#Healing: Life beyond abuse

How do we end gender-based violence? How do we heal? How do we create change?

Angelique V Nixon and I have been asking these questions over the past few years through our co-created art and reflection projects on gender-based violence (GBV) in the Caribbean. This year, we decided to focus on breaking silence and healing.

It is a very fitting theme given the widespread participation of women and girls in the #lifeinleggings movement. (See #lifeinleggings hashtag on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram).  Women from across the Caribbean region and Diaspora have been sharing their stories of public harassment, sexual assault, abuse, molestation and rape.  The posts have been intensely gut-wrenching. Those who have chosen to participate by sharing and by reading these stories have all been having deeply emotional and psychological responses, to the horror of other women’s experiences and remembrances of their own past traumas.

Angelique will be hosting a workshop in San Juan, Trinidad, on the evening of December 9 (see Facebook for details), open to survivors of GBV, including LGBTQI persons.

My own version of this healing workshop was conducted a few weeks ago at Rutgers (New Brunswick, NJ), and I hope to  a second session next semester. This workshop was not specifically for victims of GBV but was conducted with LLEGO, the LGBTQQIA People of Colour Organisation at Rutgers University. In this post, I want to share some of the strategies we employed and practiced at the workshop, where participants consented to have some of what they shared there, be used in this post.

We began with an exercise in unmasking, by making masks that showed the side of us that we share with the world, and the insecurities that we hide.  Here are some examples:

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“This mask is myself. I generally come across as calm. I like making people laugh, cheering people up, being there as a friend and as support. But on the other side, I am smaller and less happy. While I have other people’s backs, the majority of the time, I don’t have my back. I’m in the process of learning how to do that and take better care of myself”.

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“I project confidence, determination and courage. This is not what I am, but what I want to display. Not that I am a fake, but these are what I aspire to. But inside, I battle these things – fear, longing and guilt. I have a tendency to idolise people and I feel like everything is perfect with them and not me.”

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“This is me and all the little things that comprise me. I tend to hide behind my hair and my school work. I have a lot of interests, that’s what this grab box represents. But I’m a star. I am intimidated by vulnerability, like this exercise itself was one of making oneself vulnerable, so I am uncomfortable doing it, but I still want to. I feel insecure about my body and about my intelligence when compared to peers, especially because my personality is ‘out there’, so I’m not perceived as smart. I have a hard time relating to straight women, like… even just communicating with them. And lastly, I had a difficult childhood and I’m still battling with that.”

Twelve masks were made that night and each person shared their stories of trauma, of losing loved ones and friends, of being too scared or anxious to face the world. The making of the masks brought up emotions, both positive and negative, so the next part of the workshop sought to help us work though these emotions.

Sitting cross-legged in a circle on the ground, I talked us through an exercise using the breath to pump emotion, tension and energies into, through, and out of the body. With each breath, we drew energy up from the floor, pulling positivity into our bodies, and breathing out negativity. Any stress, anger, fatigue or frustration is exhaled with the breath.  The full exercise can be found here.

There were more tears as each person went through their own journey of release and replenish. We did not talk about the particular events and circumstances that people were carrying.  Instead we talked about how they felt, and how they can work on dealing with those feelings. Doing the exercise together helped amplify the energy in the room.

Lastly, I wanted to encourage a spiritual practice of community, and the idea that we are can help each other to be strong, without having to face our obstacles on our own. What strength or gift do I have that I can share with someone else? What strength do they need now in their life? How can we contribute to the overall health of our community?

Still sitting on the floor, we placed out hands to our hearts in the mudra for receptivity and drew one of our own strengths and shared it with the person beside us, slowly taking the time to connect with that person, share and strengthen each other.  Gifts included compassion, optimism, self-confidence, empathy and kindness, people to love you, respect, peace of mind, and being a “bad bitch”.

These exercises brought the participants in the LLEGO group together in a different way. They already knew each other and were building friendships through their weekly meetings, discussions and activities. This healing exercise saw them unveil parts of themselves that they hid even from this group. Also, by ending with a sense of community and connectedness, it served as a reminder that we are all on this journey together.

