The Muvman Liberasyon Fam gathered on Sunday 28 February at the LPT Hall in Gran Rivyer for an open meeting in the run-up to International Women’s Day. The aim of this Women’s Round Table was to discuss where women are now in the new political and social situation provoked by the pandemic and the economic crisis, in times when patriarchy seems to be flexing its muscles ... again, and when populism is on the rise.
The pandemic has made already-existing capitalist exploitation and patriarchal domination much worse – for reasons inherent in the public health requirements and then, in addition, because new repressive laws were passed by the MSM Government. These new laws were imposed gratuitously in that they were only after the people of the country had successfully contained the spread of Covid. The new laws have changed the balance of forces against working people and women. Strikes, for example, have become illegal for the first time, in the port, airport and health sectors. This was why the MLF signed up to LALIT’s initiative called “Towards a Working Class Program during the Lockdown for Epidemic Control” nearly one year ago.
So, for International Women’s Day we decided to look at the present situation with all this in mind.
Desperate Men Analyzed
Women present discussed the strange forms that patriarchy is taking in these times of dire crises. Members present saw playing out before us a drama of desperate men, desperadoes.
The theme for the meeting was an apparently meandering one: “In the context of the Coronavirus pandemic and desperate men – a women’s voice against populism, against patriarchal violence, repression, militarism.” It was jointly presided by Anne-Marie Joly and Lindsey Collen, and structured around four 5-minute papers, after a light introduction on the current bizarre situation of the pandemic, and then open debate.
In her introduction, Lindsey Collen spoke of the way nearly all the political leaders, men as it turns out, are in dire straits. The Prime Minister is weakened, having lost three ministers. The three Opposition Leaders are distraught, their flimsy unity having fractured. The new “citizens’ movement” leaders, to a man, are equally desperate – flaying around and lashing out.
Rajni Lallah spoke about the rise of populism, and its particular its dangers for women. She said we live in strange times where patriarchy (in Government) is being challenged by more patriarchy still (outside the Government and outside of Parliament). Sadna Jumnoodoo then spoke to the issue of patriarchal violence explaining exactly what we mean by “patriarchy” and its hierarchies particularly when women have been confined to the “home” during the pandemic. Begum Badulla spoke on the question of women against militarism and occupation (in particular of Diego Garcia and Palestine, two of MLF’s long-haul struggles right on the agenda in 2021). Ragini Kistnasamy spoke about the new forms of repression that working people and women are living under that are particular to these times. There was a request made at the end of the session that the four papers, plus the introduction presented, be brought out as a booklet so as to share this unique women’s perspective on the political situation.
Summary of Ideas that Came Out of the Gathering
What was perhaps equally interesting and more pressing is to report, in this article, on some of the ideas that germinated in the papers and were then developed further in the discussion that took place in the second half of the session. In summary here are some of the new points – both from the four papers and from the discussion.
There are indeed desperate men all around us – businessmen in debt and without prospects, male politicians in a Government that has its back to the wall, tourist hotel bosses with borders closed and the humiliation of having to rely on the Government to pay their workers, politicians in Opposition who keep making fools of themselves by liquidating their own parties and attacking the Government on stupid points while ignoring the essentials, and a whole crop of new “citizens’ organizations” of a populist nature that have mobilized huge crowds, either without any idea where they are headed, or ending up standing behind the specific demands of the bourgeoisie. These citizens’ movements are led by even more desperate men, mainly businessmen – from private security company bosses like Bruneau Laurette to entertainment entrepreneurs like Percy Yip Tong and every other kind of businessman in-between. They are not getting contracts because of the borders being closed and due to the economic effects of the pandemic, in general. Many of them, including Bruneau Laurette, are former political agents of the MSM now in power and clearly have not “got their bit”.
