DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
GENDER AND sexuality often become weaponised in electoral campaigns, providing a chance to observe contesting values in democratic life.
Women, and particularly young women, remain vulnerable to attacks on the basis of their bodies, dress, marital and parental status, and sexuality. One man, in the year 2020, thought it appropriate to ask on Facebook, “Should unmarried women with children be allowed to contest the general elections?”
This highlights how much patriarchal conjugality, and wifehood, police women’s citizenship. Such a question is not innocent. Women were once considered to be unfit for employment if unmarried mothers. They had to fight to vote, and run for office, because they were considered to be represented by their husband, as his subordinate whose responsibility was to rock the cradle, not rule the world.
Take the social media attack on UNC’s Toco/Sangre Grande candidate, Nabila Greene. It’s actually irrelevant what women, and young women, do in private, legal and consensual entanglements. It’s irrelevant whether they do it married or unmarried, with same-sex partners, naked or covered in money.
Undermining women’s aspirations for political leadership, through breaking their trust and violating their privacy, is a deliberate containment of their democratic participation. And, it works. It’s one disturbing reason why there are fewer women in political leadership today.
Decades of feminist activism, against sexism in leadership, double standards regarding respectability and “slut” shaming, has enabled a generation of young women and men to grow up aware that shame should be placed on perpetrators of “revenge pornography” and those who turn to personal attacks on women’s gender and sexuality to win.
UNC PRO, and herself a young woman, Anita Haynes was “on the money” when she responded, “What I have seen is that for female candidates, in particular, the attacks are always personal. They always attempt to put us in positions to have us confirm or deny things from what could be from your private life.” There was “nothing in the video that debars someone from holding office. The goal there is to shame someone…And that shame will prevent you from running and will prevent you from representing your people.”
By contrast, Camille Robinson-Regis, playing old-school marm, described the video as raising questions about the moral compass of a person who engages in this kind of conduct and as raising “serious questions about the person’s ability to exercise sound judgment.” The chairman of the PNM’s Women’s League missed the opportunity for a non-partisan message, to all young women entering politics, that women should be judged by their qualifications, contribution, capacity and potential, and that all parties should hold to this standard. Isn’t this precisely what a Women’s League should stand for?
In other lead-up moments, there were two instances of homophobic electioneering, first in San Juan/Barataria, and then in the recirculation of an old Jack Warner diatribe from 2015. The less said about Warner, the better.
In response to the first instance, PrideTT called on all parties to refrain from personal attacks based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, asserting that these have “no bearing on their ability and qualifications to do any job in T&T.” Homophobia is widespread and real, yet I was impressed by the Nur E Islam’s disavowal of its power to exclude good citizens from office, particularly if they are practising Muslims. These are the community-level nuances of democracy in action, not captured by polls.
Two final examples highlight continued tolerance for gender-based and sexual violence, which are not yet considered so abhorrent that they deny men political legitimacy. An interim protection order was granted against candidate Winston Peters by a woman who publicly stated she feared for her life and has made a report to the GBV Unit. This time, PNM’s Robinson-Regis defended Gypsy, saying the allegations were not an election issue. Then, there are Watson Duke’s charges of rape and sexual assault.
Weighing in, Womantra and allied feminist organisations called on “all political parties to give an undertaking that persons who are accused of domestic violence and sexual offences, including sexual harassment, will not be nominated as candidates pending their exoneration by the relevant authorities.” If nothing else, understand young women’s fear that these could be the men who hold power over them and to whom they must pay respect, like those abusive uncles who somehow retain their place and authority in the family.
Elections provide historic ground for struggles over citizenship and democracy. Such struggles are always interwoven with public deliberation and negotiation over gender and sexuality.
Diary of a mothering worker