Friday, April 21, 2006
Indian Women of Guyana
Indian Women of Guyana
reflections of their existence, survival and representation
By Janet A. Naidu
How shall the wealth and power and glory
of a nation be founded
save on the immutable honour of its womanhood?
– Sarojini Naidu
Indian Nationalist and Poet
One of the major consequences of British colonization and imperial oppression of Indians in the Caribbean is the deprivation and erosion of their cultural and social heritage. After slavery was abolished, British sugar cane planters brought 238,909 Indians to Guyana between 1838 and 1917 to work on the sugar plantations. These indentured Indians came with their languages, religions and other cultural practices, and retained their customs, but this was primarily because of their residential segregation on the sugar plantations where they were allowed to eat their own food with spices brought from India, maintain marriage customs and religious practices. Their survival spans many decades of great hardships during the periods of indenture, post-indenture and post-independence.
Although Indians have contributed significantly to Guyana’s economic and social development, they continue to struggle for their heritage survival and national representation. Most importantly, Indian women have been relegated to subordinate positions as their presence continues to be limited in the social and political fabric of Guyana. Both men and women suffered tremendously at the hands of the colonizers, but Indian women suffered doubly in the patriarchal society.
This article examines the existence, survival and representation of Indian women of Guyana, but specifically provides some insights into their existence and survival during the indenture, post-indenture and post-independence periods, not only as a unique group to the region, but also their placement within the larger community.
May 5, 2004 marks 166 years since Indians crossed the kala pani1 and arrived in Guyana. On a 5-year contract as ‘Indentured Laborers’ with the condition of a free return passage to India upon completion of their contract, they were transported to various sugar plantations. Those who came after 1862 had to pay their own expenses; otherwise, they were forced to be re-indentured for another 5 years for a free return passage, making it 10 years under contract. In this way the British colonizers kept a tight leash on Indians. To understand their great suffering in a foreign place, far away from India, it is essential to understand that British planters turned to India to revive the failing sugar plantation economy, after previous attempts with indentured laborers from other countries. The first arrivals in 1838 on the sailing ships, Hesperus and Whitby, numbered 396 of whom only 22 were women. The only reason that immigration agents subsequently secured more women was because sugar cane planters established certain quotas of laborers to meet their economic gains. Therefore, they encouraged depot marriages to increase laborers and yet maintain low expenses.
While immigration increased and quotas were established, women were still disproportionately represented with a ratio of 35 women to 100 men and 50 to 100 in 1860. The indenture system facilitated this gross disparity. Even as late as 1890, the proportion of women to men declined to 41 women for every 100 men. Although repeated requests were made to colonial immigration agents for more women, the disparity of female indentured laborers remained throughout the indenture period. The planters viewed women as ‘uneconomical’ and recruiters were not encouraged to meet the recommended quotas; few Indian men wanted to bring their wives as they intended to return to India. As a result, the disproportion of the sexes created a social problem for men and women on the estates. They were not only “exposed to planter tyranny and neglect, but they also suffered from the serious disproportion in the sex ratio which produced considerable tension.” Planters abused their position of authority and engaged in sexual relationships with Indian women, and in most cases, another man’s wife, without recourse.
With the disproportion of men and women, morality became an issue as some women were depicted as being unfaithful. As a consequence an alarming number of murders occurred where, for example, during the period “1859-1864, some 23 murders of Indian women by their husbands or reputed husbands were recorded.” Murders continued into the 1920s and barbaric acts were committed by the use of a hoe or a cutlass. Although some women came with their husbands, Rhoda Reddock revealed that about two-thirds were single, and that “the majority of Indian women came to the Caribbean not as wives or daughters but as individual women.” For example, when Annapurani came on the ship, Ganges, in 1915, almost all of the few women who came were single and between the ages of 18 and 25 Indian women were not only placed in a minority position,requiring protection against a dominant male culture, but they were also subject to “sexual abuse by drivers, overseers and other estate personnel.”
In 1896, a sexual relationship between Jamni, an Indian woman, and the deputy manager at plantation Non Pariel caused orders to be given to the police who shot and killed five Indian men, including her husband, Jungli, as well as injuring 59 men who protested. Earlier in 1871, a Royal Commission Report stated that it was not “uncommon for overseers, and even managers, to form temporary connections with Coolie women, and in every case with the worst possible consequences to the good order and harmony of the estate.” The brutality against Indian women was taken lightly by colonial powers as they viewed such exploitative relations as having greater impact on the stability of the estate than on families.
