On New Year’s Day, police officers in the 106th precinct of Queens responded to a 911 call. When they arrived, they found a woman lying face down in an upstairs bedroom. She had multiple stab wounds to her torso and was pronounced dead.
Her name was Stacy Singh.
Two hours before they found Singh, the police had found her husband’s corpse swinging from a tree less than two miles away. Vishwanand Loknath had murdered his wife at their home in the early hours of the new year and then taken his own life.
The 26-year-old mother of two became the first New York City homicide of 2018. In her Indo-Caribbean Queens community, her death was far from the first of its kind.
On Dec. 5, 2016, less than a mile away from Singh’s home, 46-year-old Rajwantie Baldeo was fatally stabbed and nearly decapitated by her husband.
In a span of two months in the spring of 2007, two other Indo-Caribbean women — Natasha Ramen and Guiatree Hardat — lost their lives in similar acts of violence.
In these cases, the perpetrators were also Indo-Caribbean.
The Indo-Caribbean community in the United States
Indo-Caribbeans are descendents of Indians who were brought to British colonies in the Caribbean, particularly Guyana and Trinidad, as indentured laborers on sugar plantations after the abolishment of slavery in the 1800s.
When their contracts were up, most of the indentured workers stayed in the Caribbean. In the 1970s and ’80s, many Indo-Caribbeans started migrating to North America, and by 2013, Guyanese immigrants represented the second largest foreign-born population in Queens. The borough’s Richmond Hill neighborhood along Liberty Avenue transformed into Little Guyana.
But along with the roti shops and temples, the patriarchal traditions that lead to gender-based violence also found their way into Little Guyana.
Vrinda Jagan can usually see it in their eyes when someone is experiencing domestic violence. Jagan, an immigration attorney based in Richmond Hill whose clients mainly come from the Caribbean, says that 90 percent of her female clients have experienced some sort of domestic violence.
Often women don’t admit it because “they think that’s how men should behave,” says Jagan. There is stigma attached to divorce and “women stay [despite abuse] because they don’t want the kids to come from a broken home.”
Singh, too, stayed with her husband even though he’d attacked her at least once before on Sept. 11, 2017, striking her five times on the back of the head with a closed fist, according to the New York Police Department.
“She stayed with him no matter what because they had two kids together. She was hoping for him to change, but he never did,” Singh’s brother-in-law told the New York Daily News.
“You read about domestic violence and you feel sad and then you move on,” Ramona Latsis, Singh’s aunt, told mourners at a vigil for her at the Bhuvaneshwar Mandir on Jan. 15, just two weeks after her death.
“But when you’re directly impacted, you think about it every day. What could you have done?”
Guiatree Hardat’s story
What could she have done is a question Debbie Hardat has asked herself countless times since Mother’s Day 2007. Debbie was planning to celebrate the day with her elderly mother in Guyana. Instead, she spent it mourning her daughter’s death in Queens.
Harry Rupnarine was immediately interested in Guiatree Hardat. They met one evening at the Crescent Street subway stop in Brooklyn where he was on duty as an NYPD transit cop. He offered to walk her home, and Guiatree, who had recently moved to the United States from Guyana and was in her early 20s, thought it would be safe, given that he was a cop.
Their romance took hold over the next year. Rupnarine, who was in his mid-30s, would often repeatedly call her home late at night, demanding to talk to her even when she was asleep. When he couldn’t reach her on the phone, he would bang on her bedroom windows.
Jyoti Hardat knew something was wrong with her older sister because she would often find Guiatree crying at night. The sisters were like “twins born five years apart,” Jyoti says. “She would wear eye shadow and dress nicely, but when they started going out together, she just didn’t bother.”
On the day after Thanksgiving in 2006, Rupnarine slapped Jyoti, who was 16 at the time. “If he’s willing to do this to your little sister, what is he going to do to you?” Jyoti asked Guiatree.
Debbie never approved of her daughter’s relationship with Rupnarine. She says he would complain to her that Guiatree was wearing “revealing” clothes and that he didn’t like people looking at her on the subway.
He also indicated to Debbie that Guiatree wouldn’t be able to go to school after the couple married because she wouldn’t have time to cook.
“If you marry him, you’re going to be like Cinderella,” Debbie warned her daughter.
After dating for about a year, Rupnarine proposed to Guiatree and they got engaged in December 2006. He wanted to get married quickly but Guiatree told him she needed more time.
