Thank goodness, today we can take it for granted to see women of East Indian descent hustle to work in their “power suits”, see them dance “Chutney” in beautiful, traditional outfits on television, and enjoy their competence and leadership on many levels of national life. To reach there, the way has sometimes been rather thorny for the daughters of India! Shameen Ali, in a chapter of “150 Years of the Indian Contribution to Trinidad and Tobago”, gives a very interesting summary of the historical development of what Indian women were “permitted” to do. “Permitted” stands here in a rather wide sense: the 19th century Victorian and early 20th century society operated based on very narrow class, race and gender restrictions for everybody. The women of East Indian descent, a minority in a minority in a minority, had therefore a particularly difficult situation from where to fulfill their dreams and grow.
But to start on a positive note: the women who migrated from their homeland to an unknown place in the western world were probably the more “gutsy” ones from the start. More often than not, they had gone through hard times in India, fled from impossible familial situations, abuse, prostitution, famine. Some had been kidnapped by recruiting officers. Only a small minority came as wives or daughters of male immigrants.
In Trinidad, they faced the difficult situation of being very few in a ever-growing male Indian immigrant population. From the start, they had the handicap of being paid even lower wages than the indentured men, if that is at all possible. Having come from the caste system and an overbearingly strict patriarchal structure, they were used to be at the receiving end of injustices, and took it in stride. Bad housing conditions were nothing new for many of them, as was a lack of medical care.
In Trinidad, those sub-standard living conditions for the indentured labourers were, however, often life-threatening for the East Indian women. Promiscuity, prostitution and “wife-chopping” were not infrequent 19th century occurrences in the Indian community, isolating them even further from the Creole population (who saw themselves as “indigenous”, albeit the fact that both Europeans and Africans had immigrated just 3 or 4 generations earlier).
From the start, Indian women were earning their own living, something that was not always easy for their male counterparts to deal with. In traditional India, that was just never heard of. It lead to many conflicts, often with a violent outcome, in the Indian population, which contributed to its stereotyping by the Creole population, namely that the Indians were promiscuous and violent “wife-choppers”. As more and more Indian women came to live in Trinidad, this situation eased up, but the prejudices often remained.
In terms of religious and family life, Indian women had several challenges to face. On the one hand, they were much coveted as brides, given the fact that they were few and far between. Large dowries often changed hands. On the other hand, Hindu and Muslim marriages were not officially recognised by the British administration, which made children of a marriage illegitimate.
From the 1870s onwards, when many Indian women had terminated their indentureship contracts and decided to stay in Trinidad, they became increasingly the religious and cultural backbone of their families, maintaining beliefs and practices. Indian villages were created with the land the formerly indentured received as grants instead of a return passage to India, and some families were now in their third generation.
The majority of Indian women lived in rural areas, or more precisely in what was then rural. A lot of Indian villages from 100 years ago have grown into sizable towns since! Many of them interacted more with black and Creole Trinidadians than Indian men did. The Indian woman selling cow’s milk was a frequent sight in the morning light, so much so that she was depicted in popular comics. One such woman was, for example, Valiama, who came to settle in Trinidad from Martinique with her daughter. She spoke French and Patois, and wore foulard and madras, which made it easy for her to interface with the Creole neighbourhoods of St. Clair where she delivered milk. Eventually, she was able to carve out a niche for herself and her family in Boissière Village, and she became the mother of all the Pillais!
Education was and is of course key in the advancement of women. Today we know that women excel in academia, but many patriarchal cultures denied girls even a basic education in those years. In Trinidad, Indian girls had access to education, primarily through the efforts of Canadian Presbyterian missionary schools. Later, they would become teachers themselves, such as Anna Mahase snr., who was the first Indian woman to become a teacher in 1918, and Florabelle Harnarayn, who was the first woman to be appointed school supervisor in 1967.
Increasingly, Indian women entered into secondary and tertiary education. Dr. Stella Abidh was one of the several female medical doctors of Indian descent of the first half of the 20th century. She was the first woman to be appointed district medical officer for South Trinidad. Amongst her peers were Dr. Olga Rampersad, Dr. Pearl Ramkallop, Dr. Sylvia Ramcharan, Dr. Rosie Sheik, Dr. Indra Delipsingh and Dr. Rosie Ali.
With the introduction of the screening of Indian movies in Trinidad from the 1930s onwards, another arena opened up to the women of East Indian descent: public dancing and singing. As Shaheen Ali writes:
“Indian films kindled a new kind of pride in Indians for their heritage. Thus inspired, singers like Rhoda Asgarli, Myroon Mohammed and Zora Seesahai emerged together with the dancer Champa Devi who thrilled audiences throughout Trinidad during the 1940s and the 1950s.”
The awakening of the local performing arts, if one might call it thus, spanned in those years not only the Creole world in figures like Madame Chesola, who taught ladies how to dance, dancers Marie Basilon, Beryl McBurnie and Thora Dumbell, but also the women of the Indian community, who started to develop their very own Trinidadian expressions.
It seems that the 20th century was marked by an ongoing challenging of traditional roles by women, be it in the field of education, sports, entertainment, business, politics or religion. In the 1950s, Ruth Seukaran was the first woman of Indian descent to emerge on the political arena. Indira Rampersad was the first Hindu pandita in Trindad. Many have followed in their footsteps, making history, and often making the world just a little brighter for everyone.