Well a Woman is Almost There
So wha bout the politics now?
New UNC Political Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar
By Corey Gilkes
March 02, 2010
On the 24th January an interesting but not unexpected shift in the politics occurred when Kamla Persad-Bissessar was voted in as political leader of the United National Congress dethroning the charismatic veteran leader and founder of the party, Basdeo Panday. This paved the way for her being sworn in as Leader of the Opposition on the 25th February. Kamla's victory is significant in more ways than one. For well over fifty years there have been women figuring in one way or another in the political world of Trinidad and Tobago. Significant strides have been made by such figures as Audrey Jeffers, Gertrude Kirton, Muriel Donawa-McDavidson and Jean Pierre, to name but a few and while in the past there have been women appointed by the Prime Minister to function in his capacity in his absence, never before have we seen a woman elected to lead a political party with the likelihood that she may also be elected as the country's next Prime Minister.
What is even more noteworthy is that the UNC voters did not merely elect a woman to lead a party, they elected a woman to lead a party that since its inception has been guided by patricentric Hindu cultural ideas. Now, anybody familiar with the cultural orientation of the Hindu-Trinidadian male, women at best were/are idealised as wards, objects (really) to be protected, controlled and guided. At one period in Trinidad's history to even have Indian women literate, far less politically active, was unthinkable and having them assume a position of leadership was practically heresy. So I applaud Kamla's victory and acknowledge that by all indications this marks a turning point in our political culture (allyuh go remember that in a previous essay I did call for more women to get politically conscious and active, so yuh know me eh vex); I applaud the efforts of people like Hazel Brown who for quite a long while lobbied and were very vocal for more women in Parliament. At the same time, however, I must temper that with a call to those who herald this, like the election of Barack Obama, as a great wind of change, to not slack up but to now intensify the call for an entire change in politics to one that is more matri-centred. Women's politics as it were.
Now at this point somebody reading this just let go one long *steups* because apparently views like this offends some people's sensibilities. Some people have a problem whenever someone discusses issues from a racial or gender perspective. Indeed, by and large in Trinidad there is a marked reluctance and discomfort by many of the "educated" to hold in-depth discussions of race and gender in Trinidad; they argue that doing so – as opposed to discussing TRINIDAD'S issues to solve TRINIDAD'S problems – makes the situation worse and is counter-productive: people who argue such things are living in the past. Dr Gabriele Hosein made a comment about Kamla's victory and almost instantly was vilified for it on a number of radio talk shows. So much for maturity and understanding of context. But then, this has always been an escapist society. True, some people do use race and gender challenges as a crutch and an excuse for their own self-defeatist attitudes or to pursue their own narrow agendas, but I have always found that that reasoning is a cop-out. How exactly do you expect to deal with a problem if you don't articulate the problem, if you don't establish a point of departure?
So let me say one time, tough luck. I'm going to be basing my views on the basis of "race" and gender, so yuh might as well close off this web page. Now it is not that I understand why there is such an argument that we should discuss on the basis of "Trinidad," but it makes no sense. Everything in our space is coloured by ethnicity, class, gender and so on. Everything. One's interpretation and analysis of a given social, economic, or political issue cannot help but be influenced by one's ethnic or class or gender, sometimes all of the above. Nothing is necessarily wrong with that unless one uses that as a vehicle to demean others or pander to ideas of eternal victimhood. Ironically, the very reasoning used by those with that escapist mindset is itself deeply rooted in gender-specific – namely masculinist – ideology. The concept of universalism, which posits that the values, interests and worldview of one specific group represents the values, interests and worldview of all groups regardless of ethnicity, tribe, cultural, historical or geographic circumstances, is a trait of patricentric ideology. People who take that stance ask somewhat hypocritically: why should someone speak about women's issues as if they are some separate group in the society? The legal system, our religious worldview ("Gawwwd") is above sex and gender, so why do people like me insist on taking this approach? This was a position taken by the Europeans as they went about colonising the world and sought to dismiss or trivialise criticisms of that act of physical and psychological violence. One of the offshoots of that was the way Caribbean scholars – schooled in Eurocentric institutions and as such were trained in their methodologies – examined the historical and social forces that shaped the development of the Caribbean. In many otherwise scholarly works written by both men and women the methodologies they used to examine the dynamics of Caribbean societies failed to let them see and properly explain the workings of these societies and people based on their own historical and sociological circumstances.
