Dalit Women, Vulnerabilities, and Feminist Consciousness
Dalit women in India have faced and are facing violence in myriad forms; they are victims of inhuman treatment, brutal violence and humiliation. Despite this, they have not been mute victims resigned to their plight; they have relentlessly struggled against caste-based social oppression and exploitative material relations, against atrocities and complex and contextual forms of hierarchies. The framework of vulnerability provides a useful lens to understand this violence and powerlessness. It is also important to address the lacuna in conventional feminist movements which do not account for caste-based gender violence, as also to assert Dalit women’s quest for and claim to universal transformative emancipatory practices.
Since this article deploys the notion of “vulnerability” as a conceptual tool to understand and analyse the nature of violence and powerlessness experienced by Dalit women, its institutional complicity and structural basis, it would be pertinent to briefly discuss the journey of this concept in social science disciplines. Broadly, the conception of being “vulnerable” connotes insecurity, occurring and recurring on account of multiple forms of subordination and victimisation, which are reproduced in newer forms in changing circumstances. The term has been used in a United Nations report (nd: 2): “vulnerability … is a result of both exposures to risk factors such as drought, conflict and socio-economic processes which reduce people’s capacity and ability to cope.”
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (2020) defines vulnerability in the context of threat or disaster; as the diminished capacity of an individual or a group to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a natural or man-made hazard. The concept is relative and dynamic. Vulnerability is most often associated with poverty, but it can also arise when people are isolated, insecure and defenceless in the face of risk, shock or stress. Caroline Moser has discussed the lack of assets, and the resultant powerlessness as the basis for understanding vulnerability (Ludgate 2016).
In social sciences, the term “vulnerability” has been used as an analytical conceptual tool for describing and measuring the nature of susceptibility to harm and powerlessness, and as a basis for policy intervention to enhance well-being. Paul S Kumar (2013: 2) states, “vulnerability has been related/equated to concepts such as resilience, marginality, susceptibility, adaptability, fragility, and risk.” Social vulnerability includes the susceptibility of social groups or society to potential losses from extreme events and the ability to absorb and withstand impacts. The present article thus uses the framework of vulnerability to address Dalit women’s experiences of powerlessness, humiliation, violence and the institutional and structural context of denial, lack of resources, and assets to ensure sustainable livelihood.
In India, the phenomenon of vulnerability needs to be understood as rooted in the hierarchical caste society, impacting the lives of caste groups whose social and material locations are seen as hierarchically lower. Thus, Dalit women experience multiple forms of harassment and humiliation as everyday and institutional phenomena, and continue to be the most deprived sections of society in terms of life expectancy, access to education and healthcare, income and work conditions, and acute asset deprivation (Thorat 2018). They are rendered vulnerable on account of multiple co-impacting factors—being members of the lowest section of the caste hierarchy; being women of lower caste; being subjected to caste-based patriarchal discrimination and oppression; and as members of a minority community in village society in India. In the following section, I discuss the prominent aspects of vulnerability characterising Dalit women’s lives.
Dalit Women and Manual Scavenging
In Indian society, the caste location continues to impact work/labour practices. Dalit women thus are forced to work, because of their caste location, in extremely exploitative, hazardous and humiliating conditions for mere survival, such as in the practice of manual scavenging. In this “occupation” imposed by the hierarchical caste system, Dalits in general and Dalit women in particular suffer violation of their basic human rights. It is important to note that the conventional women’s/feminist movements have largely been unresponsive to issues of exploitation and oppression resulting from the caste system. Instead, they appear to have justified this “work” by establishing non-governmental organisations (NGOs) (which bring recognition and prominence), that has legitimised oppression. Purnima Chikarmane (2012: 1), a self-declared champion of women working as scavengers apparently claims,
no person should have to be immersed in solid waste for their livelihood, yet every day hundreds of thousands of informal waste pickers in India and across the developing world scrabble through rubbish heaps in the streets, dumping grounds and landfills to recover recyclables to earn a living.
Yet, her NGO popularised the slogan, “We are the sole owners of waste and garbage” and “Garbage belongs to no one but us.” This means that Dalit women should claim ownership of “garbage” and waste as their rightful share of empowerment. They should not claim rights to resources to realise their human potential; of freedom to engage in respectful professions. Thus, such organisations have tried to propagate the view that collecting and selling garbage could be a worthy occupation. Construing rag picking and scavenging as viable occupations, as a “right to choice” and claiming ownership of garbage as empowerment legitimises Dalit women’s enslavement in traditionally imposed occupations. Thus, “civil” society initiatives have resulted in making Dalit women accept hazardous, unclean and disrespectful occupations, thereby denying them the right to liberty and autonomy that the rest of the society enjoys.
