Globalization, intersectionality and women’s activism: An analysis of the women’s movement in the Indian Ocean Island of Mauritius

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Globalization, intersectionality and women’s activism: An analysis of the women’s movement in the Indian Ocean Island of Mauritius

Ramola Ramtohul, Department of Social Studies, University of Mauritius.

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This paper examines the influence of globalization on the women’s movement, women’s collective voice and lobby in the Mauritian plural society. Drawing upon qualitative interviews of leaders of women’s organisations and a gendered analysis of the press archives during key periods of Mauritian history, the paper traces and analyses the evolution of the women’s movement in Mauritius. It discusses the influence of intersectionality on the evolution of the women’s movement and strength of the women’s lobby. Mauritius has a plural society with strongly entrenched divisions. Due to the fear of Hindu1 domination, the population was highly divided on the issue of independence2 with 44% voting against independence of the country. Although as a sovereign state, Mauritius has successfully maintained a democratic system of government, ethnic and religious divisions in the Mauritian population have remained strong. This paper argues that the evolution of the women’s movement in Mauritius was a very gradual process as women were initially clustered into religious based organisations which focused on education and social welfare. Yet, the situation regarding women’s rights was poor as women had no rights within marriage and in 1977 the Mauritian government introduced new legislation that discriminated against women. The paper shows that women’s dire conditions, the need to improve their civil status and the support of the international women’s movement led the different groups of women to transgress ethnic and religious boundaries and unite under umbrella women’s organisations and to form strategic feminist alliances to fight for women’s rights. This collective action by the different women’s organisations led to a strong women’s lobby and amendments were made to the civil status Acts, granting women equal rights. The paper also examines the influence of international bodies on the laws and policy in Mauritius with regard to women’s rights, for instance, CEDAW, the UN World Conferences on Women, all these international instruments have helped to liven the debate on amending laws which were discriminatory towards women and also pressurised the Mauritian state to respect international engagements. The paper then examines the impact of globalisation and its instruments, i.e. commitments of the Mauritian state to international and regional bodies, on the debate on women’s representation in parliament, a state of affairs which had so far not been questioned. In the Mauritian context, the paper argues that with the conservative patriarchal culture which is still dominant, globalisation has provided an opportunity for women to transcend intersectional identities and claim their space or rights in different areas – legal, economic and political – as women.


This paper studies the formation of the women’s movement in the Mauritian plural society in the global context. Broadly speaking, globalisation denotes the process in which economic, financial, technical, and cultural transactions between different communities throughout the world become increasingly interconnected and embody common elements of experience, practice and understanding (Pearson, 2000). With globalisation, time, place and space are all reconfigured and events, decisions and activities in one part of the world can have significant consequences for individuals and communities in other parts of the world (McGrew, 1992). Globalisation is currently largely governed by a neoliberal era of free trade, free flow of capital, limited governmental regulation, and democratization (Bayes et al., 2001). At the political level, globalisation leads to a decline in the power of the nation-state, causing it to lose crucial aspects of sovereignty, to the point where its role is transformed to that of acting as local manager or facilitator for global capital (Pettman, 1999). The nation-state also becomes subjected to increasing influence from global and regional political bodies, such as the United Nations and its associated agencies. The latter constitute a central world political forum within which states conduct their international relations. A number of international conventions and treaties prepared by these intergovernmental organisations have been ratified by most countries, legally binding the signatories to adhere to the conventions. Many of these pertain to trade liberalisation, human rights and also women’s rights.

