On a Tuesday during my second year of high school in midtown Manhattan, I sat in homeroom watching NY1 with 30 other Catholic school girls. Our teachers were on strike and were rallying in front of our school building, demanding higher salaries. Stunned and upset that our instructors walked out on us, we watched them on the news as they were interviewed by local journalists.
My classmates and I had no idea that what was about to happen would shock us even more and be etched much more deeply into our memories. Our teachers disappeared from the screen and were replaced by crumbling buildings, shrouded in smoke. I thought someone changed the channel and we were watching an action movie. Then, our teachers unexpectedly returned to our classrooms with panicked and solemn faces. We began congratulating them on their successful strike, but learned that the strike wasn’t over. They were compelled to be with us because we were in a state of national emergency.
My city was under attack. Two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers, near where my mom worked. The rest of the day was complete chaos. Classmates whose parents worked in the towers were frantically crying, phone networks were overwhelmed, and the adults were struggling to keep us calm and safe. At 6 p.m., my mom, who I hadn’t been able to reach all day, appeared in the lobby of my school. The roads were congested with people trying to flee the city, so she abandoned her car downtown and walked to me. Together with thousands of other New Yorkers, my mom and I walked hand in hand for hours to get back home to the Bronx. I listened to her tell me about the bodies she saw falling from the towers, what it was like to witness the second plane hit, and about how complete strangers were helping each other without the blink of an eye.
The human loss that occurred on 9/11 is heart-wrenching for me. More traumatic, however, was the aftermath of the tragedy and what it meant for people who looked like me.
On a structural level, a new xenophobia gave way to harsh immigration policies that devastated families in my community. Muslim men were forced to register themselves with the government, creating a fear that our fathers, brothers, and sons would be arrested and deported- and many of them were. Men were separated from their families, detained without cause, and often tortured. Women and children suffered as male breadwinners were no longer around for financial support. The stress of not knowing where men were, or whether they were dead or alive, wreaked emotional havoc in women’s hearts and minds.
September 11th made me an activist.It left a permanent residue that shaped my worldview and provoked me to action. Feeling personally attacked by xenophobic, racist sentiment and policies, I reacted in self-defense by joining the movement to organize my community against unjust immigration laws. Without this turning point in my life, I perhaps would not feel the solidarity I do with the South Asian community, with immigrants to this country, and with people around the world hurt by insensitive U.S. policies. This feeling of solidarity continues to be a guiding force for me. In fact, a large part of why I began working at the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF) was because it creates opportunities for immigrant women to empower themselves. We recognize that immigration status can impair a woman’s ability to provide for herself and her family, to keep her family together, and to determine how to raise her children with dignity. Without a doubt, that Tuesday morning and its aftermath politicized me and pushed me to where I am today.
Below are two participants’ reflections on a leadership development session focused on “Leading from the Inside Out.”
Before we look to change others we need to look inside ourselves. Are we where we want to be? Are we who we want to be? How silly it would be for us to take on the task of leading our community before first seeking personal fulfillment. It's like what they tell us in the airplanes--if there is an emergency, first put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. How can you be of any help to another, when you haven't even helped yourself?
The task of leading a community, while noble, also comes with a lot of responsibility. The best way to lead in my opinion is to know the people you are trying to lead. Don't let them be faces that blend together with no distinguishing qualities or needs. To be a true leader you must see and appreciate those you lead as clearly as you see yourself. Your job as a leader isn't to control but rather to give them control of their own lives. A true leader is one that empowers.
10 Days Until 20
this consciousness weighs heavy ...on my body, a boulder I carry sinking from chest until buried
within the pit of my stomach-blossoming into anxious steps, evolving, transfigured fear a mad dash sprint away from the mirror
each day I turn ever so slightly face a serene visage in the peripheral view reach out hands, elongate fingers brush an ideal self; falling short
I light the flame and extinguish
until anew, rekindling my vitality-forging ahead I make this living reaching out I touch the world embrace myself ever so slowly giving in like earth to avalanche like clouds to scurry of rain until I burst rising, birthed from ash
My Jahajee Sisters, its time to rise Its time to open your eyes… The time is now… No obstacle can stop us. No force can break us. Take out your pens. Write your name in the skies. Build your dreams with the sweat of your brow. My Jahajee Sisters, the time is now!
My Jahajee Sisters, let your rays of light shine. Be burning lamps. Be lionesses full of courage. Be climbers to the highest heights. Be achievers of all your heart’s desires. My Jahajee Sisters, its time to rise!
My Jahajee Sisters, you are all divine. Sparks of soul, deyas that burn forever In the history of this universe. Find your calling. Find your voice. Find yourself. Find the courage To play the game of life and win All and every prize that there is to be won. My Jahajee Sisters, the time is now!
My Jahajee Sisters, the dawn of a new era comes. Be proud of our heritage. Be proud of our culture. Bloom like lotus flowers In the face of negativity and confusion. My Jahajee Sisters, its time to rise!
My Jahajee Sisters, come out of the darkness, Stand center-stage. Let all eyes be on you. No more shadowy existence. It’s time to shine. Realize the spark of God is within us all. We are the fruits of the Kala Pani travelers. We are the shining result of courage and hope. My Jahajee Sisters, the time is now!
My Jahajee Sisters, hear the call of your destiny. Set sail on an ocean of hope. Break down every barrier and move forward. Together we shall drink the Amrit of happiness. Together we shall be a constellation. My Jahajee Sisters, its time to rise!
My Jahajee Sisters, know that God Created us for a purpose. Our life is precious. Our breath is a priceless gift. When we sing Bhajans, Our voices shall float to the heavens. My Jahajee Sisters, the time is now!
My Jahajee Sisters, my Indo-Caribbean Sisters, Arise. Awake. Open your eyes. Realize that what is in you Is divine, special, sublime. Let your rays of light shine. Be like the sun. Awe and inspire the world. My Jahajee Sisters, its time to rise! My Jahajee Sisters, accept the challenge. Embrace change. Evolve. We are the descendents of heroes. Our possibility is sweet like sugar-cane Planted by our forefathers. My Jahajee Sisters, together we unite, In sisterhood solidarity.
March is Women’s History month, a time to celebrate women’s lives, the progress we have made throughout the years, and the bright future ahead of us. This year marks the 30th anniversary of recognizing the tireless work women have put into creating change. Often, it seems that the history of women is written in invisible ink. Therefore, to commemorate the month, we are writing women back into history by remembering the Indo-Caribbean women who were revolutionaries before us and honoring the historical work we are doing today. Below are tributes to two extraordinary Indo-Caribbean heroines who continue to give us strength and inspiration today.
We invite you to post comments, sharing stories about your Indo-Caribbean heroines of the past and present in celebration of Women's History Month!
Kowsilla, Guyanese Labor Activist Who Made the Ultimate Sacrifice
Kowsilla, also known as Alice, of Leonora, was killed on March 6, 1964 during the great Sugar Strike of 1964. Her body was severed in two when a sugar estate scab, Felix Ross, drove a tractor through her. He was later acquitted. A mother of four at the time, and the sole breadwinner of her family, Kowsilla was an executive of the Leonora branch of the WPO and, as a leader, she paid the ultimate price by displaying the highest order of resistance for her belief in adequate wage for adequate work. Despite her struggle for her people, Kowsilla’s story has rarely been documented. At Jahajee Sisters, we remember Kowsilla’s courage and refuse to let her sacrifice disappear into the historical void so many women’s stories fall into.
Rajkumari Singh, Guyanese Cultural Heroine
Rajkumari Singh, A.A. (1923-1979), stands out as a major pioneering Caribbean woman writer, political activist, educator and distinguished cultural leader in her native land, Guyana, where she received national honors. She was respected and praised by her contemporaries for the quality of controversy, criticism and debate present in her works, for which she received many literary prizes and awards; she is revered by numerous younger poets, writers, scholars, artists and performers, to whom she was a patron and mentor. Rajkumari was concerned with Indo-Caribbean identity finding their place in a region undergoing harsh and disappointing political, cultural and social change. These critical issues found their way into her literary work. Rajkumari's legacy continues to inspire new generations in the Caribbean and in countries of the Indian Diaspora.
Greetings! We are excited to share our first Jahajee Sisters Community Update of the decade! We started the year off with creativity, community, conversations and culinary delights. That was only the beginning. We have lots of exciting programs and events in the works. Read on to find out what’s happening at Jahajee Sisters in 2010 and be sure to get involved.
