What is Dalit Feminism? Explained

In the previous post we learned about Feminism of Colour. An introduction to the Dalit feminist philosophy and perspective is provided in this post. The viewpoint has developed in response to the failure of both the Dalit struggle and the mainstream women's movement to address the issues that Dalit women face because of their unique situation where caste and gender cross. The programme examines the movement's history as well as the different disputes that have shaped the stance. At the end of this post the reader will know: 
  • What is Dalit feminism 
  • The development of Dalit feminism across time
  • The discussions taking on in the Dalit feminism academic community
  • Dalit feminism's contribution to feminist philosophy in general

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Dalit feminism: perspective and historical developments
  3. Dalit feminism: theoretical debates
  4. Summary

Introduction

This blog's objective is to teach students to the Dalit feminist philosophy and perspective. An explanation of the historical development leading to the establishment of Dalit Feminism as theory and practise will be included in the programme. The viewpoint has developed in response to the failure of both the Dalit struggle and the mainstream women's movement to address the issues that Dalit women face because of their unique situation where caste and gender cross. 

Dalit feminism: perspective and historical developments

In order to comprehend patriarchy and caste as intersecting social institutions, Dalit Feminism, a theoretical viewpoint, centres on the experiences of Dalit women.

Inherent features of Indian social reality include patriarchy, or an imbalance of power between men and women that causes systemic disadvantage and oppression of women, as well as caste-based discrimination and oppression. The mainstream Indian women's movement was criticised for not taking caste and gender into consideration, and this led to the emergence of the dalit feminist position. Two connected elements serve as the foundation for the criticism of the mainstream women's movement:
  1. The mainstream feminist theory bypassed the caste system altogether in its analysis even though patriarchy plays a vital role in the maintenance of the caste system. 
  2. An all-inclusive category called ‘women’ and analysis of oppression only around the axis of gender fails to recognise that women's experience is differentiated on the basis of caste.
Dalit feminism dispels the notion that all women are equal and equally exploited by providing a historical account of how the type and intensity of women's exploitation vary in relation to their social station. To confront the epistemic constraints of those functioning from a privileged position, the need for Dalit feminism as a unique viewpoint is articulated. It contends that exploitation is supported at the thinking and practise levels by information generated from places of authority, despite "best intentions." This indicates that emancipatory information is more likely to be produced in particular places. However, it is not believed that Dalit feminism is a closed, exclusive group that excludes women who are not Dalits from enhancing it.

The viewpoint is based on a historical analysis of how, depending on a woman's social position, the type and degree of her exploitation varies. According to Dalit feminism, as Dalit women are the most exploited, their experiences are crucial to comprehending injustice. This claim does not suggest that one becomes stuck in the experienced; rather, it moves toward developing emancipatory knowledge based on these experiences. In other words, emphasising the location of Dalit women goes beyond simply including accounts of their experiences to make the case that particular places are more likely to generate knowledge that will lead to emancipation because there are epistemological constraints on those who operate from a position of privilege. In her article titled "Dalit Women Talk Differently: A Critique of 'Difference' and Towards a Dalit Feminist Standpoint Position," SharmilaRege has sufficiently outlined this.

There is a rich historical tradition of Dalit women's writing and organising, even if autonomous groups of Dalit women only became apparent in the 1990s. The Satyashodhak movement, which Phule began in 1874, is an important forerunner of Dalit feminism. It is regarded as India's first anti-caste movement since it denounced and fought against the treatment of untouchable castes. This analysis was furthered by the writings of Satyashodhak movement-inspired authors like Tarabai Shinde and Mukta Salve. Many consider TarabaiShinde's critique of upper caste patriarchy, "StreePurushTulna" (A comparison between women and men), written in Marathi in 1882, to be the first contemporary Indian feminist essay. The two sub-castes of Dalits that are most oppressed, the Mahars and Mangs, were marginalised, according to Mukta Salve. Her essays, which were also published in Marathi, initiated a scathing and critical critique of the caste system in 1885. Her essay "Mang MaharachyaDukhavisayi (About the Grief of Mahars and Mangs)" emphasises how caste differentiation affects the nature of women's exploitation and subordination. In her story, she criticises both religious and governmental organisations, rejecting the "God" that upholds a system like caste and asking why the State upholds its violent and exploitative structures. Both authors' works have been included in an anthology named "Women's Writing in India: Volume 1: 600 BC to the Early Twentieth Century" in English translation.