Intersectionality and women’s activism

In Mauritius, women carry multiple and conflicting identities mainly based on class, religion, caste and ethnicity which affect their involvement and action in women’s groups and therefore, intersectionality becomes a key concept. The theory of intersectionality and identity has shown that identities are complex, comprising multiple intersections of class, gender, race, nationality and sexuality, causing individuals to react differently at different times (Crenshaw, 1991; Hill Collins, 2000). Differences of education, job opportunities and cultural possibilities also get filtered through the lenses of class and ethnicity which structure the individual experiences of women (Spelman, 1988). As such, women’s political actions do not solely depend on their feminine identity, but are also influenced by other social traits with which they identify. In much of the postcolonial world, nationalist movements provided an impetus for women’s mobilisation and activism. Jayawardena’s study (1986) shows that feminism emerged in the context of liberation movements in a number of former colonies where feminism and nationalism were complementary, compatible and solidaristic. Military authoritarian rule and colonial rule also depoliticised men, which had the unintended consequence of mobilising women (Jaquette, 1994). In order to transform social power relations, women’s movements need to mobilise feminist consciousness. According to Lerner (1993: 274), feminist consciousness consists of: “the awareness of women that they belong to a subordinate group and that, as members of such a group, they have suffered wrongs; the recognition that their condition of subordination is not natural, but societally determined; the development of a sense of sisterhood; the autonomous definition by women of their goals and strategies for changing their condition; and the development of an alternate vision of the future”. Hence in a plural society like Mauritius, following Lerner’s (1993) definition, the forging of definition of feminist consciousness would require women to transcend intersectional identities to achieve feminist demands. Here, the extent of unity and solidarity among sisters is a major factor which will determine the success of the actions of the women’s movement, especially whether it will be able to present its demands clearly and forcefully.

Views on the impact of women’s multiple identities on female solidarity diverge. Basu (1995: 3) on the one hand, posits that differences exert a strong influence on the nature of women’s perceptions and types of mobilisation and, have been divisive to women’s movements within and across nations. She argues that the parameters of a women’s movement become difficult to pin down and its tactics and leaders can be many and varied. The pervasiveness of wide divisions among women also separates them into interest blocks and identity groups, making it difficult to mobilise women as a cohesive group. Each individual’s class position and ethnic identity, compounded by gender, pushes women into distinct and at times, contradictory roles. Basu (1995: 1) further notes that many middle-class women’s movements failed to mobilise poor women because they assumed that class interests could be subordinated to gender interests. As such, women’s multiple identities require complex strategies and the construction of these strategies will depend upon how women conceive their power with respect to the state.

On the other hand, Mouffe (1992: 372), in a neo-Marxist analysis, talks of a “multiplicity of relations of subordination”, where a single individual can be a bearer of multiple social relations, which may be dominant in one relation and also subordinated in another. Mouffe (1992) argues that this approach is crucially important to understand feminist and also other struggles because it shows how different individuals are linked though their inscription in social relations. When constructed as relations of subordination, social relations can become the source of conflict and antagonism and eventually lead to political activism or a “democratic revolution” (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985). Hence, despite women’s multiple identities, they are often caught up in relations of subordination, which have the potential to challenge the status quo by crossing boundaries and forming feminist alliances. Laclau and Mouffe (1985: 153-4) highlight the fact that although women have been subjected to male authority for centuries and have engaged in many forms of resistance against this authority, this relation of subordination was transformed into a relation of oppression only when a feminist movement based on the liberal democratic demand for equality began to emerge.

It therefore becomes important to understand when and why different women’s groups act in a coordinated way in a plural context. On this issue, Salo (1999: 124) introduces the notion of ‘strategic alliances’ which women form, despite their multiple identities and differences. Here, the focus is on the moment at which disparate groups within the movement coalesce in such a way as they operate as a movement which is distinct from other political forces. In this context, Mohanty (1991: 7) introduces the notion of a ‘common context of struggle’ which brings together disparate women’s groups to form an alliance. Evidence in fact indicates that despite the tendency towards fragmentation, activists have frequently been able to mobilise disparate groups behind issues and demands of capital importance to most women3.