Sister Circles are our newest initiative. Through them, Jahajee Sisters create a space for Indo-Caribbean women to bond, share our stories, dialogue about relevant and important issues, and explore ways to create change. With great food, amazing women and dynamic conversation at every Circle, we build lasting relationships and strengthen our community. Sister Circles are hosted and organized by several volunteers each month. If you would like to participate in planning a future Sister Circle, contact us.
Join us for our February Sister Circle on Saturday, February 20 from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm. Our theme is Self Love and Empowerment through Healing Mind, Body & Spirit. February is the month when we celebrate love, and at Jahajee Sisters we recognize that in order to love, we must first love ourselves. Come out to explore self-care practices, which are grounded in the wisdom of our ancestors (Ayurveda). Learn to align the breath with the daily solar and lunar rhythms through breathwork (pranayama); strengthen your primordial energies with a few simple but powerful healing postures (yoga asanas). Learn how a woman's magic is irretrivably linked to lunar rhythms and how a woman’s cycles greatly affects her shakti-prana (Wise Earth'sUttara Vasti practice). Alicia Jorawar will join us to share the teachings of Swamini Mayatitananda, a world-renowned scholar and spiritual leader who was born in Guyana. We will also connect reclaiming our ancestral healing practices to current movements in the United States, the Caribbean and the world working towards justice and solidarity. The location will be disclosed after you RSVP.
We kicked off the year with over 30 women in attendance at our second Sister Circle on January 8, 2010. Enjoying delicious food, sharing our experiences with and aspirations for Education, and addressing critical issues in our community through improv theatre, we supported each other and exchanged resources. Check out the list of education-related resources (below) that was compiled at the event and email us if you have additional resources you would like to contribute. We’ll be putting these up on our website in the coming weeks. In addition to exploring educational barriers and breakthroughs, we also discussed the relevance and importance of the 2010 US Census. Thanks to everyone who made the January Sister Circle a tremendous success by hosting, planning, cooking, conducting outreach and attending!
Other Upcoming Opportunities & Events: February 14, 2010 – Join us at the Stars International Band's Valentine's Day event, organized by Jahajee Sisters member and community leader, Indra Seet. Members of Jahajee Sisters will also be performing.Come out and enjoy dinner and entertainment, 6:00 pm at The Starlite Pavilion (130-05 101 Avenue, Queens, NY 11419)
Volunteer with Jahajee Sisters – as a volunteer-led organization, we invite sisters to volunteer to host Sister Circles, help plan events, join leadership committees and more! If you are interested in learning more about volunteer opportunities, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
4th Annual Indo-Caribbean Women’s Empowerment Summit – this year, we hope to have a 2-day Summit that kicks off on a Friday evening with cultural performances and networking, followed by two days of panels and interactive workshops. We are working on an exciting list of presenters. If you have leads for venues in Queens or would like to get involved, please be in touch. 2010 Young Women’s Summer Leadership Institute – with generous support from the Third Wave Foundation, we are organizing a week-long leadership development training for young Indo-Caribbean women ages 15 to 25. Please contact us for more information and to get involved.
We look forward to seeing you soon, and working with you this year. As always, check our website for additional updates: www.jahajeesisters.org.
The Jahajee Sisters Advisory Committee is delighted to send you our warmest wishes for a festive holiday season filled with peace, joy and love.
2009 has been an incredible year for Jahajee Sisters. We have grown so much as an organization and community due to your involvement and support. In addition to our annual Summit and our Arts & Empowerment Program, we have recently launched our monthly Sister Circle gatherings. Thank you for your strong and continued support of Jahajee Sisters!
Sister Circles kicked off this month with over 30 Jahajees from all parts of New York assembling at a beautiful home in Richmond Hill, Queens. It was our pleasure to convene community members for an evening of dialogue and dining. The first Circle proved to be a huge success according to attendees, and it truly exceeded our expectations in terms of attendance and the dynamic conversations that emerged throughout the evening. Sisters from across the Indo-Caribbean Diaspora spoke on issues facing our community. Attendees shared views on how by working together in solidarity we can tackle critical issues in our community. Conversations spilled into a variety of topics stemming from local to international to children to adults. We were pleased with the intergenerational mix of Jahajees as young teen-age girls engaged in dialogue with elders up to 80 years old!