More Dalits were politically involved in the Ambedkarite movement, which began about 1927, than in the Sayashodhak movement. On December 25, 1927, at Mahad, Ambedkar burned a copy of Manusmriti as a show of protest against the theological authority that the scripture offered to the subjugation of Dalits and women. In recent years, Dalit women's organisations have campaigned for December 25 to be observed as Indian Women's Liberation Day to commemorate this, as mentioned further in Topic 2. The caste-based discrimination in access to basic amenities like water and temple entrance was brought to light by the Ambedkarite movement. The "MahadChavdar Tale Satyagrah" on March 20, 1927, and the "Kalaram Mandir Satyagrah" on March 2, 1930, both took place in Nashik, and both marked the end of the discriminatory practises that prevented the untouchable population from accessing rural water tanks and temples. Ambedkar underlines patriarchal control over women's decisions and mentions endogamy as a way to sustain caste in his writings against caste-based oppression and exploitation. Women made significant contributions to the Ambedkarite movement. They participated in the Ambedkarite movement's political and organisational efforts.

In general, the Ambedkarite movement played a significant part in the political radicalization of women. The following are some noteworthy occurrences in this regard:
  • In his speech at the Mahad Satyagraha in 1927, Ambedkar elucidated the relationship between caste and women's subordination. 
  • The conferences of scheduled caste federation in the 1940s in which Dalit women's participation was significant. 
  • The organisation of Buddhist MahilaMandals in all Dalit dominated areas in Marashatra, in the 1950s 
  • Women’s participation in DhammaDiksha (Conversion to Buddhism), as a collective act of rejecting the Hindu caste system, on 14th October 1956.
It is believed that the Ambedkarite practise of holding women's conferences (MahilaParishads) concurrently with every general assembly contributed to the development of a group of female leaders who eventually launched the Mahila Mandal movement. Savitribai Borade and Ambubai Gaekwad are two Dalit women leaders who came to prominence as a result of these activities. They served on the executive board of "Janta" (The People), a publication that was founded in 1930 and was instrumental in raising political awareness of caste-based discrimination and caste patriarchy. A resolution to reserve seats for Dalit women in the then-provincial legal councils was passed by MahilaParishad in 1936. The resolution was viewed as a major action in in of itself because it represented a strengthening of political consciousness among the untouchable women, a fact that has been confirmed by a number of additional events.

The Dalit Mahila Federation was established in Nagpur in 1942, and it passed resolutions calling for hostels for Dalit females, the freedom to divorce, and a ban on bigamy. The need for independent organising by "untouchable" women was emphasised in 1945 during the 3rd All India Untouchable Women's Conference organised by the Federartion and held in Nagpur (underscoring that Dalit organisations were not addressing issues of Dalit women). Even in the period that followed Ambedkar's passing in 1956, known as the post-Ambedkarite phase, women played a significant role in movements for land rights headed by Dadasaheb Gaikwad and the Namantar agitations (which was initiated all over Maharashtra for naming the Marathwada University as Dr.BabasahebAmbedkarMarthwada University, a demand that was fulfilled in 1994). Gayanparitesor groups, which sung songs about Ambedkar and his anti-caste teachings that had an impact on the anticaste movement, included women as active members.

As discussed by Tharu and Niranjana in their essay, "Problems for a contemporary theory of gender," while the resurgence of discussions surrounding caste and gender issues in the 1990s can be linked to developments brought on by the Mandal commission report's implementation and the violence that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Dalit women's political consciousness and activism have a longer history. The emergence of numerous independent Dalit women's organisations starting in the early 1990s gave rise to the political and intellectual movement known as Dalit feminism. Intense discussions about caste, gender, and their interrelationships were sparked by this. Through these discussions, Dalit feminism became recognised as an unique theory and practise within the field of feminist studies and the Indian women's movement.