While Indian men suffered because of the scarcity of women and were even killed as a result of British overseers’ sexual exploitation of women, Indian women suffered even more, not only by British overseers on the estates but also by their husbands at home. The scarcity also led to the perpetuation of child marriage, with many young women forced to have older husbands and this, in some cases, leading to domestic violence and murder of women. In 1896, 11-year old Etwarea’s marriage was arranged by her parents to the wealthy Seecharan, age 50, who paid her parents “a cow and calf and $50 and made a Will leaving his property to his wife.” He later suspected her at around age 16 of being unfaithful and ‘sharpened his cutlass and completely severed [her] right arm’ after which she died. By perpetuating their ancestral custom of ‘child marriage’ (with the legal marriage age set at 13 years for girls and 15 years for boys) young girls became housewives and were subject to their husbands’ commands.
Even though in 1900 the gender ratio was 62 women to 100 men, there is no written data to suggest that the shortage of women was a main factor for the abuse and murder of Indian women. But it is highly suggestive that the exploitation of men by their colonial master caused some men to function as the patriarchal authority in the home where a new dimension of sexism developed. Humiliation and self-degradation contributed to their low self-esteem and they began to harm their wives and children, the people closest to them.
Daily harsh treatment under colonial rule caused many Indian men to drink rum after a hard day’s work. Then they would go home in frustration and behaved cruelly with their wives and children. This was very common and hence, the stereotypical ‘wife beater’ image attached to the Indian male. On the other hand, gender identities were shaped by Indian values as depicted in Indian religious texts.
The role of women such as ‘Sita’ of the Ramayana and ‘Radha’ of the Mahabarata were portrayed as the pure and ideal wife and these representations continued to influence gender relationship expectations between men and women (at least among the Hindus). During the periods of indentureship and post-indentureship, many Indian women and men maintained the ideals of a good wife and a devoted husband particularly embodying the roles of Rama and Sita in the Ramayana. However, the displacement of Indians in a western environment created some difficulties for men and women to maintain their ancestral heritage in gender identities. As Patricia Mohammad argues, Hindu symbolisms act as a strong influence in “the construction of masculinity and femininity among Indians,” where the women had to ‘prove’ their virtue repeatedly. Women who resisted or were accused of violating the oppressive patriarchal structures within Indian family structure were abused or even murdered. Among the women killed in this early period were “Anundai, Baumee, Goirapa and Saukalia, for allegedly deserting their husbands.”
Although the gross disparity of women created the conditions for sexual exploitation, it also served to strengthen their resistance movements throughout the indenture period. The importation of Indian females served as a stabilizing force on the predominantly male plantation workers. However, in spite of efforts to bring more women, “sexual immorality, polyandry, and bride purchase [thus] continued, providing the Indian nationalist movement [in India] with a powerful weapon against the continuation of the system.”
Perceptions of Feminine Image
Feminine images also impacted upon the perception of women as generated over the years by western and Creole ideology. As Indians in the Caribbean were adapting to western and Creole culture, they also struggled to maintain their own customs. Within this context, Indian women’s development contrasted against Indian role expectations of their ancient texts, where changing values were their greatest challenge in the Caribbean region.
Although Indians make up more than half of Guyana’s population, Indian women continue to fulfill traditional roles of wife, mother and homemaker. As Ramabai Espinet states, women “have to fight doubly hard to even begin to find the ground for emergence” and that they must face this battle “in isolation from support of the males in their domestic sphere, as well as in that isolation from each other that patriarchal societies have always been careful to construct.” Espinet claims (arguably) that the "ohrni" or the "chador" was an instrument of isolation and that the ohrni shields the chaste wife or daughter from the gaze of the outsider as well as her mate, making the woman as an unseen being.
Ramabai Espinet writes that Indian men are “conditioned to not really ‘see’ the Indian Woman” and to interact with her, but that she exists in his imagination “in a framework which is static, already defined, and to which numerous rituals are attached. The place of Indian women in society is enacted through the mechanism of this existing framework.” However, this perception is contrary to Indian customary attire where wearing the ‘ohrni’ depicts the woman as honorable or religious. The ‘ohrni’ was not a traditional Indian garment, but a modified version of the ‘sari’ where the ‘dupata’ was used to cover a woman’s head and face. (Similarly, Christian women of the Catholic or other denominations wear traditional headwear for religious reasons.) Indian women in the Caribbean continue to wear the ‘ohrni’ to religious and social functions.
