Just when you think the lead-up to Trinidad and Tobago's general elections couldn't get any weirder, a newspaper reporter has resigned from her job alleging multiple instances of sexual harassment on the part of Dr. Keith Rowley, the current leader of the opposition and the prime minister's main challenger in the September 7 general elections. Rowley has “furiously” denied the charges.
Attacks on Rowley have been a key feature of the election campaigning by the incumbent Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration. And during this year's Carnival celebrations in February, there was furore over Rowley's dancing with a supposedly underage Indian woman. At the time, satirical blog Wired868 cleverly dissected the incident from the opposing perspectives of the two political camps—the prime minister's party, the United National Congress (UNC), and the opposition leader's party, the People's National Movement (PNM):
UNC supporters almost passed out with righteous indignation. […] According to UNC followers, Rowley embarrassed his wife and his post as Opposition Leader and displayed scandalous behaviour for a wanna-be Prime Minister.
PNM supporters suggested Rowley had a civic duty to wine on any bumper [Trinidadian slang for the female rear end] that presented itself without prejudice and called Rampersad [the young lady in question] a poster-girl for racial harmony.
Many felt that the attempt to vilify Rowley for doing what everyone does at Carnival was racist: an attempt to paint him as an aggressive black man. And now there is the resignation of investigative reporter Anika Gumbs, who refers to an April 2015 incident as the impetus for her severing ties with the Trinidad Express newspaper.
Netizens were immediately sceptical about the allegations, in light of both the Carnival incident and the government's attempt in March this year to pass a no confidence vote against Rowley in parliament based on the accusations that he was a child of rape. Some also find the timing—a month before the general elections—curious. Wired868's Mr. Live Wire recounted the timeline:
Well, some time in January, Rowley allegedly told Gumbs that she was ‘looking rosy.’ Three months later, he enquired about a tattoo on her back and removed a bee from her dress with the line: ‘Even honey bees landing on you.’
And, two weeks later on April 21, Rowley was allegedly bareback when Gumbs turned up for a pre-arranged interview, which was done in his kitchen. During the meeting, Rowley supposedly offered to work as a bodyguard outside her bedroom door.
Eh… that’s it. According to columnist Anthony Deyal, it was a case of ‘all Gumbs and no teeth.’
The article also suggested that some of Gumbs’ other activities and interests might conflict with her job as a reporter:
On September 2013, the Sunshine Newspaper reported that Gumbs landed two contracts valued at close to $1 million, which fell under the portfolios of Minister of Works and Infrastructure Suruj Rambachan and Minister of Food Production Devant Maharaj.
Gumbs allegedly confirmed her interest in the relevant companies and declared her dream was ‘to become (a) successful business woman.’
Yet, the Trinidad Express newspapers hired her anyway and allowed her to write investigative pieces on various political figures.
The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago subsequently issued a statement saying that the Express should have acted on the possible conflict of interest:
This issue has emerged at the politically sensitive period of a general election campaign and would naturally be of concern to media practitioners, political aspirants and the public seeking clarity on the matter.
Under the headline ‘A figure of controversies’ on August 8, 2015, the Express Newspaper references a possible conflict of interest involving its staff reporter. Ms Gumbs was simultaneously a full-time member of staff at the Express and the recipient of two government contracts.
The statement also made it clear that “this issue also raises a critical discussion on sexual harassment of especially female journalists”, noting:
MATT has received numerous accounts of sexual harassment episodes from journalists who continue to suffer disturbing effects years after the experience.
Gumbs said: ‘I now feel unable to communicate with Dr Rowley any longer because he betrayed my trust and expectations.’
What does that have to do with the Express? She is not a political reporter. Did someone other than the Express editor-in-chief assign Gumbs to Rowley?
If so, what was Gumbs’ assignment with Rowley exactly? And why did she decide, 15 weeks after her last house call but five weeks before the General Election, that she had enough?
Did Gumbs quit her job? Or just the cover for her real job?
One Twitter user defended Gumbs, saying that many people make light of sexual harrassment:
— WomenSpeak (Simone) (@WomenSpeakPro) August 9, 2015
But it was in taking sexual harassment seriously that Facebook user Rhoda Bharath said:
If this story is as fake as it sounds…it will hurt all women more than one man. Trust and believe that.
In another status update, Bharath gave a mini-history lesson in the correlation between race, sex and politics in Trinidad and Tobago:
Circa the 1961 or 1962 general elections a wave of hysteria swept through St Joseph's Convent one day with the cry that black men were coming to rape girls at the school. Where it originated from, no one knows.
We have the infamous stance of Hulsi (sic) Bhaggan [a former minister of parliament], claiming back in the late 1980s that black men were raping IndoTrini women. That turned out to be a hoax as well. One Hulsi Bhaggan never apologised for.
During the period of the NAR regime fear of rape by black men was also used as reasons to seek asylum in North America.
Carnival 2015 there was the demonisation of Dr Rowley as a sexual predator because young Ravina chose to dance with him during the annual parade.
Then there was Vernella Toppin's debate contribution, claiming that Dr Rowley is a product of rape and so must be hate filled and a rapist himself.
Now…we have Anicka's story. Weeks before an election. In the midst of new found wealth. Herself the beneficiary of govt contracts and state housing. And a close ally of Roodal Moonilal.
The tropes and trends are too clear. Far too clear.
Black male sexuality has historically and contemporarily been demonised and attacked here. For no other reason than blackness.
We sinking ever lower.
The controversy has now come to be called #Butterflygate, in reference to Gumbs’ butterfly tattoo which Rowley is alleged to have commented on. Hashtags like #BarebackMountain are being bandied about on social media. Even the memes have started, like this one, which shows former FIFA-executive Jack Warner on a political walkabout: