Towards a feminism of caste

Gender and Caste

edited by Anupama Rao;

series Issues in Contemporary Feminism

Kali for Women, New Delhi, 2003;

Price: Rs 325

In recent years, the intricate interconnections between gender and caste in Indian society has been recognised and explored by more and more academics and those involved in struggles for social change. The result has been the emergence of a vast corpus of literature of variable quality, characterised by multiple perspectives, depending on where each argument is coming from. While the corpus is large it is scattered so that a systematic overview of the re-search so far would be difficult to obtain. Gender and Caste, in a sense, addresses this problem to some extent by bringing together a collection of historical and contemporary analyses, reports, manifestos and testimonies that bear on the theme and tries to align academic inquiry with contemporary political developments. This anthology is an important addition to Kali for Women's series Issues in Contemporary Feminism, particularly because it seeks to exorcise the ghost of 'monolithic identity' which the Indian feminist movement has cast itself in. Issues pertaining to dalit women and their oppression look like they are being addressed, al-though the reality points elsewhere. It is for this reason that the volume underlines the need to address the 'caste-deficiency' in Indian feminism.

The year 1995, with The International Women's Conference in Beijing as the backdrop, was a significant moment for the feminist movement in India. The editor of the volume, Anupama Rao begins her introduction by referring to Gopal Guru's 1995 essay, "Dalit Women Talk Differently", and the discussion that sprang up around it. Women who had thought of them-selves as bearing the torch of Indian feminism now found themselves challenged from a new direction. Dalit women in India were questioning whether the feminist movement in India had paid sufficient attention to the caste basis of women's oppression and whether the mainly upper-caste women's movement had any right to speak for dalit women. Guru's essay speaks with approval of the setting up of the National Federation of Dalit Women (NFDW) at that juncture. As Rao points out, this was also an attempt to place the concerns of dalit women in a transnational setting, a project which has continued with the NFDW issuing its declaration on gender and racism at the World Conference against Racism held at Durban, South Africa in 2001. This has been included as an appendix at the end of the book. The NFDW has also been vocal and assertive in insisting on the inclusion of 'caste' in official statements debated in the pre-parations to the World Social Forum in Bombay.

Caste issues have become the subject of various kinds of political activity in India in recent times. These range from the identity politics of dalits and other lower castes in trade unions and other organisations, to the formation of new parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party, which seeks power through forming its own alliances and refuses to assimilate itself into coalitions led by the Congress party or those claiming secular or socialist credentials. These developments are usually traced back to the acceptance of the recommendations of the Mandal Report by the VP Singh government in 1990, which ex-tended reservations in government posts and seats in state-run educational institutions beyond the dalit castes to a much wider section of "other backward castes". The new political associations initiated by dalit women can be seen as a part of this scenario.

The editor's choice of an on-going new political assertion by dalit women as the central focus for this book is one of its strengths. It charges the relation between gender and caste in Indian society with an actuality in terms of linking a self-conceptualisation of their situation by dalit women with broader political concerns of democracy and representation. This guides the reading of the various texts. There is, on the one hand, a live and immediate contestation of terminology and conceptual frameworks. Pranjali Bandhu quotes Ruth Manorama characterising dalit women as being "Thrice alienated on the basis of caste, class and gender". Her piece, as well as that of Gopal Guru, speaks of the challenge dalit women pose both to the 'main-stream' women's movement and the male-dominated dalit movement. Sharmila Rege draws a parallel between contemporary assertions and organisational initiatives by dalit women and the questions posed by black women in the feminist movement in the US. She calls for a dalit feminist standpoint as a means of revitalising the feminist agenda in India.

According to Rao, the intro-duction "is an attempt to illustrate how the categories of 'caste' and 'gender' have been understood by scholars embedded in diverse disci-plinary configurations, and to suggest methods of reading such work as a genealogy for considering feminism's political futures". Fur-ther, she calls for "recognizing caste as a critical component of studies of political modernity".

Such readings are still comparatively rare. There is even now a degree of reluctance to incorporate these considerations into the most basic concerns of Indian feminism. In a recent set of articles in the Economic and Political Weekly re-valuating the Indian feminist movement in the contemporary context of globalisation and aggressive Hindu majoritarianism, for example, the challenge posed by dalit women is barely mentioned in the contributions from Maithreyi Krishna Raj and Sharmila Rege. Gabriele Dietrich—who, in her article in the volume under review, looks at various readings of the relationship between dalit movements and women's movements, and ends by saying that, "the dalit movement keeps reminding us that caste cannot be wished away but needs to be faced squarely"—is, in the EPW article, severely critical of recent dalit attempts at political assertion. She speaks of the opportunism of political players such as Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, and refers to the participation of dalit organisations "and especially the dalit-supported NGO sector" in the anti-racism conference at Durban as "a deflection of issues". In her view, "the whole debate on whether caste is race, created more confusion than clarity". These recently published views of Indian feminism show that the challenge posed to it by dalit women is still very much a controversial issue. This book plunges into the middle of the controversy, so to speak, and emphasises a particular point of view that is not widely accepted.

