A unique Muslim identity in Trinidad and Tobago

London – In a globalised world of increased communication and information exchange, men and women from the “third world” live in the complicated intersection of colonisation, Western hegemony, traditional expectations and religious customs. As a Pakistani-American woman, I stand at the crux of racial and ethnic difference, and I have spent much time considering how Muslim men and women in predominantly non-Muslim societies both absorb and affect the values and communal expectations of their new homes while simultaneously creating a distinct identity.

I spent five months in Trinidad and Tobago beginning in January 2006 interviewing Muslim Trinidadians on this issue. Trinidad and Tobago, a country in the southern Caribbean, has a truly multicultural, vibrant society where religious and cultural tolerance and assimilation are an intrinsic part of the community. Muslims represent around 6% of Trinidad’s population, but together they stand as a powerful force in the diverse population on the island. The two largest religions are Christianity and Hinduism. Originally settled by Spanish, British and French forces, it has had a strong European influence and a history of slavery and indentured servitude, both of which have contributed to the country’s multiculturalism.

In the early 1900s, South Asians were brought to Trinidad as indentured servants to work on the sugar cane and cacao fields. These Indian labourers – many of whom were Muslim – kept the traditional patriarchal gender norms of their homeland. Indian women were responsible for maintaining Indian culture in the home, leading to the construction of an Indo-Trinidadian Muslim gender identity based on Indian traditions of work, family and religion.

Panchaitee Tadjah at Hosay

Today, Trinidad’s multi-ethnic society promotes a unique cultural space that merges different traditions. For example, the Muslim ceremony of Ashoura, which commemorates the death of Prophet Mohammad’s grandsons – Hussain (from which the festival’s name in Trinidad, Hosay, is derived) and Hassan – is celebrated not only by Muslims, but also by many non-Muslims.

The various multi-ethnic populations, including Hindus, Creoles, Africans and Trinidadians joined together to partake in the Hosay festivities after the colonialists became wary of public gatherings during the late 1800s. They saw the Hosay celebration as a potential uprising and banned the event in 1884, while the defiant population carried on celebrating despite the British ban.

Eventually, Hosay came to symbolise the exile of all ethnic and religious communities in Trinidad as a cultural resistance and defiance against colonial hegemonic powers. Muslims and non-Muslims alike participate in the ritualistic fast and various purifying activities alongside Muslim observers, both acknowledging and signifying acceptance of the public practice of Muslim traditions in Trinidadian society.

With this multiplicity of external and internal influences and factors, Trinidadian Muslims oscillate between affecting the local culture, and retaining and modifying their own identities. Identity and culture in this society are constantly shifting and changing.

One of the more visible ways in which Muslim women are the carriers of tradition in the public sphere is through the hijab. The ornhi, a shawl over the head, was the traditional headwear for the first indentured servants that arrived in Trinidad and Tobago. It was loosely based on Islamic tradition, but mostly embedded in Indian customs as Hindu and Christian women wore it as well.

Since the 1990s, the increase in the numbers of Muslim missionaries and scholars from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the increase in Trinidadian Muslims going on pilgrimage to Mecca has given rise to an increased adoption of the hijab. The hijab has now come to symbolise more than just an Islamic identity, but a community, political and class identity as well. Many young Muslim girls view it as a symbol that reconnects them with their cultural heritage and to the greater global Muslim community. One college student stated: “When I wear hijab I feel that I’m part of something bigger than Trinidad.”
By dressing in a certain way, Muslim women maintain the symbols of their community and religion as well as creating an identity that is distinct from the prevailing Afro-Trinidadian culture and society. Clothing and fashion become a way for many Muslim girls to negotiate and navigate between shifting identities. One girl told me: “I take the latest fashion from magazines and the mall, but I make it Islamic.” Often, Muslim girls imitate the latest Western fashions but wear long sleeve t-shirts or buy clothing in a larger size in order to follow normative Islamic modest dress. This type of behaviour creates a fusion between Islamic tradition and modern Western culture in Trinidad.

Trinidad is a society in which religious and cultural traditions are acknowledged and respected. This kind of practice has created an open and accepting society in which Muslims are welcome to share their customs and religion. Muslims in Trinidad cannot be categorised with one label, but, like many Muslims living in Western societies, create and share a dynamic Muslim Trinidadian identity.


* Fatima Jafri is a senior at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut with a major in Middle Eastern studies and a minor in women, gender, and sexuality. Currently she is studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 16 October 2007, www.commongroundnews.org

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