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Religion and the National Gender Policy – Keep the Myths Out

By Corey Gilkes
May 30, 2013

Anyone needing confirmation that our organised religious bodies are by and large irrelevant and stultifying entities should look no further than their views concerning the National Gender Policy (NGP) here in Trinidad along with the LGBTQ and abortion issues. By now it should be common knowledge that Minister Marlene Coudray announced that the issue of same-sex relationships and equality would not be included in the discussion on the NGP. Frankly, it is of no surprise to me that the NGP is being watered down in the way it is; much of the impetus behind this diluting is coming from, predictably, the conservative religious bodies in the country – and no doubt the instinctive bias and prejudices among those in the political elites. This is being done by the time-honoured practice of isolating such issues as the LGBTQ question (which really isn't what the NGP is about), then eventually other topics, just wait and see.

Like, say, the OSHA of years gone by and its challenges to the business and corporate elites, a really progressive NGP is political and threatens the interests and arrogated authority of elites including religious leaders – of course they don't say that so they resort to emotive arguments like the NGP will threaten that sanctity of "traditional" marriage and the "traditional" family. This sort of nonsense finds a lot of traction here because, given the way we have been socialised, whenever most of us hear talk about "traditional" marriages and family structures, we formulate assumptions that the nuclear, male-headed model IS traditional and remained unchanged for thousands of years even in the Europe that imposed much of these ideas on us. As such (un?) consciously complicit in this are the many Trinis who read very little and critically analyse even less in this anti-intellectual society of ours. Minister Coudray showed us that quite clearly when she reportedly reminded us, prompted by the Inter-Religious Organisation, that our Constitution was "based" on the supremacy of God, what arrant nonsense and ignorance of the writing of the nation's Constitution.

I do not wish to go into the gay/lesbian issue per se – there are others who can better deal with that. For me there are wider issues that should always be borne in mind when examining questions of this nature; issues concerning definitions of development and progress; issues concerning definitions of power and who is best suited to possess it; issues dealing with the dangers of accepting as universal and adopting definitions not in keeping with ones own cultural understandings – or what happens when one divorces oneself from ones cultural understanding. Most importantly is the issue of the aversion by religious bodies to human sexuality outside of THEIR prescribed definitions of what is sexually proper and moral (these prescribed mores actually stem from their obsessive need to restrict and control sexuality and nothing to do with any god, respect for family, women or any such romanticised rubbish).

Let's look, for instance, at the IRO, specifically the so-called leadership of the Catholic Church in Trinidad and Tobago and its apparent mouthpiece, Ms Leela Ramdeen. We've already been subjected to the archaic views of a pastor, a pundit and an Imam on marriage and relationships through a recent radio programme on Talk City 91.1FM. Now we see it again from the Catholics with the writings of Ms Ramdeen. In the April 28th 2013 edition of the Catholic News she outlines the principal objections of the Church to the NGP. Of note were their objections to the NGP's definition of the term "gender." What was really noteworthy was their very selective use of a certain definition of gender to bolster their agenda. In her article, Ms Ramdeen argues that the NGP's definition of gender – defined therein as a social construct as opposed to "sex" which is biological – as "intrinsically flawed," contrary to Church teachings and counter to the Constitution which acknowledged the supremacy of god. She argues that the definition supported gender fluidity, which the Church rejects.

Ms Ramdeen "informs" us that the NGP's definition of gender goes against the definition of gender in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court which conflates "gender" with "sex." This is the definition the Holy See (the Vatican) and the local Catholics accept. In fact, to use her words: "The Holy See delegation stressed that in International Law the only binding definition of gender is in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, of which T&T is a signatory, which states that gender "refers to the two sexes, male and female, within the context of society. The term 'gender' does not indicate any meaning different from the aforementioned definitions."

Citing a report by Babette Francis, she indicates her desire, and that of the Holy See, that gender be "defined rigorously because sexual rights activists expand the definition of 'gender' in UN documents to define a diversity of "genders"...activists would use this expanded definition in their respective to try to strike down laws governing marriage which they see as discriminating against diverse sexual orientations..."

Well, for now I go leave out the fact that no Catholic (or any other Christian for that matter) should speak about what is intrinsically flawed given the very scandalous history of how Western Christianity came into being in the first place, not to mention the collecting of the books that went into the Bible itself (I'll leave out all ah dat since most Trinis don't know the history anyway, thus the romantic attachment by many to religion).

What I will do is point out some of the things she does not say. She does say that the drafters of the Rome Statute's definition of gender sought the easy way out in light of strong objections by certain countries – prompted by religious bodies – and that the phrase "within the context of society" could be very problematic to her own arguments since in many societies, gender is, well, understood to be a social construct. She does not say that the ICC definition has been vigorously criticised and dismissed by many scholars and researchers. In publications like "The International Criminal Law and The International Criminal Court Statute: Crimes Against Women and Women, War and Words," scholars and lawyers like Dorean Koenig, Kelly Askan and Brook Sari Moshan showed where the definition was limiting and deliberately ambiguous. In her paper "The Definition of Gender in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court: a Step Forward or a Step Back for International Criminal Justice?" Valerie Oosterveld cited these and other studies and words like "stunningly narrow," "a failure," "puzzling and bizarre" and "peculiarly narrow" were used.