That’s when the relationship started deteriorating, Jyoti says. Eventually, Guiatree called off the engagement.
On the night of May 10, 2007, Guiatree was supposed to pick up dinner on her way home from work. Her father was going to pick her up from the bus stop on Lefferts Boulevard in Queens, but she told him she would walk home.
Instead, she was murdered near 82nd street in Woodhaven.
Her ex-fiancé had shot her point blank in the back of the head.
Tracing the roots of domestic violence
When Aneesa Baboolal, a PhD candidate at the University of Delaware, was studying how domestic violence is perceived in the Indo-Caribbean community in Queens, she was struck by how normalized it had become.
One woman she interviewed was so inured to domestic violence that she characterized it as nothing but marriage.
“If he beats you, he loves you,” is a common notion, especially among the older generation, Baboolal says.
This attitude can be traced back to the generations that experience indentureship. Most of the indentured laborers were men, and rape and sexual assault were rampant on the ships they came on.
On the plantations, violence against women by their male partners was “quite frequent and troubling,” Sumita Chatterjee, a research scholar, writes in her 1997 dissertation on gender and Indian indentureship.
For instance, of the 37 murders that took place over a five-year period in late 1800s Guyana, 25 involved female victims killed by their male partner. In her thesis, Chatterjee noted that when women sought to end abusive relationships, men, often unable to control or restrict women legally, resorted to murdering them.
Today, “in Trinidad, when women try to report, police don’t take it seriously. Lawyers and even magistrates encourage them to reconcile,” says Baboolal.
This fosters silence.
Alcohol is also often used as an excuse for abuse. Jagan, the immigration lawyer, recalls an instance when one of her clients came to her office with two black eyes but defended her abusive husband by saying the violence only escalated after he had been drinking.
Indo-Caribbeans are often very private people, Jagan says, and many family members tend to stay out of husband-wife conflicts.
“We need to speak up,” Latsis, Singh’s aunt, told mourners at the vigil. “Because if we’re not, we’re helping them hurt our loved ones more.”
Building a movement against domestic violence
In March 2007, frustrated by the lack of domestic violence awareness and resources in their community, four Indo-Caribbean women in New York City joined forces to put together an empowerment summit for women in their community.
As they were planning the summit, 20-year-old Natasha Ramen was murdered by her alleged rapist in front of her Queens home.
“We were waiting for our leaders to take a stand but there was no outrage,” Shivana Jorawar, one of the four women behind the summit, says. “So, we became the leaders we needed.”
The group held the first Indo-Caribbean women’s empowerment summit on March 31, 2007, about two weeks after Ramen was killed. Within six weeks, Guiatree Hardat was killed, and they realized that one summit wasn’t going to be enough.
In 2008, the group formalized their efforts and named themselves Jahajee Sisters. “Jahajee”means ship-dwelling, a historical reference to when indentured laborers were brought to the Caribbean on ships.
They started holding sister circles, creating safe spaces for women to speak out. Starting in 2010, they also organized annual two-week leadership institutes geared toward “developing the next generation of activists,” Jorawar, co-chair of Jahajee Sisters, says.
Last year, they launched a a six-month-long leadership institute for people of all ages, many of them survivors of domestic violence and/or sexual assault.
They also established an emergency fund and gave their first $1,000 grant to a woman fleeing domestic violence.
“We hear a woman is suffering and we are doing our best to provide a shoulder to lean on and direct them to services that do exist,” says Jorawar.
That’s important because the community of Little Guyana in Queens is an ethnic enclave in every way, says Baboolal, the research scientist, who also grew up there.
Immigrants often end up keeping to themselves and their community, and are largely isolated. That can make mainstream social services hard to access.
In the Indo-Caribbean community, faith leaders often become default counselors.
“In the absence of adequate outlets to turn to, victims turn to faith institutions for comfort and solace, putting these institutions in a unique position to respond,” Aminta Kilawan, activist and co-founder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, says.
But faith leaders are not always be equipped with the knowledge to respond to domestic violence in a preventive way.
Organizations like Sadhana and Jahajee Sisters are working to establish women’s groups within faith institutions while encouraging faith leaders to preach about gender justice.
It was in one of these faith institutions where mourners remembered Singh on a chilly afternoon just days after her death.
Surrounded by brightly decorated idols of Hindu deities, they recalled her illuminating smile and her “red hair waving in the wind like a jhandi flag,” a symbol of Indo-Caribbean identity.
And they reminded those gathered that “the moment is now” for change and action.