Gender inequality was the hallmark of the indenture system in the European colonial outposts. The planters’ penchant for strong, single, rustic young male provided the platform for a male dominant regime. Fiji was no exception although it was the last of the colonies to receive the peasant-immigrants, the gender equation had increased from as low as 20:100 to 40:100.
The rigour of plantation life was a kind of domestic ‘hara-kiri’ as the gender imbalance propelled explicit polyandry.
The woman degenerated into being a slave as she was compelled to carry out strenuous none-hour daily work schedule under the amorous eyes of the ‘Sardar’ alongside responsibility for household and familial duties.
During this period (1879-1920), there were no mentors or role models. It was an empty space of sheer drudgery.
The socio-economic status improved as they became ‘khula’ or free settlers, but the woman remained as an appendage rather than as an equal partner.
With the economic exploits of the farm and artisan activities, the priority shifted towards children’s education and subscription of cultural activities.
Unfortunately, the Christian missions in conduit with the colonial Government controlled most of the educational outlets. After the mass conversion of the iTaukei (indigenous Fijians), the evangelic battleground had shifted towards the Indo-Fijians.
The Colonial Sugar Research (CSR) Company, apart from providing the land leases, had agreed to fund, not the Indian denominational groups but the Methodist Church, to build schools for Indian children.
Since then, most of the higher educational institutions remained in the hands of the Christians till the entry of Ram Krishna Mission in late 1930s.
Vivekananda High School, established in 1949, became the draw card of Indian students all over Fiji. It is clear that the role of Indian teachers and preachers who instilled a sense of cultural pride critically diluted the evangelic thrust.
These institutions, together with the Medical and the Nursing Colleges provided a pool of skilled workforce, but the participation of female students was extremely low till the opening of the University of the South Pacific in 1968.
Women in Governance
Mid-1950s saw the return from India of two Fiji-born graduates: Irene Jai Narayan and Bhagauti P Rattan. Both of them came with their wives who, along with their teaching duties, made a mark in governance.
In 1966, Irene Jai Narayan was handpicked by the then NFP leader, A D Patel to contest the entrenched Suva seat of erstwhile lawyer, A I N Deoki.
Patel reportedly boasted that he wanted a woman to defeat a man with a feminist name! Mrs Jai Narayan remained a formidable politician. She was the beacon of light and hope for the women of Fiji. In the intra-party division, she was isolated by the male dominant factions. The emergence of Fiji Labour Party generated a lot of enthusiasm, but failed to appoint an Indo-Fijian female in its Executive Committee.
Since Fiji’s independence in 1970, with the opening of tertiary education and the availability of scholarships to Australian, New Zealand and Indian universities, there was a deluge of trained women graduates manning different portfolios in commercial, community and governmental arena.
While some of them partnered with their kinship companies such as Sangeeta Niranjan and Nur Bano Ali, others found their niche on their merits. One such accomplished person was Nazhat Shameen who became the Director of Public Prosecutions followed by being appointed as a Judge and is now Fiji’s Ambassador to European Union.
The others who were equally successful female role models were Shamina Ali, a women’s rights campaigner and Imrana Jalal, a human rights specialist.
The Coups and after
A defining ethnocentric political event for Fiji, the coups of 1987 led the disenchanted Indo-Fijians to leave the shores in droves. A substantial number of them have settled in the littoral countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.
In the beginning, a number of them suffered from social dislocation, mental nostalgia and communal isolation. There were apparent problems of adaptation and resettlement. Gradually, they have picked up their mantle and are now productive members of their community.
Indo-Fijian women appear to have attained a new sense of independence and entrepreneurship. In commercial activities, they are known for their partnership with their family members. There is also a resurgence of involvement in cultural activities.
However, Indo-Fijians in general, and women in particular, have not made their mark in political governance and in higher echelons of management.
This is not endemic to this community. There are several challenges facing women based on the inherent nature of the Caucasian/Christian-Jewish led societies.
One of the principal impediments is the assumption that the woman’s sphere of activity is confined to the ‘private’ (family and home) as against the ‘public’ space (political authority and contest) reserved for the males. This thesis has implicitly given rise to male violence.
In Australia, questions are being raised on the genesis of family violence. Is it rooted in convictism? Is it due to Australian addiction for ’footy’ where non-ball aggressive contacts and assaults are universally accepted? Aggressive or combative male behaviour on field is becoming a feature of Australian sporting pursuit. This mind-set when translated into political governance gives credence to Kronos’ research pointing towards Australian fixation for ‘young, male and unattached’ entity. A raft of examples of gender inequality can be cited. Women in cabinet are given ‘soft’ ministries such as health, education or welfare. Abbott’s cabinet characterised by him as the ‘A Team’ is neither representative of gender nor ethnicity. It is a symptom of a patriarchal society.
The other impediment is the vicarious pleasure that the male dominant society has in the private lives of the female politicians rather than their political acumen.
In addition, the media feeds on this kind of mind-set by giving disproportionate exposure. It is aimed at entertaining rather than informing.
For instance, in regard to the former woman Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, no part of her private life was left untouched by the Australian media. It is a shameful indictment of this kind of mental attribute that discourages the emergence of gender equality, let alone diversity in governance.
In spite of these challenges, several Indo-Fijian women have climbed the bureaucratic ladder and are in positions of power. Australia’s only Parliamentarian of Indian ethnicity is Senator Lisa Singh, a former Fiji resident.
In New Zealand, in recent times, more women have entered the male dominated domain of governance. One has to persevere to break the barriers that have been in existence for years.
Mahendra Sukhdeo is the author of ‘Aryan Avatars.’ He lives in Melbourne, Australia. The above is the second and final part of his detailed analysis of the challenges faced by Indo-Fijian women in their political and corporate advancement. The first part appeared in our July 1, 2015 issue.
Irene Jai Narayan (1932-2011) a formidable politician
Nazhat Shameen, Fiji’s Permanent Representative to the UN