In her study on women’s movements in Chile, Baldez (2002) introduces the ‘tipping’ model to define the point at which diverse organisations converge to form a women’s movement to challenge the status quo. She contends that mobilisation among women emerges as the result of a tipping process in which participation in protest activities starts out small, builds gradually as more people become involved, and then suddenly reaches a critical mass of momentum (Baldez, 2002: 6). A tip occurs when a sufficiently large number of people believe that other people will also participate. An appeal to common knowledge or widely held cultural norms often sets the tipping process in motion (Baldez, 2002). National liberation struggles appear to have been the ‘tip’ which got women working together in the movement in much of the post-colonial world. Baldez (2002: 4) also argues that all women’s movements share the decision to mobilise as women on the basis of widely held norms of female identity. These norms comprise a set of understandings that reflect women’s widespread exclusion from political power. Issues such as reproductive rights, women’s representation in politics, equal pay, childcare and domestic violence have the force to unite many women from different backgrounds and ideologies. Baldez (2002: 11) also introduces the notion of ‘framing’ which permits a diverse array of women’s groups to organise under a common rubric. At this level, gender functions as a source of collective identity just as other sources of identity such as ethnicity or nationality. Appeals to gender identity thus have the potential to bridge women’s different and at times, contradictory interests.

The paper analyses the conditions under which women in Mauritius decided to transcend intersectional identities and give primordial importance to their identity as women, often going against family norms. The data for this study was gathered from oral history interviews of senior members of key women’s organisations and gender analysis of historical documents and publications. Following on from the introductory section, the next section looks at the influence of intersectionality on the success of women’s movements.

Mauritius: A brief introduction

Mauritius is a small island of 720 square miles, located in the south western Indian Ocean with a population of approximately 1.2 million inhabitants. The Island of Mauritius experienced successive waves of colonisers including the Portuguese, Dutch, French and finally, the British. Mauritius des not have an indigenous population and the French were the main colonial settlers. From 1715 till 1810, Mauritius was a French colony and French settlers became the first permanent inhabitants of the island. Large numbers of slaves were imported from Mozambique and Madagascar and a few artisans were brought from southern India. British colonial rule over Mauritius lasted from 1810 till the accession of Mauritius to independence in 1968. Indian immigrants were brought to the island as indentured labourers to work in the sugar cane fields, following the abolition of slavery in 1835. The arrival of Indian indentured labourers brought a radical and permanent change in the ethnic composition of the island4. Chinese immigrants settled on the island in the 1830s as free immigrants, though the Mauritian Chinese population is small. Each successive wave of immigrants added new layers to an increasingly complex cultural, socioeconomic and political milieu (Bowman 1991).

Mauritius has a plural society and the Mauritian population is presently composed of four ethnic groups and four major religious groups5. The Mauritian nation is often depicted as a rainbow nation, which is however very fragile and carries a semblance of unity in diversity. Mauritius can in fact be described as a typical plural society which, according to Fenton (1999: 38) is not only composed of many cultures, but also lack or have historically lacked any strong impulse towards social and cultural integration. In these societies, the removal of an external constraining force, especially colonial rule, leaves behind a society with no integrative mechanisms6. Indeed anticolonialism in Mauritius was not a clear-cut affair as in most postcolonial nations. While the British represented political rule imposed from the colonial power, economic and cultural domination was imposed by Francophone Mauritians. British governance for the Hindus and Muslims, in fact represented a check on the Franco-Mauritian and upper-class Creole aristocracies. However, with the rise in political prominence of the Hindus, the allegiance of the Franco-Mauritians and Creole shifted towards the British colonial power.

The accession of Mauritius to independence in 1968 was the result of three decades of active political manoeuvring and negotiations rather than one of a national liberation struggle. It entailed a number of high level political consultations and negotiations between the different parties representing local interests of the different ethnic groups and the British colonial authorities. This was also a largely male dominated and orchestrated process as the political leaders and negotiators in these consultations were all men. It is not clear as to what was the role of women in the political debates and campaigns that preceded independence. Unfortunately, Mauritian historical texts7 are gender blind and have failed to document women’s roles and activities at prior to and at the time of independence. Apart from the brief period of communal riots on the eve of the proclamation of independence, Mauritius became a sovereign state in a rather peaceful manner, in the absence of a ‘national liberation struggle’. The approach of independence did not lead to any form of political nor national unity in Mauritius and Mauritians were in fact very deeply divided over the issue of independence, with 44% of the population opposing independence. This opposition stemmed minority ethnic groups who feared for their future in an independent Mauritius (Moutou, 2000). The forging of a spirit of nationalism and unity was consequently fractured, causing manifold effects on the social and political affairs of the country.