Indians recognize a marriage celebrated with “due publicity and performed according to established rights and customs legal, whether registered or not.”26 This was a carryover from their Indian heritage as practiced in India where in the 1880s, over “93% of the Hindu population were listed as married before reaching the age of 14.” Even though a marriage may occur when the girl may be age 10, she was not sent to her husband’s home until puberty. While this early marriage law allowed Indians to continue their practice, thereby restricting and preventing their possibilities for education, it also satisfied the plantocracy to secure an additional labor supply for its economic gains. In many instances, parents also needed their children to help with their work on the plantation.
Unlike Christian marriages, colonial authorities did not recognize Hindu and Muslim marriages and thus, they were not legalized. Not only were children labeled as ‘illegitimate’ and further displaced by British imperial rule, but also women were unrecognized by the Government as not having any rights. If their husbands died without a Will and left any asset, even if they had only a few cows, the government did not recognize the widow and children as beneficiaries. Although Indians endured a series of tests before they received a marriage certificate, their marriage was not recognized by the colonial authorities until the period between 1957 and 1961 when Cheddi Jagan as Premier pushed for official recognition of marriages by a Hindu Priest or Muslim Moulvi.
Elimination of Caste
In the Caribbean, Indian adherence to Hindu caste system became diminished as there were only a few of the different castes compared to India. The majority of Indians to Guyana between 1868 and 1917 were identified as agricultural castes and low castes, with a small number of Brahmins and other high castes. Many bonded with each other of different castes while traveling as ‘jihajis’ on the ships and remained friends upon their arrival in Guyana. Women found the caste system restrictive and “since there was a shortage of females in the colonies, especially upper caste women, it became impossible to maintain upper caste endogamy.” However, as Moses Seenarine aptly states, ‘varna [color] has replaced caste, and although there is no strict correlation between occupation and caste [in Guyana], Brahmins are an important exception. Hindus in the diaspora do claim a caste or varna identity.” Families would seek brides who were ‘light color’ for their sons. Generally, the reduction of the caste system helped men and women to overcome prejudices and barriers of casteism and subsequently helped to reduce the oppression among Indians and bring them together as a distinct group within a multi-racial environment.
The gradual elimination of the caste system allowed Indians to unite as ‘Indians’, not as ‘Hindu’, ‘Christian’ or ‘Muslim’. However, many still practiced ‘caste’ in their treatment of each other. The slow change in caste identity was also observed in the way Indians referred to the caste Chamar when derogating a person. While the ‘caste’ categories were eventually (but not fully) eliminated, new terminologies such as ‘high nation’ and ‘low nation’ were established to distinguish caste.
Women on Sugar Estates
Indians lived in logies with poor sanitary conditions throughout the indenture period. Further, they were obligated to toe the line while working on the estates as Planters insisted that workers “complete the stated five tasks per week or their pay was docked,” a form of exploitation that women were also subjected to. Children and young women worked on sugar plantations in the ‘weeding gang’ and later in the ‘task gang’ or ‘creole gang’, earning poor wages. Even at the height of their pregnancies, women were expected to maintain planters’ expectations:
In the late 1940s women would leave their babies at the Estate creche and go to work in the fields. They would also carry their babies in the fields, until an older child was able to stay home and look after the younger sibling. Beyond this, sugar planters imposed harsh working conditions on laborers, so that many strikes (riots) occurred. Labor unrests were often as a result of workers’ protests against mistreatment of estate workers, especially since the first riots on estates broke out in 1869.
“Indian women’s reproductive and productive role to which they were so accustomed in India was not seen as important in Guyana…. Illness and even pregnancy did not guarantee lighter tasks. Indeed, many Indian women worked in the sugar plantations late in their pregnancy, a
phenomenon that still exists, although not necessarily on the sugar plantations but in the wet-land rice fields in rural Guyana.”
Women also participated in protests against planters’ mistreatment of workers on sugar estates. In 1903, at Plantation Friends in Berbice an indentured woman, Salamea, urged Indians to fight against the plights of indenture. Moreover, after indenture ended in 1917, while Indian women continued to protest as they struggled for justice, they also became victims of the planters’ oppressive practices on the sugar estates. In 1964, Kowsilla, at age 44 and mother of 4, was “mowed down by a tractor [at Leonora sugar estate]. She became another martyr of the Guyanese working people movement.” Her death on May 6 is remembered for a woman who stood up bravely against a system of exploitation and oppression as during 1964 especially, many suffered during the sugar workers’ strike. Few such experiences and forms of resistance were recorded against planter oppression.