In the same set of EPW articles on the Indian feminist movement, Shilpa Phadke quotes Mary John as stressing "the need to focus on caste and communalism as modern forms of inequality and to stop focusing solely on poverty and disadvantages as the women's movement has been doing for far too long". How-ever, in her treatment of how the women's movement has dealt with the issue of sexual violence, there is no mention of the caste aspects of sexual violence, or how dalit women's sexuality is regarded as being 'available' for upper-caste men. Rao, in contrast, has included articles on sexual violence against dalit women that raise a number of troubling issues.

Rao starts with the beginning of political self-assertion by dalit women, which raises complex questions for political and social theory as well as for the political practice of feminism. Her selection of articles and extracts is intended to serve as a guide through this complexity, rather than an attempt to simplify it. One aspect is the need to look again at the history of political struggles. Rao represents this concern through a selection of articles and extracts evaluating the contribution of Jyotiba Phule in 19th century Maharashtra, and Ambed-kar and Periyar in the 20th century. Rao admits that this selection has something of a regional bias toward south India and Maharashtra, but she justifies this by pointing out that "caste and social reform (are) arti-culated in very explicit ways in these regions", and that "such regional histories give pause to any attempts to generalize about either caste or gender relations across India". We are thus presented with these histo-ries and invited to ponder on them, without any claim that they are "representative" of India as a whole.

Phule, Periyar and Ambedkar were all non-Brahmin political leaders who questioned the values of the upper-caste-dominated inde-pendence movement. All of them were much concerned with gender, and underlined the links between caste oppression and the oppression of women. Uma Chakravarti's essay on "Phule, Brahmanism and Brahminical Patriarchy" deals with the processes of social change in western India in the 19th century. She writes, "the upper castes (primarily, Brahminical caste groups) sought to adjust to the colonial situation and grasp the opportunities provided by it to form a professional middle class", while there was at the same time, "a contestation of such a process from the non-Brahmin castes". Phule constantly joined issue with the brahminical reformist leaders, ex-posing their reluctance to give up their caste privileges and their monopolistic hold over education. He also worked relentlessly against gender inequality, whether by starting a school for girls in Pune which, unlike those established much later by upper-caste social reformers of this region like DD Karve, opened its doors to dalit and shudra girls, or providing a shelter for high-caste widows and an orphanage for their illegitimate children.

There are two articles on Periyar E Ramaswamy Naicker, one by S Anandhi, which deals mainly with the self-respect movement in Tamil Nadu and Periyar's revolutionary views on marriage, and one by V Geetha, which compares Periyar's struggles against caste and gender inequality both with the politics of the Congress Party under Gandhi, and with the concerns of the women's movement in present-day India. There are also three articles on BR Ambedkar. The first is a short extract from a book in Marathi on the role played by women in the dalit liberation movement, from the years before Ambedkar assumed leadership, by Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon. The second is by Eleanor Zelliot, which traces the importance of gender issues in Ambedkar's organisational work and choice of issues for struggle, his insistence on the participation of women in the movement and his encouragement of dalit women activists, his work on the Hindu Code Bill, his choice of Buddhism as the religion he converted to, and his writings on other subjects. She concludes by saying that Ambedkar was ahead of his times in that he "pointed out the relationship between the caste system and the position of women", and that it is up to scholars to explore this issue in practice and to organise dalit women to pursue it in practice.

Pratima Pardeshi's piece (surprisingly placed in the section on "Land and Labour"), again trans-lated from the Marathi, takes up the same issues, and calls for the development of a non-brahminical feminism based upon the ideas of Phule and Ambedkar, in which identity politics and struggles over culture play an important part. She says, "Identities are not created overnight… The crux of identity politics must be progressive. Identities are real only if they are rooted in the struggles to end the vested political, social and cultural interests". She speaks of a non-brahminical tradition of struggle, which goes back to the days of Jyotiba Phule and had figures like Shiram Janoba Kamble, who initiated a campaign against the devadasi tradition in late 19th century Maharashtra, and Narayan Meghaji Lokhande, who fought for the interests of dalit workers in the early years of the trade union movement in Bombay. This is the tradition within which she would want Indian feminism to go for-ward; so that "the programme for the liberation of women (may) be seen as an intrinsic part of the struggles against the social, reli-gious, cultural and political exploitation of the caste system".

