Women’s Bodies Make the News (again)

Lately I’ve been spending my time taking deep dives into the arena of gender analysis. Holed up in a small classroom for 3 hours a week in a recurring debate on the privileges of the penis may not sound like your idea of fun, but to me it’s absolute heaven. Feminist intellectual stimulation, stinging repartee and a whole bunch of new words to add to my vocabulary. It doesn’t get much better than this.

But the perspective comes with a shadow, cynicism. The niggling fear that the status quo (which is far more pervasive and sinister than I realized) won’t ever change because so many people are invested in keeping it the same. The concern that despite our promises as a country and despite our claims as a society, the day to day culture of Jamaica thrives on the subordination of women and other non-masculine groups.

Close to my heart, the topic of healthcare: reproductive rights and abortions. Recently in the news again thanks to MP Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn (In 2018 I learnt a bunch of useless US politician names, maybe 2019 is the year I learn Jamaican ones) who tabled a bill to decriminalize abortion.

Not a bill to let women kill their children.

Not a bill to give women an excuse to be promiscuous.

Not a bill to hasten the decay in Judeo-Christian morals and values.

(all points that were raised and shot down)

The bill was tabled to allow easier access to safe abortions – because women are literally dying.

As I read the discussions helpfully Tweeted out by groups in attendance (the revolution will not be televised because there is no revolution), the points raised by pro-lifers kept circling back to the idea that women do not own their bodies. Their bodies must be offered up for the greater good ie having babies and if they die in the process well it would have been a worthy sacrifice. The MPs who responded challenged the speakers to provide data to back up their claims (they couldn’t) and questioned the right of the Church to make decisions for a pluralist society.

I happen to follow mostly ‘woke’ people on Twitter: feminists, LGBTQ folks and advocates, pro-choice supporters. So my news feed lulls me into the false sense of feeling like maybe the progressive bunch scored a win.

But then I see pictures of the pro-choice stand/march that happened before the debate started – a handful of lovely women (and men, and I think maybe non-binary persons too) clad in black with shirts and placards bearing slogans like ‘NO WOMB FOR PATRIARCHY” and “MIND YOUR OWN UTERUS”. Catchy slogans, very clever, but not a big crowd.

And then I take note of the Members of Parliament who they Tweeteed about actively participating in the discussion. Again, lovely people, but only three maybe four names are repeated.

And then I realize something. It’s great to feel like a part of a movement. It’s great to have people who agree with your values and outlook on life. It’s nice to be included (I get such a thrill when WE-Change retweets me). But the shadow, cynicism, clouds the warm fuzzy feelings.

Culture, society, Parlimentarians in the majority aren’t ready to allow women full control over their own bodies. We might get ideas. The road to change is long and hard, and it will probably continue long after we’ve passed on the torch. This ‘gender thing’ is a huge obstacle to human rights, social development and nation building. We gotta start looking at these problems fully cognizant of the biases and privileges we bring to the table. We have to stop accepting the status quo and start challenging it.

I gotta get off woke Twitter and start changing the world around me.


Just in case anyone was wondering (I was) – the only news article that spoke about this debate was a brief piece in the Gleaner that basically recounted an emotional story from a Catholic nun about overriding women’s choices for the patriarchy. You can read it here.

Sundays are for Gratitude (and Homework)

Today I’m sharing a post that was written quite some months ago, because it feels especially relevant. Just this week one of the wonderful women I mention in this post reached out to me through a belated Christmas card and suddenly all the memories and nostalgia came flooding back. Real life mail can be so emotional sometimes. Anyway, while I am busy doing homework on this sunny Sunday, do enjoy this short reflection on gratefulness and belonging. 

~*~

I am thinking about gratitude.

How grateful I am for the women on LiveJournal who raised me, nurtured my budding social awareness, adopted this internet orphan, were my tribe in a time when I desperately needed to belong somewhere.