Prior to the 1950’s, many Indians did not send their children to school. Several factors – education combined with Christian indoctrination, schools predominantly in urban centers (mainly Georgetown and New Amsterdam), children employed under age 12 and girls could marry at 13 – contributed to 80% not attending school in 1901 and still 71% not attending in 1923.41 No Indian women organization emerged to address this problem.
However, while those in existence, such as the British Guiana Dramatic Society in the 1930s worked to develop cultural and social activities, women in organizations worked with their husbands who served on religious, cultural and social organizations to push for girls’ education. Under the direction of Alice Singh and N. Ghose, an Indian national, they held activities in Georgetown, staging the play 'The Maharani of Arakhan' in 1936, held dances, lectures and Hindi lessons for its members. However, these activities were limited to the social circle in Georgetown. (Later in 1936, Alice Singh founded the Balak Sahaita-Mandalee, a voluntary child-welfare society, which was belatedly recognized by the Indian middle-class for its work on the “desperate.)
It was not until the 1920s, organizations such as the Hindu Society, British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA) and British Guiana East Indian Institute advocated for the education of Indian girls. The deprivation of girls’ education also occurred within the multi-ethnic and coeducational public school environment which was dominated mostly by Christian male teachers. Indian girls were also alienated around issues of Indian religion, language and culture. Undoubtedly, Indian women were oppressed as they were denied the right to educational opportunities.
While the majority of Indians maintained their religion, the indoctrination of Indians into Christianity served to help them become more ‘western’. According to the 1931 Census, out of the Indian population of 124,000 (nearly 50% of the total population), 1,958 were Roman Catholics and 3,465 Anglicans.
Indian families were strongly involved in keeping up their cultural and religious practices and were against sending their children to be educated in Christian schools and to be Christianized. The schools did not teach Hindi or Arabic. In 1904, an order was passed (which remained in force until 1933), that no pressure should be placed on Indian parents who wished to keep their daughters at home and not send to school. Also, co-ed meant that girls would have to sit near boys; their parents would not tolerate this type of mixing and subject their daughters to possible relationship. Still, the colonial government actively connived at denying Indian girls an education. In 1925, only 25% of Indian children in primary schools were girls. In 1929, Subadri Lall was the first to qualify for exemption from the Matriculation to attend the University of London, establishing a unique record for local girls. In the 1950s, attitudes to education for girls had changed sharply within the Indian community as attempts were made to catch up with other sections of the population. Iris Sookdeo became the first and youngest woman to achieve a Doctor of Philosophy (Sociology) at the University of Sussex in the 1969.
Nevertheless, access to the limited educational opportunities did provide some girls with new options during the late period of indenture and schooling began to have a much more positive influence in the lives of many women after the mid-1930s. During the 1930s, Indian enrolment in primary schools had increased by 50%, but these would have comprised mostly of boys since girls were being groomed for marriage. However, despite these changes, educated women’s access to formal employment and equal status were severely limited by colonial and post-colonial policies that were patriarchal in structure.
While many Indian women, especially among the working poor, had not attended school, they were working to maintain their families and to send their children to school. Thus, these women contributed significantly to their household and community, especially as ‘financial managers’, developing ways to improve their economic position. These included planting their backyard with greens, raising chickens, goats, sheep, looking after their cows, selling milk, and buying and selling produce. Some also managed little shops in the villages and assisted in their husbands’ businesses, such as the tailor-shops and grocery shops. In the early 1930s and 1940s, Indian women preserved domestic life by participating in ‘throwing box hands’ to save money for their children’s education or marriage and, in some cases, they would ‘pawn’ their jewelry to obtain sufficient funds. In spite of the tremendous responsibilities they had to shoulder, their strength sustained the home greatly. Without birth control, many Indian women had large families, some having between 6 to 10 children or more, and therefore had to find ways to increase the family income to support a large family. In spite of the denial of education, Indian women performed a wide range of jobs such as selling cow’s milk, selling greens in the village and market or working in the rice or cane fields to sustain their families. During the post-indenture period, some families whose daughters received a better education were able to access other occupations. It was not until the 1950s that some Indian women were able to access employment within the commercial industry as noted when Barclay’s Bank employed the first three Indian women as ‘Tellers’.
