By Krystal Ghisyawan
Krystal Ghisyawan holds a Double Honours B.A. in Anthropology and South Asian Studies, from York University, Toronto, and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine in the field of Sociology, doing multi-disciplinary research with same-sex loving women in Trinidad.
Facebook, the public soapbox that so many of us have at our disposal when we want to vent, rant, or praise. Some people still call in to radio and television programs to have their fifteen minutes, but for most, a rambling post on Facebook is sufficiently cathartic, especially if it gets enough ‘likes’.
In Trinidad and Tobago, political activist and columnist in local newspaper TnT Mirror Juliet Davy channelled her malcontent over the performance of the People’s Partnership government (headed by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar) into a Facebook post on June 29, 2015. In the past, Davy has critiqued both the United National Congress (UNC, part of the present ruling coalition) and the People’s National Movement (PNM, the opposition), but in this post she was specifically responding to the appearance of former Independent Liberal Party (ILP) Deputy Leader Anna Deonarine on the UNC platform, where she condemned the actions of ILP leader and former FIFA-Vice-President Jack Warner.
The post has since been removed from Facebook, so for direct quotes of Davy’s comments, I reference Anna Ramdass’ article called “NO TO RACISM: PNM activist rants about Indian women” which appeared, on the evening of June 29th, in the Trinidad Express newspaper online edition. Davy wrote:
“First as a devout Catholic Jack Warner must be aware of the role a woman played in destroying powerful men, and, in the context of the Indian woman as an experienced man who lived and spend a great deal of time around Indian people, in particular Hindus he should be aware that they use their women to seduce non-Indo men to acquire wealth and power. This includes their own wife, mother, daughter or sister. These women are also used in the case of Sampson and Delilah to destroy powerful men.”
Davy added that Deonarine’s return to the UNC platform “would only be welcomed by the diehards but the wider population would lose respect for this woman and anything she has to say”. Adding that Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar must be desperate to accept Deonarine, Davy said:
“But this is Indian women for you, they are subservient to their men and would do anything to satisfy them. Anna Deonarine is a perfect example, weak and obedient to the likeness of Moonilal [Roodal Moonilal, Minister of Housing and Urban Development] and other Indian men.”
Needless to say, Facebook exploded with every possible stance being taken, some attacking Davy for her racism and others commending her for voicing her opinion. To respond to Davy’s comments, one would first need to assess the three assertions that she makes:
To acquire wealth and power, “Hindus” use their women to seduce “non-Indian men”, who from this context can be taken to mean Afro-Trinidadian men
Saying that this “includes their own wife, mother, daughter or sister”, we can infer that by “Hindus” she is referring to Hindu men, to whom Hindu women are subservient and “would do anything to satisfy [them]”.
Hindu women’s sexuality is threatening to “non-Indo” men and women.
Initially I also took to Facebook to register my response to a wider community. While satirically asserting my own powers of seduction in a Facebook status update, I also posted a new profile picture captioned “channelling my Hindu divinity”. Taken together, the picture, its caption and my status were my commentary on the tensions of how women are portrayed as either divine or seductive, and the fact that I wanted to be both simultaneously.
In Hindu thought, seduction is treated in multiple ways. The Ramayana portrays as oppositional the chaste Sita, wife of Ram who represents the divine feminine, against Surpnakha, the sister of the demon Ravana, who uses her looks to seduce men for sexual pleasure. Texts, such as the Puranas, abound with stories of gods and goddesses in “love play”. The stories of Krishna alone, hold examples of love between men, between women and of men and women who change the sex of their bodies to be with people they loved. One example is Arjuna, devoted friend of Krishna, who so craved to experience physical love with Krishna, that he was temporarily blessed with a female body. Krishna, sometimes called Man-Mohan or the enchanter of the mind, parallels Mohini (the enchantress), an incarnation of the Lord Vishnu. These myths demonstrate that the divine can be designed to seduce.
