PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad – “Be a man, respect women!”
That placard-borne message and others conveyed the feelings of protesters outside of the prime minister’s office yesterday, demanding an apology from prime minister Dr Keith Rowley and national security minister Stuart Young for the PNM’s controversial “sari” skit.
The skit at last weekend’s PNM’s Family Day, depicting a woman’s yellow sari being undone by men dressed as gorillas, caused a firestorm of negative sentiment, though government rejected the criticism. Young said it was a “lil bit of fun”. Rowley claimed people were “hell-bent” on creating racial and religions tensions.
Yesterday protesters reinforced their concerns, calling for an apology, outside of Rowley’s St Clair office. However, he was at the Diplomatic Centre for the weekly cabinet meeting. At the height of the protest, members yelled, “Go, Rowley go!”
The group, mainly from UNC constituencies, was dominated by women in yellow saris and other traditional East Indian wear. Also present was opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar, UNC MPs, senators, executive members and Muslims in hijabs.
Protesters’ placards voiced their views: “100 per cent Pissed!” “Say no to Rape!” “Don’t be an Imps” “Rape isn’t funny”, “Chase dem like Hinds!” “Imps—Rowley, Faris, Stuart”, “I’m Fed Up—Rowley doesn’t care.”
Persad-Bissessar, speaking outside of the OPM office she once occupied, said, “This (skit) isn’t a racist issue. It’s action promoting violence against women, abuse of black males — stereotyping them as apes—and it has to do with Indians. Why a sari? Why yellow?”
Pundit Satyanand Maharaj, leading protesters said, “I don’t think they understand how sacred the sari is—it’s symbolic. Denuding a woman is akin to sexual abuse and heinous crime—it’s not a ‘lil bit of fun’. We wouldn’t stoop to degrade another community like this.”
“We’re not willing to let this pass. Should we allow ourselves to be treated like second class citizens. Should the sacred wear of our mothers, daughters, sisters be debased and degraded like this? How can you have a ‘lil fun’ at an entire community’s expense? By having ‘fun’ at our expense, you’re telling us we have no value. We have to value ourselves and let them know we do.”
“When leaders refuse to acknowledge the plight of their people, then people must come to their leaders—we must let them know this won’t work.”
The group delivered a letter to the PM’s office seeking an apology. It noted the skit offended many as it was seen as simulation of violence against women, mockery of Hinduism and depiction of political violence—plus, Young’s dismissal compounded government’s insensitivity on the matter.
The letter warned, “Government’s hostile, belligerent and intractable position in this issue only contributes to stoking fires of division. It does no good to the PNM to attempt to victimize the victim further by labelling legitimate concerns as ‘foolish’ or ‘racial.’”
Hindu group representative Radica Balkaran added, somewhat emotionally that the sari represents a woman’s material, physical and spiritual profile, “If you disrobe her of this garment, it’s not just about a piece of cloth, you’re stripping the person of all of these aspects of her life and her dignity. This isn’t something to play with—no excuse can apologize for that. Dr Rowley has to apologize to the womenfolk.”
Persad-Bissessar spoke against the skit’s aspects which stereotyped black males.
“For hundreds of years black males were stereotyped as apes, simians, monkeys, gorillas —aggressors. The PNM’s skit continued this portrayal of years of colonial stereotyping.”
Also offensive to the Indian community, particularly Hindu women, she said, “It’s a blatant portrayal of violent assault against women. But they can unwrap the sari and it’ll never end—women will stand up.”
Asking if Young’s statements meant it was alright to terrorize women or undress and assault them, Persad-Bissessar added, “I was prepared to give the new police commissioner and national security minister a ‘bligh’, but after the minister’s first statement (on this), I don’t think he can take care of people’s safety and security.”
“It’s frightening when your new security minister’s first major statement is to condemn and accept abuse of women as ‘fun’. I wonder if what happened to (PNM’s Fitzgerald) Hinds in Beetham will be seen as ‘fun’ also?” she asked.
While Persad-Bissessar condemned the assault on any MP, she said the PNM was “reaping what it sowed.”
She added Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha general secretary Satnarayn Maharaj was entitled to his position on the issue which she disagreed with.
“The skit is about portrayal of assault and abuse of women- not just about a sari.” Maharaj had said he did not think the skit was offensive.
Persad-Bissessar said government —which didn’t hold the usual weekly media briefing yesterday— “ran” from the media.
Yesterday’s protest was monitored by a drone overhead operated by police on the ground.
Uniformed and plainclothes police were also present.
One male protester, challenged Rowley to come outside and face protesters, “You’s a coward!” he yelled at OPM windows where some staffers peered at protesters from upper floors. (T&T Guardian)