Therefore, I dismiss any argument that one can and should analyse aspects of economics, history and other social sciences in some trans-gender way, sticking instead to empiricism and observable facts. I reject out of hand any view that posits that the social and economic challenges of Trinidad and Tobago can be or must be addressed in ways that are "above" race and gender. With regard to Kamla and the question of matricentric politics the reality is that there are behavioural differences in the ways men and women approach or engage in business, relationships, conflict resolution or in this case politics. Marilyn French in her book Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals is just one of those who make this point very clear. In her book, while acknowledging that both sexes can and do possess behavioural traits associated with the other sex, she nevertheless separated certain behaviours into two categories to establish a frame of reference as she advanced her arguments. Among the behaviours associated with masculinity were individualism, aggressive competitiveness, top-down hierarchy, rigidity and permanence while among the behaviours normally associated with femininity she included collective attitudes including communalism, openness, flexibility and a spirit of accommodation. It is this working model that I intend to use here. For to understand fully my call to change the politics to one more matri-centred, one must set aside the traditional hierarchical, individualistic, competitive nature that is the pillar of patriarchal ideas and values – including the ideas upon which the political culture of Trinbago is built – using this separation of behaviours as a tool of reference.
As I said earlier, Kamla's election was significant in that she was elected in a party that is ideologically rooted in a rural Indian cultural ideology that marginalises women even though it pretends to elevate them onto a pedestal. Mind you, this does not mean that the Afri-Caribbean women fared much better. Socially, because of certain African cultural retentions that survived the Middle Passage, Afri-Caribbean women enjoyed more autonomy and were more assertive than their Indian counterparts. This helps to explain the Elma Francois's, the Christina King's, Albertina Husbands's and Claudia Jones's of the 1930s and the years following that watershed period.
That, however, went only so far; the reality was that both ethnic groups were forcibly living in a society created by the European colonisers in keeping with their cultural ideas and opinions about what were the approved positions for women – that was nowhere on par with men economically, spiritually or politically. While doing so they had to erase or keep out all knowledge of history that shone light on alternative cultural ideas that ran counter to Eurocentric views of social structures, spirituality, economics and politics. Thus, even many an anti-colonial scholar knew little or nothing of the differences and depth of pre-colonial African political institutions with which to establish new frames of reference. One such institution that remained largely unknown was an institution that existed in various forms in Africa; an institution that has never existed in Europe so far as I know: women's politics and women's political groups.
Information on comparative matri-centred politics in India is sketchy to this writer although there are a few indications that this also existed in parts of India, especially those that were not dominated by Hinduism. The picture, however, is clearer in Africa. Now even in matricentric Africa there was always a delicate balance of power between women and men and their respective interests and support groups. For the most part the balance tilted more on the side of the women. In West Africa the incursions of Islam eroded some of that power but still a lot of cultural retentions that deferred final authority to women were maintained. The late Dr John Henrik Clarke argued that this was partly due to the fact that unlike Eastern Africa where Islam was spread by Arabs, Islam came to West Africa by Islamised Africans who knew which of the ancient, pre-Islamic cultures they had better leave alone. In pre-colonial Africa and even to some extent during the colonial period, we find among many communities and territorial-states the presence of powerful, autonomous political groups and secret societies comprised entirely of women. Even in outwardly patriarchal territorial-states and kingdoms there was always some sort of balance that favoured the women in that community. Ifi Amadiume examined in detail the women's political groups among the Nnobi people of Nigeria. She showed how these groups, using the home, its garden and the marketplace as centres of their political and economic power, met and discussed the issues of the communities and whatever were the challenges facing them. These challenges usually revolved around acquiring or maintaining food supplies to satisfy the needs of their respective communities; something not at all dissimilar to our own situation here in Trinbago. Ventures to establish large monuments or to acquire large expanses of land or resources simply to increase one's status appeared to be more in keeping with patricentric interests and so were not as important in matri-centred political or economic interests. It was not that men were ignored or shut out of the political processes; patricentric institutions did exist and had their own prominent places in most African societies but the more critical aspects of production were by and large held by women and matri-centred institutions. The social structures of these communities set up divisions based on gender (not sex); men had their place, their roles and their functions. To understand this one must fully appreciate that since the very earliest human societies women in Africa were the principal forces behind the more valuated aspects of production. Much of the agricultural, weaving and other manufacturing and medicinal industries today can be traced back hundreds of years, thousands of years, to experiments and developments African women made and passed down from mother to daughter. Cheikh Anta Diop pointed out that such was the respect the menfolk held for these women that it was they who developed the matrilineal societies of which many a scholar found all over Africa.
