Post 331.

We-Mark-Your-Memory_web

THIS EVENING, Bocas Lit Festival and Commonwealth Writers will be launching the collection, We Mark Your Memory: Writings from the Descendants of Indenture, at the Writers’ Centre on Alcazar Street, Port of Spain, from 6.30 o’clock.

The collection commemorates the centenary of the end of indentureship and includes writing from South Africa, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Mauritius and Samoa. It’s powerful to be included in a space with those from other places where indentured workers turned exploitation into opportunities, making new lives and birthing new lineages and stories.
Indian indentureship has transformed our landscape in the Caribbean, and these voices evoke its afterlife 100 years on. Writers in the collection from TT include Patti-Ann Ali, Kevin Jared Hosein, Suzanne Bhagan, Stella Chong Sing, Fawzia Muradali Kane, and Jennifer Rahim, diverse voices marking different kinds of memories.

My own piece, titled “Chutney Love,” was written in 1996 and I used to perform it in my younger days in the rapso movement. The year 1995 was a richly complex moment in our recent political history. The rise of the UNC evoked the dashed hopes of 1986. For some, “it was Indian time now” as chorused by graffiti on the bus route, seen every time a maxi passed by.

It was also the year of chutney music continuing to “douglarise” Carnival, following the boundary-breaking entry of Drupatee Ragoonai in the 1980s and then others, from Chris Garcia to Sonny Mann, to Brother Marvin who continued the mixing of Indian and African rhythms and music started by those like Ras Shorty I.

Finally, Indo-Caribbean women’s writing and scholarship blossomed in these years. Theirs was a turn to words that at the same time turned away from ideals of purity as, in both bodies and in lyrics, women began to play up feminist politics of power and pleasure.

The poem’s lines, written when I was inspired by these developments at just 22 years old, bring together rapso’s commitment to performing poetry in the language we speak everyday with my own negotiations with Indianness, femininity, sexuality, political consciousness, and cross-race and anti-imperialist solidarities for “we both cross water for empire/ And ever since we lan up here together/ Is with only one history that we grow.”

“I ent nobody bowjie/ No promised dulahin” are the opening lines in the second verse, “But when de tassa start to roll up/ Beta, dem lyrics yuh have, I done write myself in.”
This tradition of Indian women writing themselves into Indo-Caribbean culture and history can be traced at least as far back as Indian women’s arrival, but was brought with them from India, through the depots and onto the ships.

These women’s voices can be heard in everything from letters to court documents to ship records, all leaving an echo in our own contemporary pressing against imposed roles and rules, and in our continued aspirations for self-determined lives.

As one example, just this Saturday, rolling through Plum Road with Prof Brinsley Samaroo, pre-eminent historian of Indo-Caribbean experience, Ziya and I ended up at St Isadore Estate, and stood in the very places where Bheeknee once stood. Born 1869, Bheeknee came to Trinidad on July 31, 1874, on the ship the Golden Fleece, with her mother and her baby brother. Her father had died aboard. She was just five years old.
When she was 13, George Kernahan, a sailor on the Golden Fleece, who had later begun working as an estate manager, found and took her to live with him, fathering several children. He was a spendthrift and alcoholic who eventually became blind. Meanwhile Bheeknee went on to frugally manage their money and to eventually purchase 500 acres of land – what became the estate we were now standing on.

She was so astute that she had ponds dug from natural springs, installing huge pipes and ensuring a fresh water supply while running a successful cocoa estate. Later, when Kernahan lost the estate to debtors, Bheeknee moved the family a few miles away where she had bought more than 30 acres without him knowing. Her house still stands there today. A jahaji bahen with no education who accomplished brilliant achievements through will to survive before her death in 1934. I’ll be remembering her today, and how history lives in words as much as in our landscape.

As we mark memories, whether from 1917, 1934 or 1995, come hear pieces read by their authors, all descendants of indenture, writing ourselves in. Like most Bocas’ events, the launch is free and all are welcome.

 

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Post 224.

Government has the right and the power to amend the laws on child marriage. This right and power is not just because Parliament’s responsibility is to legislate for the best for all in the nation, particularly its most vulnerable citizens.  More precisely, it is because the government should and must harmonize all the laws governing the minimum age of sexual consent.

The Children’s Act (2012) sets the age of sexual consent at eighteen years old. Sexual relations between girls and boys who are both minors or within three years of age have been decriminalized. However, sex between adults and minors, meaning children under eighteen years old, is defined as rape.

In the case of the marriage laws, the majority of child marriages occur between girl children and male adults, at times constituting the legalization of statutory rape. This is the overriding issue that our society has to address.

The argument that we should pay attention to teenage pregnancies rather than child marriage is a misleading one. Child marriage and teenage pregnancy are parts of the same problem, which is too early sexual initiation, particularly in the lives of girls.

The sexualisation of girlhood, by older men, is a phenomena that has devastated the lives of girls across the region, leading to high rates of early forced sex, to girls 14 to 24 years old having one of the highest rates of HIV infection, and to teenage pregnancy. The consequences of these affect girls’ educational and economic options, cementing their dependence on others, rather than increasing their independence and self-sufficiency.

Both teen marriage and pregnancy also have to be situated in a wider context of widespread child sexual abuse, mainly by adult men.  This month, the Children’s authority publicized that 1000 cases of sexual abuse were reported to the Authority in the period May 18, 2015 to February 17, 2016. Of that, 142 children were in sexual relationships with adult men, with 61 of them becoming pregnant or having had a child. If those children were married to those adult men, would that make their situation more morally acceptable? To whom?

