Kite fighting is a sport, which traditionally uses unstable, single-line kites. Tension is used for control, while an abrasive line defends against other kites. The skins of fighter kites are often made from thin papers, the spars of light, flexible wood. When flown with a taut line, the wind pressure, paradoxically giving the kite stability, deforms it. With the line of tension reduced, the kite becomes unstable, rocking from side-to-side. Sometimes it begins to spin. By reapplying tension at the right moment, the kite increases in stability, shifts in direction, moving towards where the flyer desires.
Kite fighting is perhaps an apt analogy to describe the structure and mobility of Indian families. The males of the extended family create an interwoven kite tapestry, becoming both a shield and a sail. The women form the spars holding the shape of the kite and keeping it together under pressure, while the children trail behind in the tails. The older generations hold the line taut, steering the family against external pressure in an advantageous direction for all. In the sport of kite fighting, the responsibility falls to the patriarch to steer the line in defense against anything, which threatens the kite’s safety and progression.
This essay discusses the process and impact of hybridization on the Indian patriarchy from the perspective of Indian women under indentureship — where hybridization is explored as a positive eventual outcome. The intention is not to cast doubt on the negative impacts of indentureship, but to explore the decision-making processes of these women, faced with the choices they faced once they arrived in the Caribbean. This essay seeks to take liberties… pondering the thoughts, voices and choices of the women inhabiting the gaps in-between the data — illuminating the assumptions and information gaps, then exploring the contributing elements to the hybridization process in subsequent generations.
CHOICES AND VOICES
The objective realities of a woman stepping from a boat, with the means to earn a wage alongside the Indian male, alone, would change the power dynamics within the Indian patriarchal culture of the time. In terms of our kite-fighting analogy, indentureship gave an Indian woman the means to form part of the kite-skins (be an economic partner) alongside a husband, in addition to fulfilling a traditional role of forming the kite spars. Yet, these women seem to have taken it a step further upon arrival in the Caribbean. Indentureship gave them the means to construct kites of their own, while seemingly depriving Indian males access to the spars to hold their own kites together. (Barrow, 1999: 342-344; Shepherd, 2002: 114)
The headspace of these women is perhaps noteworthy, having left a society, which largely deemed them outcasts — many were single, pregnant women, widows, prostitutes, or women abandoned by their husbands (Barrow, 1999; 343). Entering into an indentureship contract, would have been embracing the unknown, even more so than their male counterparts — walking away from a system of un-entitlement, regardless of caste, to an uncertainty of how much they would be able to obtain for themselves. Hovering around a male-female 2:1 ratio, these women quickly transitioned from being of an undesirable, unfortunate class of women, to a desired commodity in short supply (Barrow, 1999: 343; Shepherd, 2002: 112-113).
The absence of enough women to form the kite spars of family units, limited the ability of Indian males to fly their own kites — something Indian males felt an entitlement to, strongly reinforced by culture, religion and history (Brown et al., 1997: 100; Barrow, 1999: 343; Shepherd, 2002: 112-113). Having access only to Indian women who had the power to try out different ‘kite fighting teams,’ would have been a source of frustration, akin to adding salt to the wounds of Indian males. It is not difficult to envision how plantation overseers intruding on domestic disputes, in favour of the women would have incited rage in Indian males (Barrow, 1999: 344). They clearly were emasculated by the choices afforded to indentured women in the Caribbean.
One can surmise about the psychological divide – that men who had more to lose clung to tradition; while women likely saw little value in perpetuating the hierarchy, when it was immediately beneficial not to. The sands beneath their feet had shifted immeasurably. V. A. Shepherd (2002) wondered what it initially must have been like for these women, through her study entitled, “Constructing Visibility,” but found little historical account of women’s voices within the Jamaica segment of the Indian diaspora (p. 127). To be able to make choices without the need to consider the wishes of their extended family, or to be given the option to be accountable only to yourself or those you chose, must have been a freedom alien to these women. Was there a hesitation? Was it recognized as a moment of empowerment? Or was it only realized when faced with the backlash?