Post-Indenture and Post-Independence
In the early part of the twentieth century, women on the whole were relegated to the home, apart from those who were out working to help their families. The majority of Indian women worked and resided in the rural areas and often were the primary organizers of social customs. Undoubtedly, the retention of Indian culture was owed “much to these industrious, resilient women on the plantations and in the villages while at the same time exerting much energy on their many children.” Because of their direct involvement in preparations religious and social functions such as pujas, jhandis, weddings, Eid, Diwali and other social customs, they formed a strong foundation for their cultural retention. Mothers not only organized elaborate functions, but their daughters also were completely involved in the arrangements for social activities. Many of these women were not part of an established organization with leadership opportunities, but they formed the pulse of the nation’s cultural development and progression. Further, not only was it a social taboo for Indian women to join social organizations and carry the banners but also they received little or no respect.
However, a small group of middle-class Indian women in the urban areas were beginning to participate in public circles. In fact, after indentureship, in the 1920s they were contributing to the “visible Hindu and Muslim culture festival” especially in Georgetown and New Amsterdam where they provided forms of entertainment, but primarily associated with religious functions.
One of the first known women to demonstrate resistance against the injustices of colonialism was Esther Saywack Mahadeo (born in 1872) who was widowed at the age of 28 with 4 children. Having inherited a small shop, she refused her parents’ offer to return home. Instead, she became one of the leading merchants in New Amsterdam. As a young girl, she learned business skills while her father went to work selling oil on a donkey cart. With determination, she looked after her children and never remarried. She became very involved in the business and community, and became the first woman President of the Berbice Chamber of Commerce. Recognizing the injustices against plantation workers, she took a petition, signed by hundreds, to the Governor in Georgetown, protesting the shooting of innocent workers who participated in a riot at Plantation Rosehall, Canje where Indians were shot and some killed in 1913. At this time, it was unthinkable for a woman to have done this, especially an Indian woman and a widow. She died in 1948, leaving a legacy of an Indian woman’s early voice against oppression. She took part in social work and was the first woman President of the Berbice Turf Club. To have achieved this singular position in this time in a colonial environment showed a tremendous clout, resilience and courage.
Social and Cultural Organizations
Alice Bhagwandai Singh, born in Suriname and married to Dr. J. B. Singh, (a former President of the British Guiana East Indian Association – BGEIA) directed several plays directed several of the plays produced by the British Guiana Dramatic Society of which she was President. In June 1927, she founded the East Indian Ladies’ Guild which emerged about 10 years after the BGEIA and which functioned primarily in a social, cultural and religious capacity representing Indian concerns. As President of the Ladies’ Guild, she and other women organized and promoted cultural events. In April 1929, they produced the play 'Savitri' based taken from the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. Her husband, Dr. J.B. Singh played Satyavan and Miss I. Beharry Lall played Savitri.
Later in 1936, Alice moved towards a greater role in terms of reaching out to the poor. She founded the Balak Sahaita-Mandalee, a voluntary child-welfare society, which belatedly recognized by the Indian middle-class for its work addressing the “desperate poverty on the estates.” It was a time when few Indian women would have been accepted in the public and in contrast to many women in the country-side, most women in the middle class and in Georgetown were supported by their husbands and othe male associates to participate in organizations.
History has not justly recorded many leading women in the countryside who were already active in their communities. Many of them were the backbone of Indian cultural retention by their everyday life in arranging religious ceremonies, such as jhandis, preparation of food, organizing weddings, singing bhajans and many other activities. Although one can point to organizations in Georgetown where the middle class and elite helped to keep a momentum of Indian national consciousness, it was really the Indian women in the villages who carried on the cultural traditions of their ancestors. Jeremy Poynting states that Alice Singh and her colleagues acted in a “self-liberating way what they thought was the best of Western culture, linked always to a strong sense of pride in their distinct cultural identity.” In this context it appears the westernization of Indian cultural identity was to appease the Anglo-Saxon taste, and as this did not spread nationally.
One daring young girl left her foster home at Aurora Village, Essequibo, at age 13 and traveled to Georgetown with the hope of staying with her aunt. By dint of fate she began a singing career and later acting in the 1930’s. She performed throughout Guyana, in Suriname, Trinidad and Venezuela, and became the “Indian version of the famed Madame O’Lindy”. Her name is Pita Pyaree, now 86 years old. (Story in Guyana Chronicle 01/21/2002)
During the indenture period, while women worked primarily on the sugar plantations and generally looked after the domestic affairs, including arranging their children’s marriages, they actively participated in religious practices and cultural celebrations such as Diwali, Kali Mai Puja, Eid and Rama Navami, which became very popular after the end of indenture.
Indians resisted colonial oppression and were allowed to maintain their ancestral religious practices through the establishment of Hindu Mandirs and Muslim Mosques – with 2 Hindu Temples in 1870 and progressing to 50 Mosques and 52 Temples in the 1920s.