Our first realization in the meeting was that the petty-bourgeoisie behind the big mobilizations is, as a class, in anguish that is severe. This is true for most sections of the petty-bourgeoisie (though not so much the civil servants and bank staff and the likes). Hotel bosses have imposed pay cuts on their middle class hotel managers. So this class of managers might have their salaries shrink from Rs300,000 a month to Rs150,000 a month, for example. And this has dire consequences. Families have to give up one of their cars, move kids to Government schools, for example, and this all remains “hidden”. They have to stay quiet for the simple reason that workers earning the new minimum wage of Rs 10,200 may laugh if they hear them moan at a demonstration that they are “only” earning 12 times more than the workers are. This combination of severe psychological pain and not being able to complain aloud causes them – men and women in the petty bourgeoisie, alike – to lash out in any way possible. This is the class behind all the “desperadoes” in politics and in all the new citizens’ movements in town.
The anguish predates the pandemic, though. There was already an economic crisis with the predictable demise of all big sectors and totally inadequate response in terms of setting up new production. There was already disquiet in the petty-bourgeoisie.
The disquiet has turned, during the pandemic, into anguish, and then the anguish is turning into panic: this is the class basis of the last 8 months or so of big marches and demonstrations. The middle classes are in despair. And this despair is taking political form.
MSM in Government
Looking at the Government side, we find that the Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, being son of his father, Sir Aneerood Jugnauth, a former Prime Minister, is part of a clan that runs the MSM party that is now in power. The MSM, while it does have rudimentary party structures, is financed through the “Sun Trust”, which is a Jugnauth family trust, which is what in the final analysis runs the party. What could be more patriarchal than rule by a “clan” like that? The answer unfortunately is “plenty”.
Opposition Parties and new “Citizens’ Movements”
The Opposition parties, and all their ideologues, find the best way to criticize Pravind Jugnauth, who is not particularly macho, is to say he is so much “not a he-man” that he is run by something they call “lakwizinn” (the kitchen). It is not the Cabinet that advises him, they say, but people of the kitchen, women and others around the hearth, we can only suppose. Implied in this is perhaps also the notion that women should stay in the kitchen and not meddle in politics in the first place, let alone run the Prime Minister. All of us present gave testimony to having heard the persistent “palab” that it is supposedly the Prime Minister’s wife who is responsible for all the ills of Government, not him, Pravind Jugnauth. Yes, find the woman and blame her! How’s that for anti-woman background noise? If it’s not his wife responsible for some ill, it’s another woman: say, his mother. Or, when really hard up, they spread rumours that it’s one of his daughters. One was rumoured to be set to marry someone high-up from India, and therefore, supposedly, the border health restriction laws would be infringed because of her wedding. This was so pervasive that Jugnauth had to come on TV to ridicule the rumour, and thus quell it. If you challenge the rumour of his wife supposedly running Government by saying something like, “How can you stand there and blame just one woman, Jugnauth’s wife, for all the ills of the country?” you get the reply that, “Oh, there are other Ministers’ wives in the kitchen, too!” And the rumour-monger will name a couple!
Once it is “established” that Pravind Jugnauth does not run Government and that it is women around him, then the official Opposition Parties’ and other citizens’ movements’ violent and vulgar slogan comes into play, with all its additional undertones: “B… li deor” which means, literally, rape/sodomize him/her out of here.
This misogynist chant can be heard at “citizens’” demonstrations and marches, can be read painted on to posters, and printed on pancartes, and reported in the Press as if it is normal. Incredible, but true! The central demand is the ultimate patriarchal violence: the threat of rape. It is aimed supposedly at Pravind Jugnauth, but since it is not him but his wife that is running Government, the threat is aimed at her, and through her, at her husband.
And finally, once the opposition movements do go beyond just cursing and threatening violence on MSM people (and their wives who supposedly run the show), it is invariably and totally for nothing more than the MSM’s “incompetence”. Meaning, they in the Opposition are “competent”. They rail against the MSM’s “fraud and corruption”, meaning they, the opposition parties and citizens’ leaders, have haloes around their heads. And the MSM, they say, is too lax on “law-and-order”, meaning, we can only conclude, needs to rely more on repression, not less. And if these things (incompetence, fraud, corruption and lawlessness) could just be got rid of, then hey presto! according to them, the capitalist system and all its patriarchal domination would be just hunky-dory. So, they are not really an opposition at all. They just think, logically, that they are more competent, more clean, and more ready to use repression than Pravind Jugnauth.
