Plantation Patriarchy and Women Workers in the Himalayas: Experiences from Darjeeling Sikkim Himalayas
Plantations share a tiny slot in the colossal Himalayan space but have encapsulated adequate scholarly attention. One among the many peculiarities of plantations that ensued from their colonial roots is attributed to the presence of the women who actually outnumbered their male counterparts as the major constituting body of the labour force. The fact that Sikkim plantations preclude a colonial legacy nevertheless they do also share the same phenomenal presence of the women workers may lead one examine the plantations of this region from gender perspective. This paper claims that the women workers of the Himalayan belt may not share a similar past, they may vary even in several other respects, but they do share a common misfortune of being a plantation woman.
Drawing experiences from Darjeeling hills and Sikkim and analysing the predicament of women workers of this region this paper argues that the plantations are basically patriarchal institutions the foundations of which were laid during colonial times and the structures still perpetuate even in areas which did not have foundational experience of colonisation. Furthermore, a gendered reading of the plantation history would be attempted to reveal how literature, accounts, policies and labour laws in both colonial and post-colonial phases actually maintained an androcentric gaze discursively framed through gender-neutral discourses. Traditional ideologies and customs conforming female inferiority are ubiquitous and were propagated through capitalist production in plantations. This contributed to the persistence of a system that further pushed women to their subordinate positions by projecting domesticity as the space of reproducing labor and thereby to secure capital acceleration as a continuous process. Reifying women of having ‘docile bodies’ and ‘nimble fingers’ was thus common which categorised them as an object – whose labour power was exploited and body fetishized. This was how the consolidation of patriarchal norms in the plantations of colonial Darjeeling began.
With these considerations an auto-ethnographic attempt would be made to establish plantation as a patriarchal institution. In order to shed light on the predicaments of plantation women workers in contemporary time gender ideologies operating in plantations (of both the places and beyond) would be closely examined, which in fact, play a great deal of role in shaping their socio-economic, socio-psychological experiences and consciousness. How the position of ‘being a plantation woman’ conflates with the idea of ‘being exploited’ in economic, political and cultural fronts? How their subordinate positions and subjugated experiences in the field as paid productive labour and at the level of domesticity as unpaid reproductive labour delimit women survive within the gendered spaces of the Himalayan plantations? While considering the plantation women workers of Darjeeling-Sikkim region the paper would also flag up the problems and prospects of treating the life experiences of plantation women as a potential site for emancipatory struggle that may carry some instructive lessons for the plantation women workers situated in the wider Himalayan region.
Keywords: Plantation patriarchy, Himalayan Plantations, Gender Ideologies, Darjeeling, Sikkim