This type of work is not done once and is over. This labour of self-preservation and community building must be part of our every-day praxis. Mindfulness of how our actions, words and thoughts affect us and others. It may be utopian and unrealistic to expect others to steadily engage in an ethic of care towards us, making it even more important for us to perform this labour ourselves – a labour of care for self and for community.

 

***

Over the last two years, for the #16Days campaign, Angelique V Nixon and I have engaged in art and activism projects on social media. In 2014, our three-part project, Outrage, Body Power and Change comprised original poetry, artwork and music, including a video with our voices.  Last year, in 2015, we attempted to build on this project instead reaching out with questions on Facebook and Instagram, to stimulate conversation about how we can end gender-based violence and the systemic power relations that sustain it.

If you are in Trinidad and are interested in participating in the upcoming workshop (December 9, 2016), facilitated by Angelique V Nixon, please see Facebook for details and registration.

On Freedom and Action: An evening with Lennox Hinds and Angela Davis

On Wednesday, Rutgers celebrated the service and retirement of Professor Lennox Hinds, who had been a faculty member there for over forty years. Professor Hinds built his career on social justice, serving as legal counsel to Assata Shakur and the third woman to be placed on the F.B.I.’s most wanted list, Angela Davis. Professor Hinds was also legal advisor to Nelson Mandela, during his inaugural visit to the U.S.A. in 1990.

Hinds and Davis shared the stage at last night’s celebration of Hinds’ career and distinguished service at the University, as friends and comrades-in-arms who have been fighting for racial justice for the past five decades. Davis recounted their meeting as she was detained in New York City in 1970, and a subsequent encounter with New Brunswick police after an event held at Rutgers (circa the late 1970s, 1:05:00 to 1:09:00 in the YouTube video). Paralleling the struggles of black youth in the 1960s and 70s to contemporary over-policing of black bodies and mass incarcerations of people of colour, Hinds and Davis both recognised the enmeshing of capitalism with policing and criminal justice. As Hinds asserted, the motto of the police is ‘To protect and serve’, but “to protect and serve whom?”

Hinds and Davis demanded accountability from police, noting that “police misbehaviour” was not a new occurrence, but just one that was becoming more visible through the availability of recording devices. Professor Hinds gave a brief review of the laws of the USA, starting with the constitution, illustrating the foundation of these laws in racist ideology, leading up to the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the US, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted“.

As Lisa Cacho explores in Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected, racism creates populations who are “dead-to-others”, who lack inherent value, and who are denied personhood, and can then justifiably be politically repressed and imprisoned. In the fifty years between the rise of the Black Panthers and of Black Lives Matter, the continuity of these oppressive societal structures necessitate the persistent under-valuing of racialised groups and the attribution of criminality to their skin colour. “The criminal” is ontologised as the black body, just as the “job-stealing-immigrant” to America is the Latinx (often read as ‘Mexican’). These presuppositions of one’s nature are rooted in ideologies that devalue these bodies, and thus deny personhood, protection and justice. Adhering to established structures, then, would not revaluate these lives.

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One of many memes with this quote circulating on social media.

Davis challenged us to dream of a future beyond reforming the systems we currently have, referring to Audre Lorde’s advice about the master’s tools being ineffective when trying to dismantle the master’s house. Why should we try to change systems of oppression? Why not abolish them? What would it mean to develop a notion of security that does not require constant policing?

Having prisons means we believe people would continue to commit such harm that they require being locked up. Instead, Davis suggests we move towards the elimination of prisons. How do we get rid of the harm that people inflict on each other?

By removing the situations of oppression that cultivate harm-causing behaviours, such as monopoly capitalism, premised on exploitative manufacturing practices, inclusive of the under-valuing of human life and labour.

Angela Davis took the opportunity at the forum to clarify her being misquoted by supporters of Hilary Clinton. During her Sept. 30 keynote address at the “Black Matters: The Futures of Black Scholarship and Activism” conference at the University of Texas at Austin, Davis said, “I have serious problems with the other candidate, but I am not so narcissistic to say I cannot bring myself to vote for her.” Davis articulated that the political system does not protect the vast majority from the perils of the capitalist, sexist, elitist, hetero-patriarchal and racist state, and called for the formation of a new party informed by the ideologies of feminism and black radical activism, that was invested in labour movements and the working-class, was anti-capitalist and sought environmental, sexual and economic justice. Davis suggested that to vote for Clinton would allow a climate for such a party to emerge, and to open possibilities for future generations.