Uma Chakravarti also shows how Phule came into contact with, and publicly supported, the struggles of some remarkable women who challenged caste and gender orthodoxy in their time: Pandita Ramabai, a brahmin woman who made waves in the atmosphere of liberal reformism when she converted to Christianity; Tarabai Shinde, the non-brahmin author of a fiery tract on gender inequality which was largely ignored at the time but has recently become well-known; Savitribai Phule, who worked with her husband Jyotiba for the education of lower-caste girls and courageously faced social wrath; and Muktabai, a fourteen-year-old pupil in Phule's school, whose essay on the social oppre-ssion of the Mang and Mahar castes is also now justly famous.

These texts offer a different view of social reforms and anti-colonial politics in Maharashtra and south India in the 19th and early 20th century. The next section has three pieces on dalit women's "voice" and literature. Whereas 'dalit literature' written by men has become a widely practised genre of protest writing in several Indian languages, and has been translated into English, and occasionally even earlier into French, autobiography and fiction written by dalit women is still only a trickle, and very little has been translated.

Rao therefore provides an ex-tract from Sumitra Bhave's "Pan on Fire: Eight Dalit Women Tell their Stories". One of these women describes in detail what conversion to Buddhism actually implies in the daily life and religious practices of dalit households, and talks about what it means to her. Ambedkar's own acceptance of the Buddhist faith was the culmination of de-cades of thought and a political act intended to allow his community to break with an oppressive and humiliating Hinduism. Since many thousands followed him in embracing Buddhism (Ambedkar him-self died less than a year after the conversion), the cultural practice of the new faith has borne the contra-dictions of a political act in a social milieu that is still slow to change. Elsewhere, we have a dalit woman's sexual life described with frankness and humour, a theme that Rao tries to draw attention to in two, shorter, pieces as well. These are reviews of dalit women's autobiographies which also raise questions about consciousness of gender issues, the extent to which these women accept their situations or rebel against them. One of them stresses how the writer Bama's narrative, "to a great degree, does not deal with herself, but the context of dalit life in which she grew up and acquired a certain self-awareness".

The selection, though small in volume, is a cautionary statement about the need to be careful in making easy generalisations about dalit women's consciousness, their sexual freedom or their identification with their community and their politicisation. The 'voice' of dalit women is only now beginning to be heard, and we are being invited to listen to it attentively, with an ear to its nuances. But "Dalit Women Talk Differently" is, in a sense, a major theme of this book, and their different sexuality, their political awakening, their self-assertion, their experience of work and of violence, their identification with their caste and its organisations, their encounter with patriarchy within the community, are certainly its concern. Not all these find expression in this section. But the theme of violence and sexuality is explored elsewhere at length and in a nuanced fashion.

Patriarchal inquiry

In a long contribution in which she explores the conceptualisation of gender and caste from a feminist perspective, Gabriele Dietrich narrates two incidents of violence against dalit women in rural Tamil Nadu in which some redressal was sought by the dalit men on an individual and organised basis. She points out the fundamental asymmetry regarding gender and caste. Violence against dalit women is a routine occurrence and serves to reinforce the caste hierarchy, while even a speech by a dalit man expressing fantasies of rape of upper-caste women in retaliation, is seen as a heinous crime since it seeks to overturn the hierarchy. At the same time, the dalit men seeking redressal of the violation of one of 'their' women are often tempted to use abusive patriarchal language, and, indeed, they usually see the injury in patriarchal terms. Dietrich expresses anguish about the difficulty of organising any collective response to such incidents that goes beyond the patriarchal logic of the caste system.

Vasanth and Kalpana Kanna-biran in their submission bring out the contemporary context of such incidents, as dalits in the post-independence period have gained a certain degree of upward social mobility, acquired education and improved their standard of living and mode of dress. These improvements are resented by the upper-castes, especially in rural settings. According to them, "what we wit-ness today in the increasing violence that enforces the maintenance of 'order' in relations of caste and gender is the weakening of an absolute power that did not allow or permit the space for the articulation or even the awareness of grievance or a sense of wrong and the consequent blurring of carefully drawn lines of (caste) demarcation".

