March 16, 2012 – guardian.co.tt
Like other women prime ministers elsewhere in the world, Kamla Persad-Bissessar has had to compete in the political arena on equal terms with her male opponents. The was portrayed during the 2010 general election campaign, and has been portrayed since, as being fearless, capable and intellectually superior. On this basis Ms Persad-Bissessar did battle—and won, emphatically. First she defeated the founding father of the UNC, Basdeo Panday, for the party leadership, and then she unseated the incumbent prime minister, Patrick Manning. No special allowances were made for her in any way — if anything, her gender was an advantage.
During the election campaign she was often portrayed as a unifying force among the coalition of parties that makes up her People’s Partnership, and for the country as a whole. She was presented as bringing a special female energy to the country’s politics. Occasionally, too, there are references to her as the “mother of the nation”—in the same way that the country’s first Prime Minister, Dr Eric Williams, was hailed as the “father of the nation,” a mantle which Mr Manning also later conferred upon himself. Generally, Ms Persad-Bissessar has been inclined to close rather than widen the gender divide.
She follows in the footsteps of other women in Trinidad and Tobago who have blazed a trail in politics, law, medicine, education and numerous other fields and proved themselves a match for their male peers. Ms Persad-Bissessar’s response when challenged about her sister’s accompanying her on an overseas trip at taxpayers’ expense, then, comes as a surprise. It is rare that she chooses to play the gender card. Ms Persad-Bissessar explained her decision to take her sister on the trip by saying that it was necessary because there were “many personal issues unique to a woman.” She named a few needs—“diet, medication, exercise, wardrobe”—and made an unspecific reference to “other health-related and personal issues” for which her sister is responsible. Ms Persad-Bissessar’s discreet vagueness made it seem indelicate to inquire exactly what these needs might be; but inquiry is necessary, because no such women-only needs come to mind. As for the others that Ms Persad-Bissessar listed, they would apply equally to a male prime minister. It was especially unfortunate that the Prime Minister should try to use her gender to justify her decision, because it was unnecessary. There are numerous other reasonable grounds for her choice. Ss Ms Persad-Bissessar herself pointed out, the offices of the Prime Minister and the President have traditionally recognised that such officials need support services and staff while carrying out their duties overseas. That remains so, regardless of the office-holder’s gender. The objections arose not because Ms Persad-Bissessar took a personal assistant with her, but because she chose her sister to fulfil that role.
There was no need, then, for Ms Persad-Bissessar to plead for special treatment. And she needs to be very cautious about doing so. Ms Persad-Bissessar must be mindful that she is seen as a standard-bearer for half the population. In a country that is still extremely patriarchal in many ways, any claim that a woman prime minister has special needs is in danger of being interpreted as an admission that women have special weaknesses. The electorate going to vote next time around might also mistakenly conclude that to elect a female prime minister will mean special financial and other forms of concessions. It would be unfortunate if, while she champions the women of the nation, the Prime Minister sets back their cause and puts them once again at a disadvantage.