From the perspective of a small developing country endowed with limited resources, Mauritius has made commendable progress. Mauritius ranked 65th in the 2005 Human Development Report with a Human Development Index (HDI) value of 0.7918, almost at ‘high human development’ level (UNDP, 2005). The island was also the best performer in sub-Saharan Africa with a Gender-Related-Development Index (GDI) value of 0.781 (UNDP, 2005). The post-independence government introduced a comprehensive welfare package that included free education and health services, and a subsidised food scheme. As a result, literacy rates for girls have risen and the country has almost eradicated illiteracy9. The most significant feature of Mauritius remains the sustained political stability prevalent in the island. Mauritius indeed has a remarkable attainment in terms of its ability to preserve basic democratic rights for every citizen in a society consisting of different religions, ethnic backgrounds and languages. There has also been reference to the ‘Mauritian Miracle’ with Mauritius being considered as a model of development (Brautigam, 1999a, 1999b; Alladin, 1993). Mauritius has maintained a democratic system of government and is now a Republic within the Commonwealth.

The status of women in Mauritius

Under 19th century Mauritian law, the state treated women as the inalienable property of their husbands, thereby further restricting any attempt towards autonomy by women. The ‘Code Napoleon10’ or ‘Napoleon’s Civil Code of 1804’, adopted in 1808 in Mauritius, imposed the status of ‘minor’ on a married woman and was characterised by severe patriarchalism, restricting women to the private domestic sphere. Thus, for women from working class backgrounds, the nature of subordination primarily took the form of long hours of hard work coupled with sexual subordination. In the case of bourgeois women, it was amplified in terms of controls over physical mobility and sexuality. However, despite their docile appearance and willingness to accept harsh working and living conditions, women were drawn into the economic and political struggles in the early 20th century. One of the most vivid memories is that of Anjalay Coopen, a female agricultural labourer who was among the people killed during an uprising on the sugar estates in 1943.

Mauritian society was thus dominated by a strong patriarchal ideology. Women were legally and culturally attributed a second-class status in society. Marriage was considered to be the definitive fate of girls and any focus on women was limited to their reproductive roles Women had little control over their own fertility and birth control depended upon sexual abstinence, primitive forms of contraception, backstreet abortions and a high rate of infant mortality. Moreover, there was little concern for gender issues, except from the perspective of health, fertility and welfare (MAW/SARDC, 1997). Concern over poor health, high maternal mortality and overall welfare led to the creation of the social welfare department and the establishment of social welfare centres throughout the rural areas, which aimed at improving the living conditions of the rural population (MAW/SARDC, 1997). Women largely benefited from social service provisions through maternal child health services and education.

The Mauritian state was modelled on the British colonial model, which is characterised by male hegemony at all levels of its structures. At independence, Mauritius therefore inherited a structure whose ideology was designed to systematically promote male privilege and power while consolidating women’s subordination. The gendered quality of the state becomes clearly visible in its institutions, such as cabinet, parliament, the judiciary and the police force which remain male dominated institutions. Moreover, gender-based subordination has been and, still is deeply ingrained in the consciousness of men and women in Mauritian society, and tends to be viewed as a natural corollary of the biological differences between them. Gender-based subordination is reinforced through religious beliefs, cultural practices, and educational systems that assign to women lesser status and power. Moreover, sexual division of labour persists in the country, with domestic and reproductive work still considered to be ‘women’s work’. For men, performing this work is considered demeaning to them and their manhood.

