Jahajee Sisters: Activism for Indo-Caribbean Feminist Futures

A report from The Stabroek News.

Can we imagine a world in which Indo-Caribbean women are not the subject of headlines in the form of murder? Can we imagine an Indo-Caribbean community that holds perpetrators of gender-based violence accountable? Where is the outrage for murdered Indo-Caribbean women? 

These questions mobilized the founding of Jahajee Sisters, the first movement building organization working to address the disproportionate rates of sexual, domestic and intimate partner violence against Indo-Caribbean women.

The organization is gearing up to host its tenth summit in November, although this year it will be virtual. Jahajee Sisters’ 2020 Indo-Caribbean Women’s+ Empowerment Summit, “Building Our Future: Love & Solidarity as the Pathway to Justice” is an event that will convene an inter-generational, multi-racial, gender-expansive group of people to mobilize for gender justice in the Indo-Caribbean community and beyond. 

In 2007, an intergenerational group of women in New York City joined together to decry the culture of silence surrounding the murders of 20-year-old Natasha Ramen, who was stalked and murdered by her rapist, and 23-year-old Guiatree Hardat, who was murdered by her ex-fiancé, a New York City Police Department officer. 

“We had two Indo-Caribbean women murdered in our backyards within the span of two months and there was silence,” Taij Kumarie Moteelall said in response to the urgency to convene a gender justice movement to address the silence of the Indo-Caribbean community with regard to gender-based violence. Moteelall, who spent two decades organizing in social movements at the helm of arts-based social justice activism and philanthropy, was one of the women who convened the first Indo-Caribbean Women’s Empowerment Summit in 2007. 

Although South Asian organizations in New York City existed to serve women impacted by domestic violence, Jahajee Sisters saw the need for a culturally-specific organizing space that would meet the needs of Indo-Caribbean women. By 2008, the collective of women joined forces with other Indo-Caribbean women, all of whom would become activists starting a movement. The organization decided upon the name Jahajee Sisters, reclaiming the “jahaji bahen” or sisterhood of the ship trope that characterizes descendants of indenture who ventured from the subcontinent to labor on plantations across the British, French and Dutch empires.

The organization’s first major programming consisted of raising awareness around gender-based violence during monthly meetings with Indo-Caribbean women in the Richmond Hill community of Queens, New York, which is home to the largest population of Indo-Caribbean immigrants in the U.S. In 2008, Jahajee Sisters partnered with Sakhi for South Asian women to hold a weekly arts and empowerment workshop series addressing domestic violence in the South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities, discussing safety planning for survivors and their families, and addressing the specific needs of women experiencing intimate partner violence in the Indo-Caribbean community. This arts and empowerment series culminated with the publication of the chapbook, “Bolo Bahen! Speak, Sister!”, which was launched in a series of poetry performances at the Queens Museum of Art.

The earliest days of Jahajee Sisters were led by first-generation immigrants or descendants of Indian indentureship from countries including Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana. 

From a small collective of more than a handful of inter-generational, inter-faith women, Jahajee Sisters is now a staffed non-profit organization, co-directed by Shivana Jorawar, an attorney with a history working for reproductive justice policy, and Simone Devi Jhingoor, an artist and leadership coach whose work has included arts activism and healing justice programming.

The urgency for Jahajee Sisters’ role in addressing gender-based violence in the Indo-Caribbean community is underscored by the increasing number of murdered Indo-Caribbean women who continue to make headlines in New York City. Stacy Singh was the first homicide victim of 2018, murdered by her husband, who then committed suicide. In November 2019, Donna Dojoy, known as Rehanna, was murdered by her estranged husband, who then committed suicide. As the number of murders continues in the news, Jahajee Sisters continues to speak out against the fatal cultural attitudes that inform and perpetuate violence against Indo-Caribbean women:

“We are repulsed and angered by suggestions at this moment that some victims’ lives are less valuable because they did not conform to sexist ideas of what a ‘good’ woman should be. It is beliefs like these that make up a culture where such gruesome violence can continue to exist. It is unfortunate that we have to say this, but no victim of gender-based murder ever deserves to die. Nothing, including one’s occupation or style of dress, is an excuse for murder. And no person should ever be shamed for working where they do in order to make ends meet.”

