Mobility Issues Reduce Women's Accessibility To A Secure Future

When I went with my boyfriend to renew his Saint Lucian passport in downtown Castries, we climbed five flights of stairs to get to the top. Taking the elevator would have still left us with one or two flights of stairs to get to the office where passports are issued. Public buildings in Saint Lucia still leave a lot to be desired when it comes to accessibility. If it isn't ramps positioned at 75 degree angles, it's a lack of elevators or proper accommodations for physically disabled people.If you suffer from mobility issues in the Caribbean, expect to be excluded from many aspects of functioning independently. While community and family support does exist in the Caribbean, the dependence on others created by the inaccessibility of many public services (as well as proper health care) means that those who have issues with mobility are left in a vulnerable position.

We know that many disabled women face abuse because of their disabilities. Men prey on women they believe to be weaker, more vulnerable and less likely to fight back. When our society refuses to accommodate women with mobility issues, they may be forced to depend on abusers in order to make ends meet. Younger women may be unable to attend school, especially with illnesses like fibromyalgia. Our society puts women with mobility issues at a disadvantage, while scapegoating responsibility by half-assing ramps and elevators around the country.

(Note: Some elevators are hardly big enough for two people, far less wheelchairs)The cost of medical care for women with decreased mobility is another factor that oppresses the disabled in our society by denying them equal access to services that would improve the quality of life. Those who do not share the same needs as able-bodied folks are left behind. If we aim to create an equal society, we need to examine the impact that ableism has on a structural level. In this case, I mean this literally. The way we build our communities and the way we construct physical structures should not be done in such a way that excludes disabled people from our communities.

We need to break free from the capitalist notion that people's "utilitarianism" is what determines their value. We need to value everyone in our society equally and work on a structural change that increases accessibility for all.

Black Feminism: Menstruation Taboo

I recently felt challenged to condense my thoughts regarding my experiences with menstruation and taboo in Caribbean society. I don't think it's completely necessary to frequent fliers here but I will add the disclaimer that the experience that frames my experiences and observations about menstruation in the Caribbean are the experiences of a cisgender Caribbean woman and I'm applying my knowledge of black feminism and black feminist thought to how I view the subject.

Like most things considered to be "feminine" in the Caribbean, menstruation faces heavy stigma within our culture. There is both shame and pride surrounding the first menstrual cycle. Shame is one of the first lessons that we are taught about menstruation and it's a lesson sowed so deep that the shame becomes instinct -- and therefore, goes unquestioned. This root of this shame is a socially backed feeling that during menstruation, your body is disgusting and repulsive.

There is also shame surrounding your choices for handling menstruation, perpetuated by parents, peers, and educators. For the majority of Caribbean people who menstruate, it's far more common to use menstrual pads than tampons due to this shame. Menstrual pads are considered to be "appropriate" for people who have not had sex whereas tampons are seen as "inappropriate". This has the effect of sexualizing children considering the average age of the onset of menstruation is 12. There is nothing "inappropriate" (in reality) about a 12-year-old using a tampon; their vagina is not a vessel for sexual activity and treating it as such leads to shame surrounding the entire menstrual process.

Even as a child, I was cognizant of this, although my awareness might not have been conscious. I was aware however that tampons were all but forbidden and it would have been deviating from expectations to wear them.This can actually carry damage to a child's psyche as they approach adulthood. For people who menstruate who are nonbinary or transgender, I can image the damage is even deeper due to the unexamined transphobia embedded in our post-colonial society. For cisgender people who menstruate, the damage might include feeling anxiety about deviating from using pads or carrying other beliefs of humiliation surrounding their bodies that are unshakeable despite technical knowledge of the "facts" about menstruation.What informs this seemingly harmless cultural preference of pads vs. tampons is nothing positive and the stigma against tampons is steeped in patriarchal assumptions about virginity and sexuality. To be blunt: people believe that tampons damage your sexual purity. Some people might deny it and claim that it's preposterous but it's the truth of the majority of our society.

Largely, the discomfort around tampons has to do with how "improper" it is to insert anything into your vagina. Now this is ridiculous on a number of levels but namely, there is nothing sexual about menstruation regardless of your age and there is certainly nothing sexual about a two-inch tampon.

A "lack of education" doesn't explain it all away because it isn't simply education. The expected shame surrounded menstruation is rooted in misogyny. And the lack of education simply feeds into this misogyny. However, they are separate entities that feed off of one another to inform our culture's attitudes on the human body.

