Report on the 2008 Indo-Caribbean Women’s Summit

On May 26th, we 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.

A Tribute

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!”