Although Indian women were part of Guyana’s Indian cultural celebrations, either through the temple, at home or in the villages, celebrating Indian festivals, they did not participate in political affairs as they were still immersed in a life deeply rooted in traditional Indian (albeit predominantly Hindu) culture. Unlike African educated women who were nurtured by Christianity in bringing them into organizations such as the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the Presbyterian Berbice Girls High School, Indian women did not benefit from their Hindu and Muslim religious organizations in this regard, but, given the patriarchal culture, they contributed their time to help their husbands or other men to lead religious organizations. They mostly fulfilled the roles of ‘wives’ of religious and community leaders, which restricted them to meal preparation, childcare and home responsibilities, and also worked in the fields, the market and other ‘servant’ jobs in the estate managers’ homes.
Today even though many Indian women are now educated and have moved up in the social, political and religious organizations, they are still marginalized. In some cases, many educated Indian women who are capable of becoming leaders continue to be restricted. While it can be argued that, in earlier times, many women suffered from a form of subservience which was reinforced by religious patriarchal indoctrination and other social demarcations, one can recognize that there is still a long road ahead for women to access higher leadership in such areas are unions and politics.
The fact that very few Indian women have emerged in the Caribbean in the literary and artistic field is not surprising. Perhaps this is attributed to their oppression socially, culturally and politically.
Some Guyanese Indian women have contributed to poetry and journalistic writings, but very few, if any, have produced a novel. Unlike Trinidad and Tobago with Shani Mootoo, Laxshmi Persaud and Ramabai Espinet, Indian women of Guyana have not been provided with the freedom and opportunity to develop their literary talents. No organization was established to help the wider population explore their talent that will be recognized nationally.
Although Jeremy Poynting states, “several male Indo-Caribbean writers are enabled to write full-time because they are supported by their wives, but there are not, one suspects many males who look after their children to give their wives the same opportunity,” it is likely that the oppressive environment contributed to the ‘silence’ of many Indian women.
In relatively recent times few women writers emerged, notably Rajkumari Singh and Mahadai Das whose poetry reflects themes of pain, oppression and gender assertion. Rajkurmari Singh, a one-time Indian radio announcer at the Demerara Radio Station, wrote the play Jitangali and published A Garland of Stories in 1960. She was instrumental in staging plays at the Theatre Guild. With her mother, Alice Singh, and her father, Dr. J.B. Singh, who were among other leading advocates of promoting Indian culture in the 1920s and who were part of the Indian upper middle class (Hindu and Muslims), religious and cultural institutions to help Indians retain their ancestral heritage, Rajkumari Singh was greatly influenced in the arts. Like her mother, she pursued the arts and probably became the first Indian woman in Guyana to explore local talents. From the early 1970s, she contributed to the cultural life of Guyana, as a radio announcer of Indian program, a poet, dramatist and editor of a literary booklet Heritage. In the Messenger Group she mentored younger artists, stage performers, writers and poets, such as Gora Singh, Mahadai Das, Rooplall Monar and others during the early 70s. Many of them would gather at Rajkumari Singh's home for guidance and inspiration, holding long discussions. Both Rajkumari Singh and Mahadai Das were amongst the first published Indian women poets of Guyana.
It appears that their entry into the oppressive and exploitative Guyana National Service (GNS) in the early 70s led to the stagnation of their talent in Guyana. While a student at the University of Guyana, Mahadai Das joined the GNS. She subsequently studied in the US but due to illness had to return to Guyana. Unfortunately, her creative talent was completely obstructed as her illness took a great toll in her life for many years. Although Mahadai Das’ poems were published in England, her books were hardly honored in Guyana. Her books, I want to be a Poetess of my People (1976), My Finer Steel will Grow (1982) and Bones (1988) are still unknown to many in the Caribbean literary circle. In later years, Laxhmi Kallicharan, a leading figure in the reconstruction and preservation of Indian heritage, wrote poetry, and acted as a public voice for women’s identity, and helped organize for the Indian Arrival historical site. She helped edited They came in ships, an anthology of Indo-Guyanese writing.
While one may be wary of Rajkumari Singh’s acceptance of the position as Coordinator of Culture in the PNC government sponsored Guyana National Service (GNS) institution, it is believed that she had strongly pushed for Indian cultural heritage to be promoted within GNS. However, it seemed that the PNC regime did not give much support to Indian consciousness. Undoubtedly, her struggles must have endured many trials. Rajkumari Singh was an activist and became involved in the PPP in the 1960s and was appointed to the Commission that investigated the Wismar brutality against Indians, particularly girls and women. The PNC not the PPP regimes have not satisfied the public with the investigative findings and, to this day, little is known about the details of this tragedy.
