In caste fight, let’s talk about Dalit women

A Dalit woman’s struggles for even the basic necessities of life are not well-documented, and thus remain unavailable to her as well as the others. (File photo)

(Written by Gogu Shyamala)

Dalit feminism means Dalit women fighting against the hegemonies of caste, class and masculinity — the political expression of the intertwining struggles of caste and gender. Dalit feminism hence is essential to democracy and equality.

To get a comprehensive picture of how caste, class and gender intertwine in Dalit women’s perspective, it is important to look at their kin communities, which include Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes.

There are multiple layers within these groups, with those Hinduised emulating the religion’s caste practices such as untouchability. Within the Dalit kin community framework in Telugu-speaking regions of the country, for example, the Dakkali, Gosangi, Chindu and Baindla communities are the lowest in the caste ladder, as compared to the others.

We need to reorient the caste issue from the perspective of Dalit women. Women empowerment is a process of becoming rather than granting authority. However, woman empowerment is not just a factor of family and community alone. Education and dignity for the Dalit society need to be alongside empowerment, all of which are effectively blocked by the caste patriarchal system, which is constantly enslaving the family and community of the Dalit woman. That is why a Dalit woman cannot be empowered in the caste system.

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However, a Dalit woman’s struggles for even the basic necessities of life are not well-documented, and thus remain unavailable to her as well as the others. Hence, she is left with using the most basic information available, passed on to her by the elders of her family.

Besides, much of the inheritance passed on by Dalit elders is through the spoken rather than the written word. That is why readership-feminists who are obsessed with written records have overlooked Dalit feminist framing. The ones that are abundant in written records are seen through the Gandhian lens or class politics.

The Dalit community, for example, worships Mother Earth as a manifestation of a life without any hierarchy. No archives have attempted to decode these sacrosanct relations of Dalits with Mother Earth — not just in mythological sense but also through the lens of history, politics.

This is why the RSS has managed to take away the Mother Earth feminist goddess of Dalit community and misappropriated it for their nationalist cause by projecting her as the Bharat Mata.

Due to such practices of appropriation, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s theory has not yet reached Dalit women. So, in the past and in the present, Dalit women continue to fight big battles for small needs.

Take for example, the practice of jogini. It is a centuries-old legitimised prostitution ritual in Hindu religion, leaving the joginis in revolt not just against sex slavery but also caste discrimination.

At the same time, Hinduism is modernising and changing via its relations with capitalism, producing a complex mixture. Jogini, for example, has connected to the modern market through prostitution, leaving them fighting diseases such as HIV.

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It’s time to see Dalit women as undeclared feminists. All this while feminism has left out the caste system and kept its focus limited to patriarchy. The struggle against the origins of caste patriarchy and untouchability must now be waged by every feminist, irrespective of her caste.

Dalit movements too have not bothered about patriarchal domination and confined their fight to a caste-based struggle. One cannot ignore that Dalit women are waging wars against the damning Brahminical caste patriarchy by bridging these two gaps, which feminist and Dalit movements have ignored for long.

The permanency of Dalits as struggling people has made them a sanctuary for struggling people alone. This has left many Dalits outside the framework of intellectual knowledge. Their struggle is being fought only on the street and not in the classroom. To understand Dalit life, newer, refined methodologies need to be invented, and educated Dalits need to write without relying on available non-Dalit frameworks.

Dr Gogu Shyamala, author of Father May Be an Elephant and Mother Only a Small Basket, but..., is a Dalit writer and researcher Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column

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