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Banking on Women’s Bodies

Daily, I feel helplessness, anger, frustration and fear that maybe I am the only one that knows this company understands women as plantation owners understood coolies, as bodies to use and control, and persons to disrespect and dismiss, because it’s good for profits. —  Gabrielle Hosein

There was a time when feminists, from the Caribbean and beyond, picketed beauty contests. They protested the sexualisation and objectification of women, the reduction of women’s worth to their physical attractiveness, the narrow, ageist, heterosexist and racialised standards of attractiveness.

That time has come and gone.

But as with all things of merit, a throwback is sometimes essential.

Can we talk about the economics and (gender) politics of aesthetic and sexualised labour–  of entering a competition to be crowned the calendar girl of a local beer? The fitness regime, diet, clothing, hair and other services needed to put your best face and crotch forward do not come cheap.  But hey, regardless of what kind of work we do we all make some personal investments in our future, right?

But shouldn’t we question the trade-offs and the pay off? Is modeling a swimsuit that is not really a swimsuit worth a shot at the prize money? Is modelling a swimsuit that is not really a swimsuit worth explicit photos of you living on forever on the internet and out of your control?  Isn’t it just as feminist to acknowledge that women make choices to participate in these competitions as it is to question the context and conditions that make such choices not only possible but seem like positive career options?

If we think of promotions work as work, and it is work, what responsibility do employers have to the (usually) young women that they employ and dress in very little while making tolerance of sexual harassment part of the job? What are their ethical responsibilities in requiring such aesthetic and sexualised labour from young women?

Recently I learnt a lot about aesthetic and sexualised labour from a young woman with first-hand experience.   She outlined how recruiters sought out college/university students for this work, using education as a proxy for class.  She argued that they produced a working environment filled with sexual harassment, no pay for overtime hours worked and a low hourly rate.  When asked why students took those jobs she mentioned that some used the money to pay fees or buy books and that as a marketing student she was hoping for some experience in the field.  She also repeated a familiar tale of the racialised and class-based segregation of the market for “promotions girls.”  Tall, slim, light-skinned, long weave-wearing late-teens- to- early-twenties women were preferred for “upscale” events. Alcoholic beverages thought to have a wider consumer base among working-class black Caribbean men opted for “promo girls” with larger breasts and behinds. Whether upscale or lowdown the skimpy dress code remained the same so too did the expectation that workers flirt with customers.  At some events,  a is bodyguard hired to “protect” the young women at work, though even being touched by or dancing with male patrons is not outside of the expectations of the job.

There are standards for sex work that seek to ensure a safe working environment and protections of workers’ rights.  When young women aren’t even sure that the work in which they are engaged is sex work how can they negotiate effectively or even claim ownership of their image and determine how sexually explicit photographs are distributed?

Caribbean feminist, Gabrielle Hosein, has written about the sexism in Caribbean advertising:

Daily, I feel sick that the men and women at Carib Brewery put their minds and their money to so deliberately put down capable, hardworking and flourishing women and girls who only ask for an equal chance to aspire and achieve. Daily, I turn the blame inward, against myself, for trying to get us home amidst the afternoon traffic, like everyone else, rather than destroying those signs however I can because my baby girl deserves more than these people with power will allow her. Daily, I feel helplessness, anger, frustration and fear that maybe I am the only one that knows this company understands women as plantation owners understood coolies, as bodies to use and control, and persons to disrespect and dismiss, because it’s good for profits.

I want  to end with Gabrielle’s words of the helplessness, anger and frustration you feel as women’s bodies are used by corporations with our complicity and at great cost to ensuring that our societies recognise women as the complex, human beings that we are; and not as faceless “brown tings” to be exploited for alcohol sales.

Edited to add: In Barbados there has been public outcry over the Banks Calendar Girl “swimwear” choices which many describe as degrading.

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CARICOM can do it! We can end transphobia, homophobia & all forms of violence!

CatchAFyah Caribbean Feminist Network recently launched a Call to Action against homophobia & transphobia.  We called on our communities to recognise everyone’s right to be, to condemn violence and celebrate life collectively on August 19.

CODE RED for gender justice! and Groundation Grenada used their social media platforms to distribute the call.

