The Beginning of Domestic Violence?

Came across an absorbing article in the Guyana Journal. It delves into the history of women of Indian origin in Guyana from arrival in colonial British Guiana to post-independence. Although it deals solely with Indians in Guyana, I’d recommend a perusal for anyone interested in the history of Guyanese women’s struggle. In particular, for a history of domestic abuse and its tie in with the colonial slave mentality.

Here is an excerpt from Janet Naidu’s piece:

Gender Disparity

While immigration increased and quotas were established, women were still disproportionately represented with a ratio of 35 women to 100 men and 50 to 100 in 1860. Even as late as 1890, the proportion of women to men declined to 41 women for every 100 men. Although repeated requests were made to colonial immigration agents for more women, the disparity of female indentured laborers remained throughout the indenture period. The planters viewed women as ‘uneconomical’ and recruiters were not encouraged to meet the recommended quotas; few Indian men wanted to bring their wives as they intended to return to India. As a result, the disproportion of the sexes created a social problem for men and women on the estates. They were not only “exposed to planter tyranny and neglect, but they also suffered from the serious disproportion in the sex ratio which produced considerable tension.” Planters abused their position of authority and engaged in sexual relationships with Indian women, and in most cases, another man’s wife, without recourse.

With the disproportion of men and women, morality became an issue as some women were depicted as being unfaithful. As a consequence an alarming number of murders occurred where, for example, during the period “1859-1864, some 23 murders of Indian women by their husbands or reputed husbands were recorded.” Murders continued into the 1920s and barbaric acts were committed by the use of a hoe or a cutlass. Although some women came with their husbands, Rhoda Reddock revealed that about two-thirds were single, and that “the majority of Indian women came to the Caribbean not as wives or daughters but as individual women.” For example, when Annapurani came on the ship, Ganges, in 1915, almost all of the few women who came were single and between the ages of 18 and 25 Indian women were not only placed in a minority position, requiring protection against a dominant male culture, but they were also subject to “sexual abuse by drivers, overseers and other estate personnel.”

Earlier in 1871, a Royal Commission Report stated that it was not “uncommon for overseers, and even managers, to form temporary connections with Coolie women, and in every case with the worst possible consequences to the good order and harmony of the estate.” The brutality against Indian women was taken lightly by colonial powers as they viewed such exploitative relations as having greater impact on the stability of the estate than on families.

While Indian men suffered because of the scarcity of women and were even killed as a result of British overseers’ sexual exploitation of women, Indian women suffered even more, not only by British overseers on the estates but also by their husbands at home. The scarcity also led to the perpetuation of child marriage, with many young women forced to have older husbands and this, in some cases, leading to domestic violence and murder of women. In 1896, 11-year old Etwarea’s marriage was arranged by her parents to the wealthy Seecharan, age 50, who paid her parents “a cow and calf and $50 and made a Will leaving his property to his wife.” He later suspected her at around age 16 of being unfaithful and ‘sharpened his cutlass and completely severed [her] right arm’ after which she died. By perpetuating their ancestral custom of ‘child marriage’ (with the legal marriage age set at 13 years for girls and 15 years for boys) young girls became housewives and were subject to their husbands’ commands.

Even though in 1900 the gender ratio was 62 women to 100 men, there is no written data to suggest that the shortage of women was a main factor for the abuse and murder of Indian women. But it is highly suggestive that the exploitation of men by their colonial master caused some men to function as the patriarchal authority in the home where a new dimension of sexism developed. Humiliation and self-degradation contributed to their low self-esteem and they began to harm their wives and children, the people closest to them.

Daily harsh treatment under colonial rule caused many Indian men to drink rum after a hard day’s work. Then they would go home in frustration and behaved cruelly with their wives and children. This was very common and hence, the stereotypical ‘wife beater’ image attached to the Indian male.

Read more here.

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