Included in the section on "Violence and Sexuality" is a thought-provoking paper by Susie Tharu. She juxtaposes two stories about widows: one by Gita Hariharan about a rebellious old brahmin woman on her deathbed, and the other about a dalit widow, narrated through the eyes of her young son. The second story is by Baburao Bagul, one of the most powerful dalit writers of fiction in Marathi. Tharu says, "The widow is a figure whose very life is marked by a specific death. She is 'vidhava'—without husband—and consequently in need not only of public protection but also of regulation, governance. Widow stories are invariably also subtly modulated historical engage-ments with questions of governmentality and citizenship".

Tharu's subtle reading of the two stories probes questions which have been hinted at, but not ex-plored, in earlier accounts where dalit women are murdered, implicated, or become the subjects of various kinds of misinterpretation and exclusion, in different incidents of caste violence. The dalit woman's beauty and sexuality are, as she says, for the dalit man "not sources of joy but of anxiety and emasculation". Through the dalit woman, power is exercised over the dalit man. Tharu says of Bagul's narrative: "Yet there is in the story a new kind of movement: from the never-ceasing shuttle between the extraditions and deaths that com-prise her impossible life, to a struggle to leave, and in that single act to re-notate the world". Of course this is fiction, written by a dalit writer who displays in his work an extraordinary power to portray the ravaged sexual life of dalit men and women in our society. Here is a feminist reader who cares to take from him what it implies for us; the juxtaposition of the story about the brahmin woman rules out our reading it as a dalit story only.

The issues of governmentality and citizenship mentioned by Tharu are dealt with more explicitly in Rao's own contribution to this volume. She also narrates a particular incident of caste violence involving dalit women, but chooses to investigate the issue through the juridical records of the case. The incident, which took place in 1963, involved the stripping and parading of dalit women in a village following the molestation of a dalit woman labourer by an upper-caste man, and a protest by her husband which was seen as an insult to her molester's wife. As is usual in such incidents, the actual sequence of events is variously reported by observers, but Rao is interested in the judge's view of the case.

In the case, those responsible for the stripping incident were found guilty and sentenced. But Rao points out that the outrage expressed by the judge in his comments emphasises the insult to women, and plays down the caste-sexual dimensions of the case. There is even a suggestion that the 'real' reason for the dispute between dalits and upper-castes that forms the background of the case involves access to village water sources, which is often the occasion for violence against dalits even today. As for the law as it stood at the time of this trial, Rao draws attention to the fact that when the Indian consti-tution bans 'untouchability' it does not define what untouchability is, and the whole complex of caste hierarchies and practices finds no mention. She also hints that the introduction at a later date of a law banning 'atrocities' against the dalits does not really help matters either. It remains a fact that the way citizenship and citizen's rights have been written into the Indian constitution abstracts from the reality of caste as a social practice, and its denial of the dalit's equal rights on a daily basis. The way in which sexual attacks on dalit women are perceived, by villagers, by the police and judiciary, in the various incidents narrated in this book provide ample evidence of this. Ambedkar made attempts to correct this lacuna when he was on the Constitutional Committee, and when he was opposed on this, he fought another unsuccessful battle for the Hindu Code Bill.

So we come back a full circle to contemporary attempts to 'bring' caste into the discourse on gender, as well as other public discourses: that of human rights, of race and the rights of ethnic minorities, and even the Marxist discourse on mode of production, as the dissenting communist party activist and theo-retician Sharad Patil has tried to do. As remarked above, there is still a prevalent tendency to 'forget' about caste, which is why this book, nudging us to look at the questions relating to gender and caste in different contexts, is so welcome.

Land and labour

The last section is titled "Land and Labour". There is an interview with a dalit woman agricultural labourer with a commentary by Gail Omvedt, dated 1975; an account by Kancha Illaiah of how dalit women led a struggle for rights over common and public land against the upper-caste reddy landlords in a village in Andhra Pradesh; and two pieces by P Sainath. All of these portray dalit women workers in an active role, where they are, at least potentially, agents in bringing about change in their working conditions. Even the early piece by Omvedt, where the interviewer, accompanied by a dalit student activist from a labourer's family, is trying to elicit reactions from the woman that express her consciousness of gender inequality, the woman's militancy is forcefully expressed. She is aware of the difficulties in initiating any organised resistance by dalit labourers in the presence of widespread un-employment. She is somewhat dis-missive when asked about specifically caste aspects of oppression.

One of Sainath's accounts draws attention to an area in which dalit women have been playing an increasingly active role: in village-level local government bodies where, after a constitutional amendment enacted in 1993, seats are reserved for women, and for dalit women. It also shows how they are resisted by entrenched holders of economic and political power, whose reluctance to accept a dalit woman in a position of power has specifically caste-cultural aspects. The other piece talks about what happens after the carrying of "night-soil" or human excrement in head-loads (of course, by dalit women) is legally banned.

