It never occurred to me to think deeply about Carnival as a celebration of freedom until recently. Although we are all taught from a young age the cultural and historical roots of the festival, (I have distinct memories of many projects involving scrapbooks, glitter glue and pictures of traditional mas characters with descriptions next to them) when you grow up in Trinidad, it’s easy to take for granted this freedom of expression that is actually an anomaly in many parts of the world, especially for women and girls.
“Carnival is woman” indeed. Although official reports are scarce, among many of the largest, local carnival bands women represent the majority of masqueraders, sometimes comprising of more than 65% of mas bands, indicating that women are heavyweight economic investors in this festival we hold so dear. The freedom and security of women are inextricably tied to the future and long-term viability of the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival industry, which continues to expand in its economic and cultural impact globally.
So, Carnival relies on women to thrive but what are we doing to ensure women’s freedom and safety so that they can comfortably participate in this festival? Women are some of the main consumers of carnival but we’re also consumed.
To greater or lesser degrees, many female masqueraders had brushes with physical or sexual assault or their agency and space being encroached upon. Carnival is a time for high alert for all kinds of crimes, but for women trying to participate in their culture the stakes are especially high as they attempt to navigate public spaces where the threat of gender-based violence constantly looms.
It’s a privilege to live in a place where a woman can be as scantily clad or fully covered as she wishes and parade the streets or hit fetes without much resistance but cultural messages and everyday experiences imply that this freedom is only permissible in the narrow parameters of male entertainment or consumption. See oft-repeated questions like: “What yuh come out for?”
It is everyone’s responsibility to challenge cultural norms where people feel entitled to a woman’s body, time or attention due to her mere presence in a public space or festival. Or that an outfit, dance or any other expression is somehow an invitation for non-consensual touching, groping or full-fledged assault/rape.
On November 25th, UN Women kicked off 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence. The campaign started on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (November 25th) and runs until December 10th, Human Rights Day. In May 2019, UN Women Caribbean announced a partnership with THE LOST TRIBE for Carnival 2020, the first collaboration with a carnival band in the organisation’s history. In observance of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence, some Lost Tribe committee members were asked to share their thoughts and experiences on moving through public spaces during carnival and what can be said about the interactions between men and women in those spaces.
I asked Director Shari Petti about her experience working on the video project:
“I was thrilled to collaborate with THE LOST TRIBE on this project because it was exactly in line with the kind of work I’ve been wanting to tackle lately. I was really curious about not only the stories of the women in the video, but what the men had to say about the situation because that’s not a perspective we often hear and most of the violence towards women are done by men. The subjects, both male and female did an excellent job at getting into the issues affecting women during the Carnival season especially, and otherwise, and provided some really valuable solutions on how we can move forward as a society. I really hope with the inclusion of the male perspective, men watching the video really take a step back and see how their actions, whether they are aware of them or not, affect women, and I hope they take action to correct themselves as well.”
The video will be released on Instagram TV (IG @losttribecarnival) along with other content to raise awareness about gender based violence in Carnival and how we can protect the freedom Trinidad and Tobago Carnival as a conduit for such.
Visit www.unwomen.org for more resources and information relating to the 16 Days of Activism and learn what you can do to help eliminate violence against women in your industry or community.
Written by: Charissa Modeste