Post 281.

For all its imperfections, the Guardian has been good to me. In 2012, Editor Judy Raymond offered to publish my diary about working motherhood. Since then, I’ve encountered many, mostly mothers, who were emboldened by someone writing about the quiet, isolated experiences and emotions that they have, but feared weren’t important or collective enough for public print.

Grandmothers have seemed to be my most regular readers. This often left me negotiating badass with good beti even while the radical example and words of older, wiser feminist foot soldiers, including those in hijab and those leading domestic worker unions, emboldened me.

I began in Features, yet my sense of citizenship often led my diary to political analysis and advocacy. Slowly, as Ziya grew, I had space to think about more than sleeplessness, breastfeeding, baby steps and birthdays. Like most women, including ones whose educational and occupational empowerment seems to set them to achieve everything women could want, I worried about being a good mother, making ends meet and managing my career. This continues, even with just one child, having had to live with the loss of not having more.

Yet, I rebelled, writing in 2014, “Some days you spend whole conversations on love and sex. Other days you connect ethically and emotionally with other women over delays in passing procurement legislation, the state failure and corruption that has allowed illegal quarrying, and the social and economic costs of badly planned urban development. When women resist because representation remains our right and responsibility, some days our diaries will say nothing about husbands or babies”.

Still, the column wasn’t not focused enough on governance, in the style of my long-time UWI mentor Prof Selwyn Ryan. Indeed, I was composing fictional creation-stories, delving into the deeply emotional art of Jabs such as Ronald and Sherry Alfred, and Fancy Indians like Rose and Lionel Jagessar, and still mulling over marriage, fatherhood, primary schooling, connection to nature, and love.

I thought hard about genre and experimented with writing. The form of a diary is so often associated with women’s private thoughts and feelings, held close and secret with a small symbolic lock. Bringing this genre into the public domain was a deliberate act against male-defined Op-Ed expectations which position the oil sector, the constitution and politics as the serious topics of the nation.

For most people, managing family life, feeling safe in their homes, and negotiating aspirations and disappointments matter most and are the most pressing issues in their lives. The diary moved from Features, taking these concerns with it, and challenging divisions between public and private, and their unequal value.

The form also built on historical examples of colonial logs, and journals such as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which I read as a graduate student, but with substance grounded in emancipatory, Caribbean feminist observations and Political Leader-less, worker and citizen people-power.

Readers wrote to me, wondering if I was a PMN, a UNC, a COP, a knife and fork Indian, too Indian, and too feminist. Amidst calling for an end to child marriage, programmes to end violence against women, and policies to protect women workers from sexual harassment, I wrote twenty columns in which lesbians were named as part of the nation and region, precisely because no one else would, because every woman matters, not just the ones that meet patriarchal expectations, and because these women, who were not allowed to exist in law, would here defiantly exist in public record as having the right to be.

I learned that to write a diary, which wrestles with life, love, rights and justice, is to risk repetitive, aggressive attack. I owe Editor Shelly Dass public thanks for skillfully stopping Kevin Baldeosingh from using the Guardian to legitimize his bizarre and obsessive stalking of me in the press, always to harm.

I’ve grown, as has Ziya, in these pages. I’ve learned to look around the landscape, appreciating all its heartfelt and difficult growing pains, like my own, in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Diary of a Mothering Worker departs from the Guardian, but will continue to walk good, gratefully carrying the lessons from Guardian and its readers’ years of nurturing wrapped in its jahajin bundle.

 

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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 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 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?

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 191.

Syed Abdul Aziz’s story intrigued me.

Not only because he was my great, great-grandfather, not only because he changed destinies in that crossing from Calcutta, but because he was known to have come from Afghanistan.

I was intrigued by how little is documented about Afghans who dissolved into the homogenous identity now known as Indo-Trinidadian, who nonetheless appeared with insistent counter-narratives amongst handed-down family lore in the Muslim community.

Who were these Afghans? Why did they come? What routes did they travel? How could we, as their descendants, tell a tale from the new world to challenge contemporary global stereotypes?

What was the significance of the fact that Aziz sent his daughter, Ayesha, my great grandmother, to school in the first decade of the century, raising her to be literate in Arabic, Urdu and English? What is the significance of her living, working and praying in her orhini, never in hijab?

This daughter of an Afghan born, Muslim leader in Trinidad could tell us about an authenticity and tradition different from modern fundamentalist versions. And, what would that mean for me, and for other family who long defined ourselves by this legacy?

As I traced Aziz’s steps, seeking proof in colonial documents, each finding led to more questions, and I began to think less of his migrations than of my own rollercoaster of emotions as the old photos I hoped to scour were in some unidentified location in the Princes Town Regional Corporation, or as I finally, in sha’allah, reached the knowledge trove I sought.

