FRAGMENTS FROM MEMORY: The Saga Of Womens Struggle In Guyana
by Moses V. Nagamootoo
Guyana Journal, June 2008
At every stage of our contemporary history, women played a leading role to secure for themselves political and legal rights as well as the socio-economic and cultural advancement of the entire Guyanese society.
Whilst Janet Jagan, Winifred Gaskin, Patricia Benn, Thelma Reece and some others were pioneers of the womens struggle, and made undeniably great contributions, it was invariably the proverbial bare-footed women who had formed the backbone of the movement for radical change that was spearheaded, historically, by the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP).
That struggle took place at several fronts but its character, whether under colonial rule or post-independence authoritarianism, was essentially unchanged: it was a fight between labor and capital; and the powerless against the powerful; and for bread with justice. Always, it was the so-called masses, among whose ranks were women fighters who gave the struggle a stamp of authenticity, and life.
When I joined the PPPs 1961 Victory Motorcade on the Corentyne, I was clad in my first pair of long pants that a Whim wire-dam woman had stitched for me, and for what was my forced-ripe entry into political life at age 14. Whilst I have fond memories of that time, my better recollection of women in struggle came from the period we refer to as the Burnham Years.
The pre-independence period saw the PPP functioning as a national liberation movement, struggling both for independence from Britain and freedom from minority rule (PNC-UF coalition). By then the name Fireball (Philomena Sahoye) was synonymous with resistance and courage among PPPites generally and women in particular. A revolutionary image of her stood out during the Essequibo leg of the marathon Freedom March, which I had joined on the Corentyne.
Both the betrayal of the British and the imposition of Burnhamism were tainted by dictates of U.S. imperialism. So, it was no surprise that the language of activists in Guyana became strident, and followed a pattern from the anti-war movement and struggles elsewhere.
I still have a nostalgic ring in my ears from listening to WPO Secretary Iris Persaud at the party Congress at Land of Canaan (1965) regurgitating like a nursery rhyme new revolutionary labels national liberation struggles, and proletarian internationalism. Though I then could not fully comprehend their meanings, the slogans fired me to a nobler purpose. Like so many others, including women, we felt that we were part of an historic mission worldwide.
Symbols Of Struggle
At the time several party comrades were incarcerated at Sibley Hall. Behind bars as political prisoners, they became the immediate symbols of struggle. The partys youth arm, the Progressive Youth Organisation (PYO), staged a countrywide Free Detainees Ride. It was during that event that I came into contact with several young women activists Yvonne Bobb, Shirley Edwards, Thelma Doobay (with whom I later worked at the Mirror newspaper), and others.
From 1965, whether in the women, youth or trade union arms, women became visibly the life-wire of the party. Home-grown activists had sprung up everywhere Sakina Mohamed (West Demerara), Sabra Bashir (Essequibo Coast), Una James (North West District), the ever affable, Stella Dac Bang, the winsome Gwen Kissoon and Christina Ramjattan (Georgetown).
After the PPP lost the government, the struggle ran for an excruciatingly painful course of an unbroken 28 years. Throughout that period, women dramatized the struggle. In the inevitable picket lines, protest marches, and processions, women walked shoulder to shoulder with their men folk. They did not escape their quota of police harassment, tear-gas, beatings and arrests.
Some women took their babies to picket lines for accessible and cheaper food and, when the occasions warranted, they beat empty pans and chanted creative slogans. They were there agitating in the streets when their male comrades were put in jail or were arraigned before the courts. Routinely, our women were excellent organizers of fund-raisers and house-to-house sale of party literature.
I am taking the liberty of mentioning some of these women knowing that in doing so, I am taking the risk of leaving out many names of comrades who have made a difference to the struggle. However, I count on others to supplement the list of omitted though not forgotten names.
