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Feminism And Dalit Women In India

By Cynthia Stephen

16 November, 2009
Countercurrents.org

Some Searching Questions

Indian women seem to be on a roll these days. Many important positions are held by women – the President, CM of Uttar Pradesh, the President of India's main ruling political party, and leading the main opposition party in West Bengal; several women in the Reserve Bank, ICICI bank and State Bank; our women sportspersons doing well in several disciplines including “macho” ones like boxing, football and weigh and power lifting; and several women including several of the above and some NRIs figuring in international lists of “most powerful women”. But seen from another angle, India 's rankings on international scales such as the Human Development Index (HDI), the Gender Development Index (GDI) and the World Economic Forum continue to drop steadily over the years. But the women's group continue to be as active as ever, and women from India participate prominently in international events and keep the flag flying. So where lies the rub? Why are Indian women – despite very visible advances and many activists and much enthusiastic promotion and empowerment-oriented work - still not developing as they should?

As a whole-hearted participant and activist involved for about two decades in the women's cause, one clear answer emerges to these questions: that of leadership. The mainstream Indian women's movement continues to be led by privileged dominant caste, upper-class, urban feminists. The participation of women factory workers, dalit women and urban poor are co-opted to make up the numbers. Overall, it has not been very successful in capturing the imagination of wider society, despite notable success in legal reform for women's rights, the provision of some supportive services and to a certain extent in the media – all areas of concern to the middle classes.

 

It is my impression that the Indian women's movement is in the doldrums today due to the wholesale de-politicisation of the Indian middleclass, one of the causes being globalization, which resulted in the increased involvement of more and more numbers of professionally educated young people from relatively privileged backgrounds who have been hired to work on the women's issues which earlier used to be groups led by affected women but (which have morphed into NGOs and “research institutions” with international funding) and who are the spokespersons for issues as diverse as girl child rights, witch-hunting, dowry, pornography, HIV/AIDS, alternative sexualities, etc – all of which are, in these post-modern times, seen as part of the discourse on women's rights. In fact there has been some desultory discussion around the subject of gender and how this concept has, depending on how one looks at it, either widened the scope of the debate or watered down the feminist agenda.

 

Thus, it is no longer considered desirable, or even politically correct, to speak of access to basic health. It has to be couched in language of sexual and reproductive rights. There is plenty of money and media coverage for campaigns for redress to urban educated girls who face violence at the workplace, but nothing, almost, for justice to victims of caste-based atrocities faced by Dalit women, when they are raped when working in the fields, but both kinds of violence are lumped together under the term Violence against Women. I feel that there is little willingness among feminists to acknowledge the reality that violence faced by the middleclass woman is nothing compared with the level and scale of structural violence that rural Dalits women - the majority – face.

 

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.

In searching for this alternative, I discovered that black women had had similar experiences in the US and Africa . So they came up with a new term – womanism – to distinguish their struggles and experiences and used in a way that may be seen as tangential to feminism. It was one where women did not only see males as oppressors but also saw them as victims – of racism. Soon Hispanic women in Latin America had also found a term – Mujerita – to describe their own struggle for identity apart from feminism which appeared to dominate the academy and the movement for justice among women. And with a visceral rejection of the oxymoronic term Dalit Feminism, I feel the best way to go for us is to call our struggle Dalit Womanism. I now feel that this term is a more appropriate term to use, though it is not very well-known in India given the uppercaste - upperclass biases that tend to define the discipline of Women's Studies in India and which has also appropriated the discursive space offered by the term Third World Feminism.

The Dalit Womanist paradigm will be invested with its own meanings from its own political and geographical location, just as Black/African womanism is imbued with its own meaning. Dalit womanism will be broad enough to include the experience not only of the Dalit women in general, but also sensitive enough to provide space for the expression of the diversity of the experiences of religious minorities, tribal and ethnic identities who are presently termed subaltern, and there can be no stopping the process. It will not only build and shape theory, it will also learn to mediate the spaces as well as build solidarity between itself and the existing Feminist and Womanist thought and theory. It will also negotiate its differences with and build solidarity with men from Dalit and other subaltern and marginalised groups. Anyone who see the imperative need to change the paradigms of society from a caste and patriarchy-dominated ethos towards a more inclusive and equitable society will realize its significance.

In the year 2006, just such an attempt was made in a two-day consultation entitled “Dalit Women's Movements – Leadership and Beyond” at the United Theological College , Bangalore . It was a gathering of about 50 activists, students, and academics to think together on the vexed questions of Dalit women's existence, and the need to build a strong and vibrant movement around their cause, which in many material terms differed from those of other women. Certain important things happened: One, it was decided that a Solidarity network of Dalit women be set up, called the “Dalit Women's Network for Solidarity (DAWNS)”; two, a statement (hereafter called the DAWNS Statement) was drafted and issued, and three, it announced the coining of a new term, “Dalit Womanism”, and explains the need for this new entity.

