Indian Feminism Excludes Dalit Women, But the Tide is Turning
Women in urban spaces are initiating prolific conversations surrounding their bodies, sexual freedom, and choices.
But do these conversations encompass all of India’s gender issues — especially when gender realities in our country are intersected along economic, religious and caste lines?
The answer is, unfortunately, a sad no.
Dalit Women Are Twice Cursed, as Women and As Dalits
In India, dalit women have long talked about the hijacking of feminist ideas by upper caste individuals. This type of activism of urban spaces has been termed by them as “metropolitan feminism” at best.
Meanwhile, independent dalit women’s movements, for and by dalit women, have been growing stronger since the last decade; with their advocacy now entering the digital space. Dalit women in diaspora communities are also joining the conversation.
Dalit-American artist Thenmozhi Soundararajan, who calls herself Dalit Diva on Twitter, uses cross-media storytelling to talk about the issues of dalit women.
Soundararajan has even started the hashtag #Dalitwomenfight to start the conversation on social media.
Dalit women feel that by being both a woman and a dalit, they are oppressed even more, not only by upper caste men, but men of their own caste as well.
Dalit poet Teresamma, a teacher from Guntur, writes:
We go to work for we are poor
But the same silken beds mock us
While we are ravished in broad daylight.
Ill-starred our horoscopes are.
Even our tottering husbands
Lying on the cots in a corner
Hiss and shout for revenge
If we cannot stand their touch.
Dalit Women Caucus (DWC) is another website, which is concerned with dalit women’s issues, with a focus on domestic violence.
Dalit Women: Least Educated, Most Abused
Statistics on dalit women cause more concern. Literacy rate for dalit girls is as low as 10.93%, as per Ambedkar.org, which means that very few of them will be empowered through education.
It is rare to see a dalit woman in a position of leadership. Apart from Mayawati, the first Indian dalit woman Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, there has been a lack of dalit women in the policy making process. Worse, even when a dalit woman is a sarpanch in Panchayat, she still faces physical violence at the hands of upper-caste men.
As per the Report of National Human Rights Commission, three dalit women are raped in India everyday, and the conviction rate is as low as 7%.
Rise of Dalit Feminism
Dalit women, ignored by mainstream feminism – which they claimed focussed usually on urban issues, and took up the occasional high profile dalit rape case as a token – started the dalit feminist movement in the 1990s.
Sharmila Rege, who wrote extensively on dalit feminism, in her Dalit Women Talk Differently: A Critique of ‘Difference’ and Towards a Dalit Feminist Standpoint Position, observes,
The assertion of autonomous dalit women’s organisations in the 1990s threw up several crucial theoretical and political challenges, besides underlining the brahmanism of the feminist movement and the patriarchal practices of dalit politics.
In 2006, dalit activists and academicians started the Dalit Women’s Network for Solidarity (DAWNS). It was in 2006 itself, that the neologism dalit womanism was first coined.
Their preamble reads:
As no one movement can effectively reflect the specific issues and situations of Dalit women whose situations vary widely across regions, states, languages and religions, we welcome the trend of a growing number of movements of Dalit women to take up issues and work on their concerns
In their charter of demands, The National Federation of Dalit Women wants Scheduled Caste women to be recognised as a separate category among women – demanding separate reservation facilities in education and employment opportunities.
The Dalit feminists believe that sisterhood, which is typical of any feminist movement, is yet to hail the dalit woman as an equal sister.
Women who belong to the upper caste do not consider dalit women as equals. They treat them worse than men.
— Ben Chinnappan, Dalit Solidarity, Inc
Thus, it is clear that worldwide, dalit women are coming up with a strong rhetoric to talk about their identity, and raise awareness about their rights and issues.
But Benjamin Chinnappan, of Dalit Solidarity, Inc. says that even today, belief in karma or justification of caste is a vital factor in humiliating dalit women. For those who continue to perpetrate caste violence, here are a few hard hitting lines from dalit poet Challapalli Swaroopa Rani:
The day I was born I bore the imprint of an unchaste woman thrown into the drainage of traditions and dustbin of customs.
I became the forbidden one.
I am the one carrying the onus of age-old rejections generations of humiliations as my legacy...
In which canto of your country’s famed history will you write it down, my story?
— Prohibited History, Challapalli Swaroopa Rani