Another feature of pre-colonial African political and social systems was de-centralised leadership. Today many praise the supposed superiority of centralisation; one can argue that in the rapid changes of the economic and political world we live in today there can be no alternative. That point, however, can be highly disputed. Further, rapid evolution is not necessarily good given that many societies may not be able to keep pace and as a result find themselves embroiled in socially unstable situations like violent crime. Additionally, centralisation often tends to alienate communities that are far from the centres of power. The fact is that centralisation is more tied to authoritarianism than it is to efficiency. In the older African models, decentralised administrations still recognised there was a monarch but the elders, titled women and their groups had much more authority to govern and make decisions based on their closer connections to the communities. The result was often a much more cohesive society.
The colonial experience radically changed all that. The colonisers came, saw women in positions their own women were never allowed to occupy and set about changing the structures to one more in keeping with how they felt women should be placed in society. They did the same thing in the Americas as they hammered out these export processing zones otherwise known as the Caribbean islands. This worked out fine for patriarchists in both African and Indian communities for even though they came from cultures in which women were accorded prominent positions, there were, nevertheless competing patri-centred ideas. Such is the sensitivity of the balance between matricentricity and patriarchy that once it is shifted to the side of the patriarch, it then becomes extremely difficult for the balance to be restored.
But it is a balance that must be restored. It is critical that for the survival of many aspects of Trinidad's society as it is, in the wider context, for the survival of humanity's very existence. I am not making this statement to be melodramatic; the pillars of patricentric thought and behaviour – competitiveness, elitist individualism, possessiveness and rigidity – that provides the thrust for the policies and projects upon which our economy and those of the "developed" world are exactly the same that are now threatening to destroy those economies and humanity itself. It has long since been mentioned that the nature of politics in Trinbago is very competitive, aggressive, authoritarian and inclined to the winner-take-all mentality. Lloyd Best called this Maximum Leadership and noted that it is so deeply ingrained in the psyche of the country that one could find it in every institution from Parliament to panyard. Merely putting a woman in a position of leadership in the UNC and/or Trinidad and Tobago will not be of much significance if the only way she is accepted as a leader is if she suppresses her femininity and pursue the same alienating, elitist, profoundly industrialist and ultimately destructive policies that the men were pursuing.
If there are any doubts about what I just said, let me clear it up with two words: Margaret Thatcher. The first woman prime minister of England assumed office on the shoulders of various women's organisations along with the men who saw her as the change England needed. By the time she demitted office (or rather, was put out of it), the Iron Lady had effectively distanced herself from, attacked and eroded those same women's interests groups that helped her get there in the first place. We can also point to such people as Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice, all highly intelligent, articulate and assertive women in their respective times who advanced or were compelled to advance the policies and interests of their patricentric political elite – with disastrous results for millions of people, particularly women, in the so-called Third World.
Trinidad and Tobago is of course no exception to the rule (say it with me: Karen Nunez-Tesheira); high food import bill yet local agriculture is given no more than lip service because the emphasis remains consistent with 19th century European theories of development. Much of the imported food and seeds turn out to be genetically modified rather than organic. Otherwise, the focus is forever upon heavy industrialisation as the answer to all of our economic and social ills. Steel mill and smelter on one side, rapid rail (using up even more prime agricultural land) and huge phallic structures – mostly concentrated (centralised) in Port of Spain – on the other. Most of which are driven by a political elite in the PNM and the UNC firmly steeped in patriarchal ideas of progress and backed up by industrial companies and transnational corporations whose plants are closing in their own countries for environmental and economic reasons. All the while the rape and exploitation of our natural resources is glibly defended to the hilt by our first female Minister of Finance.
So if the election of Mrs Kamla Persad-Bissessar is to really mean something, it has to be the opening of a new form of politics that is built from the ground up, widely accommodating and is primarily concerned with the need to developing local self-dynamics. This in my view is what we need to be vocal about now. Industrial development has its merits, erecting of large structures with the latest technology has its place – as long as it is effectively balanced. Merely setting them up to fulfil one's masturbatory fantasies or to pride oneself that that is the benchmark of developed country status is only going to pave to way for our own eventual demise. The country can not absorb the abuses and excesses of an elite few for much longer, let us hope that Kamla's election really means some sort of change from that.
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