Victim shaming continues to play a critical role in cultural attitudes toward Indo-Caribbean women, even as they continue to experience sexual, domestic and intimate partner violence at alarming rates. A 2016 study of Indo-Caribbean intimate partner violence in Richmond Hill, Queens by sociologist Aneesa Baboolall found that a culture of silence surrounding abuse, the stigmatization of women who report abuse, and the justification for abuse against women continue to perpetuate intergenerational cycles of trauma. Stigmatizing women also played a critical role in cultural attitudes towards addressing intimate partner violence, since women who sought help risked humiliation in their communities.

The history of indenture traces violence against women to disproportionate rates of men to women on the earliest ships departing Calcutta and Madras to the Caribbean. But the history of violence that Indo-Caribbean communities inherited cannot be one simply conceded to on account of history; Indo-Caribbean communities must confront this gruesome history that continues to inform present day sexual, domestic and intimate partner violence. Ending gender-based violence is not only a women’s issue — it is a community issue. 

Despite the perception of sexual, domestic and intimate partner violence as a heterosexual issue, from its founding days, Jahajee Sisters’ leadership and a significant number of members have also been LGBTQ+ identified women, debunking the concept that only heterosexual women are impacted by violence. Since its inception, the organization has included summits and community programming on reproductive justice and LGBTQ+ rights, LGBTQ+ domestic violence and gender-inclusive programming. 

The organization’s most recent organizing efforts include the #FundExcludedWorkers campaign, an effort to support workers who will not receive financial support from the U.S. federal government during the COVID-19 crisis; 2020 Census Outreach to ensure the Indo-Caribbean community is counted accurately; and co-partnering with organizations such as Bangladeshi Americans for Political Progress (BAPP) to protest rape and sexual violence against women.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Jahajee Sisters has distributed $40,000 to Indo-Caribbean women and their families in New York City impacted by the devastating financial crisis. Since a significant number of women in the Indo-Caribbean community are new immigrants or undocumented, the Jahajee Sisters COVID-19 Emergency Fund has played a critical role in supporting the livelihoods of Indo-Caribbean community members in New York City. 

“Jahajee Sisters’ Indo-Caribbean Women’s Empower-ment Summits have created a critical space for the Indo-Caribbean community to dialogue and collectively envision bold solutions to the gender injustice we see impacting women and gender expansive people in our community, not only in the U.S. but historically within the Caribbean and the Indo-Caribbean diaspora. This year we are calling our people to action— let’s build the loving future our people deserve, one where we are safe, thriving and joyful.”

The 2020 summit will open with a panel on Indo-Caribbean community leaders discussing organizing efforts across the Caribbean and the diaspora, featuring Talisha A. Ramsaroop of Lotus Toronto and Christine Samaroo of The Breadfruit Collective in Guyana. 

Throughout the weekend, workshops will feature political education, arts and activism and Indo-Caribbean history, as well as talks with writers and visual artists, including a Q&A session with artist Renluka Maharaj. This year’s summit will address organizing Indo-Caribbean communities in solidarity, while addressing the role of intergenerational trauma in activism.

The summit will conclude with a panel on cross-racial solidarity building featuring gender justice leaders from New York City, including Sevonna Brown, Co-Executive Director of Black Women’s Blueprint; Margarita Guzmán, Executive Director of Violence Intervention Program (VIP) Mujeres; and Sasha Neha Ahuja of the New York City Commission on Gender Equity.

Register for the 2020 Jahajee Sisters’ Indo-Caribbean Women’s Empowerment Summit using the following link: https://hopin.to/events/2020jahajeesummit#schedule

Sliding scale tickets and scholarships available for those who cannot afford the discounted or student ticket. If you would like to attend and cannot afford to, please e-mail: jahajeesisters@gmail.com

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