Thus, such NGO initiatives—which are largely organised, led and controlled by the upper caste and class civil society activists—result in making vulnerable sections accept their vulnerability as a viable form of empowerment. Moreover, instead of considering earning livelihood from garbage as only a temporary means of survival, these efforts lead to valourising Dalit women’s slavery by declaring them parisar bhagini (sisters in service of the environment). Moreover, this imposed nomenclature offers a false sense of self-appreciation, thereby foreclosing any possibility of change in exploitative and oppressive caste-based social–material relations. Besides, with limited sources for survival at their disposal, Dalit women are not responsible for environmental degradation; the classes engaged in consumption are. Yet, declaring Dalit women to be parisar bhagini legitimises the imposed burden of garbage they are not responsible for.
Victims of Human Trafficking
The second aspect of vulnerability discussed here deals with women victimised by human trafficking. Because of their vulnerable social–material status in caste society, Dalit women become susceptible to being deceitfully and forcefully trafficked into prostitution. They do not come willingly into prostitution, nor do they come to cities to do this “work” to begin with. They find themselves in prostitution because of varied levels of vulnerabilities, including religious practices. In Sonagachi, a centre of brothel-based prostitution in West Bengal, women trafficked into prostitution appear to internalise the gaze of their oppressors. Despite being victims of the worst kinds of violence and abuse, they “say” (speak) that it is not wrong to be involved in this “work” (Doezema 2005: 61–89).
The patriarchal–material relations thrive on the “work” that trafficked women do. The various groups and material interests that gain from these women’s “work” are: customers, pimps, brothel runners, moneylenders, restaurants and hotel operators, transport providers, medical service providers, and even religious places—the multiple layers of material interests get fulfilled through the “work” that trafficked women do. The trafficked women stand at the lowest rung of the hierarchy of material interests; they do not form the sections that gain, but the ones on whose exploitation the entire structure of sexual–material interests operates and is realised.
Thus, if women forced into prostitution appear to speak the language of “voluntary” prostitution, the following questions need to be asked: Who constructs the discourse of voluntary prostitution? Do sections such as clients, brothel keepers, room owners, pimps, traffickers construe the discourse of voluntary prostitution? Hence, it is those who constitute the “protection rackets for the sex industry” and gain from it, who also construct and influence the victim’s views of prostitution as “voluntary.” Moreover, if women abused and exploited by prostitution appear to accept it as “voluntary,” the material–social relations dictated by their low caste–class social locations need to be referred to. Another important consideration here is the internalisation of the discourse of sexual purity and defilement, rooted in both caste and patriarchy as the basis of production of “voluntariness.” Through caste-based prostitution, both sexual slavery of women and caste hierarchies are realised and maintained.
In their position paper, the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), an organisation for sex workers’ rights based in Kolkata wrote: “DMSC sees sex work as a contractual service, negotiated between consenting adults. In such a service contract there ought to be no coercion or deception. As a sex workers’ rights organisation, DMSC is against any force exercised against sex workers, be it by the client, brothel keepers, room owners, pimps, police, or traffickers” (Jana et al 2002: 75). Again, it is necessary to ask: Through such statements, who speaks on behalf of the trafficked women? Do trafficked women, who have come from the most oppressed and marginalised communities, have the autonomy and capabilities to enter into a “contract”? Do they understand what is written on their behalf? Thus, it is the upper-caste/class women who articulate the notions of rights and the discourse of negotiations in trafficking, thereby denying autonomous voice to trafficked women in articulating their life-worlds. Thus, the trafficked women have to speak in a “borrowed” voice as if it is their own. Moreover, this conception of sex “work” ignores the impact of caste, class and consequent vulnerabilities in forcing women to “accept” prostitution.
Prostitution and Cultural Politics
Attention must be drawn to cultural politics articulated by NGOs. A play titled My Mother, the Gharwali, the Maalak and His Wife1 written/directed by upper caste and class women cultural activists, propagates the view that there is nothing wrong in prostitution. The cultural politics is evident in the organiser’s choice of women in prostitution and their family members as actors in the play to voice the view, scripted by the play writer/director/producer, that “despite worst forms of abuse there is nothing wrong with prostitution.” Thus, without addressing the issue of how women (belonging to which social groups) are trafficked into prostitution, without making references to abuse and violence against women in prostitution, and by ignoring the dynamics of caste, class and sexual exploitation and violence, the organisers seem to justify and propagate prostitution. While the producers of the play have received appreciation and recognition for having created a piece of art, it has led to confusion among the sex workers about their lives, their circumstances, the structures and actors responsible for their oppression and exploitation, and their quest for freedom.
