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Radical feminist recalls the protest days
“During those early years, in the 1970s, it was socialism rising up throughout the world, and Trinidad was no exception. The trade unions were more or less aligned to socialist parties in Poland, in Russia, in Cuba...and the Concerned Women for Progress came out of the left-wing movement of the trade union movement. That is how we really emerged. It was amazing... really overwhelming... during that period. You just had the passion and the driving force to be out there. You wanted to read every (piece of) Marxist-Leninist literature you could put your hands on.”
So said Tara Ramoutar, feminist and social activist, as she reminisced about the heady early years of the women’s movement in T&T, inspired by leftist trade unions lobbying for general workers’ rights. The Concerned Women for Progress (CWP) was T&T’s first feminist organisation, founded in 1980, which rallied around equal pay for equal work, objected to violence against women, and discussed abortion, according to Dr Rawwida Baksh (2012 Guardian article: Women Organising for Change.)
Tara Ramoutar was the first speaker in the current series of informal talks—Lunchtime Conversations—which took place on November 19 at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) at UWI, St Augustine. Lunchtime Conversations is an off-shoot activity of the larger research project The Making of Caribbean Feminisms that aims to document people who have contributed to the wider women’s and feminist movements.
From unions to women’s rights
Tara Ramoutar used to be an activist in The Transport and Industrial Workers’ Union (Tiwu), where she worked as a secretary. She helped lobby for justice for workers through marches, meetings, workshops, seminars, conferences and industrial actions. From this was born her interest in equality, fairness and social justice for women and the working class. She is currently the national representative for the Caribbean Association of Feminist Research and Action (Cafra).
“Socialism at that time was the thing to get into,” recalled another conversation participant on Wednesday. She remembered during the late 1970s, some people’s houses would be bombed with Molotov cocktails—so much so that in her neighbourhood, she remembered the young fathers of the street would all come together at night, playing cards and watching to “see if they were coming again.”
Ramoutar recalled that the activism of the CWP included work in the consumer protection movement; picketing against a beauty pageant in Jean Pierre Complex after Penny Commissiong became Miss Universe; and community educational sessions in the Beetham area.
“There were educationals on a Saturday. We had a lot of those. We had gone through the Beetham (Laventille), with our pamphlets, going from house to house. We were talking to the women there. And some of the women slammed doors in our faces and said ‘This is the best life we have had’—because the then-prime minister built all these houses on the Beetham and gave them one—and they were contented by living there, but in their homes, they had nothing. “And they had hardship, but they were quite comfortable with that, so a lot of them run us out of the place.”
Ramoutar remembered early political meetings at her home, to raise political consciousness. Prof Patricia Mohammed noted that “All the issues that would emerge later, like equal pay for equal work, abortion, consumer rights, you name it—everything was raised during those sessions. We were just beginning to start the dialogue.” Ramoutar remembered sessions held at the OWTU office in Charlotte Street, attended by several activist women including young attorney Lynette Seebaran. One of the main early issues they won a breakthrough for was the issue of writing “legitimate” and “illegitimate” on children’s birth certificates; they had these labels removed, said Ramoutar.
The CWP had the first ever forum on rape in T&T, people at the conversation recalled.
Still a feminist
“I still consider myself a feminist today. In the early years I would have said I was a radical feminist. I don’t think they use the term radical any more. But feminism is still relevant and necessary in today’s world ….because women still need their space, to be recognised, to be respected,” sad Ramoutar. She then referred to a current violent news story about a young girl in Tobago being snatched from the Scarborough RC Primary School, and sexually assaulted on November 18: “I mean, when a man can just walk into a primary school and snatch up a little nine-year-old girl....I have nieces who have daughters who are nine years and eight years...and when I think about all of that, it just drives me. I think: what are we doing about these things? I mean, you could just walk in anywhere and pick up a little girl and rape her?! ...What is going to come out of it?”
Ramoutar said she would like Cafra to do future work on ending violence against women and girls; and also to have educational sessions for women to teach them about their choices and educate them on health and reproductive rights. She said: “If a young girl of 13 or 14 is raped and gets pregnant, you must have a safe clinic that she can go to, to get counselling, and have safe abortions.”
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