Sister Circles are women only events, occurring monthly. Each month several sisters host a Circle. Hosts welcome neighbors into their homes and provide food and beverage. The event is free of cost to the attendees. Members of the Jahajee Sisters community volunteer to host a Circle. In 2010 the Jahajee Sisters Advisory Committee will provide a tool kit to support members who sign up to host a gathering. If you would like to host a circle, please email email@example.com.
Please save the date for our next Sister Circle, which is scheduled for Friday January 8, 2010. You must RSVP and follow through with registration in order to receive details about the gathering. For more information, log on to http://www.jahajeesisters.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, be sure to stay tuned for more information in the new year about our Young Women's Leadership Institute.
Happy Holidays and Best Wishes for a Wonderful 2010! Jahajee Sisters Advisory Committee
Thank you for your continued support of Jahajee Sisters, and for being a valued member of our growing community! We have been receiving all of your emails with words of encouragement and are excited to tell you about new programming for the year ahead.
As you may know, we are having our very first Sister Circle gathering on Friday, December 4th, from 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm. The location will be disclosed to sisters when they RSVP. Please RSVP by this Friday (11/27). This is a women-only event.
What are Sister Circles? Sister Circles are gatherings, hosted by members of Jahajee Sisters, where women will have the opportunity to bond, share our stories, engage in dialogue about issues that are relevant and important to us, and explore ways to create positive change. With great food, amazing women and dynamic conversation, we hope to build lasting relationships and strengthen our community. Sister Circles will be held on a regular basis. We aspire to have one Sister Circle gathering per month and need you to make this a reality by attending, hosting gatherings and supporting with outreach.
To kick off this program, the first Sister Circle will be an evening of artistic expression, catching up with old friends and getting to know new ones. This is also an opportunity to learn more about Jahajee Sisters and our work, as well as to get involved.
We hope you will join us for our very first Sister Circle, an exciting evening of dining and bonding! If you would like to host our next Sister Circle, please email us to express your interest. Below are additional updates about Jahajee Sisters and our community.
Jahajee Sisters Advisory Committee
Justice for Guiatree Hardat!
We are pleased to inform you that former transit cop Harry Rupnarine was sentenced to 25 years to life in September for the murder of his fiancée, Guiatree Hardat. Guiatree was murdered on May 10, 2007 in Woodhaven, Queens. She was just 22 years old. At the launch of our poetry chapbook, Bolo Bahen! Speak Sister!, Guiatree’s mother offered emotional words that moved some of us to tears as we took a moment to remember our sister, taken by gender-based violence. Our thoughts have been with all involved in this situation.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and seeking help, Sakhi for South Asian Women has monthly support groups in Richmond Hill, NY. You may contact them if you are interested in attending. If you need immediate assistance, please see the information here.
Jahajee at City Hall
Indra Seet and members of the Jahajee Sisters Advisory Committee performed at the annual Deepavali Festival of Lights at City Hall. The sisters performed A Journey in Seven Voices, a poem featured in Bolo Bahen! Speak Sister! We would like to thank Hazra Ali for giving us the opportunity to perform at the event and to represent our community.
Young Women’s Summer Leadership Institute
This summer, we will be hosting our first program developed exclusively for young women, ages 14-19. The program will be one week long and will focus on social justice issues—especially those affecting young Indo-Caribbean women—and leadership development. It will be held in Queens, NY. More details about the Young Women’s Summer Institute will be in the next Jahajee Sisters Update! Please stay tuned or contact us if you’d like to get involved.
[RE-POSTED FROM WRITING THE LINES OF OUR HANDS BLOG--This blog was created to chronicle the publication progress of Writing the Lines of Our Hands: An Anthology of South Asian American Poetry, to provide a forum for conversation and support among the authors of this anthology, and to facilitate conversations about writing by South Asian Americans.]
Sasha Kamini Parmasad was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, began writing poetry as a child, and was actively involved in the performing arts on a national scale from the age of six. She lived with her family in New Delhi, India, between 1988-1992. She received her B.A. in English Literature and Studio Art at Williams College, Massachusetts, in 2002, and her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Columbia University, New York, in 2008. Her first novel, Ink and Sugar, which is a work in progress, won third place in the long fiction category in the First Words Literary Contest for South Asian Writers in Washington D. C. in 2003. In April 2008 her paintings were exhibited at the second annual Indo-Caribbean Women’s Empowerment Summit in Queens, New York, co-sponsored by Sakhi for South Asian Women and Jahajee Sisters: Empowering Indo-Caribbean Women. One of her poems was the winner of the 2008 Poetry International competition, and will be published in the next issue of Poetry International. At present she lives in New York City where she teaches a Creative Writing Workshop to undergraduates at Columbia University.
