Thank you for joining me in celebrating South Africa’s women’s month. I’ve drawn inspiration from the bravery of women under indenture in their efforts to rise above the abuse of colonial and patriarchal systems under which they laboured. However, little is known about their response to these acts of oppression in the workplace and in homes.

Away from their country of birth and its associated traditional practices women used their labour and colonial laws as a tool to assert themselves and negotiate a safer personal and economic space. They used this to protect themselves against abusive husbands and employers. In responding to these challenges, the traditional role of women was being reconfigured in the colony as they contested the customary practices and strictures placed upon them by marriage and religious institutions. This inspiration piece draws from the work of Goolam Vahed, Kalpana Hiralal, Josephine Beal, Nafeesa Essop Sheik, and N Pillay.

During the period 1860-1911, approximately 152 184 immigrants arrived in South Africa. Two thirds of the migrants were male, and 90% of the migrants were Hindus. They spoke various languages, had different traditions and values and derived from varying castes. Indian women were rarely employed in their own capacity even though they were made to sign indenture contracts upon their arrival in the Colony. Many arrived with husbands from India and were ‘given’ to employers along with the male labourer.

Women worked on the sugar and tea estates as field hands, in coalmines and as domestic servants on small farms. They were severely exploited. Women earned half the amount paid to men. Food rations were given only to working women. All women over the age of 13 were required to pay a 3-pound tax. Failure to comply resulted in jail time. Women used multiple forms and strategies of resistance to challenge and defy the oppression they experienced from patriarchal and colonial powers.

Resistance to indenture began on the ships where single women in particular were sexually abused. On arrival at the destination, reports of rape and sexual abuse were filed. On the ships, some women resorted to suicide by jumping overboard as a means of escape.

In the agricultural fields, almost 70 %of the convictions were against women for flouting labour laws. Insolence and desertion were common findings. Desertion was prompted by women’s dislike of working on the plantation or because of ill-treatment by their employers. Female domestic servants did not hesitate to challenge their employers by laying claims to their labour rights. They resorted to desertion, absenteeism, insolence, verbal abuse and disobedience. They feigned illness to frustrate their employers, to escape the hardships of indenture, so that they could be reassigned with lighter chores and reduced working hours. Women asserted their independence by filing depositions with the Protector relating to sexual harassment, physical assaults, lack of ‘proper rations’ and ‘no extra pay’ for Sunday work.

Rape, assault and murder by their husbands, characterized the lives of many indentured women. In migrating, men assumed that women would conform to traditional patriarchal norms as practiced in India. When women failed to prescribe to these norms, men at times, became violent. Some women refused to stay in an abusive relationship. They often left their partners and co-habited with another or they took the legal route.

In 1913, the political will of women was aroused. They acted against (1)the court judgement that threatened the validity of all marriages other than those conducted under Christian rites, (2)the compulsory £3 tax and (3)the 3.law that limited freedom by preventing Indians from moving across provinces. Under the direction of Gandhiji and the satyagraha movement, a group of eleven indentured women from Tolstoy Farm in the Transvaal embarked on a non-violent protest. With babies in arms, they transgressed the law by moving across the provincial boundaries into Natal, provoking arrest. In the wake of their defiance, they mobilized scores of disenfranchised workers and were instrumental in initiating the strike of almost 2000 coalminers, railway and domestic workers. After six weeks of intense mobilization, they were arrested and taken to the Pietermaritzburg prison.

Amongst the women resistors, Valliamah Moodliar stands out as a martyr. The daughter of veteran passive resistors, she participated in the women’s marches and died at the age of 17 in February 1914 after a prolonged illness in prison. The success of the 1913 passive resistance campaign saw the £3 tax cancelled, Indian marriages were legalized and one wife, and the minor children, of an Indian marriage – even if it was polygamous – were given the right to join their husbands residing in South Africa.

Under indenture women became wage earners, assertive and assumed independence. Hiralal states that the indentured system, despite its oppressive nature, empowered women, to some extent, with economic and social freedom and an opportunity to transgress traditional gender roles. This spurred future generations of South African women to strengthen their resolve to challenge oppression. We thank you, our sisters…

Article by Dr Serela Ramklass
Chairperson: Arya Samaj Women’s Forum