Thrice oppressed

Dalit and Muslim women grapple with the triple burden of caste- community, class and gender

Organised and systematic rape as reprisal for her community’s cries for justice or simply as an expression of caste arrogance and custom; sexual humiliation and molestation at the workplace, be it on the agricultural fields of a landlord or the construction site by the contractor and his middlemen; less than equal wages for her work that includes dehumanised jobs like manual scavenging and garbage picking; severe controls and violence in the domestic and social sphere inflicted by the men folk of family and community; the ultimate annapurna for her children, a role that conditions her into under-nourishing herself and her girl child; and, finally, what compels her, in the face of clawing hunger and thirst into lifelong indebtedness — even prostitution.

The Dalit woman.

She constitutes 49.96 per cent of the total 200 million Indian Dalit population, 16.3 per cent of the total Indian female population, 18 per cent of the Indian rural female population and 12 per cent of the urban female population. (1)

Living as she does at the beginning of the twenty–first century, she experiences a relentless cycle of oppression often made worse by the reluctance of the male Dalit leadership to frontally tackle these issues.

For non–Dalit India, the genteel and sophisticated discourse that deliberates on India’s deepening poverty line, shameful and increasing levels of malnutrition and illiteracy (370 million illiterates, say UNESCO figures of three years ago), continued denial of adequate and safe drinking water (2), there is a discreet but distinct reluctance to link this socio-economic and political reality, starkly, with the continued existence in a rigid and stratified form of caste. The perpetuation of class inequalities and indignities through caste, and therefore the connections between caste and class, the triple oppression experienced by the woman among Dalits, therefore the links between caste and gender and between class and gender are similarly denied.

Sensational accounts of gruesome violence (a Dalit woman being gang raped inside the precincts of a temple; another victim–survivor stripped, paraded and humiliated through village streets; Dhamma a Dalit girl blinded in Karnataka for daring to defy the untouchability system; Sanjay, a Dalit boy in Gujarat also losing an eye for similar reasons) are increasingly making it to the newspapers and television channels.

But few accounts link these incidents to the chilling cycle of want, hunger, deprivation, segregation, humiliation and violence, bondage and slavery that a particular section of our people and within that section, their women, suffer for generation after generation, without justice and reparation.

Globalisation and structural adjustment — especially the privatisation of natural resources — are also having an adverse impact on the rural poor in general, but on Dalit and adivasi women in particular, making their condition, unenviable as it is, worse under present economic conditions.

The very notion of sexual purity of the woman is intrinsic to understanding caste. Female sexuality presents a threat to caste hierarchy and stratification because of the male vision that views only the woman’s body as both property and carrier of caste lineage. Bodies of women of ‘lower’ castes may be abused because of the less than animal status accorded to a whole people but also the body and sexuality of women of their own, ‘upper’ castes are similarly subject to rigid control and abuse.

Patriarchal caste thinking (epitomised in Manu Smruti) emphasises that the danger of low quality blood exists only in the woman; raping a low caste woman by ‘upper’ caste man though committed regularly by men is condoned, arrogantly and hypocritically as his privilege. Public discourse sanctions this vile notion; but much worse, at times, even the Indian judiciary has condoned it.

Dubious decisions by the courts of this country reflect blatant and shabby ‘upper’ caste biases against Dalits and the oppressed castes in general but against women of the oppressed castes in particular.

In the mid–sixties, eminent constitutional expert, Nani Palkhiwala had made a staunch defence of caste Hindus, who were preventing entry of Dalits into the garbhagriha of temples in Tamil Nadu, saying that this was in keeping with their religious freedom (Article 25). It was an argument that the apex court in its ultimate wisdom had upheld.

On November 15, 1995, a district sessions judge in Rajasthan, while deliberating on the gang rape of a Dalit woman social worker, battling the evils of child marriage, ruled against the victim–survivor: "Since the offenders were ‘upper’ caste men and included a Brahmin, the rape could not have taken place because she (Bhanwari Devi) was from a ‘lower’ caste."

The judge in this case reflects the rank hypocrisy of the system of caste that perpetuates untouch-ability when it comes to access to water and sharing of food but violates it every time a landlord or a priest, a IAS officer or policeman, sexually abuses a Dalit woman. "We are untouch-able by day and touchable by night", a stark and challenging slogan of the Dalit woman’s movement of the nineties had declared.