And yet, sadly, in lived experience, Hindu women are generally not regarded as divine. In her book, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, Gaiutra Bahadur lists altercations that were recorded by the colonial government between married and cohabitating Indian couples in colonial Guyana. Women often endured rapes and beatings and many were killed during such altercations. The relative scarcity of men to women however, also allowed the latter the opportunity to leave one man for another especially if it meant improved social and material standards. Colonial missionaries such as Sarah Morton referred to these tendencies as degraded, but Caribbean theorists have reread this degradation as resilience, seeing Indian women’s sexual agency as part of their economic resourcefulness.
That depiction of Indian woman as wilful and determined to manipulate their life circumstances is not one that we are familiar with. Religion and nationalism are two tools of male dominance (patriarchy) that inscribed new meaning to women’s bodies.
As early as the 1920s, Hindu revivalism, through organisations like the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha in Trinidad, introduced high caste practices that centre on purity, emphasising sexual restraint and monogamy formalised through marriage within the ethnic group. Nationalist movements in the Caribbean worked in a similar way, by demanding that the colonised demonstrate our perfection of the colonisers’ middle-class values, including Christian marriage, virginity and monogamy.
Both religious and nationalist movements required the submission of the wife to her husband’s good judgement, economic control and sexual desires. Yet the burden of passing on the values of religion and national culture was given to women, making their bodies the integral space for these concepts (religion, culture and nation) to be both grounded and challenged. And this brings us back to Juliet Davy, since this is exactly what she has done in her statements.
Davy’s comments are not about morality and shaming Hindu women. She uses the example of patriarchy at the interpersonal level – male dominance over his woman, particularly Indian male politicians’ control of female politicians like the Prime Minister herself – to claim that Indian men’s control is being extended across the nation, at the expense of Afro-Trinidadians. In Davy’s account, Persad-Bissessar is just the front or face of Indian patriarchy.
Davy also recruits the ethnic stereotypes, the seeds of which were planted in the colonial period, that portray African and Indian women as oppositional; African women are aggressive, while Indian women are delicate and desirable. But the mixed woman was the beauty ideal, the best of both worlds with her refined features hiding her secret passion.
However, in a political arena that runs on racial division, the loyalties of mixed identities are difficult to determine. Davy’s own self-declared mixedness (her Indian mother and African father), and her movement between political parties show the instability of her allegiances and highlight the conundrum that mixed-race citizens present for politicians who use race strategically.
So why focus on patriarchy in the Indian community when there are so many others competing for dominance? Do Indians/Hindus really have so much control in Trinidad as Davy is insinuating? Where are the majority of Trinidadians economically, politically, socially today, more than half a century after so-called independence?
Because, let’s be frank, sexuality is a very sharp, but old blade in the manipulation toolkit, and it is not one that Indians have a monopoly on. The apparent moral attack can instead be read as an attempt to raise tempers, and play on those still festering wounds that colonial propaganda has left us with.
Clearly Indian/Hindu women in politics are not the only pawns in men’s nationalist games as Davy would like us to think. As a political move, Davy’s statements are no different from Hulsie Bhaggan’s 1993 claim that African men were raping Indian women in Central Trinidad. Whether intentional or not, Davy’s comments have added fuel to the separatist fires of race just as Bhaggan had. With general elections this coming September, we have to look not just at the statements themselves, but the effect they will have among the electorate. And while each political party claims to not practice race politics, ignoring that racial tension does exist would not simply make it go away.
Patriarchies are still competing for power in Trinidad and Tobago, and women of all races are complicit in their fight, whether autonomously involved or not. Statements like Davy’s continue to drive a wedge between us and allow racial head-butting to take preference over other needs. Consider how our refusal to be accomplices in men’s power-games can shift the locus of power to include women’s interests in more practical ways and impact on the quality of our lives. What if pay equity, menstrual and maternity leave, women’s health concerns and justice and protection against sexual violence, were all given more attention? Or if domestic and sexual labour were recognised as work so women can make an independent wage? How can women work within and against these patriarchies to create what Tracy Robinson refers to as our “imagined lives”, the lives that we imagine and want for ourselves?
Ramdass’ full article can be found at http://www.trinidadexpress.com/20150629/news/no-to-racism