The jaunty track by 76-year-old music legend Calypso Rose features her flippantly singing about a woman trying to dance in the streets, rejecting advances of men, exhorting them to “leave me, let me free up.”
“It’s like a rallying cry for women who just want to be able to have the option of enjoying their Carnival — Carnival being that space of freedom,” Attillah Springer, a Trinidadian writer and activist, told The Washington Post. “And then you have to deal with people who are trying to control how much freedom you feel.”
The song has become an anthem after last year’s high-profile killing of the Japanese musician Asami Nagakiya, who played annually with a Trinidad steel pan orchestra. Her body, still clad in the yellow bikini she had been wearing, was found in the park the morning after Carnival ended. She had been strangled — and the perpetrator has yet to be found.
The mayor of Port of Spain, Raymond Tim Kee, blamed Nagakiya’s death on the “vulgarity and lewdness” of women’s behavior at the event, blaming the victim by claiming that it was the musician’s skimpy outfit that had led to her death.
These remarks sent a firestorm of anger throughout the country, with feminists alarmed and outraged. Since then, a swelling protest movement has taken hold.
Anya Ayoung-Chee, a Trinidadian fashion designer who became internationally known when she won the ninth season of “Project Runway” in 2011, was troubled by the mayor’s remarks. She decided to partner with local activists to design and sell shirts for this year’s Carnival that sported the phrases “Leave Me Alone” and “Leave She Alone,” based on Rose’s song.
“The way I dress ought not to be a form of protection. The way I dance should not be a form of protection,” Ayoung-Chee told The Washington Post. “People want to make the argument that there’s a code of conduct to protect you, but it does not.”
Feminist organizing on the island grew after the death of Nagakiya, bringing to fruit new initiatives. Soon after the mayor’s comments, women stormed his office, circulating petitions and calling for his resignation.
“It was just enraging,” Ayoung-Chee recalled. “People were just seeing red.”
Springer, the writer and activist, and fellow activist Angelique V. Nixon, launched a group called Say Something, through which they work to pressure politicians to conduct gender-sensitivity training and collect data on gendered violence.
Another campaign, #LifeInLeggings, was launched online, where Caribbean women talked about their experiences with street harassment and sexual abuse.
Their efforts have spurred authorities to consider making changes to the Domestic Violence Act, and last April, the government’s Gender Affairs Division established a national registry for domestic violence.
“It’s the largest movement of women in Trinidad and Tobago seeking autonomy and self-determination around their sexuality and their bodies, in opposition to a particular kind of respectability politics ... purely for the joy and pleasure they experience,” Gabrielle Hosein, head of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad told The Washington Post. “One can see those goals as highly political in our world today.”
“Coming out in the streets in the tens of thousands, owning your space, owning your freedom,” added Ayoung-Chee. “What is that besides activism?”
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