When I talk about my strange fixation with white women it probably started here. With these amazing wives and mothers (white and black) on LJ who lived and breathed feminism in an era before that word was so conflicted. They showed me that women could do anything. These women who coded and built their own websites, designed amazing graphics, wrote powerful stories, raised strong families. They showed me a version of life that I never would have known if I was left up to the devices of day to day Jamaica.

So I am eternally grateful for these women and the indelible marks they have carved on my path to adulthood. They didn’t have to accept this ‘little black girl from country’ as one of their own but they did, and I felt empowered to be among them. Not because they were elite (they were not) or foreign (mostly) or feminists (all), but because they admired and respected me the same way I did them. And that was a powerful lesson.

Lessons in Womanhood

As a black girl child uncertainty was bred into my bones. I was taught to doubt my every thought and decision. Taught to believe someone else’s version of the truth. Taught that my feelings were irrelevant to the task at hand, which was to pave the way for someone else’s vague notions of success. It isn’t that my family deliberately set out to rob me of self-confidence, but these were the lessons I imbibed as a child who was sensitive to the ways of the world.

As an educated black woman I marvel at how much these lessons continue to affect me, particularly in my academic and professional spheres. I note with envy how easily my male colleagues assume roles of leadership. How confidently they navigate their realms, without second guessing, without deferring to another person’s judgment.

I’m acutely aware of the influence that social class must necessarily have on these gendered upbringings. The poor have always been subjugated and have coped with that subjugation by adopting a deferential attitude. This is as much a survival tactic as anything else – the poor frequently have no options for economic mobility other than servitude. And a good servant is docile.

But I don’t want to be a good servant.

I want to be a strong black woman. Strong black women (history says) are rarely ever liked, but they are respected.

If there is one truth I must give the daughter I may never have, it is that her self-worth should never be called into question. That she does not have to shrink to make way for others to grow. That she must go out and make her mark on this wretched, wonderful Earth without fear or hesitation. That she must do this with as much poise and compassion as she can muster because the world will not be kind (though kindness is needed).

This is the lesson I hope society will one day teach: that our black girls are not pawns, no. They have been Queens all along.

*

Credit for the image (as well as my blog avatar) to Zigbone.

The Strange Duality of #lifeinleggings

The ineffable Carla Moore (of mooretalkja) recently posted a video of herself on Instagram wearing ‘yaad clothes’ – no bra, somewhat revealing top, and short shorts. Her caption read,

“As a woman the things you do to liberate yourself may just end up as fodder for somebody’s spank bank. That doesn’t mean you should stop trying. It does mean you need to be realistic with yourself about consequences and how you will deal with them.”
–Carla Moore (Instagram @mooremayhem)

In the video she talked about the duality of this liberation/spank bank existence and how she was able to embrace this duality as a 30-something year old woman, unafraid of dealing with the consequences of her actions.

This duality is an unbalanced in-between space that many feminists have been navigating for years. The urge to dress up/dress sexy for yourself is always countered by the knowledge that men will assume you’re dressing up for them. The boldest feminists, I think, have barreled on regardless of what men may think, dressing however they want. The not-so-brave still resist, and I count myself in this category because sometimes I’m still afraid to dress up, thereby drawing attention to myself. And as a woman in the Caribbean (the whole world, but especially at home), male attention is usually the last thing you want to attract.

But going beyond the purview of #lifeinleggings and extending Carla’s think piece to a more general awareness of the feminine existence, another question arises: What other parts of myself am I struggling to reconcile? Aside from my sexuality (style? attractiveness?), what other definitions of myself clash in the public and private spheres?

The other day I went Christmas shopping and got super excited by the silly Christmas hats on display. I was trying them on and making faces while my partner snapped pictures (for blackmail purposes, I presume) when I heard a voice say, “Dr. Robyn?”

It was my former consultant and his daughter, whom he introduced to me. He was amused, his daughter was very politely concerned and I was absolutely mortified.

Compared to life in leggings, this is a shallow contemplation. But a necessary one nonetheless. Aspects of myself that I like and respect – my whimsy, my silliness, my endless stubborn optimism – won’t always impress other people. Can I live with that duality, the awareness that the same feature will represent different things to different people?

