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Artwork by Danielle Boodoo-Fortune. Layout by Kathryn Chan.

Post 214.

Once, I was among the youth voices in Caribbean feminist inter-generational conversations. Now, I’m bringing together young graduate students and activists with an older generation. Those I’ve been reading and learning from for two decades, and who I want to continue to thread, like matrilineal lines, through emerging thinking and politics.

That’s not as easy as it sounds, for intergenerational gatherings are cross-stitched by multiple tensions.

For one, older feminists need to trust that a younger generation has read what they have written or heard their words, and understand the commitments, especially across race, sexuality and class, which they have woven into their legacy. Like many mothers, they may need to reflectively work through which times to grow a new generation and which times to step back and listen. Also, how to advise in ways that don’t make daughters feel judged, disciplined or dictated to, and when to let go, recognizing that things may not look to those of a younger age and era as elders’ eyes see.

I thought about this while observing an absolutely historic first gathering, of three generations of Indo-Caribbean feminist scholars, almost immediately dissemble into a past generation’s disagreements. I suppose it was good for graduate students to see that those whose writings have defined their own seams of thought are also just people; fallible, passionate, likable, disagreeable, anxious, generous and, even, unkind. Path-breaking women who don’t necessarily share analyses, and who trace different and competing hurts, ambitions and lives to their stories.

That was when I also realized that time had shifted, and that there was value in nurturing a collective confidence that didn’t need matriarchal approval for newer interpretations and choices. We had the wisdom of their works, yet our own path to forge. We could and had come of age.

Such moments of renegotiation and redefinition occur in all social movements, but there isn’t much documented about generational leadership change in Caribbean history, whether in unions, NGOs, political parties or even mas-making families. Yet, generation was key to the Black Power challenge to an older order just as much as cyber-feminism is creating new forms of solidarity-building which some second wave feminists still don’t take seriously.

It’s important for the young to learn how ideas were formed, strategies conceptualized and past struggles waged. Our responsibility is to know our histories by asking those who came before. Their task is to give space to how a new generation gives those histories meaning, acknowledging that they might not have the last word, for the young may have stopped listening or, once the sync has gone, already moved on. Then, it only alienates them to emphasize how much they are failing or how much is being lost, those perspectives also likely failing to accurately assess the times they are navigating.

In the face of early rebuke and skepticism from some who established the intellectual tradition we were exploring, I instead saw the value of more careful consideration of those forty years younger. What were they offering to us about what it means to be Indian or Dougla, to become an immigrant, confront historical violence, imagine same sex desire, read books that connect the Caribbean to Mauritius or poetry to politics, manifest goddess possession, be a man or challenge men, and explore how education expands one’s identities and responsibilities to the region?

Caribbean societies are so hierarchical that there’s small chance of a younger generation, particularly of young women, really saying what they think and feel to those they respect and feel they owe loyalty. Yet, amongst themselves, they know when what was said made them uncomfortable and when they disagree. Distrust that they will be reprimanded rather than heard means they choose silence instead of dialogue, fear instead of engagement, and disappointment rather than connection.

How does that impact possibilities for true inter-generational collaboration? How, then, should those with older power wield their authority? What do the young learn about asserting themselves? For, sometimes we have to challenge even Indian elders, even feminist foremothers, lovingly and publicly. Social movements don’t just live on, but are continuously made. It’s important to record how we do this, and the gifts and risks sewn in at every stage.

For a reflection on the Symposium ‘Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought: Beyond Gender Negotiations’, organised by Gabrielle Hosein, Lisa Outar and the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, St. Augustine, see Krystal Nandini Ghisyawan’s review in the Stabroek News.
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Post 202.

In 1999, Nesha Haniff wrote that “Indian women’s writings are only now emerging and the scholarship by Indian women on Indian women is slowly developing.” Almost twenty years later, enough of that writing now exists for a new generation of scholars to look back at it and ask a number of questions. How does it enable us to think about life today? What does it contribute to the Caribbean intellectual tradition? How has it defined feminism? What are its radical elements? What does it say about sexuality, race, family, religion, empowerment and more?

Most people think Indo-Caribbean women have not produced a lot or even particularly important scholarship, and that it is now coming into voice. But, it isn’t that the scholarship has been missing, it is that it has been marginal to how the region and its gender relations have been thought about.

Even as only a starting point, I want researchers to know that that Indians in the Caribbean can’t be studied as if this scholarship doesn’t exist, and neither can mixed and complex societies like Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname, and even others like Jamaica and Martinique.

