a bimonthly publication of
the forum of indian leftists

Volume 1: Number 1                    May 1, 1997

In this Issue...
Disciplining the Mother Jude Fernando
Facilitating Genocide Niraj Pant
Intervening Carefully Ashwini Tambe
Beauty Contest Debate K.Philip and P.Gopal
Debate: Politics of Resistance Shishir Jha
Foil Briefs

The Politics of Gendered Boundaries: South Asian Communities in Tanzania

Richa Nagar

Let me start with two brief vignettes: 1) In 1880s, Dharani's father left for Zanzibar at the age of 16. He lived with several African women before returning to Kutch to marry a woman from his Bhatia caste. His wife remained in Kutch due to "religious taboos" against mixing with Muslims and Africans. But later, things changed and she joined him in 1901. 2) Patel's father came to teach in Kenya in 1915. He soon returned to marry but his wife stayed in India to look after his extended household. Patel was born in Gujarat in 1919. When he was five, his mother joined his father in Kenya. Patel lived in India with his grandmother until 1945 when his father persuaded him to come to Dar es Salaam where opportunities were better. By the time Patel returned to marry in 1946, it had become rare for Hindu wives to remain in India. His wife came with him to Dar es Salaam.
The colonial racial hierarchy which encouraged Asians to occupy the middle rung of the colonial ladder cannot be fully understood without considering the gendered processes that were central to the social reproduction of Asian communities

These vignettes illustrate how the politics of gendered social boundaries among South Asian immigrants in Tanzania (referred to as "Asians" in East Africa and in the rest of this paper) were played out in response to changes in colonial and postcolonial political economies. Gendered ideologies of race, caste and class shaped marital practices as well as gendered migration patterns and divisions of labor, and served to maintain the racial and class supremacy of Asians (who never constituted more than 0.7 percent of the Tanzanian population) over the vast majority of Africans. The colonial racial hierarchy which encouraged Asian traders, civil servants artisans to occupy the middle rung of the colonial ladder with Europeans (0.25 percent of the population) at the top and the Africans (98 percent of the population) at the bottom, cannot be fully understood without considering the gendered processes that were central to the social reproduction of Asian communities and the imperialist project of which they were a part.

Migration, Marriage and Social Boundaries Before World War I. Gender, class and religious differences were clearly played out in the patterns of early migration. At the time when emigration of Hindu and Muslim male traders from northwestern India began, Zanzibar was ruled by Omani Arabs and the East African coast was undergoing rapid Islamization. The Sultans of Zanzibar, beginning with Sayyid Sa'id in 1832, encouraged Indian men to trade in Zanzibar. This encouraged the kin-chain migration of Ismailis, Ithna Asheris, and Bohoras from Gujarat, Kathiawar, and Kutch to Zanzibar. The social and religious taboos of elite Hindus discouraged permanent settlement of Hindu trading families during this initial phase. According to the 1887 census, there were 4866 Muslims and 1022 Hindus/Jains in Zanzibar. The decline of the slave trade and opening up of opportunities on the mainland in the late 19th century attracted Asian retail traders to German East Africa. The German colonial government also encouraged Asians to take over the administrative posts in its plantation economy. During the period 1895 to 1914, the British built the East African railway imported 37,747 Asian men, mainly Ramgharia Sikhs from Punjab, to work on contracts as manual laborers, craftsmen, water carriers, cooks, or semi- professionals. About 7000 of these Asian men remained in East Africa on expiration of their contracts. While some continued to work in government service, the majority became artisans or merchants in the new towns that opened up along the railway line.

Most middle and upper class Indian men who settled in Tanganyika and Zanzibar as traders during the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, went back to their home regions to marry. While Muslim women increasingly accompanied their husbands to East Africa, upper caste Hindu men considered Africa as "alien" and "unsafe" for women, and believed that women would be under better care if they stayed behind in their own extended households. Due to economic and social uncertainty in East Africa, middle class Hindu women often remained behind in India to look after their parents-in-law, children and property; to till the fields and raise the cattle; and to take care of their children's education. The wives of wealthy, upper caste Hindus also frequently stayed in India, with fears of religious or caste impurity offered as explanations for this practice. Upper caste Hindus saw Africans and Muslims as "polluted" because they ate meat, and women from these castes could not eat or drink anything touched by an African. The burden of maintaining religious and caste "purity" fell largely on women, and in the early 20th century upper caste Hindu men tried to maintain their "Hinduness" by keeping their wives in India. The men generally went back to India to marry, and their wives stayed behind from the beginning with the men making frequent trips back and forth. Or else, the women came to Tanganyika for a few years, returning to India for child birth, where they generally remained for 10 to 20 years until their children finished their education.