All these are different contemporary situations and contexts in which dalit women, struggling against their work conditions, inevitably challenge the political and cultural configurations of the caste system as well as patriarchal relations and the economic order of class-based exploitation. The political self-assertion on a national level by newly-formed associations of dalit women is thus echoed by struggles in different local conditions.

The final extract is something of a manifesto for an anti-brahminical women's liberation by Pratima Pardeshi. She outlines Phule and Ambedkar's analysis of patriarchy and caste, and calls on the dalit movement to develop its own theory and strategy on the question of women. She does not, at least in this extract, directly address what she would characterise as brahminical feminism. Rao elaborates on brahminical feminism in her article as "a shorthand for referring to a highly selective understanding of women and their lives which has been unable to incorporate significant mediations (in this instance, caste) that inflect the structures of living in and through diverse patriarchies in the Indian context. If caste makes for a difference in the kind and quality of patriarchal control, it does so not only for those dalit women who are seen to bear the excesses of such caste patriarchy, but also for those feminists whose caste specificity is seen to be elided through the adoption of the term "feminist". Hence Brahminical feminism is the possibility of occupying a feminist position outside caste: the possibility of denying caste as a problem for gender".

Caste politics has become much more visible in India in recent years. The formation of caste-based parties, caste groups within trade unions, and now in the women's movement is largely deplored as divisive even by those on the left who have sympathy with the cause of dalits, in the face of the major perceived threats from globalisation and Hindu fascism. Rao's anthology questions these perceptions by thinking about how caste and gender together deeply inflect the reality of democracy, citizenship and nationhood. The self-assertion of the lower castes and the workings of identity politics have revealed disturbing cracks in the modernity of India's democratic institutions. Challenges to the power of dominant groups, in a complex polity with shifting regional, religious and caste equations, too often release emotions which express themselves in violence against women. Dominated groups often respond with a tightening of patriarchal control over "their" women. The self-assertion of dalit women, as yet embryonic in practical terms, has a revolutionary potential because their bodies are marked by upper-caste patriarchal authority as available for the display of male sexual power.

The conceptual framework of diverse patriarchies, however, may be problematic in as much as it implies a countervailing force of diverse feminisms. It is unquestionably important today for upper-caste feminists to confront the inherent importance of caste for gender, and the fact that their right to speak for all women is being questioned. Rao's approach is very welcome here. But there are also dangers for dalit women's organisations who engage in a form of dalit politics that echoes the diverse male-led groups that are claiming to speak for the rights of dalits and the lower castes. One of the problems is that identity politics often adopts the language of aggressive male superiority, of "our" and "their" women. Dalit women's organisations need to struggle against becoming an adjunct of this politics. As several of the writers in this volume, notably Pardeshi, point out, lower-caste leaders of the past like Phule and Ambedkar were also sharply aware that caste politics has no edge unless it takes up the goal of gender equality. In a political environment dominated by fundamentalist Hinduism, women's issues are often sidelined as diverse dominated groups struggle to assert their cultural identity. The fact that right-wing Hindu parties have mastered the art of forming coalitions, while relentlessly pushing forward their own agenda, contributes to this. The entry of dalit women's organisations into the international level of debate, the flow of foreign funds into dalit women's NGO's, could also possibly lead to a blunting of their radicalism. But this would be no more than a repetition of what has happened to many feminist groups led by upper-caste feminists.

We can find more contemporary instances of radical action by groups in which dalit women's participation is crucial. In a political atmosphere in which many working-class organisations are passive and weak in the face of a real erosion of earnings and workers' rights, new unions of domestic workers and of urban waste gatherers have been active in many cities in Maharashtra. Dalit women are prominent in both these types of organisations. In fact if we take these two developments seriously, we would have to rethink several aspects of middle-class "lifestyle" feminism. Demanding the right to relative freedom from domestic chores is often seen as a man-woman conflict. In middle-class Indian households, in practice it means finding reliable (female) domestic help. Similarly, the contrast between clean and well-kept homes and civic squalor in Indian cities is a consequence of the "invisibility" to upper-caste eyes of those who experience the space outside the home in a radically different way. This is a matter of culture as well as of division of labour. The feminist slogan "the personal is political", in short, can attain a radicalism in this situation only if it is remembered that the person has a caste as well as a gender specificity.

This is the kind of work that should be included in women's studies courses. Women's studies centres in Indian universities are today embattled, with a right-wing central government seeking to exercise control over their curriculum and research. A book which raises many questions, avoids simple answers, and above all which tries to align academic enquiry with contemporary political developments, may well be helpful in injecting them with a new energy.

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