The Opposition has no criticism of the MSM as a capitalist government i.e. taking decisions that favour the capitalist class on key issues. Nor do they criticize the MSM as a patriarchal hierarchy in power – both as the MSM party and as the kind of State there is.
What interests the broad masses of women, and what we all easily understand, is we are suffering because of the capitalist system’s greed and irrationality and because of the hierarchies of patriarchy that deny us the power we need to be able, collectively, to run everything. These intertwined forms of reign cause draconian and ever-increasing inequality in terms of power and income and control over the world. That is what we are fighting against.
What makes it difficult for the petty-bourgeoisie, as a class, to understand this simple approach, is that within the class each one person’s (male’s or female’s) individual desire to rise within the patriarchal structure. Their competing and different vested interests thus prevent them from understanding the problem correctly, as a class, and certainly prevents them having anything resembling a program for a new society.
We, in the MLF, have a program very different from “rising into positions of power”. We don’t want that. We want to flatten the hierarchies so that power is increasingly distributed equally throughout society. A quite different aim.
What patriarchy is not, and what it is
It is worth mentioning that, at our women’s gathering, along the way, we deplored how difficult it is to get mainstream academics and journalists, even women, to understand what “patriarchy” is, while working class women catch on after 15 minutes’ explanation. The petty-bourgeoisie is bent on seeing patriarchy as “rule by men over women” whereas it is rule by a pyramidal structure left over from feudalism and that permeates all aspects of life: the family, most religious organizations, the press, every little business operation, big companies and corporations, Government and parastatal departments, the bureaucracies that run prison, schools, hospitals, radio-TV, and even most trade unions: at the apex is the boss (most often but not always an actual male), then top managers under him, then lower-level managers under them, then a broad class of those with less power. Patriarchal power lies in these structures, and our aim in MLF is to flatten them, to decrease the power differential. But the intelligentsia – men and women in it – is “bought into” a life-time aim of rising within the patriarchal structures. “Women,” as they put it, “must rise into positions of power.” We would put what they are doing differently, “Some individual women are just re-enforcing existing patriarchal hierarchies” – and calling this “emancipation”, when it is certainly not.
We could all see, during discussion at the meeting, that the stakes are high. The populist movements, as the petty-bourgeoisie gets more and more distressed, will turn into more right-wing, even fascist types of organization. Fascism is often described accurately as “the petty-bourgeoisie run amok”. It has, fortunately, not yet run completely amok. It is to some extent kept in check by the relative strength of the Mauritian working class. The strength of the working class – helped by some of its trade unions and by parties like LALIT, as well as women’s organizations all over the country – means that working families are still cushioned from the present crises by a series of past gains, gains hard fought-for: there is a minimum wage; there are universal pensions for everyone over 60, for everyone living with a physical or mental disability, and for all widows, meaning many families rely on one or two pensions to survive; there is universal health care for all completely free of charge, including contraception and pre- and post-natal care, and dental care; there is universal education for all right up to tertiary education; women can get Court Orders against violent partners through the Ministry; there are regular elections, at national, village and city level, and an electoral system of exceptional integrity. All these gains from past struggles mean that the working class and women are still in a good position to look forward to getting rid of the capitalist system altogether in the future, and also getting rid of all the other hierarchies it perpetuates from previous times, like patriarchy from feudal times. Right now, the working class is still not organized enough to put this on the agenda right now. As a class it is only organized enough to maintain, to some extent, past gains, and to temper the running amok of the petty-bourgeoisie.
What, at the gathering, we concluded is more necessary than ever is the program we have been working on in the MLF for the past few years: the need for new types of production, production of what is useful, the right to jobs for all, to food security in new agricultural and fishing sectors, to housing for all women and all people (individuals and families). We need to pressure Government to pressure the bosses to provide all this, and if they don’t, the state must do so itself. And if it doesn’t, we must organize, as working women, together with the whole working class, to do it ourselves. That is our program.