Euphorically, I sat in Maulaana Mustapha Kemal Hydal’s balcony, my insides fluttering in Freeport’s breeze as much as the photocopy he held of Aziz’s auto-biography, written in Urdu, more than possibly in Aziz’s own hand, and given to Kemal by his mother’s uncle, Aziz’s son Yusuf. In all my searching for any of Syed Abdul Aziz’s own possessions, finally, this single page.

It says that Aziz was born in the Hazara district in the ward of Mansehra in India, said Kemal, who translated the page himself.

I was aghast. The planned book project falling from my fingertips like crystal shattering.

Yet pieces that had made no sense immediately fit together, such as why Aziz’s indentureship record said he was from Lahore, and why he held a post in the British army, with a monthly pay of 14 rupees, meals and uniform, in the second Anglo-Afghan war.

The family is Husaini, extending through 30 recorded generations to the Prophet Mohammed, said that single page. They left the Arabian peninsula in 728 C.E., settling in what was then India and is now Pakistan.  No, said Kemal decisively, Aziz was not Afghan.

Marveling that one piece of paper could so dissemble my constructed sense of self, and wondering at how I spectacularly failed to anticipate this risk of journeying into the past, I struggled to accept that every reference I found, in books, on websites and in theses, all confirming the Afghan connection, was based on repetitive citations of an original misrepresentation. But, how could this be the first time we are hearing this, my mother skeptically asked, and why then did Ayesha herself talk about her father as Afghan?

Again, answers begetting questions.

That same day, as I was about to become more Indian than ever before, I learned that my father’s great grandfather, who came from Hyderbad, said his family was originally from Afghanistan. So too, an ancestor of my father’s mother.

Now wary of oral and published histories, even official records, I’m left with Afghan origins on all sides which I’ve no idea how to verify.

Could I be more Afghan than Syed Abdul Aziz himself? How ironic, even absurd. Such plot twists are not for the faint-hearted as I pursue this story’s final word.

*May 12, 1862 is Syed Abdul Aziz’s birthday, 153 years ago today.

Post 60.

The amazing thing about watching Ziya blossom is seeing the family features that she has inherited appear and disappear on her face. Some days, her eyebrows look exactly like my grandmother’s, some days a side-look makes her a little replica of her dad’s mother when she was younger. Her eyes sometimes seem to be like my moms and, at other times, like mine, which look like my dad’s. There’s more. Even in the womb, she had her dad’s profile, his chin, lips and nose and yet sometimes her lips seem astonishingly like mine for a girl that looks almost nothing like me. She’s got my great-grandmother’s ears and, when they stand next to each other, she looks exactly like a tiny version of Stone’s sister. In some lights, her skin colour blends seamlessly with mine and, in others, she’s a shade that exactly mimics that same aunt. One little body looking today like one family group and tomorrow like another, whose genes would locate them many thousands of miles from each other. Such a complex legacy, interwoven with the inheritance of more than three continents, reflected in one tiny face.

Afganistan, Africa, India, Europe and who knows where else are all hers to call her own. Her ancestors crossed a multitude of waters, from all kinds of positions of power, and in a country like Trinidad and Tobago, she doesn’t have to choose. My great-grandfather, Abdul Aziz came from Afganistan in 1883. Stone has African as well as European bloods brought together through the conflicts and consummations that were part of colonisation in the Caribbean. The rest of my family came, through indentureship, from India and it’s in Trinidad that they came to identify as Indian, with all its contemporary, local and politicised meanings. My family has long been Muslim, Stone’s Christian and I have a feeling that Zi is going to be an inventor of her own traditions.

She has neither of our names. She has both. I wanted anyone anywhere to know she’s from someplace where the currents of many dark oceans cross – and her mom was a feminist and her dad supported an idea he knew was important. Stone thought that Hosein-Livingstone was too long for your typical form, but Ziya’s ancestors all travelled on long, long voyages. Those seventeen letters and that hypen are hardly enough stepping-stones to trace back the paths that led to who she is today. If forms don’t provide enough space, well, she’ll just have to continue writing her story in the spaces outside of the boxes and in the margins of the page.

Because I spend the majority of the days of the week at work, I come home in the evenings and sometimes think that Zi’s face has completely changed. I notice the little shifts like seeing a seedling sprout in stop motion. Recently, I visited Zi’s great-grandmother for her 89th birthday, and for the first time the four generations were together. I wished then I could connect her tendrils to the twisting vines of every one of her ancestors, just so she could trace the stories, experiences, knowledge and selves that spring to life as she grows into a unique embodiment of our world.