Oppressed, abused and denied a voice, both within the caste–based Dalit movement and also by the wider, Indian women’s movement, the Dalit woman has begun to create her own space and dictate the discourse both within and outside her community. Ironically for the Dalit leadership, before and after Ambedkar, tackling the patriarchial base of caste by drawing women into active participation and leadership was critical (see page 14 ). For the present male-dominated Dalit political leadrership, this critical element of women’s empowerment and participation in the struggle, seems unimportant. Taking inspiration from Ambedkar and thousands of Dalit women who sacrificed much to make their articulations collectively, modern Dalit women have in recent decades been organising themselves into independent organisations.

The birth of the All India Progressive Women’s Organisation, Nagpur (1973), Women’s Voice, Bangalore (1987), Andhra Pradesh Vyavsaya Coolielu Samakhya, a federation of unions and organisations working with agricultural labourers, the Maharashtra Dalit Mahasang in Pune (1992) culminating in the birth of the National Federation for Dalit Women (NFDW) on August 11, 1995, reflected this articulation of Dalit women to command their own space and articulate their own issues within the wider Dalit movement and women’s movement, nationally.

"If the Dalit movement and women’s movement are ever to join hands, the Dalit movement needs to become more pro–women and the women’s movement more pro–Dalit", Dr Gabrielle Deitrich, president, Pennurimai Iyyakkam, Madurai has commented. In her analysis on the reasons behind the inability of Indian women’s groups to respond to Dalit women’s issues, Deitrich has pointed to the failure of ‘upper’ caste women to grapple with the system of caste itself, understand it, and thereafter admit how even they as women of the ‘‘upper’ castes’ are discriminated and subjugated by it.

Within the Dalit community, oppressed, segregated, ghettoised and subjected to a hidden apartheid (see CC, April 2001 and May 2000), it is the reluctance to tackle the issue of gender driven oppression directly, or to explain it away as simply an extension of the oppression that the Dalit man has been for centuries subjected to which is responsible for the sharpened and distinct Dalit women’s articulation that is increasingly responsible for these separate articulations.

Increasingly, Dalit women activists and groups are creating their own distinct spaces to identify and articulate the sources of what they see as distinct patriarchal biases within the men of their own community even while standing side by side with Dalit men when it comes to demanding that the world recognise caste crimes against Dalits as a crime against humanity and caste itself as an organised system of hidden apartheid.

"This Dalit man who has received education thanks to reservation and is conscious of his ‘Dalit’ and ‘untouchable’ identity and discriminations perpetuated because of it, follows Manuvad when it comes to women’s issues," says veteran Dalit woman leader, Kumudtai Pawde, who founded the All Indian Progressive Woman’s Organisation in 1973 in Nagpur. She has herself crossed the laxman rekha of caste by marrying, against stiff opposition, an ‘upper’ caste man, the only son of an influential family in the forties.

"There is a denial of basic autonomy and independence for Dalit girls by her father and brother and severe restrictions on her movement later by her husband; severe alcoholism leading to acute levels of domestic violence and battering are a common source of oppression and violence for our women," she adds. "I have to face criticism and abuse for saying what I am saying; I am even criticised for being influenced by Brahmanical notions for articulating gender issues and conducting shibirs (camps) among Dalit women in small hamlets where the pressures and taboos of caste are far more difficult to surmount."

Of late, the organisation has also been conducting camps and meetings with Dalit men. Young Dalits have shown an encouraging openness to discuss gender–related issues.

"Rape, violence, indignity and humiliation are being experienced by Dalit women every day. But forty years after the Dalit movement and three decades after the women’s movement took shape, hamari bhagyadari kya hai? (what’s our share?)," asks Vimal Thorat, an academic at Indira Gandhi Open University (IGNOU – see box).

While Valjibhai Patel of the Centre for Social Justice, Ahmedabad and Sumedh Jadhav, a young Dalit activist of the Manaviya Hakk Abhiyan, Mumbai, are in complete agreement with Kumudtai, Martin Macwan of Navsarjan in Gujarat has a slightly different view.

"As compared to the ‘higher’ castes and richer classes equality between men and women among Dalits is greater. There is much pain to share as also many responsibilities. So while I accept that there is a significant level of violence against women, women do not necessarily take the abuse in silence. They exercise greater freedom in giving it back (hurling verbal abuse back).

