June 2015


Post 196. LGBT Hinduism.

When one of Trinidad and Tobago’s best known contemporary authors, Shani Mootoo, was reading from her work at Alice Yard in Woodbrook, she expressed amazement that the word ‘lesbian’ was now being said openly in Trinidad, in a way she never imagined when she left for Canada all those years ago. The audience promptly affirmed, collectively shouting ‘lesbian!’ at the urging of Vahni Capildeo, a younger Indo-Trinidadian woman living in the UK, and author of several published collections of poetry.

While the readings continued, I reflected on the many incremental efforts that make such major shifts occur, almost without us noticing. And I wondered what a student might examine if she or he had to try to document the causes of such change. To what extent would focus be on the work of LBGT organisations which have been systematically nudging the public toward acknowledging their claims to human rights, equality and freedom from discrimination? To what extent would the decade of debate over the Draft National Gender Policy, and advocacy led by the women’s movement, explain wider discussion of homosexuality? To what extent is it the impact of global and regional advocacy or US popular culture? How much is from younger generations just living as they choose?

Someone once asked me why my column talks about lesbians all the time. It doesn’t of course, but I also deliberately place the presence and realities of those women who remain unjustly silenced and criminalized into the public domain.  So, yes, the word lesbian occupies more space in national press than it would have otherwise. In a small way, this normalizes the kinds of citizens who continue to hope they can be accepted for who they are. The citizens who should be safe to discuss their lives and loves just as much as their responsibilities for care of parents or their dissatisfaction with that new crumbly Crix, or, come election time, who they go put.

It was one of those moments of opening and occupying at the NCIC’s Divali Nagar compound on Saturday. How amazing to hear a new generation quoting religious texts to justify anti-homophobic Hinduism, to learn from Krystal Ghisyawan’s research on lesbian women’s desires for a sense of safety in their families and nation, and to watch Shalini Seereeram talk about representing women’s intimacies in art and the risks she takes in being true to her vision of the world. This panel could never be found fifteen years ago when I was searching for it. I wondered how and when such Hindu feminism had found its Caribbean footing.

Enlargened by those watching the live online broadcast and asking questions via Facebook, we heard about a sruti paradigm in Hindu theology which focuses on the eternal and is unconcerned about sexuality and gender, female incarnations of male deities like Vishnu, and bodily transformations from one sex to another, like Arjun becoming temporarily female to experience Krishna’s love, or Sikhandini honoring her bride’s wishes by becoming male. And how these, not Sita’s chastity, influenced women’s claims to LGBT, Hindu, Indian and Trinidadian identities as all parts of a right to be.

Like Pandita Indrani Rampersad’s theological support for same sex marriage when other religious groups quote scripture to reproduce prejudicial legislation, this gathering, titled ‘Queerying Hinduism’ and led by young married couple, Aneela Bhagwat and Arvind Singh of the Centre for Indic Studies, was another small step transforming the space, language and solidarities available to and beyond lesbian Indo-Caribbean women.

I thought of Shani Mootoo, acclimatizing to the fact that engagements with sexuality and gender have moved outside of fiction. And, I wanted this column to be its own moment, tracing and placing into public record the Indo-Caribbean feminisms now inspiring me.

‘Why aren’t the older heads here?, someone asked. But, more important was the circle of young women present, without judgment, with laughter, with pride, as I never imagined I’d see.

Check out the Centre for Indic Studies on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/centreforindicstudies.

Post 192.

Watching from backstage. Photo by Maria Nunes.

Watching from backstage. Photo by Maria Nunes.

Rustling with energy backstage, dozens of children waited in darkness and silence, as senior dancers with Lilliput Theatre Company performed lines from Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Laureate acceptance speech. A few girls in front of me mouthed lines as they listened and fidgeted, impatient for their cue.

Malala’s words were starkly humbling. My chest quietly swelled with feeling, over the three nights of this weekend’s performance, every time I heard the young performers quoting her say: “I had two options. One was to remain silent and wait to be killed. And the second was to speak up and then be killed. I chose the second one. I decided to speak up.”

What a lesson for us adults.