In reality, this recognition of forced prostitution as “work” involves legitimising the whole chain of interests that acquires its sustenance through prostitution. In fact, women’s sexual “work” becomes necessary for fulfilling material/sexual interests of groups other than women. Despite this being the nature of “work” in prostitution, why do women, apparently, not seem to object to it, and are shown to view it as any other work (as in the play discussed above)? It appears that they have internalised the system of their oppression and exploitation. They have internalised the discourse produced by the dominant agents of the system who stand to gain from women’s exploitation and oppression.
NGO intervention has taken the form of a campaign for women’s rights to work, to “empower” sex “workers.” The NGOs spearheaded largely by activists drawn from upper caste and class lack the understanding of the social dynamics of prostitution in India. Thus, while prostitution in other countries may have invoked the language of sex “work” as “choice,” in India, prostitution is enmeshed in caste and religion. It is forced caste-based prostitution, wherein the girls/women from lower castes become susceptible to trafficking due to various vulnerabilities resulting from their social location. The NGOs, instead of ending this sexual slavery and exploitation by working towards creating more avenues for the freedom of occupation and finding new sources of livelihood, tend to justify such practices as claims to choice and freedom, which, in reality, hides the interlinks of caste, economy, sexual exploitation, culture and religion (for example, the Devadasi system).
Thus, we are confronted with a paradox: the campaign for human rights, dignity and recognition is rooted in the unspoken, taken-or-granted acceptance of multiple forms of caste- and gender-based violence. The influential dominant players in the NGO sector, drawn largely from the upper caste and class, aim to “empower” oppressed subjects within the system of their oppression, thereby working towards sustaining the system of the oppression. Their work propagates the view that there is nothing wrong with prostitution. The sexual exploitation, abuse and violence are parts of life, so is the joy; that enslavement though is inevitable, it is not the end of life. Such articulations with the promise of “empowerment” and recognition make vulnerable women internalise their oppression and accept, uncritically and unquestioningly, the upper caste and class women’s perspectives on prostitution as appropriate and even desirable.
We need to mention the salience of “difference” and “hierarchy” here. The upper caste and class NGO actors have resources, respect and recognition at their command, are equipped with communicative skills suitable for global discourses; whereas the lower-caste oppressed women lack this social capital. The caste hierarchy thus leads to multiple forms of inequality. The upper caste and class NGO actors, because of their location in the caste hierarchy, can never be subjected to experiences of forced prostitution. They would not encounter the violence, abuse and exploitation that characterise life in prostitution; whereas lower-caste women, because of their social location, are susceptible and vulnerable to sexual exploitation. The upper caste and class women do not cross the boundaries of caste; there is no shifting of locations, no transition of caste–gender boundaries.
Instead, NGO initiatives appear to legitimise assault against Dalit women. Moreover, by making humanitarian interventions for taking care of the children of the trafficked women, NGO initiatives actually work towards the continuance of this “occupation” that fulfills the interests of all other agents except the trafficked women. Hence, upper caste and class women are complicit agents in acts of violence against Dalit women. Yet, they act as “liberators” of lower-caste women and speak on their behalf. Consequently, the upper caste and class “liberators” clog and foreclose any possibility of the emergence of “organic intellectuals” among lower-caste women, who would assume autonomous critical agency and question the system of oppression and hegemony, and work towards articulating counter-knowledge rooted in the sufferers’ locations.
Of course, organisations such as Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and scholars like Kathleen Berry have defined sex “work” as “sexual slavery.” Strict actions have been prompted against it. On 6 April 2016, lawmakers in France passed a law that made human trafficking illegal and made both traffickers and the sex worker’s clients liable for fines up to €3,750 (₹ 2,79,860.51). France is the fifth country along with Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Britain which has passed such an act on “buying sex” (Chandran 2016).
