By Corey Gilkes
July 10, 2008
I just had to comment on last Sunday’s Express article by Ms Sheila Rampersad in which she expressed her great disappointment over Education Minister Esther Le Gendre’s attack on Mickela Panday in Parliament.
With all due respect to Ms Rampersad, I found her expectations of Ms Le Gendre and indeed the whole idea of women’s solidarity in our political context were naive to say the least. To any person who really looks at the political culture in Trinidad, the rest of the Caribbean and the North Atlantic – from where we have aped our political models and institutions – it should be quite clear that simply having women in the corridors of political power (a la the “Put a Woman in the Parliament” campaign) would not have amounted to much. Such naivete is right up there with the view that simply having a black man as President or Prime Minister means that now we have someone with Africentric values in a position of power that was created by the Eurocentric power structure.
It’s not that I find that women’s solidarity itself to be nonsense or the idea of having more women in Parliament – I would not dream of being so disrespectful or dismissive. To the contrary I myself expressed in this space the need to have more women in Trinidad and Tobago becoming politically conscious and occupying parliamentary positions. And Elma Francois remains one of my all-time heroes. But if indeed we look at Elma Francois and use her life as a model, we can see that an Esther Le Gendre – and for that matter a Mickela Panday – is not fit to even touch the hem of her dress. Note, however, that the fault does not necessarily lie with them; they are but products of a carefully crafted system of indoctrination that is older than Trinbago as a country. It would have been better if Ms Rampersad had a clear understanding of our political culture and the social culture from which it stemmed; perhaps then she would not have been so disappointed in Minister Le Gendre.
The late Dr John Henrik Clarke used to say that we live in a European-conceived intellectual universe. I’d extend that even further to include Euro-centred concepts of how a society is structured as well. Once we understand that, we can understand why the Ms LeGendres of the world exist and will continue to exist in this space.
Our political and social constructs are firmly embedded in European-centred patriarchal worldview. This means that the values, orientations and stratified levels are in keeping with masculinist or male-centred ideologies and the interests associated therewith. Now I do not subscribe to any view that certain behavioural traits are exclusive to one racial group or gender – apart from women giving birth and even that is apparently being redefined of late. But while the human species does have the amazing ability to defy those convenient little categories some people try to assign everyone, for the purposes of this essay I follow the categorising outlined by Marilyn French in her book Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals. She separated certain behaviours and values into “masculine” and “feminine” categories (and even she put them in quotation marks because of her own opposition to such narrow classifications). However, for convenience, certain behaviours such as communalism, openness, sharing, nurturing, love, intuitiveness and gracefulness are seen as more “feminine” behaviour while individualism, exclusiveness, selfish competitiveness, emotional repression, cold rationalism and aggressiveness are seen as more “masculine” traits.
The predominance of masculine traits in our political and social culture can be traced back to primitive hunter-gatherer tribes in Eurasia many thousands of years ago. The centrality of such aggressive traits were by no means universal; patriarchal impulses exists in all cultures but in most of them were effectively counterbalanced by equally powerful matrifocal practices and philosphies. The seemingly universal patriarchy is as a result of the European expansionist exercises that began in the 16th C and their colonising of the history books and social sciences ever since. As I was researching for material for a book that I am currently working on I came across the works of Nigerian-born sociologist Ifi Amadiume and so learned about something that exists in Africa that has never existed in European political constructs to this day: the presence of not just women in politics but what I call women’s politics. In many traditional pre-Islamic and pre-colonial African societies, there were powerful women’s groups and support structures that often had the final say in the direction a community or territorial-state was to go. These political groups virtually began in the home – where the gardens at the back of houses were controlled by women and passed on to their daughters – and extended to the marketplaces (also usually controlled by women) where they gathered, sold produce and pooled together ideas, resources and became quite politically powerful. In these cultures activities related to self-sustenance were associated with women and femininity, in keeping with their maternal and nurturing capacities. In other words entrepreneurial activities that went with maintaining a household and ultimately the wider community, was usually associated with and under the control of women and it was here where one found the seat of their immense political and economic power – at least in Africa and parts of Southern Asia. To be sure there were quarrels and squabbles among women, but there was an underlying solidarity that was very hard to break particularly as most of these bonds were familial bonds.
