What does International Women's Day mean for an Indo-Mauritian?
For every 100 males, the British empire decided to enrol as indentured labourers, 40 females were required, as those males who were contracted decided to go back to India, citing family reasons. The Indian men who were coming over wanted ‘chaste’ women so they could marry them with honour. If anyone is acquainted with what crossing over the Kala Pani meant, then they would know that nothing that crosses over the sea was considered to be pure anymore. And who are those women of ‘good character’ who would travel alone on a ship full of men? Finding those ‘chaste’ women was an almost impossible task, lucky were those who were already married and could bring their wives. Thus ‘fallen’ women were shipped to make up for the numbers. And obviously, what good would it be if every man decided to bring his wife along, ‘women are not as strong as men’ and would not be as useful ploughing the fields. There were apparently reports of men who would make ‘fallen’ women pose as their wives so they could take them to Mauritius. Whether they were ‘fallen’ women or not, only they would know as there is a lot of polemic around it.
40 females for every 100 males, just imagine, even if they were not ‘fallen’ women, once they would have been on that boat without the protection of a man, there were to become nothing less. As many of those single women landed in Mauritius, life didn’t get any easier, they were no good for fieldwork and hence were employed doing menial chores, which didn’t pay the Rs. 5 a month they were expecting. What was it in India that might have made those single women agreeing to move to Mauritius if they were not ‘fallen’ women? What conditions were they living under? What were their limitations? This would require researching the condition of living of those illiterate Hill Coolies women from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh where most of them came from. Poverty? Patriarchy? Sexual abuse? Racism? Sexism? Abusive family? Whatever it was, the prospect of a life in Mauritius was definitely more enticing than the choice of staying back home.
I certainly did not belong to the latest Indian influx of Gujrati Muslim traders, the likes of Mr. Goolam Mamode Ajam, who were educated enough to host men like Gandhi in 1901. I am probably more of a closer version to the current Prime Minister’s caste – the Yadavs (Ahirs) as they would have been known in India, or a Muslim version of that, someone who came from a farming background. Was it not for my ancestors willingly taking the decision to move to Mauritius, I cannot imagine the horrible life I would have had in some unknown village in Bihar? As part of a research project, I decided to look at the statistics of women in Bihar and compare it to women in Mauritius as Indo-Mauritians is an overwhelming majority on the island.
Female literacy in rural Bihar in 2020: 58.7%
Female literacy in Mauritius in 2018: 89.4%
Poverty line in Bihar in 2020: 33%, according to an article published in 2020, it is the highest in India.
Poverty line in Mauritius in 2017: 10.3%
So, what does it mean to be a female Indo-Mauritian?
It means my illiterate and uneducated ancestors, including some ‘fallen’ women made the choice of signing up for indentureship so I could have a better future elsewhere. It means that I have had access to education through the push of a mix of people: colonisers, Anglican missionaries, the Gujarati and South Indian merchants, and eventually the Arya Samaj and Muslim Ahmadiyya movements also contributed to my access to education. Those people in the New World, this creolisation that took place is what enabled me to finally get an education so I could earn a living and become independent. This is what sets me apart from my ancestors’ past and my counterparts in Bihar. This is what finally makes me of ‘good character’ irrespective of my chastity. Being a female Indo- Mauritian means I was able to break the shackle of the past and move forward to embrace a life of literacy that otherwise would never have opened up to me. So, thank you to all those men and women from different communities, religions and races who have contributed to give me a chance to study in my country of birth, an education that enabled me to enrol in a ‘redbrick’ University abroad. Thank you to those ‘fallen’ and illiterate women whose courage cannot be described, it is not easy to abandon one’s land, and even less for single women, it must not have been easy to board a ship full of vultures, and to land on an unknown island where the sharks were waiting on their prey. So, thank you for giving me the chance to be born somewhere where my value as a woman is recognised through the efforts of so many otherwise subaltern others. Thank you for supporting me in becoming a mother, a daughter, a sister, a teacher, a student, a homemaker and a working woman. You all knew we could be more than just housewives and mothers.
Dey, Debasmita. “INDENTURED LABORERS AND THE NATIVE WOMEN IN MAURITIUS: THE COLONIAL PERSPECTIVES.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 75, 2014, pp. 989–995.
Hollup, Oddvar. “The Disintegration of Caste and Changing Concepts of Indian Ethnic Identity in Mauritius.” Ethnology, vol. 33, no. 4, 1994, pp. 297–316.
Eisenlohr, Patrick. “The Politics of Diaspora and the Morality of Secularism: Muslim Identities and Islamic Authority in Mauritius.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 12, no. 2, 2006, pp. 395–412.