Defining and Troubling Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought
Mohammed shapes indigenous feminist theorizing that is firmly grounded in Caribbean people’s experiences and histories while also reflecting a lib- eratory approach to the struggle of ending systems of oppression and domination. In her essay “Towards Indigenous Feminist Theorizing in the Caribbean,” she closes with these poignant reflections:
In the last decades of the twentieth century, for those of us who live in this stepping-stone of islands and adjacent territories, between north and south Americas, feminism provides a new lens to interrogate the past and renders new challenges and opportunities to establish boundaries of identity and difference. If the struggles for identity have been about a desire to enrich the space and group to which we belong, then Caribbean feminism is itself an expression of the new conditions of that desire. (Mohammed 1998, 28)
Mohammed’s visioning of Caribbean feminism privileges the work of interrogating and understanding the boundaries of identity and differ- ence—and how these determine conceptions of space and belonging.
In her 2003 essay “Like Sugar in Coffee: Third Wave Feminism and the Caribbean,” Mohammed uses the metaphor to describe ways a gender consciousness has filtered through society and her optimism about the future of feminism in the Caribbean. She admits though that this may or may not be a feminist consciousness; she defines gender consciousness as “the self awareness and confidence of one’s rights and privileges as ‘female’ or ‘male’ in society as well as the limits or oppressiveness which being male or female still imposes on the individual to realize their potential”
(Mohammed 2003, 6). This gender consciousness can be understood as the successes of “second-wave” feminism in the region and intricately part of a “third wave.” Thus, she discusses the implications of changing perceptions of gender equity vs. equality and the disturbing backlash against women’s movements and feminism that arguably we still are in today. In particular, she suggests the ways that one can identify with the issues and concerns of gender and sexual equality but refuse to identify as a feminist because of the associations with “man-hating” and “lesbian.” Mohammed raises vital questions in this essay that Caribbean feminism has yet to fully grapple with:
Eudine Barriteau suggests that “gender has consumed its feminist mother”. Third Wave feminism must continue to pose the question this raises: has gender consciousness been at the expense of a feminist consciousness?
Is there a difference and is this difference key to the future of feminism? (Mohammed 2003, 25)
Perhaps we can think through the differences between a gender and a feminist consciousness in terms of language, difference, and identity as I will do in this chapter. Mohammed ends this essay with further queries that I think an interrogation of the visual may address: “But what theoretical directions and guidance will academic Third Wave feminism bring to feminist thought and practice? One of the challenges is already there. How do we move Caribbean feminist scholarship and indigenous material to the centre from the margins where it is still to be found” (Mohammed 2003, 29)? If we consider Mohammed’s 1998 and 2003 essays together, we can see a clear genealogy to her visual and cultural studies work in the 2009 Imaging the Caribbean that suggests ways to move forward in relation to praxis.
Mohammed states emphatically in the introduction to this book that it may be in the realm of the visual that we can figure out ways to deal with difference and equality. In reading her theorizing around identity and difference in terms of Caribbean feminism, I would like to suggest that her visual and cultural studies scholarly work answers the very questions she poses to Caribbean feminism.
Visual Imagery, it might be argued, may lend itself more easily and convincingly to constructing ideas of difference and equality, of universality and individuality, as opposed to hierarchies of superiority and inferiority, just as fiction has been able to provide nuances of plot and character. (Mohammed 2009, 6)
She suggests here that the visual has great potential to engage notions of difference and equality; in comparing this to fiction, Mohammed subtly reminds us of how vital fiction has been for the imagination. This assertion offers an intriguing challenge to Caribbean feminism and feminist thought—that perhaps we must turn to the visual realm in our efforts to discuss and represent difference and equality in nuanced ways, thereby igniting changes so often called for in feminist theorizing, particularly in Caribbean feminist thought. Mohammed insists upon new ways of seeing the region and ultimately understanding ourselves.
Hence, it is vital to position her work and trajectory as an Indo- Caribbean writer, scholar, and artist who continuously incorporates the complexity of the region while also unsilencing and bridging the contributions of African and Asian peoples to the creation of the Caribbean. She demands that we understand the ways culture evolves through difference:
The task of the Region, a new world experiment, still evolving, is not to dig in its heels as old cultures have done and discount cultural differentiation as an aberration of a pre-determined norm, but to demonstrate that there is no culture without evolution and no evolution without cultural difference. (Mohammed 2009, 255)
To put it another way, cultural change and shifts that embrace difference are necessary for regional growth and prosperity. While we can argue that the Caribbean and Caribbeanness signifies difference, the region is still haunted by legacies of colonialism and dominant norms and ideologies that remain throughout social, cultural, and political landscapes. These continue to shape our present and sustain certain social and cultural practices and attitudes, especially in terms of gender and sexuality, as well as race and ethnicity. Mohammed’s work on visual and cultural translation can be seen as another form of indigenous feminist theorizing in the Caribbean that takes up the crucial project of “seeing difference.” Mohammed forges a path of knowledge production that complicates previous “seeing” and turns the colonial gaze on itself to reveal other ways of seeing ourselves. She prioritizes theorizing aesthetic contributions of African and Asian peoples to the Caribbean, while unearthing the ways that femininity and sexuality have been represented and forged.
In Mohammed’s chapter on “The Asian Signature,” she asks, “why has the Indian aesthetic sensibility remained largely outside the realm of what has constituted as Caribbean-ness today?” (Mohammed 2009, 281).
She offers a few key responses including “different sensibility in terms of color, composition, detail, form, perspective and imagination from that perceived as either ‘Western’ or ‘African’” as well as negative associations with Indianness (Mohammed 2009, 281). Some of this has changed and certain aspects of an Indian aesthetic have made their way into the “shared cultural milieu defined as Trinidadian,” but Mohammed argues that an Asian signature across the region remains invisible and hidden or relegated to the realm of “private”—even in the southern Caribbean where the majority of Indo-Caribbean populations reside (Mohammed 2009, 287-288). Further, the interconnections between religion and culture and the private nature of many sacred rituals obscure the artistic practice and recognition of the aesthetic. It is important to question then the ways that “Indianness” and an Indian aesthetic is taken up in the realm of Indo- Caribbean art. How has artistic representation and landscape been used to challenge and/or reinforce the private, the sacred, the body? Mohammed closes her chapter with this reflection: “While the Asian signature on the landscape is evident, in the unfolding translation of visual culture in the Region, it is interesting to see how this may infuse into another way of seeing and configuring what is defined as the Caribbean and thus of shaping culture itself” (Mohammed 2009, 288). Certainly we can see this happening already in Caribbean visual arts that not only reflect the “Asian signature” but an infusion that contributes to other formations of Caribbean identity and identities. Imaging the Caribbean encourages us to find new ways of understanding histories of slavery, indentureship, and colonialism as we come to know them through the visual metaphors and representations of these histories. In doing so, we can more thoroughly understand how we push against social norms and controlling traditions and create new futures. I take up this call and read/see/theorize through the visual realm.