Caste-based Atrocities and Cultural Violence
The third form of vulnerability faced by Dalit women is caste-based violence and atrocities. As landless agricultural labourers, Dalit women have to work on farms belonging to upper-caste men. These work settings, apart from being the most exploitative, are marked by ongoing experiences of abuse on account of caste. The possibility of violence is perpetual; Dalit women live under perpetual fear of normalised caste-based violence. Amidst the routine, normalised caste-based violence, the upsurge of brutal violence characterises Dalit women’s lives, especially against those who assert their rights. The organised killings of Khairlanji, a village in Maharashtra, where Surekha Bhotmange, a Dalit woman who worked resolutely towards changing her family’s circumstances and exhibited the courage to resist atrocities, was brutally and publicly murdered, along with her three teenage children, on 29 September 2006. Apart from brutal violence the Bhotmanges, especially women, were subjected to worst forms of humiliation. The caste Hindus in the village sought to teach her a lesson for challenging caste-based injustice and harassment (Department of Social Justice 2009).
The fourth dimension of vulnerability faced by Dalit women is evident in cultural traditions that involve commoditisation and sexual exploitation. The tradition of Lavani dance, a form of erotic entertainment lower-caste women perform for upper-caste male patrons, is a case in point. The idiom of Lavani presents Dalit women as sexually submissive subjects, who face, negotiate, and suffer sexually violent and abusive situations as a matter of day-to-day life. Lavani performances and songs, which are written by men, legitimise upper-caste men’s sexual access to lower-caste women by depicting and construing it as desired by the women. Thus, women face both the denial of autonomy and imposed sexual identity.
Apart from performances by traditional dance troupes, Lavani has been made popular through films, special shows and folk theatre festivals, sometimes with institutional funding. This contemporary popularity marks the change in performers—the traditional lower-caste women performers are replaced and relegated to the background by non-Dalit upper-caste women. The entry of upper-caste Lavani performers has changed both the site of performances—which is now films and special cultural events—and the recognition of Lavani as an art form, with upper-caste Lavani performers as artistes. Importantly, the new performers, with the upper-caste status to their side, engage in erotic dance without the fear of potential/actual sexual violence, which characterises the lives of traditional lower-caste performers. Thus, sexual commoditisation and violence that the Dalit Lavani performers are subjected to, coexist, paradoxically, with the upper caste and class women performers claiming and being accorded recognition of artistic accomplishments for the same cultural activity.
The sexual exploitation construed as choice is present in a video by Paromita Vohra—The Amorous Adventures of Shakku and Megha in the Valley of Consent.The film depicts Lavani dancers’ desire for a potential sexual encounter with their clients and customers, and that the man who succeeds in getting sexual submission of a woman is a heroic achiever. The question that emerges is: Can Lavani, which is an imposition on Dalit women, be used as a metaphor for depicting the consensual sexual desire between two individuals? The film-maker has depicted the potential sexual encounter between those buying sex, the consumers of sex, and those forced to engage in sexual submission, as involving consensual sex. Thus, Lavani, a form of sexual exploitation is turned into a form of expression of sexual love.
Again, it is noteworthy that all Lavani songs which women dancers sing and perform are written by men. Hence, Lavani songs depict women’s desires as written/construed by men. Thus, the discourse of sexuality construed through Lavani songs legitimises men’s control over women’s sexuality, and legitimises power relations in sexuality in the guise of consent. What is more, it makes sexual exploitation as desirable by those victimised by it. Thus, the film-maker, by using Lavani as a metaphor for love, reproduces and legitimises power relations in sexuality as “desirable and consensual.” Furthermore, the difference between the traditional Lavani performers (women from the marginalised communities), and those who perform on-screen and in cultural festivals (upper caste and class), and the notion of difference—social vulnerability experienced by Dalit women and claims to artistic achievement and recognition by the non-Dalit upper-caste women—is sought to be erased by the film-maker.
The upper caste and class film-maker is unconcerned/unaware about the practice of the art as an exploitative social practice. Instead, by constructing and locating sexual exploitation in the realm of “ambiguous”—the “consent” is both yes and no—the film-maker becomes another agent constructing and legitimising sexual exploitation—an erotic cultural consumption for the patron as desired by the victims of Lavani. Here, the importance of the conception of sexual violence, “against our will and without our consent,” expounded by Susan Brownmiller (1975) in her work, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, is misconstrued by making it ambiguous—the customer is both a potential lover and an exploiter simultaneously. Dance historian Lynn Garafola (1986) articulated such ambiguity as flexible morals rooted in sexual exploitation (Banes 1998: 39). The attempt in Vohra’s film is to make sexual exploitation not only invisible, but also desirable by the victims.2 Upper-caste, non-Dalit film-makers who assume agency in the cognition of art and cultural identities therefore engage in the politics of cultural representation. Thus, the primacy of upper-caste/non-Dalits cultural actors in shaping Dalit women’s cultural identity leads to both multilayered subordination and an act of “epistemic violence,” present in the processes of “omission” and “othering” in knowledge production.