Women’s accession to civic, political and social citizenship was a gradual process, often hindered by religious and cultural patriarchal norms and beliefs. Male-dominated lobbies based on caste and communal identities attempted to block the proclamation of female suffrage in the late 1940’s and hence opposed women’s political citizenship (Ramtohul, 2008). Women’s full civil citizenship has also been largely hindered by religious and communal lobbies which delayed the process. This necessitated a strong lobby from women’s organisations, which was in the main, driven by global factors, especially the UN and the international women’s movement. The response of Mauritian postcolonial leadership to cumulative gender inequalities that were historically embedded in the stratified and pluralistic society was primarily a policy of breaking down formal barriers to women’s access to legal, political, educational and economic institutions, assuming that this would bring about significant changes in women’s participatory roles. Wide- ranging opportunities became available to women. These included improved access to health services and reproductive health facilities, state provision of free education at all levels, employment opportunities and legal amendments to eliminate sex discrimination. However, it was the setting up of the Export Processing Zone in the 1970s that created mass employment opportunities for women with low levels of education, and was the trigger to the economic empowerment of the female population from working class backgrounds.

The early women’s organisations

Mauritian women have been engaged in civil society organisations since the early 18th century, when the country was under colonial rule. Most of the early civil society organisations were social, cultural and religious organisations which had branches and activities dedicated to women. The focus at that time was primarily on social, religious and cultural activities in specific communities where different communities worked with or supported specific organisations in most cases11. The majority of the early women’s organisations were either connected to socio-religious bodies which were headed by men or were class-based.

Muslim women were involved in women’s associations such as the Mauritius Muslim Ladies Association which was formed in 1940 (Emrith, 1994: 121). Another Muslim women’s organisation, the Ahmadist Muslim Women’s Association was set up in 195112. These women’s organisation worked towards the physical, mental and spiritual emancipation of Muslim women in the country and activities included religious education and charitable work. Hindu women were involved in the Arya Samaj13 movement since 1912 and in the Bissoondoyal ‘Jan Andolan’14 movement since 1942. The Mauritius Arya Samaj movement launched a campaign against child marriage, denounced the dowry system and promoted education for girls. The education made available to Hindu girls at that time primarily focused on the inculcation of cultural and religious values. According to Rughoonundon (2000: 38) however, this was the only way to obtain the agreement of conservative families to send their daughters to school. Women from bourgeois Indo-Mauritian families in the movement often volunteered as educators and encouraged families to send their daughters to school, thereby breaking taboos which had so far excluded Indo-Mauritian girls from access to education. The Jan Andolan Movement also laid emphasis on education and organised literacy classes for girls and women. In its endeavour to preserve the Indian culture and languages in Mauritius, it encouraged girls to attend literacy classes.

The Catholic Church sponsored and supported the ‘Écoles Ménagères’, a women’s organisation founded in 1956 by Ms France Boyer de la Giroday15, a Franco Mauritian woman and a social worker (Orian, 1980). In the 1950s, most girls from working class backgrounds and low income families stopped school at the age of 12 and were married off in their teens. These girls often had no culinary skills and little knowledge of domestic duties and home management. The Écoles Ménagères was created to focus on respectable domesticity and it catered to the needs of young girls in terms of providing training in household management ‘skills’ to become good wives. Activities of the Écoles Ménagères primarily focussed on training women to be good housewives and mothers in accordance with Christian gendered ideology. Girls were taught domestic skills such as cooking, nutrition and sewing. Activities of the Écoles Ménagères gradually progressed beyond the domestic front, to include literacy classes, civic education including the history and culture of Mauritius, kitchen gardening and entrepreneurship16. Women from bourgeois or high income households volunteered as trainers at the Écoles Ménagères.

Apart from the religious-based women’s groups, some of the early women’s organisations had class dimension. There were numerous17 small women’s associations in rural areas which had been functional since the late 1940s (Rughoonundon, 2000: 159). These small rural women’s associations were dealing with social issues such as marriage, burial, betrothal amongst others. There is unfortunately very little information on these women’s associations. Membership of these associations mainly comprised of women from low income groups or working class backgrounds, often possessing having little or no literacy skills. The activities of the rural women’s organisations nevertheless disclose the attempts made by a different class of women to organise and group together and exert some form of agency over issues governing their daily lives and accessing different spaces outside the home. Being in the same space with other women enabled them to form bonds, share experiences and become aware of the problems they faced as women. As such, the presence and activities of the rural women’s organisations can be qualified as an early form of conscious raising and feminist activism among the working class.

