Post 308.

The story goes like this. On November 22, 1948, at the mosque on Prince Albert Street in San Fernando, a nineteen-year-old young lady, Sister Zarina Yusuf Mohammed, suggested to her aunt, Mrs. Ameena Rahamut, that they form a women’s association. At the time, electricity bills needed to be paid for the masjid, and the women were asked to respond with a financial solution.

From that moment until now, seventy years later, the San Fernando Muslim Women’s Association (SMWA) has been active on just about every front imaginable; from outings to fundraisers, charity, bazaars, iftar dinners, religious education, primary schooling, fashion shows and improvements to the masjid itself.  And, Sister Zarina is still an Association member.

I was humbled to be in the room with these honorable and humble ladies who have nurtured a women’s group for three generations, created a social space through which women could exercise leadership and form strong networks, and had an impact both within and outside the Muslim community through their support to students and children, care for the ill and poor, and much more.

I have a special love for Caribbean Muslim women’s organisations. You meet these women, who run battered women’s shelters or quietly support feminist struggles or work in children’s rights, and come face to face with some of the most hands-on community organisers in the country.

Sometimes, I’m intimidated. These women are proper in a way I’m not. They seem indefatigable, raising whole families of children and running their community like a dynasty, when I’m exhausted just trying to get through the day. They’re effective in a way I dream to be, making an impact, year after year for decades, that crosses class differences.

I was at the SMWA’s seventieth anniversary celebrations, wondering why they invited me as a speaker, for surely my public activism hasn’t put me in the movement for respectability as much as it has for respect for women’s rights. The two are not the same, and may at times be at odds.

I found myself thinking about our probable political differences in relation to reproductive rights and justice, sexual and gender diversity, and gender roles and responsibilities. More importantly, I found myself thinking that despite these likely differences in our feminisms, there was far more than I ever realized I could learn from these women.

Muslim women’s organisations in Trinidad have a long and resilient history. They should. Aisha, third wife of the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him), born at the turn of the seventh century, delivered public speeches, became directly involved in war and even battles, and was considered a stateswoman, scholar, mufti, and judge.

In Trinidad, from the 1930s, Muslim women were delivering lectures to mixed audiences, becoming members of elected mosque boards and councils, holding meetings to develop women’s groups, and participating in debates regarding women’s equality.

From the 1950s, the Young Muslim Women’s Association, the San Juan Muslim Ladies Organisation, and the Islamic Ladies Social and Cultural Association also began to be established. Muslim women in both the TML and Nur-E-Islam mosques also have a history of pushback against partitions narrowing their space for prayer in the masjid, and ASJA women have challenged their exclusion from voting in organizational elections when they perceived their association or jamaat being a “boys’ club”.

An “understated stridency” (to use Patricia Mohammed’s words) is at work here, despite stereotypes of Muslim Indian women as more passive, and even more oppressed. As I was reminded on Sunday, these women are formidable and fierce, they are generous and giving, and deeply committed to correct ways of living that create greater common good.

As I listened to their awards for earliest membership, longest service, and contribution after contribution, including by several women who are national award winners, I found myself dreaming that if I could help build and sustain a Caribbean feminist movement for seventy years, as they have for the SMWA, patriarchy and its harms might just be run out of town.

These are women from whom we can learn about the last half century of Muslim Indian women’s associational history. There’s capacity, connection, wisdom and will of steel to observe up close. Brother Kalamazad Mohammed is also an encouragingly progressive imam.

“It was essential to motivate women…into empowering themselves”, says Sister Zarina in an interview, “We were born to help the less fortunate. We were certainly not created to only dwell within the walls of our homes…”.

Sign me up, I thought. Alhamdulillah. I want to be a part.

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Post 260.

You haven’t encountered gangster until you’ve met the Indo-Caribbean grannies of Toronto’s Jane and Finch area. Originally from locations such as Berbice, Wakenaam and Beterverwagting in Guyana, these wizened ladies helped to fill the audience at Thursday’s University of Toronto launch of the collection, Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought, which I co-edited with Guyanese scholar Lisa Outar.

In their sweaters and wool hats, their sharp gaze was nothing less than inquisitive and intimidating. They looked like is two good whack for any backchat, for belonging to the wrong kind of mafia, for dotishly playing gunman like you have nothing better to do, or for not knowing how to conduct yourself like a fearless and good-speaking beti when your family sacrifice to send you to school.

Especially when you edit a collection with a lofty word like ‘thought’ in the title, you have to be able to convince nanis and ajis, with more common sense and experience than you, why that book matters. That’s what we set out to do in an event less like an academic book launch, and more like a chutney fete. Not because there was rum and ‘Coolie Bai’, though there was roti and coolie boys, but because the gathering was community-centered, multiethnic, multigenerational, and joyfully inclusive of multiple expressions of sexualities.

There was the girl, just seven, dancing in garara and gold after women musicians played sitar and tabla, and while a young woman painted, because art and film give us language when words fail. There were bright, next generation students, confident, political and completing PhD theses. Now playing the role of mentors, were mothers with professional careers, able to be there because grandmothers were at home with our children. There were Indian women writers whose ideas provided a home, since the 1980s, for nurturing our thinking about Caribbean theory. In this choka, were feminist badjohns with their solidarities and their laughter, who teach with love across racial divides. Then, in the centre, were these matriarchs, representing their community organization and its challenges to immigrant experiences of violence and poverty.

So, why should the collection matter? It’s a jahahin bundle, crossing oceans with many inheritances knotted in its pages. Tucked within are the legacies of Indian women in the Caribbean, and all the ways that they and indentureship have transformed us all in the region. It’s a remembering of foremothers who wanted more and pursued better for themselves and those who came after. It’s a warm enfolding of douglas and other mixes who are just as Indian too. There are cuttings of everything from carnival freedoms to matikor celebrations, from trance spiritualities to poetry. Finally, it’s a package tied with the gold threads of feminist work to live without violence, inequality or hunger, and to live with respect for matriarchal leadership and power.

And, were we able to talk good and show that education might not alienate us from our cultural histories as much as empower us to remake their relevance anew? ‘Is how much fuh this book?’, shouted one granny, at question time. And another, later, “I getting one too?”

So, in this collection’s travels from Guyana to Trinidad to New York, this week’s encounter is with the elder women of Jane and Finch’s concrete suburbs, our toughest crowd yet, who we managed to convince that another book mattered.

They left with copies because they came up and asked after, knowing it was deserved, and we were too honoured and terrified to say no. Lisa and I just handed over books, forget their cost or sale. Despite our degrees, when facing steely-eyed, no-nonsense grannies, who could wield a bilna like a gangster, we default to betis who know you just keep quiet and do what you are told. Our jahajin bundle was an inheritance from them, and our book might be the rare kind in which they recognize themselves as knowledge-bearers, feeling warm pride amidst Toronto’s cold.

 

 

 

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.