When Malala visited Trinidad, I had explained her story to Ziya. I was explicit that Malala had been shot in the head, and that there were men who did not want girls to be educated. “Why?” Zi kept asking, as four-year-olds do, when adults struggle to explain complex situations.

Lilliput’s show now led Zi to seize upon Mighty Gabby’s song, Government Boots, which played just before Zi went on stage. “What are government boots? Who is Tommy?” she started asking, taken with the catchy refrain of “left, right, left, right.”

I explained that the song was telling Barbados’ PM Tom Adams there should not be so many soldiers. “Why?” she asked.

The sound of soldiers’ boots frightens many people. Soldiers hurt people with guns, and some children are forced to be soldiers after being taken away from their families.

Again: “But why?”

Imagine the show, in which Zi played a child bride, making her start these conversations, real ones about girls being forced to marry men they don’t know and boys being forced to hurt people, instead of them all being safe with their families and in schools.

Imagine me wrestling with how and how much to tell her the truth, wondering what constitutes ‘age appropriate’ knowledge when it’s about the realities of children her own age.

Imagine her at night, with her mind effervescing, as all children’s do just as you want them to close their eyes and sleep, with questions about Malala and government boots.

“Do the children see their families again?” she asked. Imagine all this because I only wanted her to grow less shy and more confident, and make friends, by taking a dance class.

But it seems the world doesn’t allow girls to grow up innocent so.

I admired that Noble Douglas and her company compelled parents, past students and more to invest in one way or another in giving our children a chance to dress up and dance to the chorus, “No, no, no.” And there’s one line Zi now remembers from Malala’s speech: “Let this be the last time.”

For me, seeing the whole process, from weeks of Saturday morning classes to rehearsal chaos and finally to a huge cast of exuberant children on stage, also humbling was the show’s determined mix of community parenting, feminism, global politics, children’s rights, Caribbean culture and joyous creativity.

There was a small ‘army’ of mostly women, helping with children, costumes or make up, making me appreciate how much labour matters beyond what is waged and counts toward GDP, making me recognise the sacrifices of women who never saw the show because there wasn’t anyone who equally shared their childcare responsibility, making me want to ask: “But why?” like Zi.

Unbelievably, after all this, all Zi told her school friends about the show was that she had on makeup. I had to laugh. Seems Lilliput also scored in Zi’s world of actual priorities of four-year-old girls.

Me with other mummies, happy and proud that the babies' class got their routine right on the second night after the super cute but chaotic opening performance. Photo by Maria Nunes

Me with other mummies, happy and proud that the babies’ class got their routine right on the second night after their super cute but chaotic opening performance. Photo by Maria Nunes.

Post 195.

Stone has been trying to figure out how to explain to Ziya that sometimes your best friend no longer wants to be your best friend, and though sadness is inevitable, there’s nothing to do but resiliently be yourself, let go and move on.

‘Is it a school day?’ Zi had asked when she woke up one morning this week. Because of her difficulties negotiating such a changed relationship, she didn’t want to go to school. Indeed, the social life of four year olds is like curriculum from the school of tough love.

This life lesson had been long coming. When Zi moved up school year, the little friend she virtually worshipped no longer clung to her also, and she’s spent the whole year slowly, reluctantly recognizing this.

On afternoons after school, we would hear endless stories. How her friend didn’t have any interest in playing with her anymore and had found a new best friend, how on another day they played all through lunchtime and she felt included and important again, how she also had to learn to play with other girls and find new best friends.

Below these stories was confusion and hurt, and we supported her teachers in emphasizing to her that all relationships change. Ziya doesn’t easily adapt though. She’s shy and self-conscious and, because of such awkwardness, can get deeply attached, holding onto the safety of those with whom she’s comfortable and familiar, investing more emotion, expectation and loyalty than is likely to be reciprocated, and quietly brooding over moments and feelings of rejection.

I never knew that children were so emotionally complicated and sensitive. Or, perhaps, I never knew I’d have to develop the skills to navigate anxieties so early, balancing on a thin line between indulging and devaluing such momentous trivialities. It never occurred to me that I’d have a child who takes so long to adjust to new situations, new children, new everything. I’m sure neither did Stone.

