Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival, which recently ended its 2017 rendition, is an event as contradictory as it is extraordinary.
No mere mimicry of other such celebrations in Rio de Janeiro or New Orleans, Carnival on this Caribbean island of 1.4 million people – primarily descended from enslaved Africans and Indian indentured labourers – combines African traditions with European pre-Lent festivities and Indian musical rhythms.
Given this syncretism, it’s perhaps unsurprising that, over the past 200 years, Carnival has been not just two days of normal order turned upside down but also an annual expression of female political resistance.
Beads and glitter and ‘bikini mas’
Caribbean women’s takeover of Carnival is most evident during “bikini mas”. Each year, tens of thousands of women participate in this Carnival mas(querade), “playing mas” in Rio-style sequined bikinis, feathered headpieces and beads.
Because playing bikini mas has come to replace traditional costumes portraying other periods, places and cultures (as well as some fantastical imagined characters), some fear that Trinidad and Tobago’s historic tradition is dying. New, imported masquerade styles, say traditional mas makers, do not make political statements or show off local artistry.
But bikini mas is a complex phenomenon. Its rise is directly linked to women’s increasing earnings and economic independence; disposable income and the desire for well-earned fun support the demand for such costumes. It also reflects black and brown women’s wish to be affirmed as beautiful and sexy, not only seen as successful and serious students and workers.
As feminist scholar and mas player Dr Sue Ann Barratt told me:
A big part of it for some women is … to show they have been working out and qualify as gorgeous, for affirmation as a woman and to send a message that you can be watched, but not touched.
In short, bikini mas authorises women to push back against the strict moral controls that religion and society place on them (while allowing men more sexual freedom).
Take, for example, these lyrics from Soca music star Destra Garcia’s 2016 hit, Lucy: “I grew up as ah real good girl, always home, don’t go nowhere. As soon as I was introduced to Carnival, they say I loose”.
Meanwhile, singer Orlando Octave observed in one 2017 tune, “Plenty girl have [a] man and [yet] acting like they single, wining like she single, feting like she single”.
This contradiction – which Trinidadian women live every day – has helped spur bikini mas to become a ritual for an entire generation of young women: a women’s movement given cultural expression.
The original anti-slut shaming
These revellers are continuing the nation’s long-standing tradition of female self-affirmation, resistance to subordination, and renegotiation of the rules governing public space.
Caribbean women have always been at the forefront of rebellions, from rising up against slavery in the 1500s to leading the 1903 riots over access to water.
Well before slavery was abolished in 1838, Trinidadian women played in Carnival bands. Sometimes they covered themselves in mud, expressing a sexuality even then decried as indecent. Alongside them would march women who fought in stickfights (public duelling competitions), a stereotypically “masculine” activity.
By the 1800s, such women had come to be known as “Jamettes”, from the French diametre, which referred to those considered to exist below the line of respectability.
After abolition these working-class, African-descended women continued the Jamette tradition. They often cooked, washed clothes and socialised in shared urban backyards, and worked in a wide range of trades, from washerwomen or market vendors to sex workers.
With its fearless and unapologetic combination of sexual, reproductive and economic issues with insistence on justice, equality and freedom from violence, Jamette politics has come to influence Trinidad and Tobago’s modern Carnival – and Caribbean feminism – in ways that cross class, colour, religion and race.
Predating by decades the “slut walks” of Canada and the United States, bikini mas has helped cultivate contemporary women’s opposition to rape culture in Trinidad and Tobago, where male domination and sexual harassment of women is seen as natural and normal. Indeed, the Caribbean region has disproportionately high rates of sexual violence.
Last year, a Japanese steelpan player, Asami Nagakiya, was murdered during Carnival in Port of Spain. After the city’s mayor suggested that that women’s dress and behaviour at this annual event invited abuse, feminist groups called for his resignation and young women came out in their bikini mas costumes to protest the victim-blaming.
Over the next months, #NotAskingForIt campaign, featuring female students, workers, family members and bikini mas players, circulated social media across the entire Caribbean region.
Classist and sexist or empowering?
Bikini mas is not without its contradictions. The cost of participation in a “band” of mas costume players can be up to US$1,000 per person. Though all classes of women find the money to pay for an outfit, economics shapes access to these moments of female freedom.
Classism features, too, in the way that many women who play in bikini mas bands are contained on either side by ropes and security personnel. This reproduces historical ways that white upper classes used to cut themselves off from others while taking over the streets.
But such cordoning also signals a harsh modern reality of violence against women: the ropes are meant to protect women of all classes and races from sexual harassment. Still, this policing of women’s bodies complicates the radical potential of bikini mas.
Young feminist are finding ways to connect Trinidad’s centuries-old Carnival to a new generation of political resistance. This year, the prominent “Leave me alone, Leave she alone” campaign teamed up with singer Calypso Rose to embolden women against sexual violence and encourage men to help create a Carnival – and by extension society – in which women are safe and free.
In Trinidad and Tobago, Carnival is where thousands of women express their aspirations for freedom and equality. Look beneath stock images of pretty glitter and beads, and you’ll find just such feminist ideals.
Gabrielle Hosein, Lecturer and Head of Gender Studies Department, The University of the West Indies: St. Augustine Campus