Post 249.

Indian Arrival Day provides a moment for looking back through history and asking what we should continue to carry in our jahajin bundle tomorrow. All remembering is selective. For young Indo-Trinidadian women and dougla or mixed-race women with Indian ancestry, who we accept and empower ourselves to be is shaped by the historical stories we are told. So, choosing those stories is as key to what we remember as it is to how we define ourselves today.

Stories of Indian womanhood typically idealise a sacrificial, dutiful and respectable figure, making many young women wonder how to manage being both Indian and self-determining at the same time. It’s as if Indo-Caribbean and feminism are awkwardly fitted words, to be lived in ways you hide from your family or as a marker of your irreverence to the teachings of priests, pundits and imams. Or, worse, your failure to be either appropriately Indian or an acceptable woman.

But, this ideal figure is a mythical one – drawn from emphasizing some women over others in India or the history of Islam, some goddesses or others in religious texts, and some women over others today.

Instead, the Indian women we should be remembering are our great-grandmothers, grandmothers and mothers. They were complex characters, not simply self-sacrificing. They could be unruly and heroic. They were imperfect, yet resilient, resourceful and determined survivors who changed lives, families and communities. These were the kind of women in whom we can see struggles, choices, regrets, victories and secrets, so much closer to our own lives despite the span of sometimes more than a century.

Thirty years of Indo-Caribbean feminist writing has highlighted that Indian women who arrived as part of the odyssey of indenture came as workers, not as wives. Some were kidnapped or fooled by recruiters, but many were escaping conditions not of their own choosing, including economic conditions shaped by successive droughts in India, the multifarious violence of British colonization, and the oppressiveness of marital, family, caste and village life. Sexual violence was also a reality in India, on ships that crossed the Kala Pani, and on sugar estates in the new world.

Amidst all this, these jahajins earned their own money (though at discriminatory wages in comparison to men), accrued and invested their own savings, and started and left sexual relationships in ways that explicitly threatened men’s control over them. The idea that Indian women were or should be docile, dependent or domesticated was a myth wielded by colonial authorities, religious leaders and Indian men to manners women, such that men would not turn to the cutlass or courts to control them and such that the British experiment wouldn’t be seen as producing the wrong kind of woman for a patriarchal stable family.

Post-indentureship feminism, which Lisa Outar and I write about in the collection, Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought, is the pursuit of self-determination which, in this post-indentureship period, explicitly builds on these stories which we are less often told.

It’s a sense of rights and how to navigate them which emerges from looking, not to India or texts or myths or the past, but to the indentureship experience and the archetypes or models which women have provided for us since they set foot on those boats.

It’s a legacy of women’s dreaming, strategizing, learning, laboring and organizing to resist, withstand or outlive violence, to express sexual desires and experience erotic pleasure, and to manage the demands and rewards of respectability.

Post-indentureship feminism describes how Indian women today negotiate gender ideals, navigate a range of aspirations and expectations, and wield a sense of self and rights shaped by decades of feminism. That feminism, in all its kinds, is home-grown. It emerged from the plantation experience of slavery and indentureship, and provided Indian women with the rich possibilities for cross-ethnic relations, intimacies and solidarities among women which are the best of Caribbean feminism today.

As we remember stories from indentureship to present, young women now have 170 years of Indian women’s sometimes hidden histories from which to find inspiration for our fearlessness and refusal to obey oppressive ideals at our own expense. Our families and communities should be our allies. This would honour those who arrived seeking nothing less.

Advertisements

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 199.

Stereotype has long defined public talk about Indian women’s sexuality, and panic that Hindu women’s immorality can undermine a whole political-economic order isn’t new.

150 years ago, authorities were pressuring recruiters to find the ‘right’ kind of Indian woman whose obedience could be assured. At that time, across the British empire, indentured women were hysterically cast as hyper-aware of their sexual and labour power, and as aligning themselves strategically with men to maneuver the colonial system. This was considered a sign of their dangerousness and untrustworthiness, facilitated by the fracturing of familial and religious rules, and capable of undermining the plantation system itself.

Later, to weaken Indian women’s gendered negotiations, they were redefined as unpaid housewives in village life off the plantation, fulfilling a colonial ideal of women as dependent nurturers, and Indian men’s wish for partners who couldn’t simply leave for better love or sex, more respect and rights, or greater economic security. And so, another stereotype of the passive Indian woman, whose dutifulness held together the clan, became accepted in our society.

Throughout this period and then post-independence, conservative Hindu voices spoke out against Hindu women’s interracial sexual unions, seeing nationalist desires for biological and cultural mixing as plans for assimilation and erasure.

Both the Africanisation of Indian culture, and the Indianisation of national culture, through chutney-soca or the mass entry of young Indian women into Carnival, signaled a loss of difference, respectability, purity, tradition and Mother culture. Morally good, ethnically loyal Hindu women were supposed to neither reject Hindu men nor fall prey to African men’s debauchery. Notice how Sat Maharaj emphasized that while Dr. Rowley was wining on a young Indian woman, the PM was at a puja being a proper Hindu devotee.

