Toward a Dougla Feminist Theory of Representation

By placing Indo-Caribbean feminist writing, arts, and thought and black feminist thought into conversation, through a dougla feminist theory of representation, we might intervene into literatures on colonial violence and representation: first by heeding the warnings against aestheticizing violence and then by considering the objects at work on plantations and between indentured workers. Through the cutlass, Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman and Andil Gosine’s “Cutlass” shed light on production on the nineteenth-century plantation and its labor force and how women’s work in the present responds to this history.

Accordingly, dougla feminist thought is a study of empire, colonialism, and their legacies that seeks to displace commonsense geographies and boundaries. Until recently, scholars have equated the African diaspora with the black Atlantic, the site of the Atlantic slave trade. Likewise, studies of the Indian and South Asian diasporas have centered on the Indian Ocean and migration to the USA and Great Britain. However, dougla feminism follows insights in transnationalism to highlight that the Atlantic and Indian Oceans have been connected through trade, labor, and migration since the early modern period (Hofmeyr 2007).

The Caribbean, shaped as it is by African slavery and Indian indenture- ship, is the lynchpin of these routes. It is also the context in which the term dougla (originally dogla from Bhojpuri and Hindi) was adapted as contracted Indians migrated to sugar estates in the nineteenth century (Allsopp 2003). Because it was now possible for formerly enslaved African and indentured Indian laborers to mix, dougla referred to people of mixed Indian and African descent. As I argued in my reading of “wife murders” in Bahadur’s Coolie Woman, the possibility of intimacies between Africans and Indians undergirds the fears of East India Company recruiters and Indian men alike—that Indian women would choose men of either African or Indian descent. The dougla also indexes the shifting meanings of race, gender, and sexuality in the British West Indies—how slavery and inden- tureship were structured by control over the sexuality and reproduction of laborers and how these laborers from sites throughout the British Empire created a new vocabulary around contact.

Control over sexuality and reproduction took the form of violence, specifically injury or murder by cutlass. A dougla feminist theory of representation inquires into the time, object, and direction of violence.

One object of violence is the wounded body that invites witnesses. But representation also involves how objects such as the cutlass reflect histories and legacies of labor in their form and function. The cutlass, the object at work, emerges during slavery and Indian indentureship and afterwards. In successive moments, it is both an agricultural tool and a tool with which a person might inflict violence on another. The worker wields the cutlass. He perfects the action of chopping through work and then uses that muscle memory in order to wound. The cutlass is therefore an object that repeats in order to link work and intimacy, slavery and indentureship, past and present.

To this end, a dougla feminist theory of representation involves engagement with history in two directions. First, the cutlass ties together that which has been kept separate, most notably the histories and intellectual genealogies of Africans and Indians in the Caribbean. Secondly, we can critically examine the cutlass in the present, without assuming transhistorical links between the post-emancipation period and the present or making culturalist arguments about violence.

The British Colonial Office and British West Indian planters thought Indians to be more reliable laborers than Africans who were agitating for higher wages and better working conditions after emancipation, though Africans in turn deployed a steadfast, “British” image. This discourse produced the “competing masculinities” between Indian and African laborers and, further, the anxieties about the sexual choice of the few Indian women on post-emancipation estates. Indian indentureship and African slavery have therefore been linked through discourses of race, cultivation and production, and labor.

In this way, we can think of dougla feminism as a long-shared space and a historical-critical posture rather than a comparative project13—which presupposes that the African diaspora and Indian diaspora, or black feminist thought and Indo-Caribbean feminist thought, must be placed in conversation instead of having historical and intellectual points of overlap at their origins. While Indian indentureship in the region has long been understood to be a successor to African chattel slavery, dougla feminism understands slavery and indentureship and their legacies to be interdependent processes of capitalist accumulation.

Today, as both Bahadur and Gosine remind us, men of Indian and African descent in the Caribbean continue to use the cutlass for labor and to injure their partners. Feminist nongovernmental organizations combat gender-based violence in the Caribbean and outside the region, respond?ing in part to murders of Afro- and Indo-Caribbean women by cutlass. Using a dougla feminist lens, we should discern the political economy of gender-based violence in the current moment, characterized by wage inequality as well as the disproportional presence of women in domestic work, the public sector, tourism and free trade zones. Without cleaving to culture, it illuminates how the current moment both emerges and departs from the economies of Caribbean slavery and indentureship.

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