Institutional Practices of Humiliation and Violence
Institutional procedures have been the context of humiliation for Dalits and Dalit women attempting to claim dignity and honour through modernity. The death of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar who wanted to transcend his social location and claim universality as a human subject, continues to evoke concerns about institutional practices. The institutional apathy and callous attitude with which the administration dealt with the issue; the varied forms of humiliation Rohith’s mother was subjected to during the procedures and practices to ascertain his caste background (to show that the injustice he suffered need not be seen as caste-based), have set alarm bells ringing. The suicide of Payal Tadvi, a medical postgraduate student from a tribal background, due to continuous harassment and mental torture, is another case of institutional humiliation. Apathy towards injustice faced by individuals from marginalised communities is not the only face of humiliation; undermining the efficacy of the institutions presents another dimension of humiliation.
The Justice Verma Committee Report (2013) that was brought out in the aftermath of the brutal gang rape in the Nirbhaya case, suggested amendments in criminal law for faster trials and enhanced punishment for criminals accused of sexual violence against women, and recommended changes on laws related to rape, sexual harassment, trafficking and child sexual abuse. It has been held as a major step in ensuring justice and in arresting sexual violence against women. However, a glaring lacuna in the Verma Committee recommendations is that it does not take cognisance of caste dynamics of gender relations in India, and the caste-based sexual violence and rape against Dalit women. The institutional apathy and lapses in investigation have emboldened the perpetrators, making Dalit women more vulnerable. The Khairlanji case clearly indicates this: if the various appeals and representations Surekha Bhotmange made to the local administration were seriously responded to, the brutal killing of four persons could have been averted.
The 73rd amendment of the Constitution with the provision of 33% reservation for women in local governing councils is lauded as an important step towards the political empowerment of women. Yet, the contextually embedded character of this initiative, rooted in caste, class, and gender dynamics, contributes to the vulnerability of Dalit women. While it offers political representation for Dalit women in local self-governance, their social–material dependence on the dominant castes for day-to-day survival makes them susceptible to complex forms of vulnerability. While through this policy Dalit women have become the village sarpanch (village chief), their caste locations make them politically and socially vulnerable to the authority of both men and women of dominant castes.
Thus, this policy in practice has introduced new forms of caste-based gender hierarchies in rural society, undermining the very policy of political empowerment resulting in a “complex of vulnerability and empowerment.” Hence, “democracy at the grass-root level” coexists with most of the “undemocratic caste-based social–material hierarchies.” A few NGOs like Mahila Rajsatta Andolan though have made successful efforts towards women’s political empowerment. However, they have assumed “rural women” to be an undifferentiated category, omitting any reference to caste location as a significant factor constituting rural power dynamics. Dalit women thus have to negotiate and enter into relations of obligation and submission for accessing basic necessities. This complex of negotiation and submission lead Dalit women to internalise their vulnerability, as an inevitable, inescapable part of existence.3
Social Vulnerability and Social Safeguarding
As compared with the upper caste and class women, Dalit women do not have a claim to what I call processes of “social safeguarding.” The basic idea here is this: In the Indian society, caste hierarchy matters in deciding a person’s claim to security and safety in the public domain from (patriarchal) violence. For instance, non-Dalit women—especially those belonging to the upper caste and class—will be less susceptible to violence and subordination in the public domain due to their social status emerging from their caste locations. Compared to Dalit women, non-Dalit women are protected in the public domain. In the case of Dalit women though, due to their caste locations, such social safeguarding will be absent. Instead, in the public domain, they live under perennial potential “social insecurities/vulnerabilities” as a routine aspect of their lives. The concept of “social safeguarding” suggests that their location in the caste hierarchy protects and secures the lives of the upper caste and class women, and conversely makes Dalit women insecure and vulnerable in the public domain.
The idea of “safeguards” so far has been used in legal contexts. The Constitution articulates fundamental rights and provides safeguards of rights to make them viable/attainable. In the Indian society, one’s location in caste hierarchies provides “social” safeguards in claiming honour, dignity and rights. For Dalit women, their social location not only makes them susceptible to social insecurities and vulnerabilities, but their claims to legal safeguards get jeopardised too. On the other hand, while patriarchy subordinates upper caste and class women, their caste location offers them “social” safeguards—while they are subordinated by patriarchy, they are protected by their upper caste and class location in the caste-driven public domain. Therefore, while the upper caste and class women may resist patriarchal subjugation, they are silent on caste inequalities. Rather, as many upper caste and class women’s rallies in the public domain in Maharashtra have shown, these women proudly claim and celebrate their caste identity and status. Thus, instead of engaging in acts of building “sisterhood,” celebrating their caste identity makes upper caste and class women complicit agents in caste violence against Dalit women. Many instances of violence against Dalit women have witnessed active participation of upper caste and class women to instigate their men (such as Khairlanji).
