Mauritian women against sexual abuse in recent history

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Many forms of violence against women persist in today’s society.

When people hear about the worldwide women’s rebellion against sexual abuse by men with power in various patriarchal hierarchies that persist in today’s society, they might think that, when the issue is taken up here by the Muvman Liberasyon Fam (MLF) or #shamethem, that they are merely the tail end of a worldwide movement led by Americans in Hollywood. But it’s not true. Here are some ways women have dealt with sexual abuse in Mauritius since Independence. Let’s start with the biggest movement of all against sexual abuse – when thousands of field labourers went on strike in 1970 – and end with the strong symbolism of the women’s march, Fam Reklam Lanwit, from Port- Louis to Curepipe, held on 8th March 1983.

A powerful strike

In 1970, there was a rolling strike. It was a protest against sexual abuse and rape at the Médine Sugar Estate. There was a kolom who, with the collusion of a sirdar, first isolated a woman labourer from her work gang, then raped her. It was an ongoing violent assault, inflicted on women one by one. Dreaded. But hard to oppose. The woman worker could lose her job if she spoke out. Shame would fall most likely on her in the ensuing scandal. Bosses might sack witnesses, too. Work was scarce. Bosses kept blacklists.

This kind of worksite rape was common then. It had been common from the time of slavery, through indenture, and it is still all too common today – at the cybercity, not just in factories and fields.

By 1970, Médine women labourers were furious. Their anger had been kept secret. Their suffering too. It was something spoken of in whispers. What kind of riposte could they organize to put a stop to this?

The kolom organized with the sirdar for a young girl worker of 12 years old to be his prey. These were the days of chokra-chokri, children workers. So, the rape was that of a child. The women confided in a man labourer colleague who they trusted, the late Ramesh Khaytoo. Mauritius was in the middle of a State of Emergency, yet workers managed to plan a strike. How do you do this without losing your job? Without getting arrested and locked up without trial? Without being set up for some criminal offence by the boss? Not easy. So, field labourers, under the leadership of women and Ramesh Khaytoo, planned and held a rolling strike, annex by annex, all over the whole of Médine Sugar Estate. Women labourers were key. They said the equivalent then of “me too”.

On Monday, everyone working in the Palmir Annex went on strike, while the other seven Annexes worked away as though everything was hunky-dory. Tuesday, while the Palmir workers all arrived back at work as if nothing had happened, there was a total strike in the Yemen Annex. While everyone else worked heads down. On Wednesday, the Palmir and Yemen workers were both back at work, but this time La Mecque labourers were all absent. And so on.

It had a strange effect on the sugar bosses. They felt they were being attacked by a poltergeist. A Tit-Albert. They went catatonic. They could not get their heads around it. What could they do about it? They enquired through their spies and finally found out that there was a sexual predator amongst management itself causing the strike.

They sacked him. The strike had been a total success. No workers lost their jobs. No one was arrested. This gave women workers immense confidence. No sindikalis had been involved. They did it by themselves. Imagine the profound lakorité or “common understanding” that was necessary to plan and execute that kind of strike.

It is no secret that the labourers of Médine were the backbone of the biggest working class movement in Mauritian history, the 1979 strike. They built their strength, on the women’s 1970’s experience.

Girl students head uprising

In May 1975, it was girls from Bhujoharry “Tifi”, Eden “Tifi”, QEC, and from colleges literally in every nook and cranny of the main island that headed the student uprising for decolonizing education. This saw thousands of girls, from Form II to IV, take over the streets and confirm their right to free movement without harassment.

Manifesto against rape and sexual abuse

The MLF published the first Manifesto including protection from sexual abuse in mid-1977. Section 3 was on “Fam éna drwa proteksyon kont vyolans”, both “legal” and “physical”. Rape and “forced prostitution” are mentioned as types of violence. As a sign of the times, Section 5 reads: “Fam bizin éna liberté al kot li ulé, fer séki li anvi, zwenn dimunn ki li anvi.”

Public denunciation of a predator

There was a sexual predator operating in Port-Louis, offering to find a young woman a job, luring her into his car, then driving to a lonely place and demanding oral sex. One such woman victim, already abused, when the man was leaving her, suggested that she bring another woman and meet him in two days’ time. What presence of mind she had! She set up a rendezvous with him. She then immediately came to an MLF meeting at which we planned the rest of her “sting operation”.

So, on 3rd August 1977, she and another MLF volunteer stood in front of the Bank of Baroda Building, in Sir William Newton Street, as planned. Another 23 members of the movement lay in wait, meanwhile, in the Bank, Hand Loom and other nearby shops. When the man parked his car and approached the two, we all sprang out and started screaming at him at the top of our voices, denouncing him. He at once saw the trap, jumped back into his car, pranged another car, then sped off.