Many people have criticized, ridiculed, labeled and scandalized Rajkumari Singh’s efforts in Guyana’s cultural formation in GNS, particularly Indians who felt she betrayed them by working with the PNC. They view her role not as an act to promote Indian culture, but to support the PNC regime which did not support Indian culture. With the dissolution of the GNS, there was no preservation of Indian culture and no legacy of efforts at GNS. But this does not discount Rajkumari Singh’s efforts, particularly since she attempted to use this opportunity to ensure that Indian culture was included in Guyana’s cultural identity. For a woman who was stricken by polio at age 5, Rajkumari Singh worked tirelessly to bring Indian cultural heritage to the fore and as such, her role in Guyana’s Indian cultural heritage retention should be remembered. However, although very few authors have emerged in poetry and plays, none has published a novel of experience and survival of Indian women of Guyana during the periods of post-indenture and post-independence. It was only until recently, scholars have produced some work. Professor, artist and writer, Arnold Itwaru examined the Indian woman’s strength and resistance in her plantation world in his novel, Shanti. Sasenarine Persaud’s Dear Death touches upon a mother’s relationship with her son and in recent times, and refreshingly, Professor Moses Seenarine has written extensively and produced a doctoral thesis on the indentured woman’s experience in Guyana. His comprehensive research and scholarly work invites new insights into the Indo-Guyanese female experience.
Although a number of Indian women in the rural areas might have had limited education or were even uneducated at the time, they knew their cultural activities and values to heart. Yet, the middle class who were predominantly in the city core did not fully reach out to the working class Indians and this may be due to the ‘class’ consciousness imposed by the European colonial influence. However, the middle class Indians were instrumental in maintaining some cultural awareness through the establishment or Indian cultural organizations, including the establishment of the Maha Sabha.
Indo-Caribbean women’s writing is still sparse. Guyanese Indian women writers are few and have emerged at a slow pace. As Ramabai Espinet states, “the silence of the Indo-Caribbean woman needs much fuller investigation.” Further, much more investigation is need in the areas of Indian women as professionals – teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers, scientists, technologists, professors, civil servants.
Indian Cultural Retention
The British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA) was instrumental in promoting Indian culture. Its elected all-male representation was common of the times. It served to bring Indian women into a public forum through the production of plays and other cultural activities.
Yet, by 1967, the powerful and European-oriented National History and Arts Council began to omit Indian culture from the national identity. They sought only to promote Indian culture through frivolous depictions of having young Indian girls dancing with sexual gyrations. By 1969, Indian artists in general either went underground or left the country. Musicians such as Sonny Deen, Ramdhanie, Tilak, Latiff, Sumiran, Gobin Ram, Ramakrishna and many others were easily forgotten.
In the 1960's during the Indian Immigration Celebrations in Guyana, Cheddi Jagan and the PPP were accused of showing no interest in Indian cultural awareness in spite of its annual commemoration, but many did not realize that Cheddi Jagan was fighting against a class-conscious British colonial order as well as fighting against Burnham’s PNC African consciousness movement. He did not want to create a segregationist objective and, in his push for unity of all, there were misunderstandings that he did not demonstrate an ‘Indian’ consciousness. Yet, he was one of the few bold Indians who courageously “fought almost single-handedly against the oppression of the working poor, the majority of whom were Indians, in the local legislature against foreign rule.” Although he formed the PPP political party in the early 1950 together with a few others, and became the leader, during this period, very few Indian women were in any position of public recognition. However, Indian women joined the later formed the Women Progressive Organization (WPO), an arm of the PPP which was led by Janet Jagan and included Winifred Gaskin and Frances Stafford61 to address women’s concerns. However, there were no Indian women in their circle. Indian women did not emerge in leadership role in a political party, as they were culturally and socially groomed to fulfill a gender constructed role. Women in Georgetown or those among the upper-middle class were homemakers or businessmen’s wives and did not participate in political activities, but maintained business relations in social circles.
Although the PPP was elected in 1953 and 1961, they were robbed in 1964 by a US-UK influence and the PNC formed the Government.62 Out of being left on the sidelines, some Indians joined the PNC in the late 70s and 80’s, as well as the Working People’s Allisance (WPA). There are allegations by people who speak quietly that Indians girls were raped in National Service but there have been no investigation or report of disclosure. In spite of the participation of women in National Service, and the military training they received, none emerged in political activism. It is only fitting to observe that both Black and Indian women suffered in what many note was a very bad decision by the PNC regime.
