Tuesday, January 26, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Dalit Feminism


Dalit Feminism

By M. Swathy Margaret

03 June, 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.


[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 Women's Studies.]


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