The MLF then brought out a communiqué that warned women of a man who “rul Volkswagen nwar F716 é ki dir li pu fer bann fam gayn travay. Li enn gro bug, lédan lor o-milyé, met linet fimé, é bush shirt. Fer atansyon! Pa rant dan so loto!” (Le Militant, 9th August 1977). Le Mauricien, 5th August 1977 wrote: “Un jeune homme d’une trentaine d’années, Casanova [sic] malchanceux, s’est fait assailler, vers 13 heures, par une trentaine de filles qui se déclaraient avoir été ses ‘victimes’”.

February 1978 : mass public meeting

In the run-up to International Women’s Day, Solidarite Fam, a common front the MLF set up, held a meeting of 300 women in the Company Gardens. Among themes publicly addressed, and in the Manifesto voted, was opposition to sexual abuse and violence. Rajiati Chengebroyen spoke on this subject. Other speakers included Kisna Kistnasamy, Marie-Claire Bibi, Shireen Aumeeruddy, Lindsey Collen, Solange Brunette, Mrs Seegoolam, the late Denise Nakeed and the late Zubeida Bahim. Predators began to be reined in by society.

Book against rape and abuse

MLF published a booklet speaking out against rape and sexual abuse, putting emphasis on the “assault” and criticizing the archaic emphasis on men’s supposed “sexuality” when rape was merely the will of macho men to impose control over women, the very opposite of an expression of sexuality, just as a clout across the head is the opposite of a caress of someone’s head.

August 1979 strike movement

The August 1979 general strike movement that began in the sugar industry was, in large part, driven by the active role of women field labourers from all estates. After the strike, they came to Port-Louis to support the leaders’ hunger strike in the Company Gardens. An individual homeless woman who had suffered eviction, finding herself amongst a crowd of people being arrested for strike-related clashes, famously danced inside the police station at Line Barracks, singing, “sel solisyon, revolisyon”, as her six-year-old boy, clapped his hands, and sang “alalila, mama, alalila, mama!” A small group of women from Baiedu- Tombeau, when Zardin Konpayni was declared a Prohibited Area, would prance by in single file in La Chaussée, singing out, Sel solisyon, revolisyon, and when the riot police would start to act, they would melt away into adjoining streets. Only to reappear from another direction 15 minutes later. Such were the times. It was in this movement that women made progress in quelling some of the sexual abuse and street harassment that had existed in the past.

Violent repression of women’s demonstration by police

Women were furious because two women who had gone to the Petite-Rivière police station one evening, in 1977, to seek help for a fight in the neighbourhood, were raped by two officers in the police station. Four years later, the case had still not come to Court. So, on 14th January 1981, some 15 MLF members had gathered inside cité Richelieu to prepare a demonstration against the police in front of the police station. Something strange then happened. Police officers and men in plain clothes attacked us and grabbed away our pancartes like thugs working for a dictatorship before the demonstration started! Men were afraid of a women’s demonstration.

Mass movement of 1980

The mass movement to force the Government and bosses to respect the 23th August 1979 agreement that ended the strike the previous year, was again given its immense power by the participation of women in the demonstrations that surrounded the long hunger strike. This movement, like the August ‘79 strike, caused a marked reduction in street abuse. This lasted for some 20 years, but in the new millennium, abuse is back!

Diego Garcia hunger strikes

In 1981, the Chagossian women, rich with experience of the 1979 and 1981 movements in which some of their leaders took part, together with LALIT and MLF women, organized their own hunger strike and 3-days of demonstrations that ended in the police provoking violent street battles against the women, which the latter won. During these rebellions, Chagossian women taught all of those of poor areas of Port- Louis how to deal with the police. Prior to this, police used to exact sexual services in exchange for anything a woman was forced to address the police for. But, from 1981 onwards, fearless of patriarchy, the Chagossian women taught us all how to end this abuse by the police.

The night march “Fam Reklam Lanwit”

On 8th March 1983, Solidarite Fam – led by MLF – held a women only nightlong walk from Company Gardens in Port-Louis to the MLF women’s centre in Curepipe. Fifty women, some with children, participated, expressing this way their opposition to sexual harassment in the streets and public places. (Le Mauricien, Des Femmes revendiquent la rue la nuit, 9th March 1983). The streets of La Butte, Borstal, Beau- Bassin and Rose-Hill were lined with women supporting the march.

So, when we are going forward in the struggle for women’s emancipation and for our liberation, we must be sure to lean upon the gains of these and all the other struggles of the past, before the short time of the article, and after it. This way we do not reinvent the wheel!

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