Dalit Feminism

M. Swathy Margaret

(First Published in Insight Youth Voices magazine in 2005)

I am a Dalit-middle-class, University educated, Telugu speaking Dalit-Christian-Woman. All these identities have a role in the way I perceive myself and the worlds I inhabit. I, as a Dalit woman, primarily write for Dalit women to uphold our interests. This statement of mine is necessary because if we do not define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others – for their use and to our detriment. This voice is not representative of all Dalit women. However, I know that my voice is important because it is the voice of a socially denigrated category, suppressed and silenced.


My own self-perception and understanding as a Dalit woman, as a point of intersection/an overlap between the categories "Dalit" and "woman", took shape in the University of Hyderabad when I joined there for my M.A. in English. I fell in love with the sprawling campus instantly. Some familiar-looking young men came to my aid in filling the endless forms and challans, saying they are from the Ambedkar Students' Union. Hearing Ambedkar's name I knew I belonged there. However, it did not take much time before I realized they refused to see an equal intellectual comrade in me. Like the majority of men, they acknowledge a dalit woman's presence as only fit for handing over bouquets to the guest speakers they invite for their meetings. At the most, she can give the vote of thanks. They do not consider her in important decisions or in writing papers. Later I learned that excluding women from their committees was a deliberate policy they followed as they believed women's presence would cause "problems" and come in the way of serious politics. Women inevitably mean "problems", their sexuality being an uncontrolled wild beast waiting to pounce upon the unassuming dalit men in the movement. It is assumed that they divert the attention from the larger concerns of the movement.

I was given a nice room in the corner of the wing in the Ladies Hostel. But the only thing was that it was unused for a couple of years in spite of it being the best room in that wing, I was told. I did not ask why. Later I was told it was the room where one Dalit woman Suneetha hung herself to the fan, after continuous sexual exploitation and ultimate rejection by a Reddy man when the question of marriage came up. Some inquired if that fact scared me. The ghost that stared at me was not the thought of a hanging female body but it was my own body which is Dalit and woman and is as vulnerable as Suneetha's. The stories of Dalit women being used and thrown by upper caste men, told and retold by my mother came back shouting loudly in my ears.

I also saw the urban, fluent-in-English, extremely confident women, who called themselves feminist, who I could hardly talk to. When I did talk to them I was struck by their confidence, their go-get attitude. There were no shared fears, pleasures or problems with them. They do not seem to have a caste to be bothered about.

Amidst such an entirely new atmosphere, there was this pressure to prove yourself, to be a good student, a meritorious student. The task did not seem too daunting in the beginning. Why should it, when there is such a huge library and thousands of books at my disposal?! And I am known for my intelligence! As a student of English literature, I came to see some very touching literature of African American women writers. They provided me with the tools to explain my exclusion within the Ambedkar Students Association, my sense of distance from other feminists who are from upper castes, an eerie sense of alienation I felt in the classrooms and outside. They also gave me strength to remain myself without trying too much to fit in any of these foreign structures. My association with other Dalit feminists on the campus gave me a sense of belonging. Our struggle for representation of women in the Students' Union Body on rotation basis strengthened our collective self that we were entitled too. All this empowering experience began translating into my paper presentations and term papers, and in my readings of texts in the classroom. There was a corresponding dwindling in my grades. Asserting my position has always been important for me. Hence I have been learning to laugh at them (both my teachers and my grades).