Due to their caste location, Dalit women become victims of “caste-based public patriarchy.” Instead of “social safeguarding,” their location in the caste hierarchy makes them socially vulnerable, insecure and susceptible to social violence. Thus, one’s caste location and consequent social status renders differences in experiences of gendered subordination: non-Dalit women gain “social” safeguards—which also facilitate their claims to legal safeguards—whereas Dalit women face a continuum of “social insecurities” and vulnerabilities, often jeopardising their claims to constitutional rights. Thus, the social and material relations in rural society affected by caste–gender construct “casteised boundaries” that hamper the possibility of collective action beyond caste.
Moreover, Dalit women’s caste location results in an organised silencing of insecurities, vulnerabilities and the violence they suffer. Despite the proliferation of different forms of media, violence against Dalit women does not receive the attention it deserves. For instance, the Nirbhaya case could receive massive support from media and civil society. However, the ongoing cases of brutal violence against Dalit women continue to be hidden from the larger public. Furthermore, caste- based public patriarchy, through institutional practices, results in implicit forms of caste profiling, impacting Dalit women’s claims and rights adversely. Hence, for addressing Dalit women’s experiences of vulnerabilities, insecurities and violence occurring on account of caste-based public patriarchy, we suggest the principle of priority rule could be invoked as a mechanism for ensuring justice.
Dalit Women and Conventional Feminist Movements
Earlier studies have shown that Dalit women saint-poetesses have exhibited critical consciousness and articulated a universal vision of a just and egalitarian world (Gaikwad 2000). Dalit women have actively contributed to freedom struggles in India—in the struggle against colonial rule and in the Ambedkarian movement against caste oppression. Hence, historically, resistance against colonialism, caste and patriarchy has been Dalit women’s social and political engagement (Gaikwad 2000). Moreover, during the 1970s, they have actively participated in feminist movements, though the concerns of conventional feminist movements in India have remained rooted in/and largely continue to be around the issues confronted by upper caste and class women.
Emerging from this location, conventional feminist movements lacked an understanding of the intersecting, co-impacting and co-constituting character of caste and gender and the resulting systems of oppression and exploitation. They have articulated the concerns of upper caste and class women as the problems of “all” women. They have exhibited apathy towards various struggles against atrocities on Dalit women. In the aftermath of the Khairlanji massacre, the silence exhibited by non-Dalit women was glaringly conspicuous. Thus, caste-based violence and the apathy of the non-Dalit sections, including women, act as a double-edged weapon against Dalit women.
If the protest experience of conventional women’s movements was that of “othering,” the experience of knowledge-building practices was not dissimilar. The institutional contexts of knowledge—“women’s studies”—have been organised by and have focused on the upper caste and class women’s experiences of patriarchal relations. They become legitimate “subjects” of study and their experiences, legitimate sources of knowledge. Thus, knowledge-making institutional structures prioritise the experiences of women from socially and materially empowered sections. This is not to say that Dalit women are totally absent from academic enquiries. However, these attempts have largely emerged out of concerns of filling data for policy evaluation. If they become subjects of knowledge, they are subjected to what Dorothy Smith (1999) calls the “conceptual practices of power.”
Furthermore, while the cases of violence against Dalit/Adivasi women were the contexts for effecting the legislation for gender justice, these interventions have largely been evoked to address the rights of the upper caste and class women. For instance, while the violence Bhanwari Devi suffered and the resolute struggle she waged was the context for the landmark judgment for ensuring women’s rights at the workplace, this legal measure has not been evoked to address issues of sexual violence encountered by women from marginalised communities who work in unorganised and informal sectors. Interestingly, this legal measure, known as the Vishakha judgment, recognises the contribution by the women’s group, but ignores Bhanwari Devi, whose struggle was the basic context for this legislation.