Here’s a report of some of the activities that took place:

Jamaica: Immediately after the murder of transgender teen, Dwayne “Gully Queen” Jones, Quality of Citizenship Jamaica held a popular action themed Everyone Has The RIght to Be in Emancipation Park (click for photos).  They followed up that action with a a social media breakout entitled: “Action, Not Words”.  In their press release, they had this to say about the event:

Our hope is that this event will instigate action on the part of our Governments with respect to acknowledging the human rights of this marginalized population and implementing further measures to protect them. We look forward to your active participation and implore you to engage others so that we might have a successful event with comprehensive commentary, which includes the voices and opinions of us all.

Grenada: The launch of the Gender Issue of Complexed Magazine coincided with the Call to Action.  Groundation Grenada and Youth Advocacy Movement hosted a film screening of “Gun Hill Road”, featuring a Caribbean family living in the Bronx, New York. In the film, a hardened ex-con returns to his family and struggles to stay on the right side of the law as his overburdened wife guards a sensitive secret about their 16-year-old son, Michael. The film centers on Michael’s story as a transgender youth.

Guyana: Activists hosted a speak out/action event. Read reflections from Vidyaratha Kissoon and Sherlina Nageer. The event was also widely covered in the press with reports on the testimonies of persons living with disabilities, LGBT rights activists and families who had lost loved ones to violence:

Colleen Mc Ewan of the GuyBow organisation opened with a plea for personal action against violence of all forms. She made specific reference to the recent deaths of transgender individuals. Dellon Melville, whose body was discovered earlier this month in Mocha Village, three days after he went missing, was the most recent of such deaths.

Trinidad & Tobago:  CARICOM Can Do It is a social media project started by Stephanie Leitch of WOMANTRA.  It features photos of diverse Caribbean people showing off their national colours and using “the tagline “We Can Do It.” It is an attempt to lobby CARICOM governments to take a clear position on homophobic and transphobic violence. Contributors are asked to wear their flags as a head tie and pump their muscles for peace.” Check out this high impact popular action here and be sure to contribute!

CAISO also hosted a Dwayne Jones movie night which was well-attended.

Want to participate? It’s not too late.  Organise a local event wherever you are, share the Call to Action, email us with details of your event and upload photos to the CatchAFyah Flickr pool.

Stay with us for details of other events in the region. A Belize event is upcoming. We’re still planning the Barbados event, email us at redforgender [at] gmail [dot] com if you want to be involved.

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Guyana government supports Chris Brown concert with tax breaks, anti-violence activists cry foul

Guyanese social justice advocates reject the government’s support of Chris Brown concert.

According to Stabroek News

The government on Thursday announced that it will be giving tax breaks for the concert, which is organised by Hits & Jams Entertainment, and acting Minister of Tourism Irfaan Ali praised the expected appearance of Brown and said his presence at the concert will be a pull factor for persons to Guyana.

Some activists have argued that Chris Brown should be allowed to perform but the proceeds from the concert should go towards support mechanisms for survivors of intimate partner violence. Others recognise his “right” to perform in Guyana but question the use of tax payer dollars to support his performance.

Some activists have taken issue with the irony that the Chris Brown concert will coincide with 16 days of Activism Against Gender-based violence:

when Chris Brown arrogantly struts on to the stage in December, the nation – being led by the government – will just be wrapping up their annual 16-Day Campaign Against Violence, which begins on November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and ends on December 10, Human Rights Day,”

What do you think? Is the Guyana government misguided in supporting the Chris Brown concert?

Is the “decision to bring Chris Brown to entertain Guyana is a slap in the face to every single victim of
domestic violence in country”, as journalist & feminist activist Stella Ramsaroop described it?

Should the organisers of the concert use it as an activity to increase awareness about intimate partner violence and use the proceeds to lend tangible support to the fight against violence against women?

Reports of domestic violence in Guyana, as in many other parts of the region, are frequent and gruesome, with women making up the majority of intimate partner homicides (femicides). 

For an extended commentary on why Guyanese activists reject governments financial support of the Chris Brown concert please read Vidyaratha Kissoon’s letter to the editor.

Edited to add:  it has been reported that Chris Brown’s criminal record prevents him from working in the UK.