This means getting to know the research about the intersections of gender, race and region along with generation and nation. It means getting to know how its concepts draw on myths and traditions, using words like ‘matikor’, ‘bindi’, ‘jahajin’ and ‘dougla’ to create theory, or ways of explaining who we have been, are becoming and should be. It means asking how the work of those creating art or writing books, or the lives of pioneering women negotiating power relations, from family life to business to politics, can be documented using the frames that Indo-Caribbean feminist scholarship offers for reflecting on our ambitions, struggles and communities.

For these ideas to turn into the collective conversation that it should, with others in and beyond the region, eighteen scholars are being brought together here to present their research. They are doing so in order to examine the Indo-Caribbean feminist scholarship that exists, and to show its contribution as well as how it can be advanced, nuanced or completely revised. Those scholars will presenting at UWI on November 5-6, 2015, on be everything from dance to literature, from sexuality to masculinity, from religion to family, and from visual art to violence in Indo-Caribbean life.

I am hoping that bringing them together here makes Trinidad and Tobago a leader in mentoring and producing knowledge about Indo-Caribbean, Dougla and Caribbean feminisms. I am hoping that it helps us to recognize and shape how a new generation of scholars is writing about Indian womanhoods and manhoods, from the ground up rather than importing theory. I am hoping that the publication of these papers in 2016 will shape Indo-Caribbean research on women and gender relations for at least the next decade.

To make this happen, I’ve spent these last weeks asking those in business to support the flight/hotel costs of one or more of the scholars who will be presenting on those two days, supplementing funds raised through university research grants. This way, there’s a collaborative investment by a wider community in producing much needed knowledge about Indo-Caribbean contemporary life, particularly women’s lives, and an investment in the intellectual leadership of our young women scholars.

It’s been a challenge. Most understand the importance of giving to charity, sports or even medical research. Social science, which studies family, culture, changes to tradition, power inequalities, and how we relate to each other in contemporary life, seems less urgent. Good at teaching and writing, rather than fundraising for research, I’ve also surprised myself by how shy I feel about confidently convincing those who can easily give funds why they should do so. Care for this project is forcing my skills to grow.

The scholarship I’ve read since beginning research on Indo-Trinidadian girlhood fifteen years ago has shaped the woman and scholar that I’ve become. My vision is to give back to the younger, emerging scholars documenting and explaining ideas, theories and experiences over the next fifteen years. If you can connect to that vision and want to help make such contemporary, collaborative, Indo-Caribbean feminist research a reality, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Post 198.

More than once, Ziya has initiated conversation about skin colour, telling me that she wishes she had lighter skin or was white. Where this comes from, I’m not exactly sure, though the nexus of value and colour is inescapably embedded in our entire colonial legacy.

Most people blame ‘the parents’, that dynamic duo supposedly capable of successfully fighting all the world’s bad influences through their super skills in setting an all-powerfully influential example. Parents might blame ‘the media’ which, even if we police our own little sapodillas’ consumption of children’s shows, still manages to infiltrate their consciousness through conversation and time spent with their friends and other family members who watch TV.

So, Zi tells me that having light skin is prettier because you can have pink cheeks, like Anna from the film, ‘Frozen’. She apparently watches ‘Barbie’ and other Disney Channel shows when not home. And, she and her school friends clearly work through concepts of colour, status and beauty when talking, and even through skin colour matching games. She’s also reasoned to me that ‘light skin can be pink and girls are supposed to like pink, that’s why I like light skin’. This is not a conversation Zi is inventing or having alone.

When I’ve discussed this with people, they’ve gone through the list of sources of blame. I’ve checked each off one by one. Zi gets books chosen specifically with a range of considerations, including race, colour, gender, geography, art and science, in mind. I’ve only ever bought her brown dolls. Her allowed shows include Doc McStuffins, Dinosaur Train, Word World, and others vetted for their messages and representations.

What’s out there isn’t perfect, but some choices are better than others. Still, some choices are not great. There are far too few Caribbean music videos, particularly by women, that she can watch. So, it’s not entirely surprising that the ‘Roar’ video, where Katy Perry’s cheeks are quite pink, has swept the four year old world like an unstoppable anthem.

I say all this to make the point that when our children start to show familiarity with a world we know is sexist, racist, classist and more, our first reaction is blame. But, beyond family, schools or media, this is actually the world as we live it daily, like normal. Our kids were going to encounter and even assimilate it inevitably. As a parent who has made a real effort, while also having to balance not being fascist about my attempts at indoctrination, I refuse the neoliberal idea that fault is in individual failure to fulfill that checklist.