Dating back to the mid-60s, there were in my own village exceptional women who stood out for their dedication and hard work, namely, Jessiman Habbibulah, Drupatty and Norma Seemadray (Gallo). Jessie who lived a house away from our home would volunteer for every picket line in the area. She would also prepare meals for comrades who were visiting from Georgetown or just passing through our area. Once or twice Comrade Cheddi and his entourage would walk through our yard to get to her home. She represented our collective pride for being hospitable.
Outside the village, we forged a fraternity at the Constituency (Port Mourant to Alness) level with outstanding women activists who were to remain in struggle for many difficult years. Among them were Bibi Baksh, Joyce McKay, Elsie Bahadur, Ruby, and later, Nalini Narine and Madadevi Baichan called Lils. Bibi and Joyce helped in the efforts to re-organize the PYO whilst Nalini was elected to the leadership in 1976.
The most significant woman leader to have emerged in the post-independence period was Indranie Chandarpal. I first knew her as Indra Dhanraj, one of four Dhanraj sisters who were hauled away in their night-dresses from their homes in Enmore during the repressive 1973 elections. I had interviewed Indra on the horrors of her incarceration. From then, she rose to leadership positions in both the PYO and WPO, then to the Central/ Executive of the PPP, and in the international arena.
Another significant boost to the women leadership was Gail Teixiera who returned from Canada during 1977. She added not only quality to our leadership but also an insightful all-round contribution to the fight for the restoration of democracy in Guyana. She was among the few female intellectuals to have remained, her predecessors like Iris Sookdeo and Rajkumarie Mudas, having exited after brief stints. Both Indra and Gail, working in the shadow of their mentor and WPO leader, Janet Jagan, are invaluable assets in the push forward of womens liberation.
The WPO, it seemed, never lacked adequate replenishment of heroic figures. I must mention the introduction in the womens ranks of the brave, bare-footed sugar worker from Diamond. Her name is Haliman. She was arrested during a demonstration, beaten and locked up like a common criminal. I covered her trial which lasted several months. I remembered criticizing the lengthy trial delays which earned me an inappropriate approbation from a then sitting magistrate of being a hooligan.
Simultaneously with an influx from the grassroots was the infusion into the women ranks of ideologically trained cadres, many of whom studied in Moscow. Among them were Pauline Campbell (now Sukhai), Gene Sahadeo, Sheila (Veerasammy), Surujdai (Kumar) and, Id add to this group the German-born, Bridgette Ramsaroop, who embraced the struggles of her adopted home with steadfastness. Pauline had worked with me at the Novosti Press Agency. Like Una James, she stood out as an Amerindian activist who was to serve at the leadership level of the movement, in which she is today still prominent as activist and parliamentarian (She has since been appointed Minister for Amerindian Affairs.)
In the early days, the homes of women were sanctuary for weary comrades just back from house to house campaigns, fund raisers, or picketing exercises. One of the places to which we would repair was the house of the mother of Cheddi Jagan. I never knew her name then, never asked and, like others, I knew her just as Ma. I was to know her name much later from West on Trial Cheddis autobiography. Except the party organizer, Tiwari, whom she respectfully called Pandit, Ma referred to the rest of us as Bhai-ya (brother) or Bey-tha (son) Joe Kanhai, Sydney Joseph, Hasrat Insanally, Deen, Hanuman, and even the much revered educationist, Rudra Nath. Her daughter-in-law, Janie, was a participant in our activities, and she would also prepare the snacks for which we would go to the house. There were other women from the Jagan clan, Edith and Barbara, who performed party functions but we hardly ever met on the local countryside turf.
Elsewhere in Berbice women rose from the ranks, and were to occupy leadership positions in the WPO at the national level. These included Arai Thantony from Canje, Janie Dhanraj and Sandra Baldeo (Bath Settlement, West Berbice), and Bijuli Moti, Silvie Roopnarine, Mitra Devi and Merlin Udho (Upper Corentyne).