Writers have to deal with that all the time. They (we?) pretty much exist in a plane of ambiguity. One piece of work can be torn to shreds and elevated time and time again. How they feel about their creation will not be how their reader feels about it.

I suppose there is plurality in all things. It’s a condition of life. At the same time as we are somebody’s daughter or son, we are someone else’s sister or brother, mother or father, friend or enemy. We navigate these existences unconsciously (there goes my cis-privilege), but the burgeoning consciousness about gender interactions forces our experiences as women into a harsh light. We’re rethinking all the old ways of thinking and doing things, and we’re doing it loudly.

I’m waiting with bated breath for the outcome of these hard conversations. I’m hoping it ends with a woman being able to walk down the street and have it be just that: a walk down the street, instead of an invitation to harassment.

pax.

Review | Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

I started watching the HBO hit series Girls because I needed some hipsterification in my life. I had just watched Juno for the umpteenth time and was craving some fast talking esoteric geek-speak when my friend Dr. Gargamel recommended it to me.

I disliked the pilot because it was awkward and unfunny and had a weird sex scene (taking into consideration that I am weird about sex scenes in general). I didn’t finish watching it and didn’t watch any more episodes.

Not That Kind of Girl makes me regret not sticking it out.

I’m addicted to knowing what other people are doing with their time, so for me the best memoirs are story after story after story with occasional footnotes of introspection. Not That Kind of Girl lives up to my expectations.

In the book Dunham is self-critical and self-congratulatory, often at the same time. She recounts every story with the openly-admitted bias of the self-involved and this ironic honesty had me glued to the page. Here is a girl who is totally confident about herself and determined to kick ass but who also spends most of her time warring with insecurities and waffling about major decisions.

It’s dangerous to consider memoirs (especially those of famous people) as presenting any kind of insight into the lives they are about because there’s nothing stopping the author from glossing over unseemly details or even outright lying. The very basis of a memoir is that it’s founded on fact, but are any of us really reliable narrators? Dunham points that out early on [SPOILER] when she recounts an ambiguous sexual encounter that may or may not have been rape.

Ultimately the only absolute truth a memoir has to offer is a comment on the mind of the person who wrote it. There’s no questioning the truth of the things that happened (not that their truths are unquestionable, just that there’s no point to questioning them). What we should be examining critically is the lens we are looking through and not the view. Why has she drawn the picture this way? What is she holding back? What has she covered in rosy overtones? What does the way this story is told tell us about who wrote it?

Dunham is unflinching when she talks about her youthful experiments with sexuality, nostalgic and wistful when she speaks about school; her tone hardens to an edge when she talks about the sexism of Hollywood and softens to a sweet poignancy when she talks about her family. She talks about sex with clinical detachment and talks about her mental illness (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) like she’s writing from the frontlines of a battlefield, trying to understand the carnage but mostly just trying to survive it. She uses light-hearted lists like palate cleansers in between the heavy stuff and some parts of the book (like What’s in My Bag and My Worst Email Ever) can only be filed under the ever-expanding category of oversharing.

Not That Kind of Girl isn’t life-changing or earth-shattering. It’s not even the first of its kind (the style is reminiscent of Lawson’s Let’s Pretend this Never Happened). But it feels like a natural extension of Dunham’s work as an artist, her fight to bare [sic] it all. As part of the advance guard in this wave of millennial feminism, she plays her part admirably and Not That Kind of Girl just proves that she’s not the kind of girl who gives up the fight.

Making a Mountain out of a Slightly Smaller Mountain

Just a while ago I sat reading An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory in Juici Patties on campus and managed to overhear two children arguing in the booth opposite.

The little girl was debating hotly for some reason or the other, trying to trace off the boy but he was having none of it, replying to her remarks in standard English and invoking the good old ‘sticks and stones’ adage.

When an adult approached to tell them to settle down now and behave the girl, frustrated, burst out with “But him jus a gwaan like some gyal!”