In hindsight one might wonder if Indian males had considered how this familial power had come about and, in this new environment, what was required to maintain it. The indenture contract had given women sufficient means to objectively question the merits (emotional and otherwise) of Indian marriage — particularly in the plantation system where only Christian marriages were legally recognized. In the contextual realities of the legal Christian marriages surrounding them,
“the husband […] acquired certain rights, with respect to both the property and person of his wife. He became entitled to virtually all her property and he had a legal right to her services and companionship, and was entitled to compensation for interference or deprivation of this right.” (Boxhill, 1996: 92-93).
It is unclear what impact this had on the Indian community. One could envision Indian males stumbling upon the fact that their own religious unions were not legally recognized, and when their entitlements to compensation in the face of interference were not legally sanctioned, (if it had not before) it then moved them to violence.
This raises questions about the emotional conflict endured by these women, faced with a paradox of conformity and choice. Was conforming to a recreated Indian patriarchy beneficial only in the absence of other choices? They could have anticipated there may be repercussions from exercising one’s choice, and for many women there were (Barrow, 1999: 344). Whether they are viewed as “martyrs” or “collateral damage,” can now, perhaps too easily be historical spun as an inevitability in the change process — where males began to relinquish some entitlements, as women stretched boundaries in ways cultural elasticity would not comfortably permit.
GAPS… IN DATA AND POWER
What is seemingly missing from much of the data — particularly evident in J. Roopnarine’s (1997) study on fathers in Guyana, which illustrated a more involved family role in more educated 3rd generation Indian fathers — is the picture of the womens’ roles and how it has evolved over the generations (77). Much of the data assumes cultural evolution is based on the evolving role of the patriarch — the changes and choices made within the male’s role rather than that of the women’s role in the Caribbean Indian family (Roopnarine, 1997: 77). By excluding a mirrored exploration of mother’s and daughter’s roles over the same three generations (or even subsequent studies), the research leads to the assumption that the women’s roles have remained stereotypically traditional (whatever one may assume that to be in this context) over the course of three generations. This contradiction (however subtle) is perhaps evidenced in this quote,
“Within the confines of male dominance, children are raised in a mixture of nuclear and extended family units… [where] family households are somewhat flexible and permit movement of relatives in and out of familial relationships.” (Roopnarine, 1997: 61).
A sliding-scale of shifting family units, between nuclear and extended family structures, suggest an evolution in gender roles within the traditional patriarchal structure must be underway. The rigid distant father, cannot maintain his preferred distance, without the consistent support of the extended family to help close the parenting gap (Roopnarine, 1997: 62-63); and a nuclear family, even in appearance, would not be possible without the mother having more leverage in the Indian household.
With the fractured nature of Indian patriarchy, it was an inevitability that Indian males would need to relinquish the level of power they were used to assuming over women. While a frustration and perhaps, a cause for sympathy, it is the women who commit to these structures who become burdened by the fracture. Simply because they can, they go out and work to fill the gaps which arise, while maintaining their obligations within the patriarchal structure. In absence of enough to go around, the daughters are likely the one’s who go without — staying at home to take care of younger siblings, sacrificing their education if need be, while the sons are given their traditional entitlements. It was inevitable women would try to realign the kite structure in Caribbean Indian families to reflect their growing power and obligation within the family unit.Whether this is speculative on my part or otherwise, little of this has become self-evident through much of the research.
In terms of our kite-fighting analogy, rather than sharing the more public role as the kite skins (ie. equal breadwinner), it seems that Indian women may have opted for a role of ‘holding the line taut’ — taking on a navigating role, as personified in the character of Seeta in Selvon’s “Plains of Caroni”. This can be encapsulated by Seeta’s discussion with her son Romesh in her car on the way to lunch, where she urges him to map out his future, attempts to assist him in making beneficial connections and sends him reading material on industry, economy and companies she feels he should be keeping up-to-date on (Selvon, 1985: 20-21). Her clumsy approach and lack of nuance suggests it is a role she improvises out of necessity. Something she may never have seen before, which does not come naturally to her as an Indian mother, yet she feels it is necessary for the progression of her son’s career and her family (Selvon, 1985: 20-21).