Dalit feminism: theoretical debates

The link between Dalit and feminist politics is a topic of current debate within Dalit feminism. The National Federation of Dalit Women and the All India Dalit Women's Forum were established in 1995, two key developments among many others. In 1994, the MahujanMahaSangh and the Bhartiya Republican Party (RPI) organised a BahujanMahilaParishad in Maharashtra as a symbol of their organisations' stronger support for women. The "VikasVanchit Dalit MahilaParishad" (Marginalized Dalit Women's Conference) was held at Chandrapur in December 1996. The proposal was made by Dr. PrameelaLeelaSampat, president of the Parishad, to observe December 25 as "BharatiyaStreeMukti Din" (Indian Women's Liberation Day), the day Ambedkar burnt a copy of Manusmriti.

According to the proposal for BhartiyaStreeMukti Divas, December 25th has greater significance for Indian women than March 8th, which is observed as International Women's Day.

This idea was contested and discussed by a range of academics, mainstream feminists, Dalit feminists, and activists from various Dalit political parties. This discussion was furthered in a special issue of The Indian Association of Women's Studies that was released in celebration of "BharatiyaStreeMukti Divas" in December 2003. The argument for having another "day" when March 8th is already observed as International Women's Day was the topic of discussion.

It was noted that switching the date of Indian Women's Liberation Day from 8 March to 25 December could cause friction given the significance that 8 March has for women's movements around the world. The proposal's supporters emphasise the importance of the day for Dalit women and contend that designating December 25 as Indian Women's Liberation Day is a significant political statement. This is especially true given that Dalit women's struggles were marginalised by mainstream Indian feminism because it ignored the caste issue. In this argument, the issue of the relationship between caste and gender took centre stage. But just as the homogenization of women's experiences is disputed, so too is the homogenization of Dalit women. The idea, according to organisations that defend Dalit Christian women, failed to take into account the interests of religious minorities, in this case, the Christian minority, for whom December 25th is a significant religious and cultural day and is observed as Christmas Day. The discussion that follows emphasises how caste, gender, and religious concerns are interrelated and complex.

The 1998 release of Gopal Guru's essay "Dalit women communicate differently" served as another key impetus for discussions on the interaction between feminist politics and Dalit politics. In the essay, Gopal Guru makes the case that the caste blindness of traditional feminist politics and the gender blindness of Dalit politics have resulted in the marginalisation of Dalit women's concerns, who are victims of exploitation because of both their caste and gender status. This particular situation of Dalit women has made it necessary for "their" voice, which is "distinct" from mainstream feminists' and Dalit political voices that claim to represent all Dalits, including Dalit women, to have an intellectual and political platform. In other words, Dalit women argue that we need to discourse "differently" because Dalit women are underrepresented in theory and politics.

Dalit feminism is thus a response on one hand to the non-Dalit feminist groups that homogenise the issues of Dalit women under the category “women” and on the other to the patriarchal domination within Dalit groups. In regard to the latter point, Guru argues that the dissenting voices of Dalit women, as expressed through separate organizing highlights three points: 
  1. it is not only caste and class identity but also one’s gender positioning that decides the validity of an event; 
  2. Dalit men reproduce the same mechanisms against their women which their high-caste adversaries have used to dominate them and; 
  3. the experience of Dalit women shows that local resistance within Dalit groups is important for annihilating casre patriarchy
Gopal Guru's expression of Dalit feminist viewpoints sparked a conversation among several feminist organisations about the necessity for Dalit women to acknowledge their differences from both feminist and Dalit groups.

SharmilaRege's writing significantly increased the discussion. She agrees that it is crucial to identify the inequalities that result from factors like caste, class, race, etc. In terms of Dalit women's particular location and the epistemic privilege that comes with it, she concurs with Guru. She does, however, object to the categorization brought about by this "difference". According to Rege, the political and analytical relevance of the concentration and anchoring of difference is little. By citing the growth of Black and Third World feminist organising in the 1980s and 1990s, she illustrates this limitation: These distinctions also arose as a result of white middle class feminists' ignorance of the problems faced by Black and Third World women. However, Rege contends that categorising people based on differences is resulting in a division of labour where different groups are given separate "historical responsibilities," such as making black women the only ones responsible for fighting racism. Her claim that Dalit feminism is a category of difference implies that Dalit women are the only ones who can challenge caste.