For Hindus and Muslims from lower classes, safeguarding of religious or racial purity was not a major consideration in migration decisions. Poor women whose husbands went to work in Tanganyika, looked after their families in India until their husbands could pay for the women's passage to Tanganyika. However, for the majority of these working class Asian men, economic circumstances in Tanganyika tended to be better than in India, and the unmarried men could afford to go home to marry and return with their brides. Those who left their wives and children behind, were often able to make arrangements for their families to join them within a few years.

But not all the lower class men could afford to return home to get brides who could fulfill their sexual needs and take care of their households. For these men, African women served as a "refuge." Poor men from Sunni, Baluchi, Ismaili and Ithna Asheri communities among the early settlers, and from Ramgharia Sikh community among the later immigrants, frequently married or cohabited with African or racially mixed women. Also, as the case of Dharani's father illustrates, prosperous Asian businessmen, irrespective of their marital, religious or caste status, frequently had sexual relationships with Swahili women out of wedlock. While Hindu women stayed behind in India to guard their communal purity, Asian men from all classes regarded the African woman as a sexualized object with whom relationships were "quite normal and natural." As long as they married women from their own communities, upper class Asian men were free to have sexual unions with African women without giving them (or their offsprings) any status or legitimacy within the Asian communities.

Shifts in Political Economy and Migration Patterns in the Inter- war Period. Asian communities constantly modified their religious, caste, class and race ideologies when changes in economic and socio-political circumstances necessitated a change in the gendered patterns of migration and marriage. A rapid expansion of the activities of colonial governments and of trading opportunities, attracted about 20,000 immigrant men from India to German and British East Africa between 1890 and 1921.

The formal transfer of German East Africa to British hands at the end of the First World War severely affected middle class Asians. New taxes were imposed and Asians were forced to keep accounts in English instead of Gujarati. Those who worked in the German owned estates and plantations, lost their jobs. At the same time, however, the British sold off German property at low rates, and this led Indian merchants to buy land plots and coffee and sisal estates from the British and strengthen their foothold in the Tanganyikan economy. Between 1921 and 1936, British Indians acquired 316,024 acres of agricultural and pastoral land in Tanganyika, and by 1939, Asians owned 20 percent of the sisal estates in Tanganyika. Asian men who became prosperous estate and plantation owners, employed their male relatives and friends and helped them to set up retail businesses in Tanganyika. Business partners, managers and salaried employees were also chosen from the familial nexus. The regulation of the bodies and labor of Asian women through shifting marital practices played a crucial role in defining the specific processes by which Asian capitalists inserted themselves in the colonial and imperial project

Meanwhile, the crisis caused in India by the economic depression of the 1930s continued to pull more immigrants from Gujarat, Kathiawar, Kutch, Goa and Punjab to East Africa where there were tremendous opportunities for employment in government service, crafts and construction, commerce, banking, and wholesale and retail trade. By the late 1930s, Asian men dominated a range of small enterprises including blacksmithing, tinsmithing, tailoring, furniture making, construction work, and garages. In 1939, of the East African Asian population of more than 100,000, a quarter resided in Tanganyika. Jain and Hindu men from Lohana, Bania and Bhatia trading castes established retail trading shops in Tanganyikan towns of Dar es Salaam, Lindi and Pemba. Although Tanganyika and Zanzibar retained a larger proportion of Muslims, Hindus and Jains rapidly outnumbered Muslims in Kenya and Uganda. In 1948, Hindus/Jains totalled over 45,000 in Kenya as contrasted with approximately 27,500 Muslims, and over 20,000 in Uganda compared to approximately 11,000 Muslims.

The taboos and beliefs of elite Hindus in Tanganyika and Zanzibar changed as Hindu settlement in East Africa increased. Although the majority of them still returned to India to marry, three major changes started occurring. First, more Hindu wives began accompanying their husbands to Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Second, arranged marriages within East Africa became more common as various Hindu castes developed social and institutional links with their own castes in Kenya and Uganda (and in some cases also, Madagascar and Mozambique). Third, Hindu and Muslim families in India who were eager to establish links with East Africa, began to find brides or grooms in Tanganyika for their children. As political and economic changes made the environment in Tanganyika more favorable for Hindu settlement, Tanganyika ceased to be an "alien" and "unsafe" place for upper and middle class Hindu women. Women's absence was felt more acutely, and their presence became necessary for the social reproduction of the settler households and communities. Women were needed to maintain and strengthen their husbands' households, to provide their husbands with the home-made meals they missed, to provide stability and security at home so that men could concentrate on their businesses, to raise children, and to reproduce the culture of their classes, castes, and regions in Tanganyika.

Ideologies and Marriage after World War II. By the time the Second World War commenced, Muslim families from the Ismaili, Ithna Asheri, Bohora and Sunni sects had settled in Tanganyika and Zanzibar in large numbers and, except for Bohoras (whose religious leader lives in Bombay), most of these people had limited contact with their places of origin. Among upper class Hindus, Sikhs and Goans, too, selection of spouses from within East Africa became more frequent by the 1940s. Upper class families now commonly felt that Indian families settled in East Africa were more prosperous and sophisticated than Indians from India. Hence, "girls from East Africa made better spouses@ because it was "very hard for girls from India to adjust here".