Q: Name one collection of poetry that you wish you had written and why.
Somewhere in Caroni, Central Trinidad: an overgrown hunk of land on which, at one time, stood a wooden shed that concealed a crude underground room. Secreted in this room, the story goes, a manual printing press used to publish clandestine papers distributed among workers and farmers engaged in struggle throughout Trinidad. The world as text, and action as writing, this is the book I would have liked to have written. But the boundaries of this plot of land are no longer clear; the underground room has, perhaps, long filled with water and caved in.
Q: Describe the place/physical location where you write most regularly.
A room in our apartment. My husband, Mandip, moved in when I was in Trinidad, set up my desk here because I like to write in spaces that crow with direct morning light. Paradoxically, I keep the curtains and shades mostly drawn so that grey days don’t dampen, or bright days blot out the world at my fingertips. I face my desk away from the windows for the same reason. But I like to know, especially in winter, that there is light at my back; to watch it brush my computer screen, smear the wall in front me.
On that wall, a picture of my parents, sister, myself taken in 1988, as we prepared to leave Trinidad for India—my father was on his way to study cultural history at Jawaharlal Nehru University and we would live on that campus for four years. It was a staggering journey—back to the land from which our ancestors had been taken one hundred and forty-three years before, which generations before us had never seen. Beside this picture, a copy of The 23rd Psalm gifted me by my maternal grandmother, Soobratan, who in part raised me; observing her I learnt, to my especial delight as a child, Spanish, patois and Bhojpuri swear words, how to kill and clean a chicken, eat rice and dal with my fingers. Descending from a long Muslim line, she declares herself a Khan, is a member of the choir of the Presbyterian Church she has belonged to for more than three decades, and prays to Shiva alongside her Hindu grandchildren. Beside this, the fragment of an Indian-Trinidadian Bhojpuri song written and performed by my paternal grandfather, Ramsaran, in the 1930s, in honor of Uriah Butler, a labour leader of that time: Uriah Butler garibo ke khaatir, apne praan ko khelgayaa.
Beneath these images, binders that contain, like the file cabinets lining the adjacent wall, material relevant to my teaching and ongoing writing projects: my notes on literary texts; writing exercises; historical material accessed through archives, libraries, museums, cultural organizations; clippings from Trinidadian and American newspapers; academic essays; information relating to the Indian diaspora, particularly the old plantation diaspora; interviews with elders in the village of sugarcane workers and farmers in which I grew up; drafts of pieces of writing; video footage from a rapidly changing Trinidad that I hope, at some point, to edit, compose – in the vein of my earlier video-work – into sequences of visual poems.
I have not yet been able to unlearn the idiosyncratic method of typing I developed at college (I didn’t know how to type when I left Trinidad), so we’ve had a wooden stand constructed for my laptop which has saved me from many a neck crick. Tucked beneath this, books I’ve been jumping between: Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power, Hugh Tinker’s A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas 1830-1920, Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, Michael Ondaatje, Grace Paley, Nikolai Leskov, Charles Simic, an anthology of Caribbean short stories. More books and material of current interest on either side of the stand, piled atop the file cabinets, beside a corner shelf reserved for Caribbean literature, texts about Trinidad and Tobago.
On the desk, apart from books: cups of pens, a lamp—unspecial, but familiar. Up into the cubby-holes: journals I jot ideas in, literary magazines, junky things I resist discarding. The post-it notes stuck to the edge of the desk guide my writing like that broken line down the centre of the road. Higher up, a printer, speakers for music, folders, books: a collection of postwar Polish poetry edited by Milosz, poetry by Muriel Rukeyser, Jeremy Cronin, Dennis Brutus, Lorna Goodison, Martin Carter, Mahadai Das, Wislawa Szymborska, my father—Kenneth Parmasad, fiction by Tagore, Harold Sonny Ladoo; a dictionary, thesaurus, a brass murti of Saraswati I acquired on what I remember to be my first visit to an Indian-Caribbean temple in Queens, old bangles, photographs. It’s been over a year since I assessed the items on these upper shelves; they are footprints in dried mud.
