The Position of Dalit Women in Indian Society
The caste system is an ancient societal classification of people based on their varna (caste order or class) or jati (birth). An apartheid-like system, India’s caste order is the archetype of the closed system of social mobility and a structure rigged towards oppression regardless. This orthodox classification once determined a person’s occupation, marriage practices, and the privileges one enjoyed.
In the varna system, extensively discussed in the Dharma Shastras, Dalits were positioned beneath the caste order itself, in a group that was casteless, ‘untouchable’ and alienated. Women who belonged to the four primary Hindu castes (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras) are called Savarnas (notice that it is spelled with an uppercase ‘S’ always to indicate superiority) while Dalits and scheduled tribes who did not belong to any caste are called avarnas. The word ‘Dalit’ literally means ‘broken’ or ‘scattered’ in Sanskrit. In the 1930s, the word meant ‘depressed class’ in Marathi and Hindi.
The caste system was not always as oppressive as it has been after a few culturally sanctioned laws like from scriptures like the Manusmriti, Vishnu Smriti, and the Atharva Vedas post-2500 B.C.
Indian jurist, economist, politician, and social reformer, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in his article titled “The Rise and Fall of The Hindu Woman,” pointed out that the root cause of suffering in India was on account of religious scriptures that sanctioned this oppression. For instance, women at large had no right to education, independence, and wealth. This threw Dalit women unarmed and vulnerable against a rigorous patriarchal system. The Manusmriti regards the killing of Dalit women lightly, their lives were a perpetual cycle of humiliation and abuse. And like Dalit woman activist Moni Rani Das, puts it “If you are not considered human, human rights do not apply to you.”
In the case of Payal Tadvi, discrimination was very subtle and sophisticated. As a student of medicine, she reported that the professors would not assign her cases to practice her profession, she was not allowed inside the operation theatre and was given a lot of menial jobs to do until the day she decided she had had enough. It was Tuesday the 28th of May last year when she took her life. The incident has whipped up considerable debate and the suicide has been regarded as a ‘State-sponsored crime.’ Institutional casteism begins as soon as the student steps into the school or college through a reservation method.
Dalit girls in schools are made to sweep and clean classrooms and corridors and in some anonymous reports, even clean septic tanks. According to the National Commission for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes 2000, about 75% of Dalit girls drop out of primary school despite laws that hold ‘progressive reservations’ for Dalit children. Their academic aptitude is usually despised and one of the reasons for their early drop out is an escape from bullying, humiliation, and isolation by classmates, society, teachers, and management. Low literacy is also on account of the lack of educational resources, privatization of schools and colleges, severe poverty, and the demand for an increased dowry for educated girls.
More explicit violence has also been the order of the day. Violence is used as a powerful political tool for oppression and the assertion of power. Ruth Manorama, an active member of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights and the National Alliance of Women, once stated that in a male-dominated society, “Dalit women face a triple burden of caste, class, and gender.”
Bindu, a 27-year-old Dalit girl from small-town India had refused to take an offer from the son of the town leader. It was 50 rupees (less than $ 1) in return for sex. Her house was set on fire and the family’s belongings were thrown down the local river. Another 19-year-old named Chanchal was asleep when four men from a dominant caste attacked her and poured acid on her face. Her crime: she was trying to pursue an education. Her face remains severely marred and she reported, “neither the police nor the government seems serious in pushing my case.”
A large number of crimes against Dalit women in modern India go unreported because they are not ‘important enough’. “[Dalits] are often victims of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights violations, including sexual abuse and violence. They are often displaced; pushed into forced and/or bonded labour, prostitution, and trafficking,” wrote Rashida Manjoo, a UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. When some of them have dared to protest, they are further isolated and threatened of rape, or arson or an acid attack. The women succumb to defending their fragile honour.
Anti-slavery International reports that about 80% of bonded labourers in India are from untouchable or indigenous backgrounds. And the Global Slavery Index shows that India alone accounts for half of the world’s modern slaves today. The index further cites caste and tribe systems as primary factors that influence the prevalence of modern slavery, zeroing in on Dalit women and children as most vulnerable here.
The bigotry in the minds of the dominant caste is both ignorant and deliberate. They assume they can do whatever they please. They feel licensed to go to Dalit houses, rooms, or beds without the fear of law enforcement or a criminal justice system. When the girls or their families consider complaining to the authorities, they get humiliated to the point of despair; just to be ‘taught a lesson.’ In most cases, Dalit girls feel profoundly isolated as sexual assault survivors. Blaming victims of sexual violence for their own assault is part of a deeply entrenched pattern in our society. “Why didn’t you scream or fight back?” or worse, “You seem to have enjoyed it in silence,” are things they hear when they find the courage to come out.
Just as Nigerian writer, Ijeoma Umebinyou puts it: “You see in a culture like ours, we were never taught the importance of healing. We were only taught to survive. Not heal, but bury and survive.”
In India as well, the problem breeds more problems, and violence against avarnas is incestuous.
How do we fix this?
“They threaten us with rape, jail, even murder. Still, we refuse to be silenced. We found the courage to fight for our rights – surely the world must find the courage to support us,” Dalit woman human rights defender.
Women who apparently escape and find themselves a career and future abroad seem to be better off. In the opening chapter of her book Ants Among Elephants, Dalit writer Gidla writes that years ago at a bar in Atlanta, she told a guy she was an untouchable and he said, “Oh, but you’re so touchable.” It is “a very innocent and strange thing to encounter,” she later says in an interview, “But come to India and the encounters plus questions posed to the English-speaking Dalit woman get weirder.” At home, Dalit women rarely have the latitude to prove merit or exercise creativity and independent judgment. In the case of Gilda at the Jaipur Literature Festival, which is a space of intellectual synergy, she says, “They didn’t give a shit about me even though I wrote a great book.”
Fixing systemic problems like bigotry and violence that are deeply imbued in courts of justice, education systems, healthcare, and other public spaces cannot be accomplished through a single revolution, however organized it is. Professor Vimal Thorat, the Convenor of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights said, “In our experience of monitoring violence against Dalit women, the ineffectiveness of criminal justice system compounded by wilful negligence by the police to investigate the cases within the prescribed legal framework is evident.”
Identity politics: The good, the bad, and the struggling
Changing the broken casteist and patriarchal system cannot happen merely by the way we talk about women and sex. It doesn’t just start with sexist or casteist beliefs at home. The struggle is larger than personal tragedies, it is a political validation of trauma and oppression. Dalit women have been actively involved in anti-caste and anti-untouchability movements since the 1920s. The self-respect movement, taking from Periyar’s principles has been effective but unable to put an end to the structural exclusion.
Identity politics in this case scenario has helped Dalits re-forge their identity, fight for rights, bring positive changes like taking legal action against caste-based atrocities, political and economic empowerment of Dalit women. While it holds on to the title of being avarna or Dalit, it does so with a subaltern narrative and leverages facts against a system that is steeped with patriarchal and casteist beliefs. The National Federation for Dalit Women was launched by Dalit women and is committed to making a progressive change in a so-called ‘post-caste era.’ But what lies at stake is their livelihood and survival on a daily basis, therefore, making it impossible for them to organise themselves formally.