We’ve dealt with girls’ greater vulnerability to early sexual initiation by denial of the importance of sexual education through our school system. How else to protect our nation’s girls but with information about their bodies, health, safety, rights, options and sources of services and support? Learning how to make and live those decisions best for your future as a growing girl is a better solution to teen pregnancy than marriage.

The second approach that we have taken is shame and blame. The marriage solution makes sense in this context, for it seeks to restore respectability to a girl child, restoring respectability to the family. But, here, obeying the tyranny of respectability may not be doing what is best.

Research on past child brides suggests that girls were compelled into marriages far more than they chose them. Forced by parents who saw them liking a boy and decided a wedding had to take place. Other girls agreed because they were unhappy in their family homes and marriage provided escape. Still others were just doing what was expected, without understanding all the implications. Minors ending up in relationships with adult men had far less bargaining capacity to decide the fate of their lives, and had higher risk of violence.

Over the past six decades, girls themselves have decided against marrying as minors. This can be seen in the vast increase in the age of marriage over this period, once the decision was increasingly in empowered girls’ hands.

This also means that the actual numbers of child marriages are low. However, this is not a numbers issue. It is an issue of having a single, consistent legal position about the age of consent, what constitutes rape of a minor, and what the right approach to different aspects of girls’ sexual vulnerability should be.

The Hindu Women’s Organisation, and leaders such as Brenda Gopeesingh, have been consistently and fearlessly calling for this change for the last decade. There is also significant public support nationally and internationally. Despite sound and fury, amending the marriage laws is a low-stakes change. The political fall-out from this decision will be minor. And, a necessary message will be sent about girls’ right to be children, leaving we adults, rather than them, with the responsibility to resist their early sexualisation.

For more information, see the IGDS 2013 Public Forum on the Marriage Acts of Trinidad and Tobago which provides informed perspectives by Gaietry Pargass, Dr. Jacqueline Sharpe and Carol Jaggernauth.

http://www.looptt.com/content/womantra-religious-support-under-age-marriage-obscene%E2%80%9D

 

 

Post 212.

Picture Paul-Keen’s Douglas’ script for “Party Nice”, with him insisting “is only a little ting we having”.

Ziya turns five next week. A birthday party is expected. If not by her then by my mother, who takes the memorability of the party personally, like Ziya’s public advocate on all things grandchildren rightfully deserve. For her part, Zi buffed me up for buying her dinosaur-themed party paraphernalia, asking me if I think her friends would want to go back home when they realize there were no princesses or little ponies. Who tell me buy dat?

I’ve spent the last two years emphasizing the coolness of dinosaurs, science and outer space, bought books with awesome paleontology facts, watched endless episodes of “Dinosaur Train’, drove to school on a morning letting her label every person we saw as a different kind of dinosaur. She has been genuinely into it. Not for her party. Here gender socialization, keeping up with friends, worry about fitting in and others’ approval prevail.

This seems inconsequential, but it highlights how narrow the options for girls remain, in their own peer circles and among parents, despite decades of women pushing the frontiers of femininity. This seems obvious from separate distribution of pink and camouflage-printed goods in toy store aisles. A few months ago, it had me poised between sets of Lego, in the ‘boys’ aisle defined by Jurassic Park and Minecraft, and, in the girls’ aisle, defined by limousines, make-up dressers complete with mirrors and lipstick, multiple kinds of hair styles, and leisure settings, like liming in a yacht. Eventually, I bought a submarine, with no girl figures in it, but satisfyingly complex, and neither about violence nor beauty.

It’s like Caribbean women’s rights is in a gendered war with Disney Corporation, and with Disney mass marketing across both media and merchandising, my messages of imagining a girl’s self beyond the most stereotypical are of little worth. If I had more time, I’d publish my own character, called Empress Sapodilla Sugarplum, whose series of stories I’ve already written in my head, and who imagines herself in backyard adventures as Jamaican warrior leader Nanny of the Maroons as much as she dresses up as Camille Alleyne, Trinidad and Tobago’s own awesome astronaut, up and away in a box with the sounds of a rocket launch streaming from Youtube. Thank goddess for Doc McStuffins, we reached a truce. As the mother of a brown sapodilla, who wishes for anything other than white mermaids and princesses, both Zi and I love this character, her message and music.

Good. Snacks. Cake. Drinks. I’m all like, you can invite five friends and we will play ‘pass the parcel’ and musical chairs. The child squinted up her eyes at my clearly last- generation idea of a party, unsurprisingly, for everyone else’s had a bouncy castle, and face painting. Indeed, I wondered if the handful of children I let her invite would all appear and stand around not knowing what to do with themselves.

“Is only a little ting we having” isn’t what parents put out at children’s parties anymore, and these are working middle-class people, with no businesses or trust funds. I’ve watched professional moms, in particular, turn up totally put together and triumphant, but completely exhausted, having baked, packaged, put up, handmade, ordered and organized everything, with it all costing about $5000, and me there, both awed and appreciative, but askance that the same might be expected of me.

I think Zi can have a big party when she has a job and can save for it herself. At this point, my mother prepares to look offended on her behalf, like Thelma when Keens-Douglas says, we go have the party, just buy some “cheeweez”. I don’t blame her, if I had my way, there would be a yard for kids to play, snacks, and the other parents, Stone and I would watch our children tire themselves out while we dressed back with drinks. US media dominance, middle-class pressures, working mom’s aspirations, and resilient gender stereotypes are all there to be managed even at such seemingly ideologically-innocent times. Whatever little ting she gets, Zi better end her birthday like Tantie Merle, only saying “party nice”.

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 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 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?