Davis recognised value in young activists’ new ways of thinking and organising around these persistent oppressions. In the face of mass incarceration, mass graves of undocumented Latinx migrants, of environmental justice and indigenous rights, Hinds and Davis encourage young activists to not lose hope, to keep fighting, noting the only alternative is surrender; we must either engage in radical critique or assimilate and become silenced under the status quo. Hence Davis’ unwavering stance on abolishing systems of oppression rather than trying to fix them.

In what context can we be free? We must imagine this future and then build it. As Davis asked, “Can’t we dream?”

Gen san nan tè a an Ayiti

Gen san nan tè a an Ayiti |Il y a du sang dans le sol d’Haïti | There is blood in the soil of Haiti

My body is of the earth.
It is ether, it is water.
It is fire, it is starlight.
My body is magic.
The red life within me
ties me to my ancestors.
This body is as much theirs as it is my own.
My skin is not the same colour as my mother’s mother,
yet I wield the magic she has gifted to me.
With my every breath, she lives.

  • This poem and this post are dedicated to my grandmother who blesses me still.

 

On my second day in Haiti, I walked out of the hotel (the locally-owned Royal Oasis, I recommend it highly) on the search for food. I felt a light touch on my arm and turned to find a young girl about 10 years old, dressed in a school uniform and ribbons in her hair. She spoke to me in Creole, and I didn’t understand her. I asked her in French to repeat. She did. After about the 4th or 5th time, I realised she was asking me to help her cross the street. Without hesitation, I held her little hand and took her across to the other side of the intersection.  Her sweetness, politeness and innocence left an impression on me. She was my first interaction with the regular people of Ayiti, people outside of the hotel who I was not paying to perform some service for me.  After the arduous journey to get there (another long story), I had put up a wall, vowing to go directly from my hotel to the conference hotel and back, and just leave when the conference was over. But this girl immediately broke down that barrier I had put up and allowed me to open myself up to experiencing Ayiti.

And I regret nothing.

From 1781 to 1804, the estimated death toll of the Haitian Revolution, the enslaved African’s fight for freedom, was 162,000; some bleeding for liberty, and others for the continued opportunity to oppress. I learned about this revolution at secondary school. It was part of the syllabus for Caribbean History. We learned about it in as abstract a way as we learn about everything else that has happened in the past and been recorded in texts. It was just names and dates. And everything else that was learned outside of school was steeped in a Western narrative of impoverishment, civil unrest, the incompetence of African/black leadership, black magic and Voodoo.  Haiti was scary. It was a place to dread.

But this not the Haiti I have seen.

While attending the Caribbean Studies Association’s 2016 Conference in Port-au-Prince, I witnessed the multiple and varied material and social circumstances of Haitian people, the tensions of race and social class that persist like everywhere else.   There was impoverishment and beggars living on the streets and in holes on the side of the mountains around Port-au-Prince, a stark contrast to the mansions with indoor swimming pools and ornate architecture found in Petionville and higher up the mountain. There were the nightly blackouts in the Delmas, while the hotels were powered by generators. We were purchasing meals for 10 to 30US dollars, the equivalent of about 1800 Haitian Gourde, or a loaf of bread, a few cans of sausages, sardines, fresh chicken, rice and other essentials that can feed a family for a week.

We lived in luxury for a week, and I was pleased that we did, because I did not want to live any other way. But even with my grad-student-and-unpaid-employee-dry bank account, I was still in a position of privilege, living a life that most people would never be able to see and experience for themselves. We went to bars that could have easily been on Trinidad’s Ariapita Avenue or Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter.  If you were conferencing all day, you could easily have thought you were in Miami or Panama; a Marriott is a Marriott. Yet we were each in our own way confronting our privilege, of being there, of having material lives that are very different from the majority of people living in that city.