When you are making a baby, you just focus on its health and normalcy. You assume your child will be exuberant and confident, smart and hardy. You hardly anticipate or consider their potential idiosyncrasies, paranoias and neuroses, and you don’t expect them when they are four.

Zi is more fearful than I imagined possible for children now encountering the world for the first time. One night, waking from fitful sleep, she cried out to us that she was scared. ‘Scared of what?, we asked. ‘Scared of everything,’ she said, and I wasn’t surprised.

At parties with children from her class, I watched Zi play by herself because she didn’t know how to integrate into group play or was the only one afraid of the height of the play structure or waves at the seashore. We began to take her to her parties early because she could handle beginning with one or two children, but was overwhelmed arriving when too many were already there. We’d encourage her to find a kind friend or older child who would look out for her, and were grateful when she soared away with them. Stone and I had to learn more patience, and he explained his own experience of losing a best friend in the transition to QRC.

On Zi’s teachers’ advice, everyday we talk about who she played with at school, and what they did. When she told me they formed a ‘Supergirls’ group last week and how all the girls were in it, I felt that it had taken a year, but our wallflower had begun to more independently blossom.

Like us, our children’s hearts puncture and heal, their days are full of ups and downs, their discomforts may be perplexing and their abilities take time to grow. And, it’s not just Zi as so many other parents know.

Post 194.

As I’ve been thinking about Indianness in the Caribbean, I’ve been particularly struck by the representation of Indian men in our history, in scholarship and in novels by Indian women.

These representations have prioritised necessary honesty about male violence and domination in family life. Yet, they also overwhelmingly engage national stereotypes of Indian men’s patriarchal backwardness.

I’ve been left looking for narratives and analyses that track an alternative story, one of an emancipatory tradition in Indian communities and families, and in Indian men’s ways of articulating masculinity.

I first began to wonder about this when reading my students’ essays in my course on Men and Masculinities in the Caribbean. For this assignment, students had to interview their fathers or grandfathers about how gender, or ideas and power associated with manhood, has shaped their understanding and experience of fatherhood.

A decade ago, there were far more stories about their grandmothers’ and mothers’ experiences of violence, rural hardship, self-sacrifice and fear, and their grandfathers’ or fathers’ alcoholism, emotional unavailability and investment in a sexual division of labour that eschewed shared responsibility for care of and in the home.

This year, far more essays than ever before wrote about fathers’ care, nurturing, housework, commitment to be different from men a generation or two earlier; support for their daughters’ independence and empowerment, and more equitable co-operation with their mothers. I noticed that shift particularly among Indo-Trinidadian students’ essays, which had long provided insight into generations of their families’ gender negotiations. What are the changes to Indian masculinity that we may not be noticing? The fathers who astound by quietly and lovingly accepting their lesbian daughters’ choices and partners, the ones who surreptitiously see their daughters and their children when even their mother has stopped speaking to them for marrying the wrong kind of man, the ones who’d rather their daughters be well-educated and single than pressured to marry, the ones whose children felt they could talk to them about anything.

Was this new or had I become more familiar with one side of the history of Indian masculinity and fatherhood? The one that Indian women had to challenge, manoeuvre, survive and even escape? Although definitely real since migration here, it’s the other side that I began to also want to trace.

This is the story of fathers, even indentured labourers, who sent their girl children to school from the late 1800s. I had always valued the fact that my great grandmother went to school as a child in Princes Town, just after the turn of the century, but had not ever considered it as only one example of Indian men’s progressive approach to their daughters’ education. This led to women like Stella Abidh, born in 1903, becoming the first Indo-Trinidadian woman medical doctor in 1936. It was her father, Clarence Abidh, a trade unionist, school master and County Council Representative of Couva in the 1920s, who insisted that she could travel to Canada to study to be a doctor not a nurse. Place his encouragement against both her grandmother’s wish to see her marry a suitable boy at 16 or, the head of the Presbyterian Church, Reverend Scrimgeour’s view that, “I would not send my daughter to study medicine, because Indian girls are morally weak and would not be able to stand those pressures.”

And, there’s the long progressive tradition in local Ahmaddiya practice of Islam, one which has critiqued imposition of hijab, encouraged Muslim women’s public speaking from the 1930s, challenged taboos that disallowed menstruating women from bodily embrace of the Qur’an, and considered women breadwinners, not only wives.

