Valini Chadee

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Indian women surging forward

It may have been a hunger for empowerment or a stronger sense of achievement and improvement. Whatever the motivating factor, there is no denying that the transformation of the East Indian woman in Trinidad and Tobago's society from the 1800s to 2011 is nothing short of revolutionary.

This year, as the country prepares to commemorate the 166th anniversary of Indian Arrival Day, several women of East Indian descent reflect on their achievements and discuss their vision for the future.

"I think the Indian woman has come a long way since the arrival of our forefathers," said Mrs Shrimati Indra Maharaj, wife of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha Dharmacharya Pundit Gutam Maharaj in an interview with Express Woman. "She has moved from functioning as an ordinary field labourer or as a housewife to now occupy the highest offices in almost every field including politics, law, engineering, medicine, science and others. As we prepare for the future, I would like to see women (of East Indian descent) reach for greater heights."

Though they hail from different generations and may hold diverse opinions on other issues, in this instance, Mrs Maharaj's view was shared by 27-year-old Port of Spain attorney Valini Chadee.

Chadee said, "Historically, in East Indian society, when one looks at our cultural and religious backgrounds, the men are more dominant. For many East Indians, like any other human being, this cultural and religious background shapes their mindset, self-image and place in society.

"The position of the woman (of East Indian descent) in society today is therefore extremely significant as it demonstrates a leap to pull away from being identified as someone's wife, daughter or sister and to be empowered in her own right. East Indian women have been asserting themselves consistently over the years, but you observe that movement more prevalent today as the amalgamation of Western culture with the Eastern background has subjected the woman to change."

Chadee said this change has been demonstrated in the school system where girls continue to outshine their male counterparts. She said female achievement in the classroom is a clear demonstration of the female hunger to empower themselves and to excel.

"There is now a hunger to grasp opportunity, experience, education, knowledge and the wisdom they want to give back to their children," she said.

It is also demonstrated in the political and legal systems.

Referring to the achievements of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar as the first female Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Chadee said this achievement had become an emblem of pride to many women of East Indian descent.

"Today in Trinidad we have a Prime Minister who is not just female or an Indian wife of a particular cultural background, but also of East Indian descent, a woman who has embraced her responsibility to the country regardless of race, religion, cultural beliefs or political affiliations," she said. "So when you look at Indian Arrival Day and at the East Indian woman in our society today, there is no denying that she has redefined herself."

Referring to the trials faced by women in other societies in the world, Chadee noted that women are still subjected to the most brutal forms of male dominance.

"It is that sort of cultural background that the East Indian woman comes from," she said. "To come from that place in history and from that sort of dominance to where she stands today, she is like a rose among thorns ... rising up as something that could be appreciated despite the adversity she faced and still continues to face as a result of labelling. It is a remarkable journey. That is the best way I could put it."

Of the generational issues that may affect relationships between the woman of yesteryear and the woman of today, Chadee said despite their many achievements, the East Indian woman remains grounded in family and relationships remain close knit.

"The relationships we share remain close knit despite our different views- from traditional to modern," she said. "In our family, I am the only daughter. My mother and I have a very close relationship but I have noticed many differences in our thinking. She is very traditional in terms of her views and interacting with persons. She is a very religious person and a vision of the traditional Indian Hindu woman while as an attorney at law, I find myself going out and facing the world on my own with a new perspective on the values she had already instilled in me. Still, if it were not for where she has come from and her understanding of several things i. Prayer to God is imperative, ii. Family values iii. Understanding that life is all about balance, iv. Understanding that you can be all that you want to be v. You should not let people's perception of you change who you are... perhaps I would not have been the woman I am today."

Leading women in the Presbyterian Church of Trinidad and Tobago also expressed pride in the woman's development from then to now.

Reverend Brenda Bullock, who has been a minister in the Presbyterian Church since 1992, was recently appointed the first female moderator of the Presbyterian Church.

She said, "Women have made great strides and we continue to make great strides. We have seen it in every area of life in politics, in theological settings, in medicine ... in every area of life. And while we have been blazing a trail professionally, some of us perform dual roles, maintaining our traditional roles as mothers and wives and daughters and so forth."

Reflecting on the past, Bullock said the woman of East Indian descent faced many social disadvantages in the past.

"In my understanding, you were a daughter and then you became a wife," she explained. "In many families, though it was not always the case, opportunities for education was prioritised and the son would have the advantage over the daughter. In recent times, we have seen that women are going after their dreams and making them a reality. "

She commended these women for their achievements, also showering praise on the women who helped shape them.

"These include the traditional homemakers who may not have had the same opportunities but who encouraged their daughters and pushed for their education and self confidence and self realisation," she said.

She said while the progress is positive, there is still room for growth. She urged women to keep their moral foundation while aiming to fly as much as they could in terms of pursuing their goals.

"I think we have a greater sense of independence in terms of how we do things and how we treat with others," said another female Presbyterian Minister Reverend Joy Abdul. "Today we are seeing that the woman has shown an ability to perform at a far greater level than people recognised before."

Abdul, who has served as a Presbyterian Minister for the past 23 years, recently completed her tenure as principal of the St Andrew's Theological College in San Fernando. Today she serves as Minister of the Presbyterian Parish in Oropouche and is Chaplain of the University of Trinidad and Tobago, South Campus.

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