Among the class-based women’s organisations, there was the Women’s Self-Help Association (WSHA), set up in 196818 which had an upper-class membership. This organisation was founded by a group of bourgeois and educated housewives, many of whom were married to prominent government employees and politicians. In the 1960s, the WSHA set out to promote textile handicraft production at home. It provided free training to women and girls in embroidery and basket making skills with the aim of enabling them to earn their living. This association had a big impact since its training programmes reached hundreds of young girls in the villages, who would have otherwise had to live a life of economic dependence on their fathers and husbands. According to Dommen & Dommen (1999), efforts of the WSHA prepared women both in terms of skills and psychologically, to seize the new employment opportunities in the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) that presented themselves in the 1970s. However, the WSHA did not open up skills held by men to women and it conformed to the existing gendered ideology of labour. It did not actively challenge patriarchal authority but rather, sought to improve the lives of women and girls in the country by extending educational access to them, as they had been neglected by the state. Working with women from disadvantaged and low income backgrounds and from different communities nevertheless made the founders of WSHA more aware of the problems Mauritian women faced on a daily basis because of women’s inferior legal status19. The training and grouping together of women also created a forum where these women were able to have discussions about their rights and become conscious of the need to work together as women in order to press for legal changes (Dumont, 1976). The growth of a feminist consciousness among these women was becoming evident.

The social segregation of women along communal and class lines slotted Mauritian women into interest block and identity groups, which was a major obstacle towards meeting the necessary conditions for the development of feminist consciousness put forward by Lerner (1993: 274). Most pertinent here, is the development of a sense of sisterhood and the awareness of women that they belong to a subordinate group and as members of this group, they have suffered from discrimination. Segregation would have rendered wide ranging collaboration among women difficult, whereas for a women’s movement to have the ability to present its demands clearly and forcefully, it needs to have a considerable degree of unity, at least on a few major issues (Bystydzienski, 1992). Moreover, a common feature of the predominant religions in Mauritius - Hinduism, Islam and Christianity - is an ideology of male authority over women and the endorsement of women’s role in the family as caregiver, wife and mother. As such, there was little space for these organisations to challenge patriarchal authority, transcend intersectional identities and engage in feminist activism that extended beyond the inclusion of women into education and domestic skills training. Rather, there appeared to be an implicit ‘patriarchal bargain’ which guided the activities of these women’s organisations, thereby focussing on practical gender needs such as nutrition, health, hygiene, basic literacy and child care. Indeed, the socio-religious organisations were controlled backstage by men, whereas the WSHA had strong connections with government and did not challenge conservative notions of respectable femininity.

Moreover, at the time of colonial rule, the majority of Mauritian women belonged to low income groups, were illiterate and largely confined to the household and hence, were poorly placed to activate transformative feminist visions. In this context, Lerner (1993) notes that the systematic educational disadvantaging of women affects women’s self-perceptions, their ability to conceptualise their own situation and also their ability to conceive of societal solutions to improve the prevailing situation. Moreover, according to Jeffrey (1998) although unlettered women may possess feminist visions, illiteracy ultimately hampers women’s attempts to communicate and mobilise very far beyond their homes. Indeed, structural constraints such as gender differences in access to economic resources and until the establishment of the EPZ in the 1970s, limited employment opportunities for women with low levels of literacy, meant that very few women dared abandon the very institution that they might seek to critique, namely the family and community. For women to move on to more participatory roles, they need to understand the mechanics of participation and become aware of their potential influence on community and national affairs (Huston, 1979). In Mauritius however, there was a tacit acceptance of a gendered ideology by religious authorities that women were subordinate to men. Unlike other former colonies such as Egypt and India, in Mauritius, the absence of a nationalist ideology and national unity was an additional disadvantage which, if present, had the potential to impel the different women’s groups to transcend intersectional identities and work together and develop a strongly forged feminist and political consciousness.

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