It’s taken me weeks to put my own thoughts together, because I was not sure how I wanted to frame this experience, what I wanted to share, and what I felt was the most ethical and respectful things to report on. In classrooms, I have discussed and taught about neo-imperialism, structural adjustment, NGO-capitalism and the global aid industrial complex, and about the destructive powers of the dominant Western narrative that continues to denigrate blackness.  This was visible everywhere; from big corporations to the everyday institutionalised violence still committed against the Haitian people, including exorbitant school fees that limit access to education or the ongoing deportation of Haitians from the US, Dominican Republic and elsewhere. Despite this, the pride and resilience of Haitian people shone through, much like the relentless sun over the island.

Everywhere on the streets, one could see paintings, carving, iron works, and handmade furniture, among other skilled craftsmen and artisans, and women selling everything from fresh fruit and cooked food, to pharmaceuticals and small appliances. Everyone was working, selling something, offering their time and their skill. They were people with hardened skin but a gentle touch and generous spirit.

I struggle to figure out how I want to end this post, because this experience of Ayiti has not yet ended in my mind, in my body and in my spirit. I feel like there is so much unfinished business I have with that place.  #Ayiticherie

Old men and their inflated egos

With age does not come wisdom. Nor does practice make perfect; it makes permanent. If you repeat the same actions over and over, the same cycles of thought over and over, however illogical, racist, sexist, bigoted, archaic, and damaging, they become part of you, ingrained in you. Verbal diarrhea escapes your open mouth before your brain can send a “SHUT UP!” signal or at least clamp down on your wagging tongue. Or maybe you become so absorbed in your own sordid fantasies that you become oblivious to the world evolving and changing around you. A world where your opinions should warrant some sanctioning, but if you are a man in a position of power, you get handed a microphone instead.

Secretary General of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS), Satnarayan Maharaj, seems to be suffering from a bad case of male-privilege, exacerbated by Hindu-patriarchy which he has become the billboard for. He uses his position in the Maha Sabha to speak on behalf of the entire organisation, which claims to speak on behalf of all Hindus. But truthfully, he has become a caricature of Hinduism and Dharmic teachings.

The SDMS has 150 registered mandirs (temples) and over 50 schools, including primary, secondary and early childhood educational centres. Satnarayan Maharaj has been described as great person, a great leader of the community, a soldier for Hindu rights and recognition, based on his work with the SDMS. “In the war of righteousness, we have won,” says the slogan on Radio and TV Jaagriti (Awakening), referring to the long legal battle the SDMS fought for a broadcast licence to operate said stations. The SDMS has championed education of the Hindu community, providing instruction in the secular syllabus as well as religious and cultural knowledge. The Maha Sabha has indeed been valuable for the development of the Hindu community.

It has also been responsible for religious revival, utilising the school and mandir systems as channels for enforcing conformity to the “Dharmic” teachings of the organisation. Schools and mandirs on the SDMS network must follow the rules set out by the organisation. They observe religious festivals on the approved days and engage in SDMS approved activities. To maintain their membership to the Pundits’ Parishad, pundits cannot openly defy the SDMS or any of its rules. Occasionally you hear the rumours along the pumpkin vines, Pundit So-and-So got kicked out or left the Maha Sabha. The SDMS is an institution, with its own bureaucracy and secrets, with the only approved outlet for information being through the local Hindu civil rights hero Sat Maharaj.

But as with every epic tale, the hero is complemented by a villain matching his own strength and power. The hero needs the villain’s tyranny in order to be able to act heroically and save the day. Donning his adult diaper and unravelling dhoti, Super-Sat saves the Hindus from the tyrannical state who wants to infringe on the rights of Hindus [read as “old Hindu men”] by suffocating Hindu culture [read as “patriarchal, sexist practices that curtail women’s autonomy and emphasise their subservience”].

In his Indian Arrival Day address, Super-Sat did not disappoint, delivering the usual bigotry and ignorance one has come to expect from the Hindu hero. He bashed everyone – the state, the Roman Catholic Church, the U.S.A. and the United Nations – for interfering in Hindu rights and worship. He was upset about calls for adjustments to the age of marriage according to the Hindu Marriage Act which currently permits males as young as 18, and females as young as 14 to contract marriage. Subsection Two of this clause requires parental consent if the “intended husband (not being a widower), is under eighteen years of age or the intended wife (not being a widow) is under sixteen years of age.” This consent must be given by the father of the under-aged party. If the father is dead, consent is given by the guardian or guardians appointed, and then if there is no such guardian, consent is given by the mother of the party so under age [THIRD!? Mother is THIRD!?], and if the mother is dead someone else is appointed. So the act essentially says that fathers and their appointed guardians have authority to marry off children, even without the consent of the children’s mothers.

