With the abolition of slavery in 1863, in Suriname, a colony of the Netherlands, the history of the Surinamese-Indian community began. In the period that followed, the Netherlands was looking for new and cheap labourers who could work on the plantations. In 1872, a treatise was signed by Queen Victoria of England and King Willem III of the Netherlands, entitling the Netherlands to recruit indentured labourers in British India (Welten, 2010). The indentured labourers remained British citizens and were protected by the British legal system. The treatise stated that the workers would work in Suriname for five years and are entitled to return for free after the end of their contract. Most indentured labourers were from the Northern states, such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Bengal. At the time, this area was impoverished, and the population was struggling with severe food shortages, because the British largely sent agricultural products to the motherland (Welten, 2010). After sailing for three months, the first British-Indian immigrants arrived in Suriname in 1873 (Choenni, 2011). In the period up to 1916, another 63 ships set sail. In total, around 34,000 Indians arrived in Suriname (Choenni, 2011). One third of this group returned to British India after their contract ended. This group played an important role in the termination of the indentured labour system (will explain this below). A majority continued to live in Suriname and gained the Dutch nationality. In the 1970s, another migration followed, this time from Suriname to the Netherlands.
Today, I am interviewing Sharon Gogar, a young intelligent woman, about her multicultural background. She is 26 years old and lives in Rotterdam. Sharon is the fifth generation from India. Her parents, like my parents, were born in Suriname and came to the Netherlands in the 1970s. She has completed her bachelor’s degree in International Studies at Leiden University. She then pursued a master’s degree in International Development Studies at Utrecht University and she works at the Dutch Immigration Service now.
Nani = maternal grandmother
Nana = maternal grandfather
Aji = paternal grandmother
S: In our shared history, we have to deal with three countries: India, Suriname, and the Netherlands. How would you describe your identity?
Sharon: I see myself as a triangle between India, Suriname, and the Netherlands. Purely, because I do not feel 100% of every identity but more of a mix of these three. I noticed this when I was on holiday in Suriname. I felt comfortable, things seemed familiar to me and I liked it a lot, but it just was not it. When I was in India, I saw things of Hinduism or of the culture and I thought oh, I understand that, but then it just was not completely a fit. I also have the same feeling in the Netherlands, even though I was born here, there is a feeling of no, not completely a fit. I like to say that I am a mix of these three beautiful identities.
S: How do you notice that you are Dutch?
Sharon: Everything together, the way you think, how you talk, how you dress. For example, with making appointments, if you are in Suriname you can just drop by, but here in the Netherlands I plan everything. It should really be written in my agenda, even if it is dinner for example.
S: What was your experience like growing up as a Surinamese-Indian person in the Netherlands?
Sharon: I grew up in Rotterdam in a multicultural neighbourhood. That was great fun and you also learn at a young age that it is normal for people to have different backgrounds, different habits, and customs. You get used to everyone having a different origin.
When I went to secondary school, we moved to Barendrecht, a primarily white neighbourhood. From what I can remember, however, I never felt that I was treated differently at school or that I was different. There were times when I thought hey at our home or in my family, we do this differently. For example, many friends went to town at the age of 16 to go out. I did not even think about that. For me, this only came at a later age. You will automatically compare that with your own culture, but I felt neutral about it. I was not really concerned with culture and identity at that age.
It was only when I started my study International Studies and I came back into that multicultural setting, that more questions arose. I thought okay, you are from there and you are from there, but who am I then? What is my background, what is my culture? There was a gap because everyone had people around them from his / her own culture and I did not. I had almost no Surinamese-Indian friends around me and only then I realized how alienated I was from my own culture. For example, I do not speak the language well, we do not participate in all traditions, I did not have a Surinamese-Indian network at the time and I thought that was quite a shame.
International Studies created the need to immerse myself in it more. By talking a lot with friends and nieces about similar experiences, it turned out that several girls had these identity problems.
S: Can you describe what that feels like?
Sharon: It is a mixed feeling. On the one hand, you have the freedom to enjoy both cultures and identities. At home, you learn Surinamese-Indian norms and values and outside you learn the Dutch way of doing things. But on the other hand, that also reminds you that you do not quite belong in either one.
The moment I realized this was quite difficult. I was looking for something that I did not even know what I was looking for. There is no manual or proper way to deal with this. And at one point I did have a longing for recognition or the feeling of belonging. But I also notice that this is particularly difficult for Surinamese-Indians. Every Surinamese-Indian person has his/her own sense of identity. Some tend to lean towards the Dutch identity, others more towards the Surinamese and others more towards the Indian. For me, it was more of a process of figuring out who I am, what I find important, and what I like as a person. And I notice that I value this more than the link with one of these identities.
S: What are the benefits of having a migration background?
Sharon: You’re not going to categorize others and say you are this or that. I think people with a bicultural background have more understanding and respect for people of different origins. You grow up with the idea that it is normal for people to have different backgrounds, habits, and customs. You can enjoy the good aspects of both cultures. Think of customs, food, and traditions. You are not stuck in one culture.
