Dalit Women’s Fight

The word ‘dalit’ (downtrodden) is an identity as well as a stamp of marginalization, insult and ostracization for the backward caste of India; the Blacks of India. In any patriarchal society, men are the ‘theoretical brahmans’ and women are the ‘empirical shudras’ and in case of India, a dalit woman is “triply oppressed”— by her caste, class and gender. Following Alice Walker’s notion of ‘womanism’ and Ambedkar’s outcry of “Educate, agitate, organize”—these dalit women snatched the legitimate spaces they weren’t given and are still continuing with their struggle.

Educate: Activism through writing

Memory foregrounds history. The brahmanical view of history needed the abrahmanical view for the circle to become full. The position of dalit feminism became a burning question amongst scholars after dalit feminism was being called ‘new’ feminism. Sharmila Rege notices that organizations like Satyashodhak Kashtakari Mahila Sabha and Stree Mukti Sangharsh operates with a broadly Marxist-Phule-Ambedkarite feminist position[1].

In the post-1970s India, publishing houses and feminist presses like Manushi, Stree, Mahila Shakti, Kali for Women were established by the women for the women that constantly published dalit women’s writings: autobiographies, essays, poetry, and short stories.

In Latin American history, testomonios became the tool of resistance, the underground literature of the voices and memories that were systematically omitted. Testimonios of the dalit women worked in the same manner opening spaces for interrogation and scholarship. These testimonios first appeared publicly in the 1980s and foreground the memories of dalit women from 1920s to the present.

Dalit feminist writing is steeped in womanism—her everyday lived experiences are her justification for her resistance through subjectivity. The poetry of a dalit woman calls for liberation through education or active resistance. Poets like Savitribai Phule, Kusum Aatram, Chaya Chakranarayan, Pratibha Ahire, to name a few, have rallied against the discrimination by writing poems that depict the suffering and violence face by the dalit women throughout history.

Amongst prose writers, Bama’s Sangati, Karukku et cetera uses a different language; the language of the dalit woman’s own. She undauntedly uses expletives and the everyday language of her women in her writing. The voices found in these narratives mock the subjugated sophistication and polished sounds of the upper caste oppressed women and the haplessness of the dalit women while encouraging both to celebrate their individual identity and sexuality.

Agitate: Activism through movements

A marked beginning of dalit women’s movement is impossible to trace. However, the shifting trend in the feminist movement of India can shed some light on the need of its arrival.

India being the birthplace of Gandhian ideas, liberal feminism was easy to be found (Anti-Price Rise Front in Gujarat) along with socialist feminism that resulted because of the revolutionary sharecropper’s movement that India witnessed where women actively participated for the land rights and recognized the gender inequalities prevalent within the class struggle for social equality.
Indian feminists for the longest time ignored the caste based discrimination and oppression that the dalit women were especially subjected to. The Black Panther Party and the struggle of black women have influenced many dalit women activists to voice their rage. Ruth Manorama, the founder of National Federation of Dalit Women (NFDW) draws parallel between the Blacks and the Dalits in an interview saying,

“The White women were not going to solve the problems
of Black women. Black women had their own struggles; they
had their own history of resistance…The Black women said
that they were part of the feminist movement in America. And yet,
as women who have been oppressed by racism, they wanted to
have their separate organization. That was how the Black women’s
movement came into being. They not only wrote about the racist
inequality, but they spoke about the class struggle, they outlined the
economic oppression, the absence of land and resources.
There are so many connections between the Dalits and the
Blacks. The young Black men where exactly like our (Dalit)
young men; they boozed and whiled away their time because
they lacked employment.”[2]

In the 1970s India, anti-caste dalit movements and feminism met each other. Mahila Samta Sainik Dal (The League of Women Soldiers for Equality) was born in Aurangabad, a group formed by the women of the dalit movement demanding liberty of the women. In their Manifesto, MSSD recognized Angela Davis as their sister. Though short-lived, this Dal was the first of its kind in India to recognize female sexual oppression in relation to religion and the system of caste as an active agent of patriarchy and social inequality.

In the 1990s, India witnessed a surge of dalit women organizations with NFDW laying the foundation; the All India Dalit Women’s Forum was formed in 1996, an organization comprised of dalit Christian women was established in 1997. NFDW helped in bringing to the fore how state systematically fails to protect the rights of dalit women.

In recent years, the dalit women from various villages of Uttar Pradesh have formed a vigilante group under the name Gulabi Gang or Pink Gang. Where the state and law fails incessantly to bring the victim to justice these women clad in pink sarees take up sticks and brooms to beat up the perpetrator as a part of their activism.

Organize: Activism through music

The silenced voice of the dalit woman has often been found singing the revolutionary verses. Gopal Guru’s research shows that the women of Buddhist mahila mandal[3] movement sang political songs at the grinding stone (ovi) and during Ambedkar’s birth anniversary (palana). The Ambedkarite gaayan parties (singing troupes) and cassette culture largely helped to circulate popular songs amongst the community. One of the singers, Asha Gaikwad, was a laborer who later on formed a gaayan party and composed popular songs like ‘Amhi Bhimachya Nari’ (We the Ambedkarite Women). Another genre of songs known as mahila geet (Songs for the Women) was also frequent in the mandals. These songs mainly focused on educating the women about the redundancy of temples and rituals.

Very recently, dalit activist Sheetal Sathe with her cultural organization Kabir Kala Manch is raising storm in the country. Her revolutionary songs talk about the burning issues of the day.

All the three aspects of dalit feminist movement, as we can see, are inter-related and are brilliant examples of praxis. Uma Chakravarty, an eminent feminist scholar noticed in her seminal essay “Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi?”, the smooth omission of the existence of the vedic dasi[4] from all aspects of Indian history and the misogyny of Indian men reformers that propelled the same. These vedic dasis will later on transmute into Spivak’s subalterns. We can conclude with a verse that conjures up a revolutionary picture where Jaajula, a Telugu dalit poet and a leader of an anti-caste movement threatens to take law in her hands because:

“Among annals of history
Stacked truth I am
…I will bash up![5]


[1] Rege, Sharmila: Writing Caste, Writing Gender: Reading Dalit Women’s Testimonios
[2] Source: https://youngfeminists.wordpress.com/2007/12/27/on-caste-and-patriarchy-an-interview-with-ruth-manorama/
[3] These mandal or groups were formed around the neo-Buddhist practices but helped to introduce their member of the Ambedkarite ideology.
[4] Women slaves of the Vedic period. The phrase has been used as a metaphor, by the author, to represent all the women of India whose history went unrecorded or consciously omitted by their male counterparts.
[5] Chandra Mouli, T. Sai: Black Lotus: Telugu Dalit Women’s Poetry

Article by Debarati
Edited by Manisha. 

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