The Indian girl Navpreet Kaur, 22, is making history in Uganda. Her rebellion against parents who treated her brutally, and the support she received from Black Ugandans, has marked a turning point in the relationship between the two communities.
Navpreet was determined to continue her education, and her parents were determined that she should marry a man of their choice. Twice her parents tried to arrange marriages for her, but were unable to arrange the dowry. When Navpreet rebelled against her parents' plans, they roughed her up and locked her away. She managed to escape, and sought shelter in a nearby clinic where her friend's mother Ruth Kiwanuka was a nurse. "Twice she attempted suicide by throwing herself in front of a speeding vehicle and by taking a drug overdose," says Kiwanuka.
She attended to Navpreet before handing her over to the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA) - a women lawyers' collective. FIDA then teamed up with the Indian Female Association (IFA), who helped her get a job and accommodation. Dipali Sharma, Chairperson, IFA, says that they are exploring the possibility of reconciliation. "If it is about education, Navpreet could get married and still continue with her education. Every parent wants the best for their children, after all."
FIDA, of course, disagrees with this approach, saying that forced marriages are illegal in Uganda and that laws must take precedence over all else.
Besides, this is not a realistic approach. Navpreet swears that she will never go back to her parents because they are unwilling to adapt to modern life. "These days, most Indian families in Uganda are liberated and girls can choose the men they want to marry," she says.
Her parents - who claim Navpreet is a slow learner and does not deserve to continue her education - blame FIDA for their daughter's rebellion. "Ugandan laws don't affect the Indian culture of arranged marriage. So, I have the right to choose a partner for my daughter, and being in Uganda does not mean we should disrespect Indian culture," says Gurbax Singh, Navpreet's father.
Navpreet's experience has led many social observers to remark on the changing attitudes of Indian women in Uganda. Girls like Navpreet have grown up in a more liberal environment, mingling with Black Ugandans and absorbing their outlook and culture. Her parents' generation though continues to remain insular, attempting to recreate Indian customs in this far away land - often completely cut off from the many changes in their country of origin.
Moses Seenarine, a prominent scholar and researcher, who has studied the Indian community in Uganda, agrees that men find it difficult to face reality. "Indian women can now control their sexuality, are able to destabilise the Indian patriarchal system. This is evident in the increased murder of wives by Indian men," he says. A case that gained prominence was the murder of Reni Joshi by her husband Kooky Sharma, a businessperson, in 1997. Women activists actively worked to ensure that the case was taken to court, in spite of attempts by the community to avoid the courts. Sharma is now on death row.
Seenarine also believes that the diverse professions that Indians are now involved in - as professionals and executives - helps them develop a broader approach than their predecessors, who were shopkeepers and were seen as money-minded.
The extreme insularity of the Indian population has led to much resentment.
In fact, when Idi Amin, the then president, expelled 80,000 Indians, accusing them of "milking a cow without feeding it", he was widely applauded. "A vast majority of these people had never thought of Uganda as a home. But when they were heartlessly ousted, many cried bitterly for this homeland," recalls Jameela Siddiq, a freelance broadcaster and writer, who was a student during that era.
When they were later allowed to return, the Indian community had learnt a lesson and decided to open up. In fact, some, like Karim Hirji, a highly successful Indian entrepreneur, married an African. Another millionaire, Muhammed Thoban is now a minister in Buganda (the largest of the traditional Ugandan kingdoms) and has even been accepted in one of the kingdom's 52 clans.
Ugandan Blacks, on their part, are also beginning to appreciate Indian culture. The traditional sari has become a fashion statement, and Indian cuisine, music and movies are also highly popular.
Murtuaxa Dalal, Chairperson of the Indian Association of Uganda, thinks there are still some rough edges that need to be streamlined, but he thinks it can be done. "Generally, we are accepted here in spite of the small pockets of distrust."
In an increasingly cosmopolitan society, Ugandan women activists are also involving themselves with the problems of Indian women like Navpreet. "It is unfortunate that the Indian community allows young persons to go through harrowing experiences like Navpreet's. Even when the woman reports the case, the community still tends to shield the culprits," says Jackie Asiimwe, a lawyer and women's rights activist. She stresses that while cultural norms have their place, the law of the land should take precedence over all else. "Ugandan laws make forced marriages a crime," she points out, adding that law enforcers should ensure that there is a system in place that is deterrent enough.
Atuki Turner, the Africa Domestic Violence Coordinator for Amnesty International, says that Navpreet's experience will help reflect on the urgent need to pass the Domestic Relations Bill, which attempts to take in modern reality in the institution of marriage. It criminalizes forced marriages and marital rape and recognizes long-term cohabitation. "It has been on the shelves since 1998 and has not been passed. This Bill should be the starting point for women to advocate laws on domestic violence," says Turner. She also believes that the Bill should be thoroughly examined to reflect the dynamics of religious and cultural beliefs.
However, Deepa Verma Jivram, an Indian lawyer and columnist for the Monitor newspaper, cautions that unless the Bill is clear on its definition of customs and its view on customary marriages, it will not be a complete answer to the problem. "Only when this is done can activists declare that dowry is outlawed."