August 19, 2001
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe
BASDEO Panday had every right to be mad, even though it is for the wrong reasons. Although Ramesh talked about the need for women to be treated equally, his contempt for women could not be more obvious; his understanding of equality could not be more skewed. Even as he chastised Kamla Persad-Bissessar's followers for being disrespectful toward him, he displayed male privilege and disrespected Persad-Bissessar and every woman in the country.
His first indiscretion occurred when he addressed the audience. Rather than acknowledge Persad-Bissessar's status as Acting Prime Minister, which is of more importance than his position as deputy political leader or AG, he addressed her as "The Minister appointed to carry the duties of the Prime Minister during the absence from the country of the honourable Prime Minister, Basdeo Panday". Such a salutation was meant to insult.
At that moment Persad-Bissessar was Acting Prime Minister carrying out all the functions of that office and thereby should have been the recipient of all the courtesies of the office.
Maharaj should have acknowledged the office she represented rather than resent the person who held the office. Had a visiting dignitary from another country made such a faux pas, he would have been reprimanded severely for his insolence. S/he would have been dubbed as being fas' and out a' place, a description that fits Maharaj's behaviour aptly.
In another remarkable display of discourtesy and male privilege, Maharaj arrived when Persad-Bissessar was addressing the audience. Not only did his late arrival disrupt the proceedings, "his loud welcome by tassa and clapping cut into Persad-Bissessar's speech". One does not know if the tassas accompanied Maharaj, but such a display would not have been allowed if Panday were addressing UNC's women's arm. One also questions how appropriate it is for an AG to arrive after the PM. Protocol suggests that persons be seated before the PM arrives and that goes for an Acting PM as well. But then Persad-Bissessar is a woman and Ramesh need not accommodate himself to such protocol if a woman holds the position.
Yet, respect and equality, like love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage. If one does not have genuine respect for another, it is difficult to believe he or she is equal. If a white person has genuine contempt for a black person, it is absolutely impossible for him to respect or acknowledge the latter's equality. The same is true in gender relations and women's quest for genuine equality.
In his address, Maharaj is reported to have said, "Although women are entitled to equality [I would have said that women are equal to men] and most demand it, they must not be satisfied with equality based on tokenism...Any position you get must be on the basis of equal treatment and not on tokenism and cosmetics."
I am not sure how equality can ever be based on tokenism and/or cosmetics. Equality based on tokenism and cosmetics follows a similar illogic. No matter how one stretches the former it could never collapse into the latter. Equality suggests that people must be treated fairly and given similar opportunities. They ought to be selected on the basis of their ability rather than their gender even though placing people in positions because of their gender or race can have beneficial results.
Tokenism, on the other hand, places a person in a position as a symbol (that is, as a token), a recognition of the need to be fair and just. How, in this context, can equality be based on tokenism or cosmetics? No matter how much tokenism or cosmetics one engages in, it can never culminate in equality. That is to say, no matter how we add up tokenism and cosmetics, they can never achieve the goal of equality. Such a statement is a non sequitur. The inference (equality) does not follow from the condition (tokenism). Rather than discourse intelligently about equality, Maharaj meant to embarrass Persad-Bissessar. He succeeded only in embarrassing himself.
Such embarrassment was compounded when he observed: "You must not be satisfied to achieve a position and get equal treatment merely because you are a woman." I don't quite know what it is to be "merely" a woman. Women strive for equality because they are women. Earning positions and recognition in a male-oriented society is not an easy matter. Men, it seems, usually make the decisions. They do not necessarily work harder than women do.
Yet, if we look at the distribution of jobs in the UNC Government or the business world, few women are in positions of power and/or influence. It has little to do with hard work. It has more to do with the opportunities they receive and the effects of male social bonding.
Full of himself and adorned in his righteousness, Maharaj adumbrated the qualities that make for success and the advancement of women. He used terms such as "strong, hard-working, competent [and] effective", usually associated with masculine behaviour. He did not include respect for others, introspection, sensitivity and magnanimity as part of his vocabulary of equality. Rudely interrupting the speech of an Acting PM, who happens to be a woman, and then advancing all the male characteristics he privileges, never seemed to be inconsistent or contradiction. But then he is a man and Persad-Bissessar is a woman. Fools always rush in where angels fear to tread.
In his ego and his pride, Maharaj tried to humiliate Persad-Bissessar and to signal his position in the party. He should remember that the powerful tread softly, are sensitive to the needs of those they wish to persuade and generally empathise with others.
Maharaj's boorish intrusion displayed male chauvinist tendencies and underlined masculine privilege. Especially in a woman's arena, his actions belied his verbal concerns for women's equality. His only concern was his own political advancement.
I am sure the women saw through his charade.
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