Dalits, both men and women suffer extreme violence, extreme abuse, and extreme poverty. Within this scenario, women do suffer more than men. However, this is not because of the man-woman equation or relationship alone but because of caste–driven oppression which is the primary cause."

"The first Dalit is a woman, Brahmin or Bhangi, as Babasaheb Ambedkar had said and she suffers the combined indignity of caste-based oppression outside and triple burdens of running the family and feeding children daily. Often her husband is irresponsible, and is also, sometimes an alcoholic," Valjibhai Patel told CC.

Despite the official prohibition policy, Dalit bastis are rife with the problem of alcoholism combined with extreme poverty. "The Dalit woman’s work, like garbage picking in the dark hours before dawn, make her vulnerable to physical violence, too."

In the first week of May (2001) alone, three seemingly isolated incidents of Dalit garbage picker women having their ears chopped off in Ahmedabad, because of the small amount of gold they wore as earrings, have added another kind of crime to the long list that Dalit women have especially to endure.

"It is Dalit men who conduct annual meetings to celebrate Ambedkar jayanti who are not serious about genuinely carrying the principles of empowerment in to their own homes and families," affirms Sumedh Jadhav. "It is patriarchy and patriarchy alone that is causing this. Look, in Maharashtra, what is our excuse? We have historically enjoyed the leadership given by Savitribai Phule, Ahilyabai Holkar, Jijabai. But centuries later we are still reluctant to accept that our sisters, our daughters, our wives make independent articulations in social and political life".

Jadhav adds: "There are so many issues that only Dalit women can take up because they live through the hardships. The issue of safe drinking water in rural areas (villages) and urban slums, the issue of ration cards and the two-child norm being imposed by present governments, health issues and the issue of shelter. But somehow the Dalit male is reluctant to abandon his patriarchal notions of control. I am convinced that these issues, deserving as they are, will only get raised if women, Dalit women, come and take command and leadership of the movement."

Congress MP from Gujarat, Praveen Rashtrapal quoted a saying in Gujarati that sums up the attitude towards women in general and which has been internalised by the Dalit community as well. ‘Jar, jameenne, jorhu, Prane kajyancha choru’ (‘Money, land and women are the root of all divisions.’) Gujarat has 23 sub-castes among the Dalits. Except for the lowest among these, the bhangis, the social system is heavily dominated and controlled by the male Dalit.

"Do you know that at most locations where the meetings of the panchayat take place, there will be a khatlo (cot) where only men sit and women will in most cases sit on the floor! Despite entry into the panchayati raj system nearly a decade ago, it is only one or two out of ten Dalit women who manage at the end of the day to articulate their issues, Dalit women’s concerns, at the level of the panchayat’s priorities. The others are simply representatives of their husbands. Among the 22 other sub-castes, it is the paragnawad, a men’s group from the sub–caste who decide every issue from marriage to divorce and other matters."

At a recent public hearing of Dalit women organised by Sahrwaru-Sanchetana, Ahmedabad, in April 2001, many of these issues received attention with a sharp gender focus for the first time in Gujarat.

Worse than any other, it is the focus on gender–related violence against Dalit women at the hands of caste Hindu males (a phenomenon that in the past few decades even Muslim women have had to endure) that is singularly absent among the articulations of the wider Dalit movement. Worse still, it has been virtually ignored by the rest of the Indian women’s movement.

The Dalit woman sarpanch of a village in Gurgaon, Sheeladidi, has had to bear the loss of two sons in their prime (one was picked up by the ‘upper’ castes last year and has ‘disappeared’ since, the other was burnt to death in early 2001) simply because she ‘dared’ to enter the political arena and contest panchayat elections. Gurgaon is an hour’s drive from Delhi but the incident has received no support or solidarity from either a woman’s organisation or political parties who articulate Dalit interests.

Other Dalit women sarpanchs who have battled the barriers of family, community and caste to contest elections on the 33 per cent constitutional reservation for Dalit women have to suffer humiliations by ‘upper’ caste men for daring to hoist the national flag!

The existence and perpetuation of the Devdasi system in different villages of Karnataka and Maharashtra is only a ritualistic stamp for sanctioned prostitution. Detailed documentation of their struggle, collected by the NFDW (to be published soon) records the human rights’ violations of Dalit women because of the perpetuation of this practice as also the widespread protests among Dalit women against the continuation of the practice.

