Written by: Tiara Jade Chutkhan
Indo-Caribbean feminism and sexploitation went hand in hand during the indentureship period and continued as women adjusted to their new lives in the Caribbean.
For those who migrated, they felt there was more to gain than lose. Leaving India gave women the opportunity to recreate their lives without the pressure of family and husbands, or the confinements of the caste system and other societal infrastructures.
Most women travelled alone as they were often some the most vulnerable members of society. Those living in poverty, fleeing abusive relationships, widows and prostitutes were preyed on as recruits. Going to the Caribbean meant taking their futures into their own hands. They would be able to earn their own money and provide for themselves. Their lives could not be dictated by anyone else. As non-conforming women, they broke the expectation of needing husbands or male family members to provide for and protect them.
This, in a sense, could be seen as an early step in liberation for Indian women, but as they made their way on board the ships, being alone made them susceptible to sexual exploitation.
Due to the uneven ratios of men and women migrating, women were in high demand. As with any demand, there is a need to produce. Recruiters combed through “red districts,” lied to or kidnapped Indian women to help meet their quotas.
Onboard ships, crew members made regular visits to the women's area of the ship during the night to help themselves to the unprotected women. The promise of more food was commonly used as a tactic for sexploitation. Women received less rations than men, and crew members would offer extra chapatis or biscuits in exchange for sex. With sweltering conditions and empty bellies, it was hard for some to refuse.
The bathroom area was also a popular place for harassment, with crew members purposely preying on those wandering alone. They were slapped, pinched, or invited back to crew cabins for the night. Even when they attempted to complain about the assaults, women were seldom taken seriously.
In a few tragic cases, women and young girls died as a result of the rapes they endured.
The case of Maharani is particularly well-known and documented. The young women died after a gang rape that caused shock to her nervous system.
Partitions were used in the quarters to separate the men and women, but it was claimed that women would not take kindly to the separation of the sexes and find their way to the men. This characterized Indian women as promiscuous, a stereotype that followed them and contributed to some of the worst violence against Indo-Caribbean women such as partner violence, exploitation by employers, and unequal wages.
Women made ⅔ of a shilling, compared to men who made a shilling or slightly more for a day's work. This brought out the entrepreneur in them. Some were able to sell things like food or tobacco to make extra money. For those who did well, it gave them the opportunity to purchase land or homes without the need of a male. This was another huge win considering the independence it allowed.
Indian women were associated with trouble once they got onto the plantations.
Again, due to the shortage of women, people were encouraged to find partners and create families. Women began to realize the power they held during this time. A woman could select her own partner as well as move from one relationship to the next if it wasn’t serving her. If a partner didn’t hold a good economic position, there was someone who could. If a partner didn’t please her sexually, she could find someone who would. Men weren’t able to regain the control once they had over women before migrating. In certain situations it led to violence, and many women were viciously attacked by partners. Still, they consciously stood up for themselves, making decisions they felt reflected their needs and wants.
Despite the sexualized stereotype they held, women learned they could use it to their advantage, knowing their feminine ability might make their lives a bit easier. Indian women were often fetishized and thought of as exotic and sensual to their European employers.
The rumours were that “coolie” women were with their overseers purely for libido.
These “immoral relations” continued to fuel the “naturally promiscuous” image of Indian women. For relationships that led to children, the mother was in a position to potentially have a better home and financial contributions to help raise her bi-racial children.
Many knew the power of their beauty and exercised “pretty woman’s privilege.” Women could play on the fetish their overseers had for them and escape field labour and instead do domestic duties inside the homes. In the case of one woman in Guyana, she was thought to have hands that were too delicate for field work. While women weren’t able to escape work altogether, they were able to cut down on the hard labour under the hot sun. A clear advantage for those who were privileged.
These pieces of history can be viewed as the earliest examples of Indo-Caribbean feminism. Old practices didn’t survive crossing the Kala Pani, allowing Indian women to break barriers in their male dominated settings. They took advantage of the opportunities available to them despite the stereotypes and labels that followed. In a sense, they can be seen as rebels, going against the norms and finding ways to make things work to their advantage.
Each move they made proved to be worth the risk.
Indo-Caribbean women have continued to prosper and take up space in many professional and personal settings. Women continue to fight against the existing injustices, using their strength and resilience to pave the way for future generations as our foremother did for us.
The liberation never ended, it only kept going.
Bahadur, Gaiutra. Coolie Woman: the Odyssey of Indenture. Hurst & Company, 2016.
Mehta, Brinda J. “Feminism, Indo‐Caribbean.” Wiley Online Library, American Cancer Society, 28 Oct. 2015, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/9781118663219.wbegss020.
Roopnarine, Lomarsh. “Interview with Patricia Mohammed: The Status of Indo-Caribbean Women: From Indenture to the Contemporary Period.” Journal of International Woman's Studies, vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1867&context=jiws.
Shepherd, Verene A. Maharani's Misery: Narratives of a Passage from India to the Caribbean. Univ. of the West Indies Press, 2002.