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Defining post-indentureship feminism
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 then 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 feminine enough.
But, this ideal figure is a mythical one—drawn from emphasising 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 were imperfect, yet resilient, resourceful and determined survivors who changed lives, families and communities. They were the kind of women in whom today’s generation could 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 absolutely 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, strategising, learning, labouring and organising 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 the stories of Indian women from indentureship to present, young women now have 150 years of 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.
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