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?

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Post 183.

Ziya's first Phagwa

Ziya’s first Phagwa. Photo: Nadia Huggins

For years I stopped attending Phagwa celebrations, finding my own experience too full of male aggression for me to want to return. Some, though not all, young men seemed to find an excuse to touch women in ways that they, not the women, decided was ‘fun’, in ways they were unlikely to touch men they don’t know, and in ways that race, religion, tradition or culture seemed to justify as their right, even if it was unwanted.

Unwanted touching for any reason by anyone determines that line between what is acceptable and what is harassment and violence. Males could gleefully romp with their bredren, even grab other men they didn’t know in the same way or to the same extent, but I wasn’t comfortable with masculine norms setting the rules of consent regarding my body.

This, in a society where women, like 34-year-old Jessica Brereton, can’t consent to leave relationships without being harmed, where Magella Moreau and I stood covered in Phagwa’s jubilant yellows and pinks, remembering how consent was denied to Marcia Henville.

This, in a society where hundreds of girls are sexually abused yearly, many within Indian families whose preference for silence over shame teaches girls to live without a right to consent. This, in a society, where we are so undecided about the terms of consent that adult male sex with a fourteen or twelve year old girl constitutes rape unless it is legalized under common law or the Hindu or Muslim marriage acts. This, in a society where no sexual harassment legislation exists to protect women workers’ consent.

I was done with wondering each Phagwa how many men would try to clamp their hands completely over my mouth and eyes. And, as much as women also filled their pichakarees and flung bagfuls of abeer at friends and strangers, none ever left me choking on mouthfuls of powder, desperately trying to stop my eyes from burning or angry that ‘no’, ‘don’t’ or ‘stop’ meant little.

I always wondered why no cultural organisers or religious elders used their microphone to say, listen, those colours are ceremonial gifts, not a threat, and this is a community space where women should feel asked and respected, not attacked or manhandled.

Yes, you can’t play mas and fraid powder, but I wasn’t afraid of the soaking or powder. And I’m a woman who has played many jouvays without anyone’s protection, enjoying a rite where the hands of men and women, including those I didn’t know, left me oil black and devil blue, and without feelings of violation.

I returned to Phagwa on Sunday, not at the Divali Nagar, but this time at the Hindu Prachar Kendra’s celebration in Cunupia, so that Ziya could experience Holi for herself, with her godmother, dad, and friendly children she knew.

It was beautiful. A living canvas undulating over rhythms and melodies of pichakaree singing. Collective art more valuable than anything on museum walls. Men and women, whose names I’d never know, playfully hand painting our clothes, arms and faces. We left, dusty and damp swirls of orange, purple and green, just as mixed circles began joyfully dancing.

I mostly kept Zi with me, because it made her feel safer and because I knew I’d be less of a target with her in my arms, but I know women there who had the same experience I never grew used to.

You learn how to try to stay safe, as all women have to, or to devalue your needs because there appears nothing you can do. Holi could provide one community where we don’t encounter such lessons too.