Among the middle class Hindus, Sikhs, and Goans, however, the practice of seeking wives from India continued right up to the 1960s. Informants offered several explanations for this. First, in numerically small castes, unmarried women were fewer in number than unmarried men. Second, traveling between India and Tanzania was relatively cheap until the mid-1970s when strict foreign exchange controls were imposed. Third, unmarried men often had friends and relatives in India who could readily find brides for them because "back home everyone was crazy" about the "gold mine called East Africa". An upper class Goan woman in her late fifties recalled her journey to East Africa as a young Goan bride:

When I was coming to Africa my mother-in-law cut and permed my hair because with my long hair I looked like an ordinary Goa girl. But . . . they had to doll me up . . . [because] I was coming to Africa where [Goan women] were all well-dressed and used lipsticks . . . . The ship in which I came to Tanzania was full of Goan brides who were going to get married to Goan men . . . [in Easy Africa]. Most of them had seen their fiances. I was one of the odd ones who hadn't.

Despite the continuation of this practice of seeking Indian born wives, however, the pattern of Asian women's (especially, Hindu women's) settlement in Tanzania underwent an important change during the Second World War when the privilege of unrestricted travel between India and East Africa for men was replaced by stricter immigration control. Now, one had to acquire a permit to enter East Africa each time. This requirement encouraged women to settle with their husbands in Tanzania. Partly as a result of this factor, the period after the Second World War witnessed the greatest increase in Asian population relative to earlier periods: the number of Asians in Tanganyika rose from 25,000 in 1939 to 92,000 in 1962.

With Tanganyika's independence (1961), and the Zanzibar Revolution (1964), the colonial racial structure crumbled. In the wake of the Zanzibar Revolution in which Arabs and Asians were attacked as exploiters and "blood suckers" of indigenous people, about 10,000 Zanzibari Asians moved to the mainland. The adoption of socialist policies in Tanzania between 1967 and 1976 resulted in nationalization of many Asian enterprises and over 3000 Asian-owned buildings, and marketing co- operatives eliminated the notorious presence of Asian middlemen from the countryside. These developments led to the exodus of about 50,000 Asians to the U.K and Canada while many others moved from smaller towns to Dar es Salaam. As the Asian population shrank in Tanzania and expanded in London, Birmingham, Toronto, and Vancouver, Asians from all communities increasingly started looking for marriage partners in the U.K. and North America rather than in India or East Africa.

Gendered Social Boundaries in a Race/Class Hierarchy. Despite some important gains that Nyerere's socialist Tanzania brought for the African majority, the postcolonial period was also marked by enormous economic hardships and scarcities for the common people. But this period also saw a steady rise in the prosperity of Asian businessmen who stayed in Tanzania. These economic and social inequalities between a few rich Asians and the vast majority of Tanzanians have continued to accelerate in the era of trade liberalization which marked the demise of socialist Tanzania in 1984.

The dominant racist, sexist and classist ideologies of the Asians communities also shifted in the postcolonial context. Marriages with African women came to be associated with the past when lonely Asian men needed sex and companionship from African women in the absence of women of their own kind. Now, such relationships came to be blamed on the presence of "promiscuous" and "immoral" African and racially mixed prostitutes whose "lust for sex and money" attracted Asian men towards them. At the same time, sexual relationships between Asian women and African men were (as always) regarded as "culturally impossible". Thus, dominant Asian ideologies and practices related to communal purity strictly regulated the sexuality of privileged Asian women and simultaneously allowed women from socially marginalized groups to be exploited by Asian men as absorbers of sexual impurity. On the one hand, this process has served to perpetuate discourses related to Asians' cultural and moral superiority over Africans that go hand in hand with Asians' economically privileged status. On the other hand, oppressions perpetuated by Asian men that are simultaneously gendered, raced, and classed, have repeatedly become a politically volatile issue in the context of race relations in Tanzania. This was seen, for example, during the years following the Zanzibar Revolution when raping and forcibly marrying Asian women to African men became the main tool by which President Karume sought to put Asian men in their place.

Marxian analyses of the Tanzanian political economy have often focused exclusively on Asian capitalists and middlemen as the comprador/ commercial bourgeoisie who facilitated East Africa's incorporation into the colonial project and the global capitalist economy. However, these analyses have totally ignored the presence of Asian women and of class differences within Asian communities. The above analysis suggests that regulation of the bodies and labor of Asian women through shifting marital practices and gendered ideologies of communal purity played a crucial role in defining, aiding and perpetuating the specific processes by which Asian capitalists inserted themselves and found a foothold in the colonial and imperial project in Tanzania.

[Richa Nagar is an Asst. Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado, Boulder.]

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