Despite appearances and assumptions, women have likely been the key driver of gender role evolution in Indian family structures since they arrived in the Caribbean. It is the women who act on the choices available to them, survive the repercussions and often the one who ensures similar pathways become available to her children.
EBB AND FLOW
Many female scholars, writers and artists cite the female Indo-Caribbean cane cutter as their source of inspiration and as a worthy role model. These women made their mark on the rural landscape and through their undaunted acts of courage, laid the foundation for future generations of Indo-Caribbean feminist activists. Their valor, however, should not obscure the hardships endured, when the post-indenture consolidation of Hindu culture led to a return to patriarchal restrictions brought over from India. These restrictions inscribed women within familial codes of conduct and denied them access to their previous wage-producing activities. Hindu cultural traditions and values, together with colonial Christian morality seemingly conspired to thwart the autonomy of indentured women. They became housewives, mothers, invisible and silent. This was profoundly different from the early indentured women who worked on the plantations, had fewer children and often more than one partner (Mehta, 2004: 74-75).
It is worth considering the push-pull dynamic between tradition and change which has been pervasive over time. C. Barrow (1999) discusses this dynamic as:
“The brake on this process [economic forces], is the contrary pull of Indian cultural values and the impossibility of rejecting them completely, while remaining at the same time a member of the Indian group.” (p. 353).
R. Espinet discusses this as the openness and opportunity in Trinidad in the 1960s; where, as an educated Indo-Caribbean woman, the world seemingly opened up to her, offering a plethora of opportunity to break new ground in her writing. In contrast, she cites ‘the containment of women’ in the Indian community as a constant force, both then and now (Espinet et al., 2005, 30:25).
“The containment of women has not changed substantially from when I was growing up. I saw it all around me, and I still see it all around me. People are scared into the same kind of repetitive modes of being — the appropriate order.” (Espinet et al., 2005, 30:25).
This push-pull dynamic between tradition and change has also had a systemic influence in the Caribbean, with educational institutions contributing to the hybridization process, particularly in Trinidad. As part of the missionary conversion process, the Canadian Presbyterian Church began overseeing educational institutions within the Indian indentured community in San Fernando in 1868. It was only then, the Indian community began to attain middle class status (Barrow, 1999: 345; Espinet et al., 2005, 20:50). In the film “Coming Home,” Espinet discusses her environmental contrast, when attending Naparima Girls School in San Fernando. As Naparima was an elite school, this standard of education became another rung on the social status ladder. As a writer, she says she does not regret the opportunities afforded to her, particularly the chance to grow up studying English and other European literature, but recognized it was a divisive means between her schoolmates and the surrounding, predominantly Hindu community. She says, those who did not embrace Presbyterian Christian values were often left floating, until they grounded themselves within their Hindu faith (Espinet et al,. 2005, 20:50). Over time, a significant number of girls being educated in these schools, likely contributed to the erosion of the Indian patriarchy, as they grew a population of educated, empowered and ‘colonial’ aspiring Indo-Caribbean women.
It is no wonder, these Indian women increasingly gravitated towards some semblance of a nuclear family construct in subsequent generations — structuring lives for themselves where they more equally shared the skin and spars of their family kite constructs (Barrow, 1999: 345; Roopnarine, 1997: 61). Freedom of choice in spousal selection would naturally fall from a population of young men and women who have been educated in these Presbyterian schools, elite or otherwise. While the younger generations cite relevance and a lack of trust, surrounding their parents choice of partner (in arranging a marriage for them), this points to a trade-off of one hegemonic ideology to another, where the Christian approach was likely seen as the lesser of two evils (Barrow, 1999: 345-46).
In the current (millennial) era of globalization, new pathways are opening which may further challenge the contemporary kite structures of Indo-Caribbean families. An inevitable shift in global-local realities (ie. increased mobility, transnationalism, and adoption of technologies) will likely change family lives in ways which render the evolution of Indo-Caribbean womens’ roles over the past century, unrecognizable and over time, increasingly difficult to reconstruct.