In this issue of Insight on gender and caste, many articles raise the question of alliance-building among various movements, especially between the Dalit movement and the feminist movement. Dalit feminists share a definite sense of identification with many basic articulations raised by both these movements. We have gained a lot from them. While it is important and strategically wise to form coalitions and build solidarity with other marginalized groups, it should be considered only when a movement is armed with a clear understanding of its own historicity based on the experience of oppression and discrimination. It is productive to have in mind the historical dialogue between different marginalized sections of people. Otherwise, there is the danger of Dalit women, their self-definition and their peculiar positioning in the society being rendered invisible. For example, the Dalit ideologues like Katti Padma Rao, Gopal Guru and Gaddar seem to be less sensitive to the internal patriarchy of Dalit communities. They maintain that all women are Dalits. Since the upper caste women are not allowed to enter into their kitchens and are treated as impure during their menstrual periods, they are also untouchables! Here "untouchability" is the ideal framework to fight against caste oppression, claims Gopal Guru. What Guru overlooks is that untouchability is a phenomenon that evokes various notions and images of bodies--bodies that are marked by their caste, gender, class, age, sexual orientation and other identities. And different bodies are ascribed different cultural meanings. Not all bodies possess even identities. Not all Dalit bodies are one, not all female bodies are one. They interact with each other being caught in a complex web of intersecting identities. Dalit men, even those identified with the movement, do not want to see us as intellectuals. "You are a Dalit body, a Dalit female body. Why can't I possess it. Why can't I just come near you". It is threatening. This happens at a very physical level. To prevent this, one of the strategies that I use, is to stay with upper-caste women as Dalit men will not dare do express and behave in the same manner with them. In such a situation who am I closer to? The Dalit men, or the upper-caste women? Neither.

This lack of understanding of this caste-gender dynamics is reflected in the work of some important upper-caste feminists like Volga, Vasantha Kannabhiran, Kalpana Kannabhiran, and Chhaya Datar, who feel that women of all communities and Dalits are both badly discriminated against by the diku system, and therefore all women are Dalits! These intellectuals do not, for a moment, think of Dalits who are also women. In spite of their awareness that women are divided along caste and class lines, they comfortably draw the analogy between "women" and "Dalits". The social status of upper caste women has never been like that of Dalit men or women. Patriarchy, as it operates within and between different castes is determined by the caste identity of individuals. Politics based on difference should be sensitive not only to the difference that matters to them, which they perceive as important but also to other differences.

The aim of identity politics like that of the feminists and Dalits is to ultimately dissolve the crippling effects of these burdensome identities. Asserting an identity is to lay claim on the universal. This universalistic vision can be realized only with the analytical tools that Dalit feminisms provide with. They aim at actively participating in eradicating all forms of violence, intolerance, hierarchy and discrimination in the society. An effective way of achieving this ideal is to take "difference" seriously and engage with the politics of difference.

Muktabai, a mang woman, in 1855, wrote about the subjugation that the poor mangs and mahars, especially women, suffered at the hands of the upper castes. She points to how the mahars have internalized brahminical values and saw themselves as superior to mangs. Dalit women writers are sensitive to the differential treatment meted out to different subcastes and women within Dalit communities. Muktabai challenges the Brahmins to "try to think about it from your own experience". We find that, according to her, "experience" has to be the basis of one's understanding and analysis of the society.

Brutal patriarchy within Dalit communities is one issue which repeatedly appears in Dalit feminist discourses. However, the views of Dalit male intellectuals on the negotiations between caste and gender are interesting. Ilaiah compares patriarchy in Dalits and Hindu patriarchy and declares that the former is more democratic! How can any oppressive structure be democratic at all? He substantiates his argument by stating that certain customs like paadapooja (touching the feet) are not observed in Dalit families. He, of course, notices the fact that there are oppressive practices like wife-battering prevalent in the Dalit families. However, "the beaten up wife has a right to make the attack public by shouting, abusing the husband, and if possible by beating the husband in return". The Dalit woman shouts back not because of "democratic patriarchy" but because of the socio-economic situation she is trapped in. The Dalit woman, more often than not is dependent on her own labour. She labours outside her home from morning till evening. When she comes home, her husband will be waiting to snatch her hard-earned money which is often the only source to feed the family. If she refuses to give him the money, the husband beats her up. The woman shouts back; in the process of resistance, she might beat him back. This is not because of democratic patriarchy in her family. There are certain debilitating stereotypes of Dalit families in general and Dalit women in particular, which mar a clear understanding of her location in Indian society.

Our self-perception is crucial for building our politics. I appeal to young Dalit women not to get subsumed in the relatively macro-identities of mainstream progressive movements such as the male Dalit movement or the upper-caste feminist movement. It is only by retaining our unique voice within these movements that we can contribute meaningfully to these movements and benefit from them. Giving ourselves a separate space does not mean we want a complete break with these movements.

[Courtesy: Insight Young Voices Magazine, March-April, 2005]. 

Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar

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