By M. Swathy
03 June, 2005
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 Ambedkars 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 womans
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 womens 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 Suneethas. 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 cant I possess it. Why cant 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 ones understanding
and analysis of the society.
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.
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.
[M Swathy Margaret
is an intellectual in her own right. She has submitted a path-breaking
dissertation on Writing Dalit Feminist Discourse Through Translation:
Translating Select African American Short Stories into Telugu.
She is now pursuing her PhD at CIEFL, Hyderabad. She is also a research
fellow at Anveshi, a Research Centre for Womens Studies.]