Shame about menstruation doesn't just apply to your choice between menstrual pads and tampons. (Note: There are other options for menstrual management but I'll get to this at the end.) Through each menstrual cycle, a healthy amount of shame is required to ensure you keep your menstruation a "secret".There is a high value placed on keeping menstruation hidden from people. Just keeping periods from cis-men isn't the limit to the stigma. For the two years I attended secondary school here, teachers and administrators placed great emphasis on being "discreet". Even in an all girls school, there was still supposed to be a significant shame attached to menstruation and it had to be kept a secret. This isn't about menstruation being disgusting in that example... There's nothing disgusting about going to the bathroom with an unused pad to change your own. This is about how our culture perpetuates patriarchal beliefs about our bodies; even educators are in full agreement that patriarchy is correct and doesn't deserve questioning. It is a way of forcing us to stay "in our place". Now, there's an argument (albeit a weak and unnuanced one) to be made about this "shame" surrounding menstruation being related to the fact that menstruation is "dirty" or "private". I do believe that certain amount of privacy makes practical sense when it comes to menstruation but the level of shame expected and propagated goes beyond privacy and protecting young people who are experiencing their first menstrual cycles as well as the uncertainty that goes along with it. Menstrual blood is not actually dirty and much of the stigma surrounding menstruation is not based on scientific fact but patriarchal mythology intended to shroud a body's natural process in humiliation and discomfort.

A big part of the culture surrounding menstruation revolves around keeping menstruation a "secret" from cis men as I mentioned before. Tampons and menstrual pads must be obscured. The realities of menstruation are hidden (and often times, not even really understood) and menstruation becomes something "disgusting" and something deserving of mockery. This comes from the fact that schools and families are both unaware of the scientific truth behind menstruation and our patriarchal culture requires cis men remain protected from the realities of "the feminine" as it is repulsive and to be avoided at best, despised at worst.My first academic encounter with menstruation in primary school in St. Lucia involved the girls in the class being separated from the boys to learn the truth because the boys would laugh? Because they didn't want to make the girls ashamed? But the only reason for either of those things to occur in reality would be because of the teachers.

Teachers and educators set the tone for what is acceptable in a school environment -- not nine-year-olds. Education surrounding menstruation should not be gender specific. For this to be the case is transphobic and it's sexist. Every person alive should know how the human body functions. Othering bodies of those who menstruate serves no practical purpose in our society.Another facet to the poor education surrounding menstruation includes poor education about complications surrounding menstruation which are actually quite common. Conditions like endometriosis (affects in 1 in 10 people who menstruate), Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (affects 1 in 10-15 people who menstruate) as well as PMDD (3-8% of people who menstruate) affect many people yet these common disorders are not included in a comprehensive education regarding menstruation. Combatting stigma comes first with a comprehensive education based in reality, not myth or pseudoscience.

The ways mainstream feminism chooses to combat this stigma is incongruent with Caribbean culture. Largely, the stigma surrounding menstruation is discussed from a first world white American ciswoman's perspective. Combating the stigma doesn't take into account the specific ways misogyny is enacted in the Caribbean. It doesn't take into account the religious fundamentalism that's widespread in the Caribbean and how that might affect attempts to eliminate the stigma surrounding menstruation. It doesn't take into account that the shame surrounding menstruation runs so deep that transitioning to complete comfort with the subject of menstruation will not happen overnight and might make the target audience (people who menstruate) less accommodated by a movement to de-stigmatize.When people are not properly educated about menstruation from an early age, there is room for patriarchal culture's myths and pseudoscience to take the place of scientific facts. Removing stigma is not about shocking the population into blindly accepting "okay periods are fine now, I guess".

We can remove uneducated beliefs with factual evidence and ensure that we talk about menstruation casually (not necessarily crassly) like we do any other facet of life.The Caribbean does have an advantage here where we understand that women should be able to breastfeed publicly (and this has never been up for debate). We do tend to have open conversations amongst our family members regarding the sometimes unpleasant truths surrounding our own menstrual cycles. However, this is not culturally widespread enough for there to be no room for positive change.

Going forward, I think what the average person can do is:

- Educate themselves about menstruation from reliable sources (Google it.)

- Speak candidly to their children or the children they're responsible for regarding menstruation.

- Educators and those involved in education can work towards changing their classroom environments to be more accommodating towards people who are menstruating, setting the example that menstruation is not shameful or disgusting, but a natural process.

- Communities can work together towards providing free tampons, pads or menstrual cups to people in need.My mention of menstrual cups here brings me to my final point.

In a previous post, I wrote about my foray into using menstrual cups and all the benefits associated with them. Now, menstrual cups are not for everybody but they do provide an option for managing menstruation that is simple, sanitary and doesn't require multiple changes throughout the day. A push to increase the usage of menstrual cups in the Caribbean and provide free menstrual cups -- especially in communities where buying tampons and pads might be too costly -- would be positive for the people of our region. You can check out my previous post for a more in-depth explanation why.