There are other marriage acts in Trinidad and Tobago – Civil, Christian, Muslim and Orisha. This exemplifies one the big arguments about multicultural policies: If you are making allotments for everyone, you end up with 5 different versions of the same legislation, appeasing everyone who needs state-sanctioning for their practices (usually ones that break some other law, like sexual offences) yet then tells the state to butt-out and leave them be.

Super-Sat was adamant that the state address teen pregnancy, as teen marriage was a cultural way of dealing with teen pregnancy. In his logic, marriage facilitated sexual activity among teenagers, but sex outside of marriage is what needed to be dealt with. A flimsy piece of paper and circumambulation of a sacred fire seven times made sex allowable, and somehow made you more responsible and capable of raising a child, even while you are still categorised as a minor. You cannot drive, vote, buy cigarettes or alcohol, enter into other contracts, or rent a car, but you can get married. You also legally cannot consent to sex, but if you get married, you magically can. Ta-Da! Or at least, your consent is assumed or no longer relevant.

Super-Sat said if “a girl took a chance” [because boys do not carry the consequences of their chances on their bellies for everyone to see] and becomes pregnant, “both families” would come together to help raise the child while sending the newly-wed teenaged couple back to school. This is Super-Sat’s best case scenario. What a utopian ideal that the wonderful and understanding parents of these teenage fornicators will accept them and support them financially and otherwise.

He recognises that teenagers can barely care for themselves, far less raise a child, so how can they become husbands and wives, and made to function as a household in all the gendered division of labour crap that still exists and are both expected to fulfill? What about providing sex and sexuality education so that teenagers are better equipped when they take chances? Sex is not the only skill one needs to be married or to be a parent.

Marriage and parenthood are choices and should be made by the people who have to live with those choices; not on their behalf by parents who are still scorning “shame” and disrepute in the eyes of the crabs-in-a-barrel public. While marriage and parenthood can be fulfilling, they also severely stunt one’s opportunities and capacity to explore these opportunities, especially when young and without access to public and private support systems. Inequality is an inherent part of families and of marriages, with the young bride often being the most vulnerable and powerless, especially within extended family networks. This is old data, old assertions. Why do we still have to keep making these arguments for women’s rights to their own bodies and making their own choices?

Also, calls for change in this legislation are not targeting individual teenagers who want to get married, but are seeking to rectify systems of oppression in this country, where young girls are vulnerable to various kinds of abuse, and where marriage has been used as a tool to control and subjugate women. Not every case of under-aged marriage is one of abuse, but many are, and a system that allows this practice to persist effectively silences the girls and women who are forced to stay in such relationships due to lack of means to leave.

The thing is though, Super-Sat doesn’t even realise why he’s coming under fire for his remarks. He is so convinced of his position, he uses “culture” and “religion” to justify collective and individual male power and infringement on women’s social, sexual and financial autonomy. Other Hindu organisations disagree with him, such as the Hindu Women’s Organisation and SWAHA, but like a true misogynist, Super-Sat continues to speak over their voices, mansplaining his way into irrelevance.

Finding Indo-Caribbean identities

On April 29 to May 1, 2016 (Grenada’s Indian Arrival Day), the first ever International Conference on the Indian Diaspora in Grenada and the Wider Caribbean was held at the St. George’s University Campus, True Blue, Grenada. The first of its kind in Grenada, from the opening ceremony to the closing remarks, the conference highlighted the past and current complicated social, cultural and political-economic relationships existing between India and the population of Indian descendants living in the Caribbean and other places where Indian indentured labour was utilised.