S: What do you think that there is ignorance about among other groups in the Netherlands regarding our community?
Sharon: I would think respect for aspects of Indian culture, such as traditional dress, customs and practices, and aspects of our religion. Recently, there was a fuss about Peter R. de Vries, a crime reporter, who was dressed as Ganesha in a TV program. I do not think people realize how much value Ganesha has to us. I have also seen a swimsuit with the head of Ganesha on it or a hardstyle festival in NL with Bollywood as its theme, I questioned that. The different stages were named after Ganesha, Shiva, etc. These are holy figures in Hinduism. Our traditions and religion are not a concept that people can use for entertainment purposes and I think a lot of people do not realize that. Sure, there is space for humour, but with awareness and respect.
S: I agree that sacred figures should not be used for entertainment purposes. I was in Thailand last year and saw billboards with “Buddha is not for decoration. Respect is common sense.” along the highway and in temples to raise awareness among tourists. Buddha statues are sometimes also placed in the bathroom as decoration and that is not appropriate in my opinion.
S: The history of our community is complex because of the relocation from India to Suriname and Suriname to the Netherlands. What do you know about the Indian women who were shipped to Suriname?
Sharon: I do not know much about the Indian women who were brought to Suriname. I think it is because not much research has been done on it, but I have to say that I have made little effort myself to find out more about it.
S: I recently spoke to a diversity expert about this and she said it is not surprising that we feel that little research has been done. We were born in the Netherlands and grew up here. We live by the rules of Dutch society, i.e., we go to school and learn about Dutch history, then we study, start a career, family, etc. So, we do not have time to learn about our migration history, if you do learn about it then it is an extra investment that takes time. Many people do not have this time because they are too busy (balancing social life, career, children). This gives us the false impression that little research has been done on it, while much has been published about our migration history.
After graduating I started to delve more into our history, what I know specifically about the Indian women is that:
- More men were shipped compared to women. As a result, women ended up in a position of power in Suriname, because they could choose men. Some were in relationships with several men at the same time. If they had one husband, they could demand that they should be treated well, or he could leave. If they became a widow they could remarry.
- Women had to work as hard as men on the plantations, but were paid lower wages than men. Once women were having off after work, they were still expected to take on household tasks.
- I also know a story of Janey Tatery, a 24-year-old resistance fighter, who protested against the bad working conditions. She was shot dead.
- Women were mistreated and abused by the colonial rulers. In the years prior to the abolishment of the indentured labour system in 1916, the dehumanising aspects of the system was picked up on by the Indian nationalist movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. At first, reports presented a positive perspective of the system, Indian labourers were earning an income and worked under “satisfying conditions” (Mahase, 2020). These reports were written by British overseers, but later also officials from the Government of India were sent to conduct investigation. In 1913, a report was published by James McNeill and Lala Chimmanlal on the conditions of Indian immigrants in four British Colonies (Trinidad, British Guiana, Jamaica, and Fiji) and Suriname (Mahase, 2020). The report gave a favourable impression, but was initially withheld from the Indian public. Indian nationalists were dubious and once they had read the report, they ignored the main conclusions and highlighted the negative aspects. These negative aspects were used to build credence that British imperialism was wrong and that India needed self-government. By 1915, some Indians had been repatriated to India (one third of the group in Suriname). Indian nationalists collected information from first hand experience from them and from people living in South Africa, Mauritius, and Fiji. As information disseminated faster within India and from various colonies to India with the rise of the press: the British imperial government was put under pressure. It was also during this time that the female Indian emigrants entered the nationalist discourse. More and more cases of sexual abuse, female abduction, and punishment for not responding to the advances of colonial rulers came to light. In this time, public meetings were held by women who openly criticised the system by stating that it dishonours womanhood and is degrading. As Indian nationalists gained more support and Mahatma Gandhi threatened with satyagraha (nonviolent protests), the British imperial government and the Government of India finally abolished the indentured labour system officially in 1917.
S: What do you know about the women who were born and raised in Suriname?
Sharon: They were often married off at a young age. My nani also tells me that at that time it was normal to get married at a young age, she was 15 years old when she got married. She knows this is a big contrast with today’s society. She lived with her in-laws and there she took care of the household and the children. They did not look at her as a person. What does she want to do? Does she want to study? What does she want to become? It was like as long as she is ready for marriage and can have children, so as if a woman only exists to do those things. Then I realize how well we are off.
S: Recently, my cousin’s aji also told me that she was 16 when she got married. She was doing the laundry and suddenly, she was called and told this is going to be your husband. In the past, menstruation was an indicator that a woman is ready for marriage. That was often at a young age. I also cannot imagine that women get married off, while being a child. I mean you don’t know what marriage means, all the responsibilities that come with it. What I also know about the women is that they gave birth without medical assistance, at most a midwife. The families were also much larger. My aji has 9 children. It is also in these things that I realize that our life is different.