It is difficult to deny the destructive impact indentureship had on the Indian patriarchy and the fragmentation it caused in Indo-Caribbean families. While there clearly was a need to ensure all elements were there for ‘kite fighting’ as a familial unit to continue, I see the impact of indentureship as a process, moving towards an integration of gender roles within the Indian family unit — a paradigm shift for navigating the contextual realities of the plantation system and the generational legacy it provided.
I prefer to view it through the lens of people’s resistance, resiliency and adaptability when evolving amidst such pressure — and perhaps to question whether traditional culture and gender roles are only held together in absence of pathways to change and the power to choose. Regardless of the repercussions, the human spirit would change, evolve, grow and perhaps even learn to fly.
There is enough data to suggest that gender roles have evolved in the Indian patriarchal family structures over the past few generations, and equally enough data to discern that these changes were likely driven by Indo-Caribbean women. What is missing is a textured picture of:
- how women continue to drive these changes
- the range of evolved kite structures which now permeate Indo-Caribbean families
- how globalization and transnationalism have/are further changing family kite structures of Indo-Caribbean families, both inside and outside of the Caribbean
I wonder if the task in closing these information gaps may be bigger than just an awareness that these gaps exist. Perhaps there is a need to shift the disproportionate focus away from males — their motivations, marginalization and frustrations — which overshadow the choices and struggles of these women and the importance of their clear representation. In terms of generational legacy, a more textured picture of Indo-Caribbean women’s roles over the past century could be timely.
In Canada, the recent growth in ‘honor killings’ amongst a handful of South Asian immigrants holds an eerie resemblance to the experiences of Indian women under indentureship in the Caribbean. I wonder if South Asian immigrant women are grappling with a similar conformity vs. choice paradox. Has exercising their power to choose (for some), stretched the boundaries too far within the contemporary South Asian patriarchal structures? Do Canadian laws supporting women’s rights take the power away from the South Asian males, they are used to assuming over their wives and daughters? Have the opportunities here afforded women the ability to similarly restructure their family kites to the dismay of their husbands? There seem to be parallels in the disparate loss of women’s voices in these instances.
While this may ‘come out of left field’ and seem like an ‘apple to oranges’ comparison, by framing Indo-Caribbean family legacy in terms of the impact of indentureship on the males, the default conclusion is easily one of male marginality. Whereas, if the representation is balanced on the impact to both men and women, a different picture emerges and the discussion shifts — perhaps even to one with broader global relevance or one of contemporary feminist thought-leadership. Moreover, in projecting potential future ebb and flow, as South Asia continues to benefit from globalization, grow economically and further export its cultural ideology globally (similarly to the US export of cultural and intellectual capital), it will be interesting to see if a resurgence in South Asian culture will reinforce the traditional patriarchy within Indo-Caribbean families.
Barrow, C. (1999) East Indian Family Patterns. Barrow, C. (Ed.) Caribbean Families. (343- 46, 53) Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers
Boxhill, E. (1996) The Reform of Family Law as it Affects Women. Leo-Rhynie, E., Bailey, B., Barrow, C., (Eds.) Gender: A Caribbean Multi-Disciplinary Perspective (92-93), Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers
Brown, J. et al. (1997) Caribbean Fatherhood: Under-researched, Misunderstood. Roopnarine, J. (Ed.) Caribbean Families. (100), Ablex Publishing.
Espinet, R., Solomon, F., Laird, C., Hall, M., (2005) Ramabai Espinet: Coming Home. Leda Serene Films, Caribbean Tales and Gayelle the Channel (Eds.) [Video/DVD}
Mehta, B. (2004) Diasporic (Dis)Locations: Indo-Caribbean Women Writers Negotiate the Kala Pani. (74-75) Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press.
Roopnarine, J. (1997) Family Socialization in an East Indian Village. Roopnarine, J. (Ed.) Caribbean Families. (61, 77) Ablex Publishing.
Selvon, S. (1985) Plains of Caroni. (20-21) Toronto, Canada: Williams-Wallace.
Shepherd, V. A. (2002) Constructing Visibility: Indian Women in the Jamaican Diaspora. Mohammed, P. (Ed.) Gendered Realities: Essays in Caribbean Feminist Thought. (112-113, 127) Mona, Jamaica: University of West Indies Press.