"Thousands of Dalit women from poor and landless peasant families or Devdasis (female ‘servants of god’) have been traced in brothels of Mumbai. The Jogini system in Telangana areas, the Basivi system in Karnataka, the Moti system in Maharashtra are part of the Devdasi system where young girls are dedicated to a female deity like Yellamma," the NFDW manuscript documents.

"Dalit girls thus dedicated to the goddess are sexually abused by priests and visitors to the temples. While the dedication ceremony differs from place to place, often the ‘upper’ caste patron of the ceremony has the privilege of spending the first night with the girl. This system of patronage and sexual exploitation has given way to rank commercialised prostitution. Many Devdasis have been protesting against this system vociferously".

"Most of the Dalits from the village of Yellampura get full employment for only three months of the year (February to April) … Daughters and young women from such families are forced into prostitution. The traditional Devdasi system has given way to the commercialisation of the cult. Of the 84 Devdasis of Yellampura village, 34 were found in urban brothels. Dalit families choose to send the best looking daughter. A beautiful daughter was equivalent to three acres of land." (Jogan Shankar, Devdasi Cult, 1990).

Janki, an elderly Dalit woman forced into prostitution, who had deposed at the early public hearing of the NFDW had astutely remarked, "Nothing can stop prostitution, not police raids, no check-posts on borders, no protective homes like Nari Niketan, not even pensions for widows. Buy freedom for our men; give us land, only land. It is this land, these green fields, which will contain our girls. Nothing else can."

"Rape and molestation are new dimensions of a caste war, used as weapons of reprisal and to crush the morale of a section of the people," Justice PN Bhagwati, former chief justice of the Supreme Court, had stated while addressing the Maharashtra state women’s council. Recent rounds of communal violence in Surat (December 1992) and Bombay (1993), apart from historical accounts of Partition-related gender violence against women of different communities are indicators how gender driven violence has not stopped at Dalit women who alone have borne this humiliation in the past.

The past few years have seen communal violence join, if not replace in intensity, caste driven atrocities against Dalits, men women and children. It is not a coincidence that the Hindutva ideology that fuels communalism is rooted in a Brahmanical and ‘upper’ caste exclusion of India’s religious minorities. Muslim women especially in Surat and Bombay suffered similar kinds of gender violence when their communities were targeted.

This coupled with the designs of Hindutva forces to diffuse caste divisions by making assertions of an ‘all Hindu’ unity against the ‘enemy outsider’ (read Muslims and Christians) have also resulted in some sections of the Dalit community getting communalised.

Muslim women are also subjected to isolation by communal forces who have picked the issue of Muslim personal law reform — especially banning of triple talaaq and polygamy — as sticks to beat the Muslim leadership with.

On both issues of communalism and caste, the Indian women’s movement has revealed sharp schisms reflecting a diffidence to tackle the issues directly. It is within these developments that the growing articulations of Dalit women have found their roots.

Some have gone a step farther to forge an alliance between Dalit women and women of India’s minorities. This is following the realisation that under the specificities of violence and marginalisation of women, all these sections would be subjected to increasing levels of gender–driven violence, targeting and marginalisation. For example, Ruth Manorama who was pivotal in forming Women’s Voice, an organisation of slum dwellers and a domestic worker’s union apart from launching NFDW, has also played an important role in launching the National Alliance of Women (NAWO), an alliance between minority and Dalit women.

The story of Dalit women is the story of a longer history of starvation, of oppression, of gender violence from ‘upper’ caste men. Dalit women’s voices raise life and death concerns like water, food, wages, electricity, education and work. Of denials and continued segregation and oppression within the family by Dalit men. The socio-economic condition of a majority of Muslim women reflects varying but similar predicaments. Bread and butter issues, education for themselves and their girls, security to lives and persons.

Groaning under the burden of triple oppression, rooted in their caste and community realities, sustained articulations from the most marginalised among Indian women could well throw up more challenging issues and approaches for the Indian women’s movement as a whole.

(1) 1991 census data, taken from "Database on Scheduled Caste Literacy in India", Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, 1999.

(2) Fifty–three years after Independence, the deprivation of a long and healthy life (people not expected to survive beyond 40), high levels of adult illiteracy, deprivation in economic provisioning by the percentage of people lacking access to health services and safe water, and social inclusion (employment is one indicator) has put India at a low rank (128 out of 174) in the United Nations Human Development Report, 2000.

Archived from Communalism Combat, May 2001 Year 8  No. 69, Cover Story 1



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