By contrast stood patriarchal Eurasian societies; long periods of frigid winters, huge expanses of barren land, scarce food stocks and roving predators and rival tribes influenced the elevation of behaviours that better guaranteed survival in this hostile climate. Hence the leaning towards militarism, xenophobia, individualism, the idealising of control as a value in its own right, material possessions and acquisitions and the valuation of killing/destroying as a means of asserting permanence and progressiveness.
It also saw the devaluation of women and womanly traits. There is much evidence that the earliest Eurasian tribes were very much matricentric – which should not be surprising given that these were tribes that culturally and physically came out of Africa thousands of years before – but as ecological realities caused the values to be shifted towards patricentricity, their once high status fell away. In the highly mobile and militaristic cultures of the ancient Eurasian steppes, women, especially those who were pregnant or nursing babies, became virtual liabilities and hindrances.
Coming out of this erosion of femininity and feminine values was a strange contempt for things associated with femininity. We may never know for certain why this contempt came to be so deeply entrenched in patriarchal ideologies – it may have been intertwined with the teachings encouraging the espousal of the newly ascending patriarchal order. Whatever the reason, by the time Eurasian societies became larger and more settled the masculinist worldview was the bedrock upon which their politics, economics and social arrangements were based.
Therefore, whereas in Africa there were powerful women’s political groups, no such thing existed in Europe. In fact in ancient Greece, touted as the birthplace of democracy (which it was not), men ran the marketplace and women were all but barred from even entering. And so while in Africa the marketplace was the centre for women and their political movements, and where issues relating to maintaining the home and community were discussed, in Greece, the marketplace was the domain of men. So too were the halls, arenas and squares where politics – that is politics as defined by men’s interests – were further discussed. Women, specifically those of Athens, were virtually sequestered in their homes and their opinions were practically non-existent. There was little chance of any solidarity or large gathering of women either; girls were married off at a very tender age and went to live in the household of the husband where she may often be put in the care of her mother-in-law who, seasoned in the male-centred ideologies of the household was often as oppressive and hostile as her husband and son. Neither was the young bride allowed to venture out anywhere unless she was accompanied by a slave or some trusted male relative who monitored her every movement. The Greek model diffused in various forms to the civilisations that came after it all over Europe finding especially fertile ground in Rome – including Roman Christianity and the Christian empire that emerged out of the ruins of Imperial Rome.
It is vital that we understand that no matter how many thousand of years may have passed, certain cultural beliefs and prejudices have not changed. If anything they only changed form and in many ways are upheld by the very people who have been marginalised by those prejudices. It is no secret that even with the gains made by the feminist movement – which itself was Euro-centred anyway – in the business and political world most of the successful women became that way by essentially “setting aside some of our femininity in order to make it in these Old Boys Clubs”. Many a woman has had to be as ruthlessly competitive as the men in order to gain respect. To even attempt to inject feminine values is often met with rolled eyes, knowing winks and quiet chuckle, followed by subtle and often not so subtle elbowing-out of the offending ‘oman.
Trinbago, of course, has since its beginnings been oriented in the political and philosophical outlook of Western Europe with all of its misogyny. There have been some attempts at re-creating matricentric model and focussing on things associated with matricentric interests as evinced by the efforts of Elma Francois’ NWCSA. Overwhelmingly, however, our political and economic cultural orientation is nothing more than a continuation of what patriarchal Europe was during the Industrial Age. Therefore, given that the political elites are upholders of Eurocentric masculine interests – which in our case mean smelter plants, industrialisation, concretising agricultural land, rapid rail and so on – the only way women could find themselves in Manning’s cabinet is if they are certain to maintain – and as Esther Le Gendre did so well, defend – his notions of progress.
So Ms Rampersad, her attacks on Mickela are perfectly in order. And as long as we remain married to the European social model there will be no meaningful women’s movement let alone women’s solidarity. It is alien to Western political constructs. Perhaps now is a good time to re-investigate the workings of these ancestral cultures we so routinely spurn and ignore.