What does it mean to be a woman? What do race, culture and history have to do with it? If these questions have crossed your mind, you are not alone. To discuss these ideas, women and gender studies in the historical studies department invited Dr. Lisa Outar, a researcher focusing on Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean literature, and Dr. Gabrielle Hosein, head for the Institute of Gender and Development studies at the University of West Indies, St. Augustine campus. In a discussion moderated by UTM professor Dr. Beverly Bain, Outar and Hosein discussed questions on Indo-Caribbean feminist thought in the context of the new book, for which they serve as editors, Indo Caribbean feminist thought: Genealogies, theories, enactments.
“I’m really excited about this conversation. As many of you know, I’m from Trinidad and Tobago. I grew up in Trinidad and I was raised in a context where there was a fostering of discourses—that there was a distinct separation between blackness and indianness,” says Bain, “and that came with the idea of what constitutes Caribbean indianness and Caribbean blackness.”
Bain thanks Dr. Outar and Dr. Hosein for their work in compiling this collection and for “opening up these spaces and understanding Caribbeanness as it should be understood,” and begins by asking them about their motivation behind pursuing this project.
“We are situated within a tradition of Caribbean feminism where we ask what does it mean to pick up the question of Indo-Caribbean feminism,” says Outar. “First and foremost, if you come from the Caribbean, you’re in a space that is shaped by multiple bodies, multiple cultures, and multiple traditions, and in the Caribbean any conversation around feminism has to recognize the crossings and the relationalities and the common struggles that women have had, and that have been initiated by the particular histories of the space.”
Outar further emphasizes that conversations hoping to understand the dynamics of being an Indian woman in the region would have to begin with “pushing back against the stereotypes about what an Indo-Caribbean woman is, who is normally seen as somebody who is passive, docile, Hindu, Muslim, religious in some form or fashion, conservative,” says Outar. She believes that these ideas have been constructed “through a long history of colonialism in opposition to a figure of a black woman who as seen as the unruly woman, a woman who is a disruptor or a form of action or agency that the Indian woman is seen in opposition to.”
Scholars in the field have understood these stereotypes as false constructions, according to Outar, “But along with wanting to highlight that false dichotomy, we also wanted to highlight the fact that while there has been a lot of attention in Caribbean studies more broadly, or Indo-Caribbean studies to women, and its often taken the form of looking at them in terms of their cultural interventions, their bodies, their food, their dresses.”
She explains that little attention has been given to a feminist analysis, and particularly, to an analysis about women producing scholarship and thought. Specifically, this means feminist analyses drawn from the specific conditions of the lives of Indo-Caribbean women. “We wanted to look at how these spaces in the Caribbean […] where it is important to consider their differences, as well as their similarities. How […] feminism in these spaces is shaped by the very specific conditions of post slavery and post indentureship. These two massive economies and systems that produced cross relationalities and cross racial solidarities and spaces for women to negotiate,” says Outar.
The Caribbean literature researcher also highlights that the editors are “not just thinking about Indianness as this pure category of an authentic thing, but in fact, as something that is inherently radical and impure and cross pollinated. That within those spaces, you’ve got specific forms of feminist thinking that’s derived from cosmologies that are influenced by Indian culture, but also by African culture, by Indigenous cultures, and by all of the other ethnicities that are present within the region.”
Dr. Hosein mentions in addition, “It’s important to keep in mind that when you first come to being introduced to academic knowledge, you are being exposed to knowledge that has been created by others.
You are also being exposed to knowledge that is theoretically grounded in the West.”
Hosein reveals that there comes a point in life for an academic, an activist, or someone who comes to the Caribbean: “[They] want to create knowledge that doesn’t come from elsewhere […], so that when you’re being introduced to histories of gender negotiations, you are not reading that which only comes from the West, but you are reading work that comes from the locations in the world […]. Where the global economy has created vast intercontinental movements of people whose histories tell us about not just those spaces, but also about those vast global economies.”
Indentureship, in Hosein’s opinion, is one of those things that can be understood in the context of local history. “It was a huge global economy and when you look at it from the sight of those places that were affected by it, you are […] learning about their effect on inter-ethnic relations, their implications on the relationships between women and men, and the legacies of feminist engagement.” Hosein adds, “And so for us, the work is very important because we need to see theory being produced outside of the West. And we need to be able to see that when you are studying about the history of gender negotiations, then you can draw from the locations you identify with. Or it could speak to you in the same way theoretical production from the West does.”
Along with explaining the significance of knowledge production, Outar mentions that while exploring a large umbrella term as Indo-Caribbean feminism, it is important to recognize that it is “in fact not oriented around India. And one of the major interventions of this book is to reorient from a diasporic understanding of Indianness to one that is oriented around the specific conditions that are created at the moment of arrival in the region.” According to Outar, the arrival becomes the moment where Indo-Caribbeanness is born, “Shaped by the conditions it meets upon arrival.”
Outar further suggests that knowledge production does not necessarily have to be in the spaces of classrooms, but can take the forms of agency, action, and social movements. Students entering the field, as Hosein describes, “Can take up cultural concepts and move them across any culture or use [our work] as a model to see how you can take up nostalgic words and use them to explain traditions.” Hosein also emphasizes that it is important for students to “critique the idea that you understand feminist history from what you already know. For example, women came as contracted workers to the colonial government in the Caribbean and not as wives, and so it is essential to understand how that has placed them in a very different position for that time.”
Outar also says to an audience of women and gender studies students, “As you take up this work, or take up any work talking about gender and feminism, there is a responsibility, also, on all of you to change the way people think of feminism, which is still considered a bad word […]. So to change these assumptions, highlighting that women can press for issues that are important to them, but still onto multiple identities and relationships that are important to them.”