A long time ago, we realized that real change requires more than individual empowerment and effort, it also needs mass movements, attempting widespread shifts in social consciousness and political-economic relations. The global Black Power movement knew this. It challenged class-colour barriers, the connection between whiteness and power, and disparagement of hair and skin considered ‘too black’.

For children, whether Indian, African or mixed, there’s a great deal of that transformative politics we still need to achieve, and we are a generation that can redesign the wheel while not having to reinvent it. Thinking about this makes you wonder about all the reasons for, and the losses of, such hopeful, collective Caribbean movements no longer existing today. It’s a lesson for us that such great efforts can be undermined, forgotten, even stereotyped over mere decades.

As a mother, I feel that once hierarchies penetrate our children’s understanding of the world and their place in it, they can now only be in resistance to such frameworks, no longer innocent of them or fully free. I dream that we could make such emancipation a real possibility. None but ourselves can free our minds, and luckily schooling and parenting can together be revolutionary.

So it goes in our contradictory, complex postcolony. For now, I’m keeping it simple. Mummy says all skin colours are beautiful.

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.

Post 68.

As a mother of a half-African baby girl, each day I discover how little I know about black hair. Take for instance the question of combing. My position is, if Ziya’s hair is combed, if it isn’t, no biggie. She’s not yet two, she doesn’t care and I am happy to postpone her having to bow to the tyranny of rules regarding respectable hair for as long as I can. She’s a girl, she’s going to be (self)conscious of her hair for the rest of her life, does it matter if she isn’t now? If her hair matters to other people, and worse is a judgement on me, that’s their business and their bias. Who have hair on their head, let them busy themselves combing it.

However, clearly, I’m on my own in this point of view.

Stone is the complete opposite of me. It’s like ethnicity has caused us to exchange gender roles. He’s always keen to make sure that Ziya’s hair is combed, and therefore often combs it himself. He claims that combing it keeps it from being “hard”. I have no idea what that means. He is sometimes a little freaked out if people come over and Ziya’s hair looks like a cross between Einstein and Don King. Like a Chia pet, she’s got a massive Afro full of whirly bits, straight bits and bits about to locks. I think it looks wild and free. Stone thinks it looks wild and messy. He thinks it’s important that she learn to sit quietly and comb her hair because neat hair is important. Perhaps, for him, it’s how she learns about self-presentation, discipline and respectability. I don’t so much care. In time, rightly or wrongly, the entire moral universe will impose itself on her anyway.

I’ve realised over time and conversation that the different approaches in our house stem directly from our different hair. I get how nice neat hair looks and I like when Ziya looks freshly bathed and combed just as much as everyone else who cares for her, including her Indian grandmother and babysitter who are constantly twirling and pig-tailing her curls. Yet, it doesn’t occur to me to see her hair as a statement of how she will be received by the world. Stone tells me I want the kids in school (note, she is not yet in school) to call her “Mad Head”. Stone’s mom tells me she is glad Ziya won’t have “late for school hair”, another concept I’ve only recently met. The Afro-Trinidadian women in my office tell me that hair is important, having combed hair is important and that this is something black girls learn early, because of the general disparagement of things African and the overwhelming pressure to bleach, straighten, press or cover natural black hair. Having to present as acceptable, decent and civilised is a given because its alternative is to fall to a racist stereotype.

I think natural African hair is beautiful and I admire my sistren whose ital looks or locks powerfully normalise something that should be unquestioned. Yet, learning for the first time about the messages Ziya is receiving as she is also learning them makes me understand how different my own socialisation has been and how growing up as an Indian girl freed me from concerns my sistren had to confront. More and more I realise, not just intellectually or politically, but as a mother making daily decisions regarding her girl’s sacred self, the significance of the associations that straight hair has to softness and being untangled, to beauty and being free-flowing, to acceptance and being good. More and more, the pejorative words applied to black hair that would never be applied to mine strike close to home. Stone and I are only beginning to sort out why he is aware, even as a man, of aspects of Ziya’s hair that I don’t even notice. We are both becoming more conscious about ideas we carry unconsciously. Looking at Ziya, I wonder what she will decide matters for her as she lives and challenges a reality with which neither Stone nor I have ever had to entirely identify. All we can do as two people completely different from her, is give and teach her the whole-hearted acceptance that she will one day need.