Aim High. Get Low?

The Guild of Students of the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad have started a series of public discussions called Caribbean Reasonings.  From the looks of things on facebook the student body seems very eager and engaged.  It really warms the heart to see the Guild of Students take such initiative to contribute to the intellectual community on campus.  I really love that the series is called Caribbean Reasonings as it echoes the book and seminar series of the same name coming out of the Centre for Caribbean Thought based at UWI, Mona Jamaica.  These Caribbean Reasonings highlight the contributions and social and political thought of some of the Caribbean’s finest minds and encourage a younger generation of scholars to engage with their ideas.

I first came across Guild of Students take on Caribbean Reasonings when the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation questioned the use of  theme “Iz a Bulla” to advertise a “reasoning” to discuss homosexuality.  Bulla is a derogatory term for a homosexual man though some gay Caribbean men themselves have reclaimed the term.  Of course the theme “Iz a Bulla” is meant to be deliberately provocative in order to get the student body out in their numbers.  But at the same it is also offensive as it uses a term meant to shame and  denigrate homosexual men, discipline all men to heterosexual and patriarchal masculinity; and completely erases women who have sex with women.

Women’s sexuality will, in fact, be dealt with this week.  From the facebook page for the event :

This is the first edition of the new Caribbean Reasonings series where we analyse the views of a “bad ting” which is an insightful look into the views and attitutudes towards female sexuality and women in general.

The poster features a pair of what looks like Victoria’s Secret underwear which while meant for an adult. look like little girls’ underwear and the words “free public access”.  My initial reaction was that while they needed to be provocative in order to get students to turn out, they had stooped a little too low in their advertising.  I found it irresponsible and offensive.

Then today a friend messaged me to say that an 80 year-old woman had been raped and killed in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.  Just this month in Barbados an 83-year old stroke survivor was also raped.  Police arrested and charged a man who only last year had been released from prison after serving a three-year sentence for raping another elderly woman.  So perhaps the poster does a good job of summing up dominant attitudes towards female sexuality in the Caribbean: free public access or the complete denial of bodily integrity whether one is a child, a teen or an eighty year-old woman.

click through for image source & to learn more about the event.

Sex in Caribbean News

A quick round up of recent stories on sex and sexuality in Caribbean News.

Suriname

Sex workers in Suriname’s mining district to be taxed.  No word on whether those taxes will be used to fund health care and social services for sex workers.  Authorities complained that of the one billion dollars in revenue from the sector in 2009, the government only received US$50,000 in taxes.  The aim of the sex workers registry, on the face of it at least, seems to be for the state to benefit from sex worker earnings.   Chairman of the Committee Structuring Gold sector, Gerold Dompig is quoted as saying:

“That’s nothing new under the sun. Whoever collects pay for a service has to pay taxes. It’s a matter of law.”

Trinidad & Tobago

Trinidad & Tobago announces a sex offender registry.  The Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation notes that T&T already has a kind of registry:

Under the current provisions of the Sexual Offences Act anyone convicted of buggery (whether consensual or otherwise) is requried to notify his local police station of his address within 14 days for a period of up to seven years; and is required to undergo HIV and other medical testing.

Child sexual abuse is  under-reported, even when reported convictions are few and very often cases are discontinued as some survivors and their families opt not to continue the case (for a variety of reasons). So if the intention is to eliminate child sexual abuse a sex offender registry misses the mark completely. Very often families, communities and schools know who the sex offenders are and they chose to remain silent.  There is still a huge stigma attached to being  a victim of child sexual abuse which helps to drive the silence. Also, recent UNICEF research on attitudes to child sexual abuse in Barbados and some OECS countries revealed that many Caribbean people did not view sex between an adult and a child as always criminal and as something that should always be reported to the authorities.

Trinidad & Tobago’s announcement of  the sex offender registry was accompanied by offensive rhetoric of young men as “dark monsters” :

“This is absolutely important for the protection of women and children. When a young man comes around you, you will be able to go online and check and see if he’s a dark monster.” (Justice Minister Herbert Volney)

One facebook user reacted to the announcement saying:

One stated goal of the bill here is to repeal those provisions (mentioned above) and implement a real registry. And to criminalize more sexual activity. I know there’s a lot of support, especially among CSA (child sexual abuse) survivors, for offender registries, but I’m ambivalent. Do we have any experience with them in the region? What are they good for? Do they work in small societies fond of scandal? Will they increase vigilantism? vagrancy? criminality as one’s only option? What will their impact be on families and their economic support? Will they increase the ways communities and dependents protect offenders from justice? Will they indirectly stigmatise sexual violence victims?

Barbados

Less than 2% of Barbados’ population was tested for HIV last year. More women were tested than men even though men have a higher prevalence rate.

The Future of Caribbean Feminism?

I recently read an article on the anti-EPA movement in the Caribbean  which got me thinking about the future of feminist activism in the region.