We have a lot of work to do with removing the stigma surrounding menstruation. We do not have to do this the way mainstream feminism dictates; rather we can fit our solution to our culture. Honest conversations, practical discussions and individual changes in our mindset are a good place to start followed promptly by organized community action.

Black Feminism In The Caribbean: Examining The Mulatto Effect

One of my favorite mythologies about the Caribbean that seems to be perpetuated amongst emigrant communities and foreigners alike is that we have transcended race due to our highly multiracial and integrated society. Due to my interst in black feminism, this lie has been exposed as entirely false. Even without the academic language of feminism, I knew this intuitively. While there is indeed a high degree of multiracialism, the notion of transcending race is mythical because the Caribbean still suffers from crippling anti-blackness. Nearly every person, regardless of race, is complicit in this anti-blackness on some level or another.

At this point, some of you may already think I’m crazy. How can there be anti-blackness in a place where the population is mostly black? How can I, a black person, uphold anti-blackness? In the Caribbean, despite the lack of a large class of wealthy whites, we still have racial stratification; everyone in our society is complicit in upholding it. Parents of all shades of black wish for their children to come out lighter skinned. Women are pressured to destroy their natural hair textures to conform to what is “proper” (as dictated by European standards). History is taught in school in such a way that we are ashamed of slavery but proud of the accomplishments of the British/French.

The experience of “whiteness” can be approximated by being biracial which I’ll use interchangeably with “half-white” for clarification of which biracial identity I’m referring to. I call this the mulatto effect, putting a name to the nuanced Caribbean experience of “white privilege” that creates an insulated world where lighter skinned black people do not experience the full extent of anti-blackness.

In the Caribbean, blackness is the dominating framework through which race should be discussed, but blackness in the Caribbean is heavily influenced by East Asian (mainly Chinese) and South Asian (mainly Indian) cultures and racial mixing with white people both local and foreign. Different islands have different racial compositions that add additional nuance to a discussion. While Trinidad and Guyana are known for their large populations of Indians for example, similar proportions of Indian populations do not exist in Saint Lucia.

The mulatto effect is how we can perceive the organization of the Caribbean’s racial hierarchy. The top is not necessarily white, due to an excessively small population of  white people with NO black relatives. White adjacent people who come from either historically white families or who have visible proximity to whiteness occupy the highest racial class. We may not have a significant white ruling class, but a biracial/multiracial class that receives distinctly better treatment than the majority of the “100% black” population.

Without a distinct and large white upper class we see anti-black dynamics play out in a way that misleads people to believe we have transcended race. We’ve merely transplanted a racial hierarchy in a way that suits our population. The closest to white occupy the top, whereas the furthest away from whiteness occupy the bottom of the hierarchy. Every aspect of this hierarchy was constructed during colonialism and has not disappeared, even today.

Racial hierarchies aren’t just theories. Reflecting on my time in primary school for example, there were a number of occasions where half-white students — myself included— were spared punishment because they came from “good” families. While many black students in the class came from similar or higher economic classes, they were not spared punishment. They lacked the visible “goodness”, that was in this case, applied to visible whiteness. In customer service, visibly half-white people, especially those who don’t look local, receive better treatment than dark skinned locals. There are a number of other ways in which half-whiteness/whiteness is privileged with regards to beauty standards, assumptions of intelligence and more. I could go on forever pointing out the ways in which half-whiteness is privileged.

So what is the point of all of this? Why draw your attention to a racial hierarchy that I myself benefit from due to my white father, and my specific biracial phenotype (light skinned, loose curls, thin, able-bodied)? As a feminist and an anti-racist, with a commitment to social justice and equality, I recognize that this hierarchy is oppressive to everyone. Racial hierarchies like this one uphold destructive colonial mindsets that were created with the goal of maintaining black subjugation. The first step we can take in decolonizing (in this regard) is by recognizing where we see “the mulatto effect”. Where do we see our privilege or our oppression?

Most non-white people in the West Indies can intuit that they are treated differently for being darker, for having “bad” hair etc. These feelings and notions are patently invalidated as bitterness or jealousy. There is no vocabulary to speak about the injustice of having half-white citizens prioritized and treated significantly better than non-white citizens. The vocabulary doesn’t matter as much as our ability to recognize the injustice. I invite you to consider moments when you felt like your blackness was a mark, when you were dehumanized or privileged because of your skin tone. Both reflections are important since without biracial recognition of our privilege, we cannot possibly hope to remove the colonial stain on our region. Through recognition and self-reflection, you will have taken the first individual steps towards radical politics and regional black liberation. Of course, as activists and as individuals, we still have a lot of work to do.