Many Indians opposed the PNC’s introduction of the compulsory Guyana National Service in 1973. When the lists for compulsory induction were published at the University of Guyana they contained “53 Indo-Guyanese of the 63 persons listed, and that of the 25 women listed, 90% were Indian. This meant only one thing to the majority of Indians. Many Indian girls were reported to have dropped their university applications.”
In exploring the area of national representation, while Indians were marginalized during indentureship, Indian women were not seen in public organizations advancing the cause of independence in the 1950s. Even among the middle class, they were still functioning as wives or political agitators or were restricted to religious and social responsibilities. Thus when the International Commission of Jurists investigated racial imbalances in the public services they found Indians seriously under-represented. The report recorded, but did not comment on, the even more dramatic under-representation of Indian women. For instance, “at a time when Indians were 50% of the population, in 1965, Indian women comprised only 2.85% of all employees and only 13.5% of female employees on the staffs of all the Government ministries.” Further, during the PNC era up to 1992, Indian women rarely held Government positions unless they carried a PNC card. While a few were actively involved in the trade union movement, a few others were politically active.
The formation of trade unions and political organizers became a forum for women to advocate for issues of concerns, as in the 1930s to early 1940s with the formation of the Manpower Citizens’ Association. Nelly Sudeen, its first Indian female and co-founder who came from a very poor family, was never married and had no children. As a political leader across the country, she represented the MPCA and spoke out against Indian men sending their women folk to work in the fields and against child labor (10 to 12 years of age) on sugar plantations. Sudeen and many other East Indian women who were against “upper caste/class, patriarchal and racial constructions of Indian political discourse, were purged from Indian political, religious, cultural, and even women’s organizations.” After she exposed the corruption of the MPCA, its patriarchal leadership shut her out of office and after retiring around 1944, she never re-entered politics. The MPCA aligned itself with the plantation owners and lost the support of Indian workers. Other Indian women in the early 60s, such as Sandra Butchey, Amina Sankar and Shirin Edun became highly trained in England, the latter two were the first Indian women lawyers, and held top professional positions, yet little or nothing is recorded of their place in Guyana’s history for the progress of women, particularly Indo-Guyanese women.
During the PNC era, Indian women have been invisible in political life, and very few occupy important positions in the Government. Although Jean Maitland Singh was a senior member in Viola Burnham’s Young Socialist Movement, it was not a recognized position of any value and it can be construed that this may have been a token ‘Indian’ presence in the PNC fold, as her husband worked in the Ministry of National Development and reported to Ptolemy Reid and Forbes Burnham. Still, very little is written or known of her contribution in the PNC political movement. Further, a few Indian women whose families had joined the PNC also held positions. Some of these women included Sattie Jaishree Singh, Latchmee Narayan, Rabbia Alli Khan and Amna Alli, (currently active), but still very little is known about them.
It was not until 1992, with the return of the democratically elected PPP regime and the ousting of the PNC, that Indians (though in small numbers) were recognized in public life. One of the first Indian women, Indra Chanderpal, made it to a Ministerial position, and recently Bibi Shadeek as Minister of Human Services, Social Security and Labour. The fact that the PNC regime dominated the Public Service with Afro-Guyanese, even with the return of the PPP, Indians are still underrepresented in the Public Administration. During the 28 years of PNC dictatorship, Indians were subjected to racial and cultural discrimination and exclusion from national life. However, in recent years, women’s issues with respect to access to public life participation have been addressed through committees’ presentation on discrimination against women. Now that Indian women are beginning to participate in social and cultural formations, they are still absent in the political stage to effect change and progress.
However, it is recognized that many Indians have immigrated to places such as England, Canada and the U.S. and this paper is not extended to capture the development of Indian women who have left the shores of Guyana and found other freedoms in the diaspora. Further, while this essay offers room for ongoing examination of the development of Indian women of Guyana, it provides some insights into their experiences – from the women who courageously traveled across the treacherous ocean (the kala pani) to Guyana as laborers on sugar plantations to those striving for higher education and participation in national life. They formed roots in another land, raised their children under harsh colonial conditions and post independence turmoil, and made sacrifices to give their children a better education. Their daughters continue to face many challenges where their womanhood is still under scrutiny. http://www.guyanajournal.com
Posted by jebratt ::
Friday, April 21, 2006 ::
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