Thursday January 18, 2018

Gaiutra Bahadur captures the Plight of Indentured Women Workers of British Era through her book

During the Raj, many Indian women had left Indian villages for British Guiana to work as coolies

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Postcard image of a “coolie belle”. Image source: arcthemagazine.com
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  • Gaiutra Bahadur is the author of the book Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture which was published in 2013
  • It is the unraveling of the history and lifestyle of the indentured women who had left the Indian villages for British Guiana to work as bonded laborers.
  • Gaiutra writes this book, not only with the help of historical facts but with reference to her own experiences as the great grandchild of an immigrant

Gaiutra Bahadur talks about the indentured women like her own grandmother, who left Indian villages and traveled to British Guiana to work as laborers. The plight of these women, their miserable living conditions and the reasons behind their journey away from home are the topics that the author explores in her books.

Gaiutra Bahadur. Image Source : dartcenter.org
Gaiutra Bahadur. Image Source : dartcenter.org

Bahadur talks about her great grandmother, Sujaria, who had left on a voyage, leaving behind her village when she was four months pregnant. Whether she was running away from an abusive marriage or had been left by her husband are questions to which no definite answers can be found. The reason is that these women had not left behind any first person accounts of why and how they came to desert their indigenous residence and left for an unknown land to work as coolies in British Guiana.

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The absence of written records of the life experiences of these women had made it difficult for the author to investigate the issue. Which is why she sought to understand it with the help of her own experiences as a child who was born in Guiana. She went back to her own roots- to the village of Guyana where she had been born and to her grandmother’s village, where there is a rampant abuse of women taking place in every other household. She came to understand the deplorable conditions these women lived in and some women continue to do so. She tried to understand it by thinking about her own life as the child of a family of immigrants. Thus she compares the experience of an inquisitive child with that of a skeptic reporter.

An indentured woman in traditional wear. Image Source : vqronline.org
An indentured woman in traditional wear. Image Source : vqronline.org

These women, who were uneducated and made voiceless were only described by the more powerful people, who ruled over them. In fact, there are only three documents of indentured people of that era, that too, written by the male counterparts. However, the documents of the rulers and officers had given the author a perspective on how the women were treated in the British society. Mostly, these women were young ones who had been left by their husbands, forced into the sex trade or were victims of domestic abuse. It was as if they had been born into the wrong time, wrong place and wrong bodies.

The cover of the book. Image Source : amazon.com
The cover of the book. Image Source : amazon.com

Bahadur further studied their lifestyle by listening to folk songs, oral histories, photographs and postcards from the colonial era. It certainly helped her getting an impression of the lives of the indentured and unfortunate women. However, she was not yet satisfied with the answers to her questions about these women. She says in the latest issue of The Guardian, “About the time when I sat down to write my first chapter, I heard Salman Rushdie read Donald Barthelme’s Concerning the Bodyguard on a New Yorker podcast. The short story, told through the eyes of a bodyguard assigned to a politician in an unnamed Latin American country, is written almost entirely in question form. The device is meant to mirror the bodyguard’s uncertainty and anxiety when he views the world; he never knows who or what precisely is coming at him, or what threats they might pose. It occurred to me to try a similar experiment to deal with gaps and silences in indenture’s archive.

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Whole sections of Coolie Woman unfold entirely in questions: mine, my great-grandmother’s, the reader’s, one relentlessly following the next, said the author to the Guardian. These questions allow me to imagine interiorities withheld by the written record. They paint landscapes, advance the plot, convey a tone. They communicate my own attitude to the archive and its elisions and biases: I could never be neutral because I am, after all, a product of the history I’ve written”.

Gaiutra Bahadur has taken a novel and extremely out of the box initiative. People need to know the history of these unfortunate people and especially that of the oppressed women of that time.

– prepared by Atreyee Sengupta, an intern at NewsGram, on the basis of the original article in The Guardian and excerpts from the book by the author.

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  • Aparna Gupta

    These days we hardly find women as Coolie. But it is surprising that women were coolie at that time.

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Top Hollywood women unveiled a sexual harassment initiative

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Top Hollywood women unveiled a sexual harassment initiative
A combination photo shows some of the actresses who have made allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein. Listed in alphabetical order, top row from left, Asia Argento, Rosanna Arquette, Jessica Barth, Cara Delevingne, Romola Garai, Judith Godreche, Heather Graham, Angelina Jolie. VOA

USA, Jan 1, 2018: More than 300 top women in Hollywood — from Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence to Emma Thompson and Cate Blanchett — unveiled an initiative Monday to tackle pervasive sexual harassment in workplaces, calling special attention to their “sisters” in less than glamorous blue-collar jobs.

The initiative, dubbed Time’s Up, caps a year in which the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct scandal touched off a deluge of allegations that brought down powerful men in entertainment, politics and the media, prompting companies, government agencies and even the U.S. federal court system to re-examine harassment policies.

But in an open letter printed in The New York Times, the new initiative lends the star power of its A-list members to the cause of women in less prominent fields, urging support and respect for farm workers and others whose humble positions leave them vulnerable and voiceless.

“We fervently urge the media covering the disclosures by people in Hollywood to spend equal time on the myriad experiences of individuals working in less glamorized and valorized trades,” the group says in its full-page ad.

“To every woman employed in agriculture who has had to fend off unwanted sexual advances from her boss, every housekeeper who has tried to escape an assaultive guest, every janitor trapped nightly in a building with a predatory supervisor, every waitress grabbed by a customer and expected to take it with a smile … we stand with you. We support you.”

$15 million goal

Last month, the head of Ford Motor Company apologized to employees at two factories in Chicago and promised changes, after a scathing expose by the Timesdetailed pervasive harassment and mistreatment of women at the plants dating back to the 1990s. It was one of the first major media investigations into sexual harassment in blue-collar workplaces.

Among the specific steps it announced, Time’s Up has established a legal defense fund that, in just 12 days, has raised $13.4 million toward a $15 million goal aimed at providing legal aid for women and men who were sexually harassed, assaulted or abused in the workplace.

It has vowed to push for legislation to strengthen laws on workplace harassment and discrimination.

The group insists that more women must be brought into positions of power and leadership, while every woman should have equal benefits, opportunities, pay and representation.

As for Hollywood, it wants “swift and effective change to make the entertainment industry a safe and equitable place for everyone.”

And it called on women to wear black at Sunday’s Golden Globes as a statement against gender and racial inequality, and to raise awareness about the group’s efforts.

‘Dear Sisters’ 

The open letter in the Times, which also appears in the Spanish-language La Opinion, opens with the words “Dear Sisters” in large, bold type, and closes with the words “in solidarity,” followed by the names of the 300 women.

Several of Weinstein’s accusers signed the open letter. They include Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale, as well as Salma Hayek, whose lengthy account of mistreatment by Weinstein — “my monster,” she called him — was widely circulated on social media after appearing last month in The New York Times.

Weinstein has denied some of the allegations, including Hayek’s assertion that he pressured her to do a nude sex scene in one movie.

Other prominent women lending their names to the Time’s Up cause are actresses Natalie Portman, America Ferrera, Amy Schumer, Halle Berry, Julianne Moore, Keira Knightley, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Susan Sarandon, Uma Thurman and Viola Davis; producer Shonda Rhimes; Universal Pictures chair Donna Langley; feminist activist Gloria Steinem; lawyer and ex-Michelle Obama chief of staff Tina Tchen and Nike Foundation co-chair Maria Eitel. (VOA)