Economic partnership agreements or EPA’s ushered in a new trading arrangement between the European Union and CARIFORUM which saw an end to preferential access to European markets for Caribbean goods and an end to the principle of non-reciprocity in trade between the EU and the region.  While some tout the opportunities for Caribbean service providers to access European markets, other point to the negative fallout for the Caribbean’s small, open vulnerable economies in such a lop-sided playing field.

The author explored the EPA-movement which sprung up right around the time when Caribbean governments had more or less agreed to sign the EPA.  In a sense, this was too little too late.

In seeking to explain why there was so little sustained activism against the EPAs the writer turned to the decline of left politics in the region and the emergence of feminist and environmentalists movements.   As far as he was concerned Caribbean feminists did not/do not concern themselves with the kinds of issues thrown up by the EPA.  Of course this view ignores the ways in which Caribbean women have been offering trenchant analyses of Caribbean economic policies. In also ignores the fact that by the time negotiations for the EPAs began, Caribbean feminist themselves had been lamenting the decline of the feminist movement in the region.

It raises the question, though of what is the future of Caribbean activism.  And what is the role of Caribbean feminism therein.  It seems that if we want a movement we have to build it.  Simple.  It’s work to be done, unpaid work, but work worth doing.  We can’t think of movements in terms of organisations.  We need to think in terms of coalitions which spring up around a particular issue and to achieve a particular goal.  This of course sounds limiting but perhaps is more practical than dreaming of some return to the heady 60s and 70s.  Those days aren’t coming back.  And some of us quite frankly have no memories of those days on which to draw.

Coalition also means that you cannot allow your own  small-mindedness to exclude any actors outright.  I want to be part of a Caribbean feminist movement that has just as much to say about intimate partner violence as it has to say about Caribbean trade agreements.  And I dream that those who define themselves as being part of the Caribbean’s now defunct radical left would recognise that the so-called women’s issues are everyone’s issues, just as the economic issues are, of course, women’s issues too.

Time to bury the old divides that we can no longer afford to sustain.

A woman walks into a store…

A mob of people followed a fat woman around Bridgetown, Barbados last week resulting in the police being called in to control the crowd.  Even before the country’s main newspaper put this woman’s picture on the back page and the main online paper dedicated a two-page spread to her, images of the young woman made the rounds of Barbadian networks on facebook and Blackberry messenger.  Pretty soon rumours spread that the woman was so bullied and harassed by men and women alike that she broke down in tears, took refuge in a store and the police had to be called in.  The Nation and The Barbados Today, however, reported that most of the attention she received from the crowd was “positive” and the woman was happy shopping and interacting with the large crowd which followed her from store to store, snapping pics of her on their cellphones.  They reported that she was seemingly unperturbed if not flattered by all the attention.  She was interviewed by at least two local newspapers.

In Barbados more women are fat or overweight than not (men too for that matter).  It is one of the Caribbean’s fattest nations.  Barbados ranks 12 amongst the world’s fattest nations with nearly 70% of the population considered overweight and number two in the Caribbean.   A fat woman in town is hardly news.  Except that it is.

Earlier this year during Trinidad & Tobago’s carnival celebrations a video of a fat woman enjoying the festivities like everyone one else went viral. It  generated a barrage of negative comments which centred on how as a fat woman this reveller was unsuitable to represent the nation’s carnival.   One Caribbean feminist even 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.

What remains clear is that the fat, black woman’s body is made into disruptive spectacle.  But in a country with so much fatness, blackness and womanness, I have to ask why?

I started this blog post expecting that by the end I would have been able to explain the behaviour of the throngs of women and men who followed this woman in the street.  Street harassment, usually of women by men, is part of everyday Caribbean life.  What happened last week, however, was on a completely different scale and of a different character.  Whether or not they were there to ridicule or shout “You, go girl!” just why did such a large and diverse crowd of people think it appropriate to comment on one woman’s body and to follow her around town?

I don’t think that looking at this in terms of fatphobia or the gendered nature of street harassment will provide any useful answers.

Many are arguing that she got the kind of attention she deserved and solicited by choosing to style her body in the way she did.  With her manicured nails, cute sandals, long weave, sculpted brows, false lashes, matching bra and body-conforming mini dress, she obviously put a lot of consideration into how she chose to style her body.  Perhaps, it demonstrates a kind of radical exhibitionism where she deliberately put her body on display in ways which transgress what many deem to be appropriate.  Caribbean literary scholar and cultural theorist Carolyn Cooper argues that

dancehall affirmation of  the pleasures of the body, which is often misunderstood as a devaluation of female sexuality, also can be theorized as an act of self-conscious female assertion of control over the representation of her person.  Woman as sexual being claims the right to sexual pleasure as an essential sign of her identity. Both fleshy women and their more sinewy sisters are equally entitled to display themselves in public. (Sound Clash)

In Sonjah Stanley-Niaah’s mapping of Dancehall geographies she articulates how people shape space and place, manipulating spaces for uses other than what they were originally intended.  Perhaps, this woman made Bridgetown  a stage of her own and the people who followed her as though she were the Pied Piper formed a willing group of spectators.

What do you think?

image source: Attitude magazine