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Dalit Feminists Should Be The Leaders of The Women's Rights Movement In India

Dalit Feminists Should Be The Leaders of The Women’s Rights Movement In India

The voices of Dalit feminists are often unrepresented and contradictory to the needs of mainstream feminists.

By Jhilam Gangopadhyay

TW: this article contains mentions of sexual assault

For generations, the feminist movement has primarily represented privileged white women while the oppression of poor, working-class women, Black, indigenous and women of color, was often rendered invisible and ignored. Something very similar happened in India with the beginning of the women’s rights movement in the 1970s, except that here, it was only the upper-class, upper-caste woman who was prioritized, the ‘lower’-caste and tribal women were subsequently ‘othered’. Dalit women, one of the most marginalized communities in the country, are consistently ignored, harmed and pushed to the margins, and it is precisely because of this that they must be centered and lead conversations about women’s rights and feminism in India. 

Who are the Dalits?

Dalits are one of the most oppressed communities in India and form about one-sixth of the total population. They are recognized under Article 341 of the Indian Constitution as the ‘Scheduled Castes’. The word ‘dalit’ means ‘broken people’ and it was adopted in the 1970s by those who were formerly known as ‘untouchables’. It soon included other oppressed castes as well. 

Dalits form the bottom of the caste hierarchy in India and they are compelled to perform what are considered to be the most ‘menial’ jobs. Earlier, they were prohibited from coming into direct contact with the people of the ‘upper’ caste — hence the term ‘untouchable’ — because their touch was thought to be ‘polluting’. They were the ‘outcastes’ who weren’t allowed to be a part of the four-fold caste system and placed outside it.

Despite constitutional and legal protections, caste discrimination still exists in most parts of India today and it has been acknowledged that various parallels can be drawn between untouchability and the crimes of apartheid: segregation of spaces, public facilities, lack of access to land, educational and employment opportunities, and degrading work conditions. They are often subjected to caste-based killings and other forms of abuse on a daily basis.

Over the centuries, a number of anti-caste movements have emerged in India which have been led by leaders such as Jyotirao Phule, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, E.V Ramasamy. During the Independence movement in the first few decades of the last century, Mahatma Gandhi spread awareness about disabilities faced by Dalits and coined the term ‘Hairjan’ (which means ‘children of God’) for them. However, the term ‘Hairjan’ was rejected in the mass movements that arose in the 1960s and 1970s for Dalit rights due to its paternalistic and charitable character and instead, the name ‘Dalit’ was adopted. 

The Dalits consider Dr. Ambedkar as their leader, a lawyer by profession, who himself belonged to the category of ‘untouchables’ but went on to graduate from Columbia University and spent the years of the Independence movement in India fighting for the rights of who he called the ‘depressed classes’. Ambedkar wanted to educate the Dalits and strived to organize a struggle for self-respect. He warned against depending on the upper-castes for sympathy and claimed that Hinduism was incompatible with the idea of an egalitarian social order, thus setting in motion mass conversions to Buddhism.

Despite strides to improve the lives of the Dalits,  the Dalit movement has mostly been restricted to Dalit men, and we need to explore the discrimination faced by Dalit women.

Dalit women face oppression at three levels:

1)    As women in a patriarchal society

2)    As lower-caste individuals in a casteist society

3)    As lower-class people in a capitalistic society

When the feminist movement took off in India, it only chose to focus on the oppression faced by the middle and upper-class, upper-caste woman. Parameters like caste and class were collapsed into a wider notion of ‘sisterhood’ which did not take into account the specific experiences of Dalit women and declared ‘all women to be Dalits’. Therefore, the movements that arose against rape, dowry, and violence only focussed on the experiences of these privileged women and the Dalit women were systematically excluded. 

By refusing to address feminism from the lens of caste, Brahminism remained unopposed. Brahminical Patriarchy seeks to oppress women through an upper-caste ideology and unless one acknowledges the need to attack Brahminism itself, one can hope for very little progress as the caste system and patriarchy are so deeply embedded into the base of Indian society.

Many castes seek to improve their status in society by forcing women to withdraw from paid labor and careers because of the archaic notion that ‘respectable’ women do not work outside of the home. Patriarchal notions like this hurt the financial autonomy of  Dalit women who rely on wages.

Similar to various movements, upper-caste women were often pitted against lower-caste women. For instance, during the anti-Mandal protests in the 1990s (which was against reservation for the Scheduled Castes in public jobs and educational institutions), the upper-caste women cried out against the ‘murder of merit’ and vehemently rejected the need for protective discrimination for the development of the Scheduled Castes. In fact, even the Dalit Panthers, an organization formed in 1962 which sought inspiration from the Black Panther Party, excluded the rights of Dalit women in their propaganda and reduced them to the role of a ‘mother’ and ‘victimized sexual being’

In areas where Dalit women are able to attain high positions in the local government bodies, they face increased backlash. There have been cases where they have been subjected to gang-rapes and even killed for their participation in the public sphere.

“The reality of Dalit women and girls is one of exclusion and marginalization…They are often victims of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights violations, including sexual abuse and violence. They are often displaced; pushed into forced and/or bonded labor, prostitution and trafficking.”, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Rashida Manjoo

Dalit women and girls are also forced into the Devadasi system of temple prostitution where young girls are dedicated to the local temples of the villages and made sexually accessible to all men of the village.   

There are many organizations that are working to improve the conditions and rights of Dalit women, such as the National Federation of Dalit Women, Dalit Mahila Samiti. However, the voices of Dalit feminists are often unrepresented and contradictory to the needs of mainstream feminists. Unfortunately, only privileged upper caste women have been able to benefit from the struggles of the feminist movement in India and it is high time we let the Dalits take over and accommodate their interests and their experiences to our manifesto. There is nothing to celebrate about the success of privileged women if it is at the cost of trampling over those who haven’t been so fortunate. 

Jhilam Gangopadhyay currently lives in New Delhi and is in her second year of college. She is most often seen with a book tucked under her arm, either rushing to class or to fight the patriarchy. She usually writes on issues of caste and gender and the way in which they are practised in India. 

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