Rege notes that researchers' perception of the new Dalit women's independent assertion as a separate voice is a result of the silence around the contributions and interventions of women in non-Brahman movements. As a result, they viewed the creation of independent Dalit women's organisations as "yet another stand point" within this context of diversity and many stands. Rege opposes this kind of formulation, as is clear from her reasoning. She urges a change from simply naming differences and multiple voices to understanding differences in the context of social connections and creating an inclusive stance. She is therefore arguing against adding "one more stand point" in favour of a conceptual viewpoint based on her experiences. The concept of various stand points based on "different" implies the delineation of distinct epistemic areas, which is directly attacked by this formulation. In other words, the Dalit feminist perspective she develops adopts an objective epistemological position that is "available" to non-Dalit feminists as well, even though it is based on the subjective experience of Dalit women and acknowledges the epistemic privilege that Dalit women enjoy as a result of their unique position in the sociopolitical structure. It is constructive in this sense because it is cultivable and independent of birth. According to Rege, the Dalit feminist perspective, when conceptualised outside of the confines of difference, proves to be emancipatory and asks for a radical change in epistemology. Therefore, despite the fact that she refers to it as a "Dalit feminist stand point," she does not give it an essentialist or homogenous nature.
In the conclusionary paragraph of her essay she emphasises:
The dalit feminist standpoint which emerges from the practices and struggles of dalit woman, we recognise, may originate in the works of dalit feminist intellectuals but it cannot flourish if isolated from the experiences and ideas of other groups who must educate themselves about the histories, the preferred social relations and Utopias and the struggles of the marginalised
Other noteworthy comments made by feminist academics and activists in response to Guru's essay come from Kiran Moghe, Vidyut Bhagwat, and Pratima Paradeshi. Moghe is opposed to any form of independent assertion, including that of Dalit women's organisations as well as the establishment of autonomous organisations distinct from left-leaning women's organisations. She claims that Dalit women's organisations "face a threat of being autonomous from the masses" if they do not maintain the umbilical tie with the RPI, a Dalit political party," arguing that autonomy might be restrictive. Vidyut Bhagwat, disagreeing with Moghe, argues that autonomous assertion from the marginalised, such as that displayed by Dalit women's organisations, cannot be characterised as identitarian as Moghe suggests because doing so would mean ignoring the history of struggle by groups to identify themselves and their politics. In her essay "Dalit women communicate differently: a critique of "difference" and towards a Dalit feminist perspective position," Rege makes reference to these discussions.

The Dalit feminist approach is an effort to generate knowledge and practises that meet the concerns and realities emerging out of their caste and gender location, as is seen from these arguments. The goal is to construct a conceptual stance that supports a libratory politics rather than to legitimise a limited identitarian politics. 

Summary

The 1990s saw the emergence of the Dalit feminist perspective as a distinct viewpoint that was made visible by Dalit women's independent organising and theorising. It is essentially a perspective to address how Dalit women are marginalised by both Dalit organising, which downplays the connection between caste and patriarchy, and mainstream feminism, which completely ignores the Caste system in its analysis. Dalit women's issues and experiences were thus excluded from both forums. Although Dalit feminism rose to prominence in feminist theory and the women's movement in the 1990s, Dalit women's writing about and involvement in movements against oppression and discrimination have a considerably longer history, as discussed in Topic I of this module. The current discussions in academic and activist circles elucidate the Dalit feminist viewpoint. They explain how social location and knowledge generation are related. In other words, the Dalit feminist perspective contends that Dalit women's experiences, because of their particular location of marginalisation, provide them an epistemic advantage or a perspective on oppression that can inform feminist theory and enhance its liberatory potential.

Reference

  1. Chakravarti, U. (1993). Conceptualising Brahmanical patriarchy in early India: Gender, caste, class and state. Economic and Political Weekly, 579-585. 
  2. Guru, G. (1995). Dalit women talk differently. Economic and Political Weekly, 2548-2550. 
  3. IAWS (2003). BhartiyaStreeMukti Din Special Issue. Available at: http://iaws.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/NLB035-2003.pdf 
  4. Moon, M., &Pawar, U. (2008). We also made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement (translated by WandanaSonalkar)(New Delhi: Zubaan). 
  5. Rege, S. (2004). Dalit women talk differently: a critique of ‘difference’and towards a Dalit feminist standpoint position. Feminism in India, 211-25.

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