Decades of Caribbean feminist scholarship has argued that Indian women were never just oppressed, docile, passive dependents, but were active makers and movers of their own desires and histories, whatever the expectations of men, family, religion and state.

Though I never fully noticed, that scholarship also documents men’s support for women’s rights and equality, how their gendered beliefs changed over their lifetimes and how they easily accommodated changes desired by girl children.

Now, I’m thinking, if I wrote a book on Indo-Caribbean feminist trajectories through study of Indian men’s histories, what could I tell about their myriad investments in women’s freedom?

Post 193.

In Trinidad, if you are an Indian woman, and you don’t like doubles, curry, Bollywood films, pepper or big river limes with rum and loud chutney-soca music, you don’t practice any religion, lack all deference to patriarchal authority, and you made a Dougla baby with an Afro-Trinidadian man who is a DJ, not even a doctor or lawyer, people of all ethnicities often openly and genuinely ask, ‘What kind of Indian are you?’

It’s understandable. I’ve been asking myself this question since 1995, when I returned to live in Trinidad from an adolescence spent in Barbados and Canada. Never really feeling like I was a real Indian because I didn’t end up naturally connecting to typical cultural, religious, familial or other kinds of practices and traditions, I used my Mphil thesis to explore how other young women were living Indian femininity at the turn of century. I administered questionnaires to more than eighty Indian girls in four high schools at the foot of the Northern Range, conducted participant-observation in religious and cultural settings, and even became Ms. Mastana Bahar, for the ethnographic experience.

I learned a lot about young Indian womanhood, but it didn’t make me feel more authentic. Eventually, I stopped wondering, taken up with feminist movement-building, LGBT rights, environmental concerns, rapso, general irreverence to the state and status quo, and continued research on Indo-Trinidadian Muslim women, mas makers and women in politics. Increasingly confident about what it meant to be Indian for myself, inside I still doubted that my criteria would be approved if nice Muslim or pious Hindu women, or Indian men, saw below my appearance and respectable surface.

Then Ziya was born. It took me until this month to realize this, but I became Indian at that moment in 2010. No matter how little I felt I fit expectations, as a Dougla, Ziya was so much more disavowed, her belonging to Indianness so much more complicated because of her mixed hair, her African features, and her lack of cultural and biological belonging to either Indian or African identities.

In comparison to her, I was not only Indian, my body was a privileged representation. I would always be read as an Indian woman, even if I wasn’t the approved kind. Would she ever be accepted as negotiating and articulating her own experience of Indian womanhood in the Caribbean? Like many Douglas, would she end up identifying only as mixed or African, not also as Indian, disconnecting from part of herself and all of me?

That is the last thing I want. I had chosen aspects of Indianness for myself, as Indian women do, investing in family history, wearing shalwars to work rather than on assigned national days, ritualizing wedding mehindi on my anniversaries, wearing silver bracelets as symbolic reminders of how once indentured women invested jewelry with their own multiple meanings.

Yet, when Zi was born, making sure that she grew up knowing that she should be able to claim Indianness as much as me, on terms not set by religion, tradition, myths of racial purity or male authority, became so much more important. For four years, I’ve been thinking about Indo-Caribbean feminisms, and it only just occurred to me why.

Now Indian, what does that mean for my politics, and my commitment to cross-race and cross-class solidarities, particularly among women? What does it mean to be Indian, feminist and Caribbean? And, what are my responsibilities for ensuring that Indianness can be claimed just as much by descendents such as Ziya?

Now, when people respond to my writing on Indo-Caribbean feminisms by pressing, why not just be Caribbean, why you want make being Indian matter, I quietly wonder if they see the body I live in, and if they yet understand that we all have a right to explore the particularities of our experience.

I quietly imagine how different Ziya’s experience of her body, as also Indian, will be from mine.

I take notes in my head about how much more there is to learn about Indian women, whether mixed or in mixed relationships, lesbians, mothers, panditas, feminists or hijabistas, as we reflect on the combination of personal, intellectual and political in our contemporary selves and life-long journeys.