Spearheaded by Dr Kumar Mahabir, the conference was organised by the Indo-Caribbean Cultural Centre, the Indian Cultural Organisation (Grenada) Inc, and the Indo-Grenadian Heritage Foundation, with support from the Belmont Estate Group of Companies, and the High Commission of India to Trinidad and Tobago (also servicing Grenada, Montserrat and Dominica). In addition to the Indo-Grenadian community, presenters came from Trinidad and Tobago, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Jamaica, Belize, Guyana, New York, and Guadeloupe. References were made to these and other places with the Indian Diaspora, including Suriname, Martinique, Mauritius and Fiji, true to its claim as being an “international” conference.

Mansraj Ramphal and Dr Kumar Mahabir both presented archival data on the specific ships that brought indentured Indian labour to the Caribbean colonies, particularly to Grenada. They listed the births and deaths occurring on ships and on plantations in the colonies. What I most appreciated in the organisation of the conference was the trajectory of the discussions, from this historical review of how the Indians came to be in the Caribbean to addressing questions of cultural survivals and contemporary Indo-Caribbean identities.

Mr Jean Sahai described the struggle of Indians in the French Antilles for gaining citizenship (in 1923 in Guadeloupe, and later extended to other French regions), up until which point, they had been considered stateless. Even within other Caribbean territories, discourses of the post-colonial Creole nation have erased the “Indian”. A few presentations jostled with these questions of ethnic and national identity, for instance, showing its historic relevance for Indian indentured labourers in Grenada where planters, set in the mentality under which chattel slavery flourished, renamed the Indian workers with their own names, such as Thomas or Adams. This was the beginning of the assimilation of indentured labourers into the post-slavery colonial society. Speakers from the Indo-Grenadian Heritage Foundation, such as Wilbur Jawahir Adams, reflected on their sense of loss at not carrying the names of their ancestors who had left India with “Hindustani” names, but left the world bearing the names of white estate owners. They would have stood out with their “different” or different-sounding name, but naming and misnaming as a project of colonialism sought to make them invisible and better integrate them into an invisible position of subjugation.

The conference was a path of discovery and reconciliation, whereby people of Indian descent could find themselves, their histories, their families, their legacies and the legends within their lineages. It was a way of recognising the contribution of people of East Indian descent to the development of social, political, academic and cultural fields, as well as to the flora and fauna. Both Jalaludin Khan as well as the keynote speaker Dr Beverley Steele discussed plants and animals of Indian origin that can be found in Grenada. Khan traced some of this presence back to global trade routes preceding Indentureship and the (forced and voluntary) migration of Indians to the region.

A number of presentations sought to find the cultural survivals and retentions in the region, connecting these to a sense of identity as “Indo-Caribbean”. Ms Mohammed and Mr Jai Sears both explored the Indian cultural presence in Grenada.  In her presentation, Shalima Mohammed noted that Indo-Grenadian migrants to Trinidad first saw certain symbols of Indian culture, like the dhoti and tassa drums, and Hindu religious practice, like flags (jhandi), when they arrived in Trinidad. Dr Visham Bhimull from the Hindi Nidhi Foundation of Trinidad and Tobago investigated the linguistic connections of “plantation Hindi” or what he calls “Caribbean Hindustani,” the Hindi dialects spoken in Trinidad, Suriname and Guyana, to regional dialects in north India form where labourers had been recruited/taken. Bhimull’s paper was based on secondary data collected in the 1970s, as living populations speaking these languages are now greatly diminished.

Understanding “Indian” and “Indo-Caribbean” identities in this way also provoked questions about race relations in Grenada and the wider Caribbean: how have Indo-Grenadians been integrated into the larger society? What sort of interactions have they had with other groups in the country, particularly with the formerly enslaved, with whom they most closely experienced subjugation within colonial societies? How do transplanted communities retain cultural practices, while adapting to new socio-political environments, especially as minorities?

The event could have had a greater impact, but was unfortunately not well-attended, being distanced from the community through its being situated on the University campus. Yet for the Indo-Grenadian peoples in attendance who were grappling with alienation or feeling distanced from their histories, the conference represented a symbolic link to community and legacy. It was a forum for gaining visibility as an Indian diasporic population and as Caribbean people.

In the vein of continuities, we must think about the future of events like these. How can we continue these conversations? In what ways can this be most useful to Caribbean peoples of Indian descent? What conversations are needed for the future of Indian descendents in Caribbean and other contexts?