Indian women emerging into modernity

a boy, and you educate an individual. Educate a girl, and you educate a community. – Greg Mortenson

In my last three articles I described the transplantation of Indians in general and women in particular from India to Guyana as indentured labourers. I described how the disparity between the numbers of men and women brought over – three men to every woman – helped to break down caste and even religious barriers between the immigrants.
It also offered the possibility of economic equality between the genders since all the women who came had to work in the cane fields like the men. As I showed, also, it was women who also played a major role in gradually freeing Indians from being “bound” to the sugar plantations by cultivating the land they received in exchange of their return passage. They “minded” the cows, planted and harvested the rice, and cultivated and “huckstered” the vegetables.
However, what is striking about the condition of the Indian woman 99 years after Indentureship was ended (1917) is re-creation of so many of the social structures in which women in general were forced in “subaltern” or lower status roles as compared to men. What happened? Even though he is not a Marxist, one of my father’s favourite expressions is by that gentleman, which sheds some light: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
What then were the “circumstances” apart from the ones described that has led to the present status of women in the Indian community? First and foremost was the premise of the managers of the sugar plantations that only men were suitable for leadership. While the “slave driver” – head of the gangs that performed field labour – was changed to the Hindi “sardar” meaning “leader”, and commonly pronounced “Sadaar” by the immigrants, the position was still generally given to men. There were few “sardarins”.
While women and children were also entitled to receiving land in exchange for their return passage to India, and on the books there was a law that these had to be registered in their names, in practice the land was controlled by their husbands since the plantation managers would only deal with them.
Later when loans were granted by the plantations for houses to be built so that the Indians could move out of the logees, the loans were granted to the men. In my village of Uitvlugt, there is no instance of any woman being given a housing loan.
Another major reason for the disparity in gender status was the lack of educational opportunities for the Indian children, but moreso for girls. The Compulsory Education Ordinance was passed in 1876 by which children under nine had to attend school. But this was to be accomplished by the various Christian denominations and not by founding of schools run by Hindus or Muslims who may have been qualified in their language of Hindi/Urdu and certainly learned in their religion.
Both Hindus and Muslims therefore saw “education” as a means to convert their children, just as the Missionaries tried to convert them. It was only just before Guyana achieved Independence that “government” schools were removed from the control of the Christian denominations. Because the Indians kept their children out of the Christian schools, most of them went into the cane fields into the “Creole” gang and this suited the planters.
In 1904 the Governor, Sir James Swettenham, issued a Circular which in effect exempted Indian children, attending school if their parents objected on “religious grounds”. While even though as late as 1933 when the “Swettenham Circular” was withdrawn, only 19% of Indian children had a primary education, very few were girls. In “protecting” their girl children, the Indian parents unwittingly conspired to not equip them for the new world evolving.