Articulating Dalit Feminist Consciousness
In the remaining part of the paper, I have attempted to outline the Dalit feminist consciousness, which is rooted in Dalit women’s experiences of subordination resulting from caste-based public patriarchy as its starting point. It would attempt to make visible the structures and ideologies that constitute these experiences as well as institutional practices that reiterate and normalise this experience. Furthermore, my attempt views the ideologies and structures of oppression and exploitation—patriarchy, caste, and class—as interconnected, intersecting, co-impacting, co-producing and so co-complexing in nature. The understanding here is that the forces and structures of oppression cannot be engaged with, and transformative, emancipatory knowledge and politics cannot be arrived at, unless the “border crossings” and transversal politics are imagined and practised. The emancipatory practice is not an isolated or a partial engagement and achievement: the emancipation of one is neither at the cost of, nor independent of, the other. Let us foreground this discussion in a brief review of attempts of conceptualising patriarchy as multidimensional, co-impacting, co-constituting and co-complexing formation.
Feminism as a movement, ideology, and theory, has developed in women’s (and men’s) attempts of resisting discrimination and inequality encountered by women in varied forms. The experiences of inequality and discrimination were shaped and reiterated by the structures/institutional settings/practices such as social–material relations, culture, and religion as well as knowledge-making processes. Thus, feminism is seen as a movement that seeks to establish women’s claims to resources as equal and autonomous subjects. Such an aim would be realised only when social/institutional settings such as family, education, workplace and culture, religion and politics are reformed, and gender relations are restructured.
At the level of theory, feminist scholarship sought to make women’s experiences “visible” and “central” for understanding social processes and social formations; to see these relations of power as rooted in the interconnections of social institutions, and in structures of thought and knowledge practices, which create, reiterate, and legitimise varied forms of subordination. Thus, contributions in feminist theory critique the relations of power and seek to intervene in knowledge practices to transform the knowledge colonised by patriarchy. The central concern was to engage in an emancipatory project.
Sylvia Walby’s (1997) work towards analysing patriarchy, in understanding the interlinkages between patriarchy and other domains of social–material and political structures and relations, which collectively work to produce gender inequality and subordination is instructive for us. According to Walby (1997: 43), patriarchy is a system of structures that involves a number of patriarchal practices: the patriarchal mode of production, patriarchal relations in paid work, patriarchal state, male violence, patriarchal relations in sexuality and patriarchal culture. This articulation shows that patriarchy is a structural phenomenon, intersecting and co-constituting/co-complexing other structures, involving institutional practices and asymmetrical social relations, which lead to complex mechanisms of control and power.
This discussion is an important theoretical resource for understanding Dalit women’s experiences of patriarchy, caste and class, their intersections, and the institutional and structural context, which constitutes social order and shapes the identities of both Dalit women and Dalit men. While Dalit men may appear to have a privileged status in Dalit families, they have no control over social–material resources or the structural and institutional forms of power and domination. Socially and materially, they are the most oppressed and vulnerable sections of society. On the other hand, the control and domination upper-caste men hold over society are rooted in their location in the hierarchical order of caste that controls material and social (even sexual) patriarchal relations, the institutions and apparatuses of culture and power in society. Thus, Dalits in general become victims of caste-based subordination; Dalit women are particularly subjugated by what I call the .
So far, we have alluded to three aspects of Dalit feminist consciousness: (i) Dalit women’s lives are affected by caste-based public patriarchy. The subordination and inequalities they face emerge from interconnected and intersecting systems of domination, such as gender, caste, and class; and this intersecting matrix of domination makes the subordination of Dalit women as multilayered and co-complexing in nature, which produce each other in multiple forms and create massively complex situations. (ii) Crossing boundaries of difference is necessary for transformative practice. (iii) Historically, Dalit women have exhibited autonomous critical consciousness and expressed the universal vision of a just world.
We consider experiences of caste-based public patriarchy and the struggle against it as a starting point of a Dalit feminist consciousness. Despite their ongoing struggle, justice has eluded Dalit women; and despite the language of sisterhood, “mainstream” feminist persuasions have not made attempts to challenge caste as an ideology of women’s subordination. Hence, the struggle against caste-based public patriarchy remains a paramount concern of Dalit feminism. Dalit women have exhibited autonomous critical consciousness. The 14th century saint poets such as Soyarabai, and Nirmala have exhibited autonomous critical consciousness in their philosophical reflections. The consciousness their verses articulate show that unlike the upper caste and class women, they do not live as/under the shadow of their husbands. Beyond the language of difference, they have articulated a universal emancipatory consciousness. Moreover, instead of being engulfed in their own pain, they have tried to share and “own” the pain suffered by oppressed humanity.
