The Value of an Indo-Caribbean Woman's Life

Approaching the one hundredth anniversary of the end of indentureship, Indo-Caribbean women remain the target of gruesome gender-based violence. Yet the pervasive culturally-sanctioned violence in Indo-Caribbean communities cannot be divorced from the nexus of patriarchy and alcoholism within an inherited colonial legacy of indentureship, exploiting the labor Indians from the subcontinent to supplant freed African slaves on plantations throughout Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana and other colonies of the British empire from 1838 - 1917.

At a ratio of 400 men to 14 women, the first ships sailing from the ports of Calcutta to Guyana created a glaring unequal distribution of genders. This gender imbalance has been historically cited as the root cause of disproportionate violence against Indo-Caribbean women, even at the height of increasing indentureship quotas for every ship sailing to the colonies. Women were sought after in the colonies as partners and consequently, were afforded greater -- albeit circumscribed -- agency. As Indo-Caribbean women sought more control over their lives in the colonies than they were afforded in the subcontinent, Indo-Caribbean patriarchy sought to control their movements and agency by unrelenting violence and abuse. Common words in the nineteenth century trials describing abusive men who murdered their partners and wives included "dismembered," "hacked," "stabbed" -- brutal murders by cutlass, the plantation tool of sugarcane and empire. By 1871, the British empire was (ironically) alarmed to find that indentured Indian men in Guyana murdered indentured Indian women at a rate of 142 times greater than in the provinces in India from which the indentured laborers came.

Since the era of Indian indentureship, the narrative of the jealous Indo-Caribbean husband has been used to justify the brutalities of gender-based violence. In 1881, the Protector of Immigrants in Trinidad declared, "Chastity is almost unknown to the class of woman indentured from India to this colony." Branding the indentured woman as sexually licentious set the stage for devaluing the life of an Indo-Caribbean woman and justifying the brutality of her murder. The "jealous" husband, the "crimes of passion," and the proxy language of inevitability continues to perpetuate the mistreatment, abuse and murders of Indo-Caribbean while refusing to name its core: a pernicious cycle of victim blaming with culturally justifiable rape culture at its core.

The value of a slain Indo-Caribbean woman's life is calculated by the moral barometer of her chastity. The insinuation of infidelity tinged within the same headlines bearing her obituary. Rape culture cross-examines its victims with the familiar compendium of questions: Was she cheating? Was she a good woman? An obedient wife?

The break in silence awaiting these answers perpetuates the disgusting cultural normalization of gender-based violence against Indo-Caribbean women -- in the form of domestic violence, sexual violence, child molestation, marital rape and abuse that is tragically common. Cultural and religious complicity conspire within the jurisdiction of patriarchy to absolve the slaughter of Indo-Caribbean women.

The brutal murder of Rajwantie Bladeo. The brutal murder of Guiatree Hardat. The brutal murder of Natasha Ramen. The death of the 167 Indo-Caribbean women murdered in Guyana between 1859 and 1917 during the period of Indian indentureship.

A few years after co-founding Jahajee Sisters, the first organization in the U.S. for Indo-Caribbean women committed to ending-gender based violence, a young male community leader in Richmond Hill asked me what we planned to do about a certain situation: Women were experiencing sexual harassment walking home from the subway station at night.

What did "we" plan to do?

Instead of teaching men not to rape, society teaches women how to dress. Instead of teaching men to stop sexual harassment, society teaches women safety strategies for walking home late at night. Instead of questioning the socially acceptable censuring of women's bodies and women's sexualities, society polices and shames women, prescribing the acceptable limits of their mobility -- and essentially, their existence. The onus of sexual violence must not solely reside with those whom it impacts.

Gender-based violence further manifests in the blatant misogyny and ignorance of criticizing a "woman who does not leave" an abusive relationship -- relying on blaming the survivor of violence rather than the act of violence itself. Gender-based violence is not only the policing and desire control of women's bodies, but the desire to control the gender roles and gender identity of others. Individuals who do not conform to the rigidly boxed categories of gender are subject to violence and harassment. LGBT individuals who are transgender and gender non-binary are disproportionately targeted, assaulted and murdered for their gender identity.

Since 2007, Jahajee Sisters has organized within the Indo-Caribbean community to end-gender based violence — yet the fight is not ours alone. Building a social justice movement demands more engagement than the individuals impacted by the oppression it seeks to fight. An Indo-Caribbean community invested in its people must be challenged to interrogate the cultural and religious norms and the violent narratives that condone the regulation and policing of the bodies of women, and uphold the violent oppression of gender roles. Community-based interventions that rely on familial, religious and community networks for support and accountability are absolutely necessary to disrupting these cycles of violence. Conscious resistance to cultural and religious norms perpetuating violence and abuse must become the mandate within Indo-Caribbean communities. A community founded upon the bonded labor of empire and historical disenfranchisement must never grow accustomed to the normalization of brutality.

Nearly one hundred years after the end of indentureship, Indo-Caribbean women cannot endure another headline, nor another lost life.

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