbean room. The persistence of cultural patriarchy. I wonder at the co-existence of the hardest notions of masculinity and the incidence of sexual assault.

Maybe CARIMAN’s posting on Facebook is intended to provoke this discussion and not as an endorsement of mother blaming.  I hope so because we do need CARIMAN’s insights and challenges to push us all forward.

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Static

In the virtual world, much discussion on Rihanna’s Man Down. For those less in the  know, it is a song, reggaaeish in style and accent, in which Rihanna is relating that she ‘shot a man down’. The video suggests that he  had raped her. It is in the vein of Marley’s “I shot the sheriff”, I guess, taking a stand against impunity and injustice.

Big theme that, especially since all Caribbean countries have higher than the global average rates of sexual assaults against women. The blogosphere is alight with deconstruction. At the simplest, there are those who say that she is promoting violence and vigilantism.

Then there are others who lament the setting of the video- Jamaica, arguing that it may perpetuate a racist view of the black male sexual predator, especially since in the video, Rihanna looks so very pale. What, the deconstructors are challenging are the possible sub-texts or subliminal messages around race, colour and yes, nation.

My 14-year-old daughter said that at first she did not see all of that in the video. But the wonderful thing now is how the discussion is making the young people think about the message and the medium. And also thinking with outrage about rape.

And then there is Mr. Very Sexist Naipaul who does not know of any woman writer who is his equal. Really there is nothing much to be said except that he does not seem well read.  Somethings one should not bother with.

 ‘SlutWalk”  on the other hand is an idea whose time has come. SlutWalks were started by young women in Canada in reaction to a police officer telling female students that they could avoid rape  by not dressing, you got it, like sluts.

In a movement that has animated feminist action and solidarity, young women across North America are organising SlutWalks, to demand women’s rights to lives free of violence no matter what. They are locating sexual violence within  misogynistic power and control over women’s bodies and contesting the pernicious notion that women ‘ask for it’.

More power to the SlutWalkers. Though, old feminist that I am, I am not sure about the strategy of trying to reclaim the word. But it does grab the attention. And then thought is engaged.

And that is what all of this static does. It produces some white noise, but it also creates opportunities  for  thinking real hard about the meaning of words and actions and about the kind of society we all want to be a part of.

 

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The revolutionarily named Code Red for Gender Justice posted a link and commented on a youtube video entitled Big Sexxxy Get On. In the wake of Trinidad’s carnival, predictably it was a video tale of wining. The woman  at the centre of this video  would have been hard to  miss.  She wore see-through red tights over a dark red briefs on which something was written across the expanse of the bottom. Looked like Sexy Thing.  All of this is relevant information, bear with me.

Her face was for the most part expressionless as she “found some ting, any ting”, to wine on. Could be the music truck, a van, a man’s groin, the road. It is not so evident that she was experiencing  joy or lightness of being or carnival transcendence, that moment when the endorphins and/or the alcohol kicks in and you could care less where you are or where the friends and dem gone, when you become one with the music and the moment . 

Looking on I wondered whether women’s movements work for autonomy, equality and empowerment had gone  awry. Or whether the work had penetrated into the recesses of unequal gendered culture. For this video clip presented a femininity so reduced. The performance seemed  distortive and one-dimensional; less ritual abandon and release.

And wondering about the who, what and why of this wining, I clicked on the Code Red analysis.

In response to people who may have found the video embarrassing, Code Red launched a defense. They interpreted this embarrassment as unease with this ‘fat, black woman’ embodying the notional space of the Trini carnival woman. They suggest that the performance captured on video is a political act and that those who find the video disturbing are in fact ideologically discomforted by the unruly and disruptive (and implicitly political) Afro-Trinidadian winer woman.

Really? Yes I do understand the analysis of carnival as an annual emancipative event for women ordinarily living the strictures of the ‘not overtly sexual, Madonna-like nice girl’ gender role. I understand the jamette can be a symbol of women’s sexual self-determination. Does it apply here? Can one reasonably describe this performance as an act of liberation? From what? What does it disrupt?

There is, I believe, a rooted caricature of Caribbean women as sexually available and as the sum of sexuality. And it can have troubling class nuances. See all the popular culture images of Caribbean women. In what way does wining at carnival time challenge or disrupt the stereotype?

Rather than querying the why of this woman’s (and many others) decision to present in this way in the public space,  Code Red made a victim out of her. But not a victim of unequal gender culture and politics, but rather a victim of perceived class and colour double standards.

I would have liked an analysis of how this performance and all the others like it, (no matter the size, colour, ethnicity of the winers involved), relate to women’s empowerment and to more functional and respectful relationships between women and men. Frankly, I do not see it.

What are you views?

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Are We Equal?

This is the question which Judi Drench in a rather curious IWD 007 Bond video says that we must  continue to ask until we are equal.

Today is International Women’s Day, the 100th anniversary at that. Usually it is a day when the usual women suspects gather in tens and twenties, make speeches, attend smallish rallies and take comfort in our shared passion for making change in a world which seems inordinately at ease with the idea and reality of women’s oppression.

Some of you may already be groaning. What else do women want and how we tired of all that negativity about men. I get that. And yes it is true that women’s lives, men’s lives are not what they were a century ago or even in the days of my mother’s youth. We go to school, get jobs, own property, vote, can decide to take or not contraceptives, have children singly, married or not at all. Our choices are significantly greater. My girls have little notion of constraints. Yet.

But are we equal? The global statistics say otherwise. In summary, women are poor, over-burdened with work, physically insecure, with little political power and influence. In sum, oppressed.

True, not so much so in our region. But there can be no argument that dominant strains of culture are blithely derisive of women. How else to explain a conference on weighty matters such as ‘Whither the Caribbean” where hardly any of the persons invited to ruminate and recommend were women- in 2011. How else to understand that maternal mortality in some countries is in the 50-60 per 100,000. ASPIRE argues that this tragedy is caused in part by women’s inability to access safe abortion. How else to understand the paucity of women parliamentarians in every country in the region. How else to understand domestic violence and sexual assaults.

No doubt somethings profoundly positive are happening.  But also strangely these developments are accompanied by contradictory trends. At Cave Hill for example, the majority of students are young women. But on the 21 member Guild of Undergraduates, I was flabbergasted to see that only 2 women held positions, and as secretary and librarian. What is the meaning of this?

Nonetheless, lots to celebrate. Including those activist women who keep on keeping on.

So to these spectacular women, some here, some gone, (and not by any means an exhaustive list of Spectacularesses) Happy IWD.

Clotil Walcott, such a fighter

Hazel Brown: Optimist to the End

Linette Vassel: For her empathy and kindnesses

Judy Williams: Staying focused on communities over the distance 

Joan French and Andaiye: Oh, for their analytical minds

Rhoda Reddock: her attention to inquiry and activism, her accessibility always

Rawwida Baksh: For her carefulness

Peggy Antrobus, indefatiguable and forward thinking

Rosina Wiltshire, positive and supportive always

Judith Wedderburn: For her wisdom and caring

Asha Kambon, committed and ultra dependable

Tracy Robinson, thoughtful in her attention to young people and scholarship

Jackie Sealy-Burke: Her clarity, doggedness and efficiency

Varia Williams: For finding new ways to engage the teens and tots in creative thought

Sheila Roseau: Ever ready!

And of course to those foundational women in my life: Grannie, Mom, Ann and Cheryl. Women most natural, unpretentious and kind.

My lovelies Safiya, Kaila, Rais! Do not take your life of privilege for granted. What are you going to do? What is your contribution to be?

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