In postcolonial India, Dalit feminist consciousness is informed and shaped by Phule–Ambedkarian critical perspectives. This is evident in their participation in and contribution to various sociopolitical struggles in various phases of Dalit movements, working class movements and the conventional feminist movements. Dalit protests in the post-1970s—for renaming Marathwada University after B R Ambedkar, against attempts to halt the publication of Ambedkar’s work Riddles in Hinduism by the government, the spontaneous protest after police murders of Dalits in Ramabai Nagar in Mumbai, and protests after the brutal Khairlanji massacre, all have witnessed independent and leading participation of Dalit women.
However, a few Dalit women, like a few Dalit middle-class men who acquired social mobility through education, exhibit a social orientation that suggests that they are under what I call Brahminical surveillance. The Brahminical patriarchal sensibilities are reflected in their efforts of privileging their own family and own life concerns which they construe as concerns of the Dalit community, ignoring the subordination resulting from caste and caste-based patriarchy. Of course, this section of Dalit women is a minuscule minority that does not impact the consciousness of large majority of Dalit women. Yet, the non-Dalit upper caste and class women have identified the issues affecting middle-class Dalit women as issues confronting all Dalit women. Thus, the focus on Dalit patriarchy reflected in middle-class Dalit women’s writings shows the cultural influence of Brahminical surveillance. Consequently, caste-based male violence against Dalit women, which is systemic and structural in nature and for which Dalit men are not responsible, remains unaddressed and marginalised.
Dalit feminism is committed to fight caste-based public patriarchy, and holds that the articulation and practice of legal and punitive measures for the redress of violence should reflect perspectives of the most subordinated sections of society. The “specificity of subjugation” suffered by Dalit women should reflect in the provisions of laws—family, civil and criminal laws as well as those related to atrocities. The “politics of recognition” has led to the prominent visibility of a section of the oppressed who emulate the elites, their status quo language and culture, as opposed to the orientation of interrogation/resistance. Thus, while some Dalit women reproduce the cultural discourse of upper caste and class and received awards, such recognition has proved futile in addressing the subjugation their sisters face. In the cultural domain, Lavani dancers ought to be aware of their exploitation, as opposed to seeking appreciation and recognition from the very elite responsible for their subjugation.
The challenge posed by Dalit feminism is sought to be disintegrated in many ways. Instead of interrogating caste-based public patriarchy, and the intersecting character of the subjugation faced by Dalit women, public and academic discourses have proliferated with discussions on rifts within the Dalit community, and between Dalit women and men; Dalit men are seen as central agents subordinating Dalit women, thereby diverting one’s attention from the violence resulting from caste-based public patriarchy. Also, this introduces distance between Dalit movements and Dalit women and undermines the role of Dalit movements, especially the Dalit Panthers, whose struggle prioritised the question of Dalit women’s dignity, and spoke the language of universal emancipation—from untouchability, caste, patriarchy and exploitative material relations.
Since the last two decades, Dalit women’s social lives have become the subject of academic enquiries; the knowledge that has emerged, however, has wrongly construed their struggle as “identity politics,” with the focus on representation, as opposed to the analytical capacity of interrogating the structures of oppression. Hence, an important dimension of Dalit feminist consciousness is critical engagement with knowledge: the oppressed sections have confronted structures of knowledge as the context of invisibility, omission, silencing, “othering,” and “epistemic black-out and violence.” Thus, in the knowledge domain, emerging Dalit scholars are persuaded or coerced into taking up only Dalit studies, thereby denying their claim to universal knowledge pursuits. While, for Dalit scholars, the non-Dalit subjects are not available as objects of study, non-Dalit scholars, however, have access to Dalit social experience, their own experience as subjects of enquiry as well as claim to universal scholarship. This is a new form of subtle untouchability in the academic field. One cannot touch the upper caste and class “other” as a subject of enquiry.
Moreover, Dalit women scholars of a new generation face blatant subordination and a ghettoised existence in reputed institutions of higher education. They seem to inhabit two different worlds with disparate access; the other privileged sisters are uninterested in fighting caste as a basis of women’s subordination. Hence, the analysis of co-impacting and co-constituting character of caste-based public patriarchy, and the interrogation and examination of the existing knowledge engagement about Dalit women, will be the methodological stance of Dalit feminism. Finally, Dalit feminism sees serious engagement with knowledge—resistance against accommodative, “add-on” approaches in knowledge practice, a critique of the colonisation of knowledge and a commitment to critical reflexive knowledge—as central to emancipatory practice.
Courtesy : EPW