Furthermore, and this is where I found it very, very interesting, given that much of the NGP has to do with human rights, Ms Ramdeeen and the Catholic Church jumped on and pulled out the ICC's definition, arguing that T&T is a signatory to that Statute, but ignored the many other UN statutes that have a different definition of gender. One of these is the Commission on Human Rights Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women that has as its definition of gender: "socially constructed roles of women and men ascribed to them on the basis of their sex." Now even though this can be debated somewhat, it is clear here that the framers of this definition saw gender as a social construct and given that it has to do with human rights, you'd think that y'know, the Church would have adopted this one. But then that can't happen because that definition acknowledges that gender is a "SOCIAL construct" – how it go look?

Now this may seem a low blow but I have to say it. People in hostage rescue units know of a condition called the Stockholm Syndrome in which the victim of a violent abduction or hostage situation comes to identify with the ideals of the terrorist/hostage-taker, often to the point of hindering rescue attempts. It's not hard to draw parallels here; the same way many people of African descent, taught openly and subtly for so long that their ancestors contributed next to nothing in the way of human social development, could flippantly dismiss information showing that the pillars of civilisation existed in Africa for thousands of years, the same way the Leela Ramdeens of this world will forever object to and fight tooth and nail epistemologies, models and institutions that seek to replace unbending authoritarian patricentry with more matricentric orderings of society. Oh well, at least she's honest when she points out that the Church rejects the fluidity of gender definitions. That is a bedrock trait of patricentry/patriarchy. But she should do well to consider that culture, definitions, even language is fluid and have always been, otherwise, for instance, we'd still be speaking the English of the 1600s when King James' opinion of the Bible was being written. She should also do well to pay attention to the writings and lectures of Jared Diamond when he points out that one of the reasons why many empires collapsed was because the same ideas, customs, rituals and beliefs that made them powerful on the ascendency, caused them to be irrelevant and weak when conditions changed and these things were no longer relevant.

But as far as I am concerned she and her Church are of the least importance, what about us? It is astounding just how much is pushed past the public, how many horrendously bad decisions are allowed to go unchallenged because of a largely uninformed population including people who reside inside the halls of higher learning and political power. We don't read, unless perhaps for a test to get ah pass, we don't engage in critical thinking, profound thinkers and activists who spent their whole lives challenging and changing are ignored because they "aesthetically and visually unappealing" (so he must look like Brad Pitt I guess for some people to take them on). It is almost obscene how easily Minister Coudray and the members of the ruling party folded to the objections raised by the Catholics and other religious leaders. Deep in this society run the veins that maintain an uncritical, romantic attachment to religious dictates: "god" approves or disapproves of something and that's it, no further questioning is to be entertained.

Yes, the Constitution gives us freedom to believe whatever the hell we want to believe religiously....or not. I, for one, have no intention of tampering with that. But this uncritical acceptance of "religious" teachings go put we in real trouble one of these days. It is an ominous thing to consider that these myths are rooted in authoritarian, if not outright totalitarian patriarchal cultural ideas that were embedded in what became European society even before the existence of Europe itself. Ditto for Islam. This is why I support those who argue for the removal of the reference to "god" in the Preamble. Given the authoritative, at times intolerant nature of many religious sects, each arguing that their interpretation of "god" is the only correct one (see the verbal effluence of Pastor Cuffie for instance) this is an active jep nest waiting to get chook and far too many of us refuse to see it including Ms Ramdeen and others who want to cite the authority of the Holy See – not that the Protestants are any better (again, Cuffie, Hinn and far too many imams to count).

When it comes to influencing public policy, de-contextualised, badly mistranslated myths have no business being the determining factor for anything – unless of course the clerics are willing to give up their tax exempt status – and make no mistake about it, the Christian claims of authority are partly based on de-contextualised, badly translated myths. Gerda Lerner in her book "The Creation of Patriarchy" made a very important statement that is the sooner we start seeing these "divine" teachings and articles of faith as historical, the quicker we will be able to understand and accept that they had a specific beginning in human history and so we can easily restructure or deconstruct them.

Before she go about telling people how to live, methinks Ms Ramdeen and those of her ilk should be more focusing their energies on their own Church and force it to deal with the misogynist, anti-sensual, anti-sexual attitudes that it has dressed up so nicely and called it "respect" for women, marriage and family. It's cheap for her and the clerics to talk about sex using terms like respect for the sanctity of marriage when the Church for 900 years refused to even participate in marriage ceremonies because of its association with sex. And quite frankly if I was a woman and in the Catholic Church and read all what the Church theologians like Augustine, Tertullian, Aquinas, Jerome et al, had to say about women and read why women cyar be no priest, I woulda pelt that faith in the rubbish of history without a backward glance. Say wha, if that's what floats her boat, cool. Just don't be telling me I must conform to that too.

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