Fellow Jamaicans can well imagine her tone of voice when I say that she made our patois version of “girl” sound like a bad word. Like it was the most horrible thing a man or boy could ever, ever be. So of course my socio-cultural/quasi-feminist antenna popped right up. 

Gender norms aside – yes, yes masculinity is a Big Deal in Jamaica; boys must be tough (whatever that means) – the equality (or rather equity, as Kat so painstakingly continues to remind me) of our sexes is at stake. When a girl uses her gender as an insult that’s the worst kind of bigotry. She’s saying “How dare you be a girl, how dare you descend to such an undesirable state”. Never mind that that is the state she herself is in.

I suppose she could also have been saying “How dare you trespass on my gender norms; only girls are allowed to speak Standard English and not get upset when we’re insulted”. But I think this interpretation is far less likely (and still not very fair to the genders).

It’s been pointed out to me that I like to seek out these points of debate, these underdog causes to champion, that I deliberately read too much into things. Everyone needs something to complain about I guess. When it’s not the lack of strong female leads in movies, it’s our lack of awareness of gender-based power struggles. 

The situation I described is a common one. Everybody’s heard a variation and you’ve probably even agreed that yes, this man really is behaving too much like a girl. Whatever that means. Our ideas of what men and women should and shouldn’t do are inextricably bound up in our social navigation, we don’t even notice them. But they are archaic at best and irreversibly damaging at worst.

The most important point of discussion is how do we fix them? How do we rid women and girls and men and boys of the notion that one gender is intrinsically superior to the other and, to take this a step further, how do we eliminate the notion that behaviour is gender-limited? 

The subtlety of socialization precludes mere academic intervention. Members of a society are taught how to behave by the society itself, not by books or Powerpoint presentations. We learn from our parents and other adults, from our friends. But how do we effect a change across these expansive  institutions of socialization?

In a recent post, Petchary quoted Marian Wright Edelman who said “You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.

Maybe that’s all we need. More fleas.

Housewives and Happiness

Housewife (n): a married woman whose main occupation is caring for her family, managing household affairs, and doing housework.

What is the deal with people hating on housewives? Feminists especially seem to see the designation as a kind of personal insult. As if the business of running a household is a demeaning occupation that all women everywhere should try to rise above.

May I be the first to disagree?

I’ve had this argument with my classmates, mostly because everyone has the same stereotype about housewives. You know, the desperate type; the dependent ones; the gold-diggers. If that’s what you’re calling a housewife, then no wonder there’s so much disdain for them. But that’s not really what being a housewife is supposed to be. At least, that’s not the way I think about it.

To me housewives don’t just spend their husband’s money and do nothing all day. They’re the backbone of the home. They cook and clean and make sure things run smoothly. They stay home with the children. They greet their husbands at the door. They write and blog and have interesting hobbies like hand-making DIY crafts out of mason jars. For the most part, they’re happy and fulfilled.

I do realize that my idea of housewives is a little idealistic but I just don’t see them as depressed or useless or boring. I don’t see why a woman who’s a housewife is any less of a woman than a woman who’s a doctor. Or the other way around.

People find fulfilment in different ways. You might feel a soul-deep contentment when you’re elbow deep in resecting someone’s colon cancer; I might get the same feeling from knowing my family is happy and well-fed. The goal as a woman – as a human being – is to find what makes you happy and do that, regardless of stereotypes and expectations*. We shouldn’t fight to fit into some predetermined mould at the cost of our peace of mind, and we ought not to judge someone whose source of happiness is different from ours.

I realize this is difficult and, again, I’m probably being idealistic. This is a world of compromised values and hurt feelings. Some of us like to think we’re a little better others and judge them accordingly but that isn’t what we should be doing, and it isn’t making us any happier. We strive for ideals everyday; we try to achieve perfection in a million different things. Why can’t happiness be one of them?

And while you’re off learning to be happy, try not to judge people who are doing the same.

 

*Although if torturing puppies and small children makes you happy, I would strongly encourage you to live up to society’s expectations of not being a sociopath.