I didn’t develop the practice of writing at a desk, in a closed room, facing a wall, until I left Trinidad to attend college. When I visit Trinidad I still like to write outside, by hand, or drag my small desk, if it’s not raining, into the upstairs porch with its view of the Northern mountain range, this Tanty watering her plants, that one sweeping the gap in front ofher house, the boys playing cricket in the road. I am not sensitive to shifts in light there.
Q: What South Asian themes are you interested in exploring in your work?
Cities of the Dead, according to its author, Joseph Roach, “shows how the memories of some particular times and places have become embodied in the through performances.” Roach further states: “…the voices of the dead may speak freely now only through the bodies of the living.”
In the Caribbean, Indian indentureship ended decades ago.
Sugarcane plantations are no more.
The government of Trinidad and Tobago announced last January that 2007 would mark the end of the sugarcane industry in the island—a watershed period in Trinidad’s history and, particularly, the history of the Indian community in Trinidad for, since 1845, when Indian indentured labourers were brought to the island to toil in conditions of bondage on plantations, the lives of masses of Indians, sugarcane workers and farmers, have been intimately tied to and dependent on the fortunes of sugar.
So much has changed, and yet, so much remains the same.
Though Indian-Trinidadians constitute half the population of Trinidad and have shaped and given their lives to that place for almost two hundred years, they are still called “East Indian” in that context—the same term used to describe them in colonial documents; it appears beside that other acceptable colonial designation, “coolie” (a derogatory term comparable to “nigger”). Many Indian-Trinidadians have also come to refer to themselves as “East Indian”. In Trinidad, I might be called an East Indian, West Indian. Here, in the United States, filling out official forms in different contexts, I have often had to choose between the categories: South Asian, Black/Caribbean. When, in one instance, I chose Black/Caribbean, the officer behind the desk took one look at me and said that I had to identify myself as South Asian. When I told her that I was both Indian and Caribbean – that my ancestors had lived in Trinidad for almost two hundred years – she shrugged. “You’re not black,” she said. Interestingly, the Black/Caribbean or Black/West Indian equation is also present in much American social scientific writing.
When I write, I think of these things—of the indelible marks left on us by history—how the voices of the dead continue to speak through the bodies of the living. I think of the contestation that exists between humankind and history: how we strive to be makers of history as history simultaneously makes us. I think of a Trinidadian sugarcane farmer – I will call her, Radha – who, in the political struggle waged by small sugarcane farmers in the 1970s to repeal an oppressive piece of Trinidadian legislation, pushed a policeman’s gun out of her face and asked: “Why you pointing a gun at me for? This is a peaceful struggle we having here.” I think of the Guyanese sugarcane worker and political organizer, Kowsilla (aka Alice), who became a martyr in 1964 when an estate scab drove a tractor through her, severing her body in two. I think of an Indian-Jamaican friend of mine, the descendant of indentured laborers, who walks into a room at a Massachusetts college where her friends (whose parents hark from South Asia) are sharing “Indian-Indian” food, hears the word, “aloo”, and bursts into an excited torrent of questions. What does the word mean, she asks urgently, what does it mean; for her grandmother in Jamaica used to use it, but the old woman is now dead and that word, dead with her, so what does it mean? Her friends, laughing incredulously, tell her: potato. She, clutching the word, fills with tears. Around the word, aloo, lit on a stage, I picture a space so dark with eroded sound, image, that the absence seems to shriek.
On May 26th, we [Sakhi for South Asian Women] co-sponsored the Indo-Caribbean Women’s Empowerment Summit in Richmond Hill, Queens as part of our Communities Taking Charge campaign. Over 50 women from the Richmond Hill community came together to share their stories and explore patriarchy, domestic violence and how to take action against injustice. The following is an article written by a community member who attended the event.
:: By Suzanne Persard, Attendee ::
Purpose of the Summit
Resilience. Strength. Change. These are just a few of the words that echoed throughout Richmond Hill Library on April 26, 2008 at the second annual 2008 Indo-Caribbean Women’s Empowerment Summit. The event was co-sponsored by Sakhi for South Asian Women and the budding Indo-Caribbean Women’s Group. Four generations of women gathered to participate in a series of discussions and workshops addressing issues affecting Indo-Caribbean women, particularly engaging in conversations about institutionalization of patriarchy and domestic violence.