In Georgetown, I was to know the women who were at the heart of the partys education and cultural movement. The Progressive Bookshop (later re-named after Michael Forde) was run by Una Mulzack who had emigrated from America and an elder, chain-smoking woman who had emigrated from America, and an elder, chain-smoking woman (Ms. Elsie Gouveia), along with Doris (Washington). A branch of the bookshop was formed later in the North West District at an exotic riverside place called Hosororo, which was run by Norma.
The women were at the centre of the partys cultural movement, later to be styled Workers Stage. The life-wires were Stella Dac Bang, Shirley Edwards, Beatrice Cassato, Rosanna Persaud and others, including outstanding honorary male members, notably Cyril Belgrave, M.Z. Ali, Vibert De Souza and myself. It was as members of this rag-tag creole group that we supported the civil rights campaign of the enigmatic E.M.G. Coco Wilson at his weekly protest events during 1966 outside parliament buildings. Wilsons able lieutenants included the intrepid Clinton Collymore and the then dependable party muscle-man, Harold Snagg.
Our women gave not simply a flavor but also a balance to what the party was doing. Comrade Cheddi used to mention often, after Lenin, that the men cannot go forward without the women. We were taught to see womens liberation as key to national liberation; and our exposure to WPO comrades gave us a wider view of struggles, and to an emotional side of it as well, in so far as it touched and concerned children. They were the spice of the movement, adding tolerance and moderation where that was needed.
Ours were mostly liberated women some of whom, like Stella, Phil and Gwen, incubated me in what was perhaps mistakenly seen as a radical social life. I had found in them convivial company for our occasional drinking and smoking bouts.
Whilst the sacrifice of the crushed and broken heroine, Kowsilia, formed the antecedent of defiance and protest amongst our women, there were icons elsewhere for the new radicalism in their ranks. Guyanese women were emulating the examples of Vilma Espin (Cuba), Madame Binh (Vietnam) and Angela Davis (USA). My wife and I were not uninfluenced by that trend of defiance, so we named our first-born after Angela Davis. Much later, it was to become a high point of my life when I met in person the famous Madame Binh, when I was invited to Vietnam in 1996.
At home, also, as our struggle became more complex and challenging, new women forces joined the fight, mainly from the Working Peoples Alliance (WPA). Many of these fine sisters helped to articulate the cause for an end to dictatorial rule, and re-invigorated the womens effort at great risk to their life and safety. I shall mention a few of these valiant women with whom I became acquainted from the mid-70s Andaiya (I first knew her as Sandra Williams some years before), Bonita Harris-Bone, Karen De Souza, Vanda Radzik and Jocelyn Dow.
The past two decades have seen almost revolutionary changes to the status of women in Guyana, and in almost every sphere of the nations life. There have been tremendous social gains that largely removed women from the drudgery of fetching potable water or lacking elementary medical care, or being denied an equitable access to education and job opportunities. In this period women also achieved essential constitutional protection, and legislative support in a series of laws or modification of same. They have entitlement to property in and out of wedlock; the right to choose and control their own bodies; protection from discrimination on the basis of gender; protection from domestic violence, et cetera. By extension, they enjoy enlargement of legal rights and protection for children and orphans; and the raising of the age of consent to protect under-aged girls from sexual exploitation. These have been complemented with broader and, I may say, competitive, political participation, at the parliamentary and government levels.
For all they have achieved, women are still carrying the burdens of the cycles of continuing crises by whatever name these are called structural adjustment, globalization, fuel price, food shortages and, I may add, male chauvinism and pre-eminence. So, while women have come a long way, their journey for liberation is not ended. I say: Carry on, Sisters!
I salute our Guyanese women, and bow in tribute to their struggles and ever fond memories. We couldnt come this far without our WPO stalwarts and rank and file women.
(Presented on the occasion of the 55th anniversary of the founding of the Womens Progressive Organisation (WPO). The author is a veteran politician, journalist and practicing attorney.)
Moses V. Nagamootoo is a Member of Parliament and Attorney in private practice in Guyana. A professional journalist, he served during 1992-2000 as Senior Minister of Information and Minister of Local Government & Regional Development.