S: Many Surinamese-Indian women who were born in Suriname migrated to the Netherlands in the 1970s. What did your mother’s life look like once she was in the Netherlands?
Sharon: A lot of women went to school here at the time, depending on how old they were of course. For example, my mother was 11 years old. She finished primary school, secondary school, and her college. Then she started working. My nani supported her. My mother could choose what she wanted to do; she was not under any pressure to do anything. She had the freedom to do whatever she wanted in terms of education. On the other hand, she had less freedom when she met my father. They were having a relationship for a while and they wanted to live together, but my nani and nana would not let them. My parents had to get married first and then they could live together. My mother said to me if I could have done it differently, I would first live together and then get married. Therefore, she allows me to live together first and get married later.
S: That’s nice to hear! So, you live together now?
S: Wow! My parents are still traditional in this and I also know that if it were up to them then there is no question of living together. It is nice to hear that your mother is so open-minded about this and that she still thinks if I were in charge, I would still have chosen to live together first.
Sharon: Yes, I also think it is great of her that she gives me that freedom to choose what I want to do.
S: Can you name two things in which you differ from your mother / other women of that generation?
1. I have more freedom to make my own decisions, regarding study, partner, career, and certain interests that I have. For example, I went abroad twice for internships and research. I also went quite far, the first time to Brazil and the second time to Trinidad. It was difficult for my parents and they also asked why do you have to go this far, but they did support my decisions. I am the only child, so they were nervous. They tell what is important in the Indian culture, but then I can make my own choices. Not everyone had that at the time and so I am aware of this privilege. In addition, I have almost no pressure from the family, something that used to be different. I must mention that this differs per family. There are still families in which women have to live according to cultural norms and values and are therefore less free to make their own decisions.
2. Society in general has changed. Certain topics become more discussable and are less taboo. For example, menstruation, sex, LGBTI, these are subjects that can be discussed a bit more. I think the internet and social media also play a big role in this. We have access to resources that our parents and grandparents did not have. In this way, we are less dependent on information / traditions that are passed on from generation to generation. Not that that is necessarily bad, but this way you can do more research on it and read multiple perspectives about it. More information is available and communication with others is easier. I can imagine that the women in my nani’s and mother’s generation used to have questions that they could not ask or needed advice on certain topics, and now you can just look it up on the internet.
S: Are there aspects of the Surinamese-Indian culture that hinder women?
Sharon: traditions, such as that women who menstruate are impure and are therefore not allowed to participate in rituals during a religious ceremony. Or that the groom’s mother is not allowed to be present at her son’s wedding. These traditions are almost always aimed at women. Women are not allowed to do this and or that. I question this. In addition, there are still traditional roles for men and women and the associated expectations that come along with that. For example, household, handing out at birthdays, helping in the kitchen, etc. As a woman you are expected to take this on. Take serving on birthdays, for example, men stay seated and get served while we help. They expect you to do those things and be open to doing them, but sometimes you want to sit and relax as well. Today’s generation is different, and I do not know what you think about this, but there are many young women who think differently. We could change this by communicating better about what is / is not appropriate. Make good agreements so that certain expectations can be adjusted. And accepting people’s values and respecting their choices.
S: In what way do you admire the generations before you? To what extent have they shaped you as the person that you are today?
Sharon: My nani and nana have really shaped the way the family is today. They laid the foundation for us. They were the first ones to take the step to migrate to the Netherlands for a better future for their children, including their grandchildren. They have done everything they can to keep the family together. That is why we also have a good relationship with each other. For example, on holidays and birthdays, we always see each other. This is something I hope to continue!
They are very open-minded for their generation and accept a lot of change. They realize that we grew up in a different country and are a different generation. They also take this into account. Something that I think is very clever and that I hope I will also have this realisation later in life.
In addition, the two of them travelled a lot! Seen a lot of the world and they always have a nice story about it. That is cool! They have also passed their passion for travelling on to their children and them to us.
About my parents, I find it great that in some cases they have chosen to do things differently compared to their parents. In this manner, things changed per generation e.g., the matter of living together versus marriage.
I also think it is important to understand previous generations in what was normal at the time, why things went a certain way, and what was expected of them. The more and the better you understand these stories and put them into context, the better you understand your own story, who you are and where you come from. Now in this time we have the choice to determine whether we want to make changes or not. Once the foundation has been laid, the choice is ours!
S: Thank you very much for sharing your inspiring story, Sharon!
Choenni, C. (2011). Integratie Hindostani stijl : Over de migratie, geschiedenis en diaspora van Hindostanen. Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit.
Mahase, R. (2020). Why Should We Be Called ‘Coolies’?: The End of Indian Indentured Labour. Routledge.
Welten, A. (2010). Misleide Migranten. Historisch Nieuwsblad.