The statement has been in the public domain since mid-2006, having been posted on the website of the Women's Studies Department of the United Theological College , Bangalore . . In its Preamble, it states:

“At a time when nascent movements of the marginalised are under siege in India from the forces of dominant ideologies including Brahminism, majoritarianism, and globalisation, we feel the need to affirm that the voices of the marginalised and their aspirations should be reflected in the rich tapestry that comprises the Indian nation. The voices of the women and children of the populations which are pushed to the margins are rarely heard – specifically, the Dalit women. This consultation dedicated itself to bringing to the mainstream discourse their voices, aspirations, and visions. 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.

 

“Therefore, we have decided to come together as a Collective, termed the Dalit Women's Network for Solidarity (DAWNS) . It will work to strengthen the voices of Dalit women through building knowledge, working towards ideological clarity, and highlighting the values, visions and aspirations of Dalit Women. It will strive to put their agendas in the mainstream, thereby giving a new shape and direction to socio-political and cultural discourse. It is a conscious effort to break the existing stereotype of Dalit women as mainly activists (doers) who have little to contribute (as thinkers) to ideological discourses in society, politics, governance, ethics, economics, and development. To this end, it will network and dialogue with societal change agents including academic institutions, trainers, NGOs, Government institutions, and development groups. It will provide a platform for solidarity on these issues to grassroots activists, students and other civil society actors with a vision of a gender-just, non-casteist and equitable society.”

 

Running into five pages, the statement articulates the visions and aspirations of the members, and describes the unique vision of Dalit women who have decided that their experience within Feminism has not been positive, and that the climate within the Dalit movements was also not as favourable as they expected. Hence they feel the need to come together to articulate their visions and build their own praxis and theory:

 

- “We have been denied the right to articulate our own visions of emancipation. Our energies have been co-opted to working out the visions of dominant others who have shown scant respect for our world-view or philosophy of life, by not enabling us to articulate them or work towards achieving them.

 

- We value the solidarity and support of the larger movements in society including the women's movements, and express our qualified agreement with Feminist thought and activism. Feminism's construct of a patriarchal, dominant ‘male' and a subjugated female ‘other' to the male is necessary, but not a sufficient reflection of our realities. We experience not just gender and class oppression, but also colour and caste oppression. While our men do oppress us, even they experience domination, which has its own impact on our experience of “otherness”. Many of us have opted out of the traditional dominant religious framework and profess various faiths which are in a minority in India , bringing in an additional dimension to our “otherness”. Our analysis or experience of society does not figure very strongly in the existing Feminisms, even though there may be some common features with say Third World Feminism or Black feminism or Womanism, which are attempts to include women's experiences other than those of the originators of Feminism.

 

Therefore, in all sincerity we feel the need to develop our own theory and praxis that will work for us as the ‘most' oppressed and marginalized in a highly stratified society, as well as contribute to the analysis of our society and ways to transform it. We therefore feel that we need a new language to define this state of being. We therefore coin the term Dalit Womanism to better define and understand our lives, because it affirms us in a more holistic way rather than the term “Feminism” which comes with a lot of baggage and which, further, fails to be inclusive enough of our aspirations and concerns.

- Further, and even more significantly, we see a clear need to evolve a new and creative form of mobilisation, which will be truly representative of our aspirations, needs and visions for ourselves and our community and society at large. This mobilisation will focus on Rebuilding, Restoration and Reconciliation of all communities, and especially of those which have survived oppression for centuries.

 

- It will be shaped by the Core Values of Equality, Complementarity and Non-Hierarchy. We eschew the principle of Vengeance and affirm that we need to work together for new forms of Equality. We also reject existing models of leadership in which power is sucked away from the people and invested in icons.”

 

Thus, Dalit women are slowly attempting to come to grips with their invisibility in the discourse, and are beginning not just to speak out, but also to theorise and build wider solidarities so as to earn the place, hitherto denied, under the sun.

 

Cynthia Stephen (cynstepin@gmail.com)

Nov 2009

The term womanist was coined by Alice Walker in 1983. See her book: _In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens_(NY, Harcourt, 1983). African-American historian Elsa Barkley Brown explains that feminism, by its design excludes the experiences and histories of African-American women. Feminism, as she argues, places priority on woman, while womanism, defined as a consciousness, incorporates "racial, cultural, sexual, national, economic, and political considerations”. The Womanism of the Dalits will be based on the lives, experiences and consciousness of Dalit women, and include solidarity with other excluded and marginalised groups.

The full document can be accessed at www.womenutc.com . Click on the “dalit women” link.

 


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