In the Caribbean community, Indians have endured a history of being marginalized; within this marginalization, women have been further relegated to inhabiting a space of silence. This year’s summit was an endeavor to sever this history of oppression within our communities, to make those voices that have been silenced heard, and to transform this cycle of oppression into a collective strength of empowerment for women to exercise within their own lives.
The summit featured a tribute to poet, artist, and political activist Rajkumari Singh (1923-1979), whose efforts have made an indelible contribution to Indo-Caribbean culture. Diagnosed with polio at age 6, Singh’s commitment to both the artistic and political spheres in Guyana bolstered her position as a prominent figure in the country, as she prevailed over traditional gender roles to become one of the country’s first published poets and female activists. To honor her legacy, her daughter, Pritha Singh, and granddaughter, Sharda Shakti Singh, performed creative dialogues invoking different moments in the elder Singh’s life. Also in tribute to Rajkumari, Kavita Tajeshwar performed a classical Kathak dance invocation and Simone Jhingoor shared a very moving poem.
Organization and Message
The event was primarily led and organized by Simone Jhingoor, Sakhi Volunteer Coordinator Shivana Jorawar, and Taij Kumarie Moteelall, with vital support from Sasha Parmasad and Sakhi volunteers Jacqueline Latif and Shabana Sharif. Shivana and Sakhi Domestic Violence Program Advocate Fatma Zahra led a workshop on domestic violence which entailed breaking participants into groups and asking them for examples of various types of abuse. A workshop on deconstructing patriarchy was led by Simone, who asked attendees to describe the male-dominated power system. Within workshop discussions, dialogues ensued about the manipulation of religion to oppress women, the role of immigration status in influencing a women’s decision to report abuse to authorities (immigration status has no bearing on the right to access safety), and the stigma associated with domestic violence survivors and their families.
Purvi Shah, Executive Director at Sakhi, spoke about Sakhi’s mission as an organization committed to ending domestic violence within the South Asian and South Asian diasporic communities. Purvi remarked upon the fact that the Indo-Caribbean diaspora was a demographic within the scope of Sakhi’s programming, adding that Sakhi would like to see continued involvement from Indo-Caribbean community. She also stated that reports of domestic violence to Sakhi have more than tripled in the past six years, a factor the organization attributes to the increase in reported domestic violence incidents by survivors and their loved ones, rather than an increase in the number of incidences themselves.
Dialogue Across Generations
The summit included two inter-generational panels, consisting of a representative from each of the four generations of women present, which discussed progressive women’s issues and the extent to which they have evolved within a contemporary climate. Women who came of age decades earlier expressed their struggle to access education in eras when it was regarded as superfluous for women. Gender inequalities that have remained in a patriarchal system continue to promote the intellectual authority of men over women. Women were also vocal about the expectations many families have once women are married, notably that they must choose to be subservient wives, bear the responsibility of heading their households, and ultimately forsake their independence for the sake of their husbands and children. A number of women recounted narratives of experiencing domestic violence in their own families or in the lives of their friends, while others shared stories about their personal experiences with having to rise up against patriarchal powers.
Yet these stories evoked anything but hopelessness or yielding to the status quo; instead, women collaborated about ways to transform the stigmas associated with domestic violence in the Indo-Caribbean community and society-at-large, providing advice to their fellow sisters about how to combat the perpetuation of patriarchal oppression that has overshadowed our culture. Many women were vocal about their personal refusal to accept domestic violence as an acknowledged cultural concession, affirming their own stance against even the possibility of domestic violence within their own marriages. Among the ideas suggested for social transformation within the community were conducting a summit for Indo-Caribbean men and conducting more summit-like meetings for Indo-Caribbean women. Women in attendance affirmed that while ousting the historical presence of patriarchy was vital to the social evolution of the community, supplanting it with a matriarchy was not necessarily the answer to combating oppression; instead, gender equality would provide an opportunity to cultivate more stable households, and consequently, more stable communities.
Spirit of Solidarity
Packets distributed to attendees included inspirational poems, historical information about the migration of Indians to the Caribbean, and worksheets for fostering self-empowerment. Taij closed the ceremony with words of encouragement and solidarity, challenging the women in attendance to leave for the day with an introspective reevaluation of their lives and their place in the Indo-Caribbean community. She was joined by Sasha, who led the women in a chant resonating throughout the summit’s walls: “Warrior woman, raise your fist up high, liberation is a state of mind!”