On the other hand, African men’s sexual possession of an exoticised Marajin, Dulahin or ‘Indian gyal’ was considered a superior approach to creating Mother Trinidad where ‘all of we is one’. African men’s prowess with Hindu women, and their sexual and political power to determine the creolization of both Indians and the nation, was a potent symbol of Indian men’s emasculation. Indian patriarchy was considered racist for resisting such penetration.

In contestations for Indian and African dominance, Hindu women’s interracial unions have been widely celebrated and condemned, from calypsos to debates in the press. In such endless minding of their sexual business, Indian women’s views on their own sexuality are least heard. Mainly talk concerns their effects on others: men, families, ethnic groups and the nation. African women’s feelings, that men’s interracial unions were a rejection of them, were also largely dismissed. Indeed, amidst great diversity in African women’s perspectives and solidarities, the view of Indian women as an ethnic threat, who could take your man, his money and even nation-state, has also existed all along.

PNM member Juliet Davy’s comments, that Hindu Indian women seduce powerful non-Indian men for wealth and to destroy them, exemplifies this, with the twist that Hindu men use their women, including their own wife, mother, daughter or sister, to seduce non-Indian men.

What shifted such that Hindu women, rather than African men, are now considered predatory? When did their interracial unions appear, not as rejection of Indian men, but as tricks of subordinate pawns? When did African men become so sexually and economically vulnerable? How are myths of danger and docility being currently recombined?

Interestingly, for five years, Kamla Persad-Bissessar has been defined by just this predatory-pawn logic. She’s cast as embodying a creeping threat to all that constitutes our democratic state, incomprehensibly popular, politically powerful, morally degenerate and a weak puppet of a Hindu male cabal.

Combine old fear of the sexually and economically strategic Hindu woman, with established commentary on Indian women’s bodies in competitive race talk, with current assessment that a too-powerful Hindu patriarchy is ‘wooding’ the state treasury, with clear campaigning to seduce voters with an almost lone Indian lady, and it perhaps explains how stereotypes arise to articulate distrust of the PP’s twist on ‘real unity’.

Post 134.

Born on November 14, 1913, my father’s mother, Taimoon Hosein, daughter of Kapooran and Shah Mohammed Hosein of Balmain, Couva may have been the first one in the world with this name. It was a misrepresentation of Tayammum, the kind of linguistic and historical mangling that clung to many who crossed water and entered the world in new locations across the British empire.

In the year 1946, my grandfather, himself born in 1901 and the son of Sapheeran and Nazar Hosein, went to register the birth of a third daughter. My grandmother wanted to call her Zairee, but my grandfather named her Taimoon, after my grandmother. Disregarding both my grandfather’s ultimate decision and the official certificate, my grandmother called her Zairee anyway and, eventually, so did everyone else in the family.

Such small acts of defiance are the legacy left for young Indian women like me. There were also large acts of insubordination and self-definition in the histories of indentured Indian women who bravely came to Trinidad as independently waged workers, who unapologetically left men who did not satisfy them, who participated in workers’ public resistance, and whose confrontations with inequality led them to be seen as the wrong kind of woman, deserving of shame, punishment and even death.

Indian great-grandmothers had to be pushed hard by the combined forces of Indian men, religious leaders, local planters and British colonial authorities into forgetting decades of increased autonomy so that now we think that they were naturally and always dependent, docile housewives.

I know that narrative is false. So, every time a contemporary mouthpiece of Indian authority, justified by religion, race, a belief in natural gender inequality or some invented history of female obedience, gets upset by Indian women’s choices that they haven’t approved, I’m without fear. We’ve been making decisions about our bodies, our beliefs, our money and our labour for almost 170 years.

Drawing on the history we know and knowing there are stories like my grandmother’s still to be told, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be an Indian feminist in our region. It’s a risky location. On the one hand, we are without authorization by religion, the state or men, whether here, India, the diasporas or even Mecca. On the other, we are aware of how Afrocentrism has dominated woman-issues consciousness, mobilizing and writing in the Caribbean. It isn’t that we don’t draw on all of these connections, it’s that daily-Quran-reading, name-I-chose-insisting grandmothers cannot be entirely understood within or determined by them. Neither can I.

Indian womanhood now is even more complex than three generations ago. Unapologetically, I’m in solidarity with the young Indian lesbians from South, the well-educated Muslim mothers not ready to marry, the young Hindu women who have chosen to terminate pregnancies because of unreliable partners or income, and the girls whose decisions about love may cross racial lines. I’m all for the ‘good’ Indian girls too, whoever and wherever they are. We all draw on religion, history, ancestry, mythology, cultural diversity, modernity and sisterhoods that cross ethnicity in ways we creatively combine. Regardless of how we choose to weave together our best, most fulfilled, most equal selves, I think it’s our right to decide.

There have been Muslim, Hindu and Christian Indian great-grandmothers and grandmothers, aunts, mothers and sisters who at one or another time agreed. I hear you all nodding quietly as you read. Being an young Indian feminist in the Caribbean is about continuing such resolute negotiations and deciding what to name our own stories.

Note: CODE RED for gender justice is hosting a Caribbean Blog Carnival. This post is published there and I hope that the Caribbean receives it with love.

Postscript: A reflection on the post’s receipt can be found here.