Saturday, December 29, 2012

Cynthia Stephen: Feminism And Dalit Women In India

Dalit woman: the Perpetual Other?
I suggest that the widely held perception of the Dalit woman as the OTHER is the distilled impact of centuries-long alienation generated by ingrained patriarchal and Brahminical values at all levels in society, which in turn causes the high level of exclusion, invisibity and structural and domestic violence which is the experience of Dalit women. Thus even among women, she is perceived as OTHER. She is at the receiving end of a long, socially-engineered pecking order, which asserts the relative ‘superiority' of one category of human being over another. She belongs to the ‘lowest' category, as manifest in her condition of total social, physical, economic and political vulnerability.

This is most clearly evident in the struggle for basic needs such as food or water, and in the submission to sexual violence for the sake of employment. Most Dalit families are landless and precariously dependent on the dominant castes for wage labour. “There is no girl in our cheri who has not been coerced or raped by the dominant caste men when they go to the fields to fetch water or for work”, confided a young girl from Southern Tamil Nadu to a Dalit woman activist recently. Which upper-caste young woman, rural or urban, has ever had to brave repeated rape without to keep her family supplied with water? And remember that week earlier in 2009 in which two horrendous tales came out of, schoolgirls who died due to what happened in school – one a girl suffering from asthma, student of an upper-crust institution who died though she had received some basic treatment and taken to hospital, and the other a little slum girl who died quietly at home after being punished by her teacher to stand in the sun in the “murga” position? Compare the media circus in one case and the almost total silence on the other. The girl in the second story was Dalit, poor and “beneath” general notice.

Hence there has to be an honest self-examination by the women's movements about whether they can accept the equal partnership , if not the leadership of women from grassroots Dalit (or adivasi or tribal) backgrounds. Have they really tried to groom capable younger women from the underprivileged, working class and Dalit and adivasis sections for leadership? If so, have these women and affirmed supported by those from more privileged backgrounds, and have they accepted their leadership? If not, are they justified in their claim to speak for all Indian women everywhere? Can they be exempt from the criticism that they are as guilty of discrimination against their sisters on the basis of caste and class as the society they are attempting to challenge and change? If there is no real soul-searching or an attempt to address the issue , there is every chance of the women's movement becoming irrelevant, in the face of such developments as the rapid spread of religious fundamentalism and jingoistic nationalism in India in the present day, and especially as it is clear that that they are also not fully in tune with the larger issues of the marginalised women who form, with their children, the largest, most diverse and underprivileged group in this country.

I disagree with the popular idea that in hoary past, matrilineal social organisation was the norm among Dalits. The fact is that Dalit women have been victims of patriarchy as much as other women, and still suffer huge impediments to a peaceful existence, let alone the full enjoyment of their human rights. Under the circumstances, it is rare to see a Dalit woman in a position of leadership, whether in the home, at work or in social or political institutions. It is therefore inconceivable to the mainstream that a Dalit woman should have power or decision-making authority, and be free to exercise it. Hence, even if such she manages to attain such a position, it is a most vulnerable position - Dalit women sarpanches in Panchayats face often face humiliation, threats and physical violence, because the community is unable to accept a Dalit woman as a leader.

The Case for a Dalit Womanism :

Dalit women constitute almost half of India's 160 million Dalits, comprise about 16% of India 's total female population, and 8% of the total population. However, there is little understanding of the economic, religious, political and ideological isolation of Dalit women. This is certainly true of their experience in the mainstream women's movements, where most of them feel disillusioned and alienated.

Despite having worked with several women's groups as an activist for over 15 years, I had been instinctively uncomfortable with defining myself as a feminist but never understood the reason for a long time. But I found myself, surprisingly, recoiling from the term “Dalit Feminism”, and took time to understand the reason for this reaction. I understood after some thought that it was because, what Feminism and feminists in India engaged with was far removed from the lived experiences of Dalit women. The agenda of feminism, as set by its very well-known, senior and experienced leaders, had little, if anything at all, to do with the lives of Dalit and other subaltern women. There was also some literature on the term Dalit Feminism but this to my knowledge did not ring true to type, not least because the one who wrote it was not a Dalit woman. Add to this the stereotype among scholars that Dalits are good at practical things like mobilizing crowds but not very good at theorizing, vividly satirized and categorized by Prof. Gopal Guru as “Theoretical Brahmin and Empirical Shudra”, in an article published in EPW many years ago.

But perhaps this exclusion of Dalit women from the mainstream women's movement is not such a bad thing after all: it has caused them to start building their own praxis, identity and agency, and build effective working relationships and their own platforms.

What was clearly needed in its place is an articulation based on the consciousness of the Dalit women themselves, their experiences of suffering, exclusion and thrice-removedness - isolation by virtue of gender, caste, and class – not to speak of religion, if one were a Muslim or a Christian Dalit. We have a right to be seen not as objects but as subjects, who have to play an active role in the attempt to better their own lives. Our voices have been muted and our issues obscured thus far. Our attempts to communicate about condition, in our own language, using our own mediums have not been given the hearing and audience they deserve. For instance, that their voice has to be heard not only at decision-making levels in policies, programmes and funding for projects for economic or social development but also in questions of identity formation, in struggles for the entire gamut of civil, political, economic and cultural rights and their fullest participation at all levels of in the institutions of society at large. We have a greater right to be heard than the privileged ones – in fact justice and equity make it imperative that our voices be heard and our articulations publicized.
Read the rest of this compelling Countercurrents article (November 16, 2009) here.


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