Sunday, March 23, 2008

Women and Caste

All liberation movements and manifestos start with a call for unity. Revolutions always require the “oppressed” and the “oppressors” to happen. Binaries are always so dramatic. But what happens to the multiplicities which can’t be simplified so easily? Where do all these subtle shades emerge within the same color? The emergence of the Dalit women’s voice is significant for mainly two reasons: first, it marks the emergence of a new subject, and second, it shows the inadequacy of the concept of generalization. While the Dalit Panthers Manifesto classifies “women” as Dalits, there are vast differences between Dalit women and their upper caste counterparts. Popular misconceptions and ignorance still color the ideas that propel the feminist movement in India.

The Ancient of Days

With the coming of the Aryans, the Dravidians were displaced. Manu declared the role, status, duties, and powers of the four Castes. The objective was obviously to consolidate the position of the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas, and to ensure the subjugation of the lower castes and the untouchables (who were largely the defeated and enslaved Dravidian people). Thus were devised philosophies and laws which crushed all chances of resistance. Divine sanction behind the Caste system made any revolution impossible. The woman became an important instrument in maintaining it. As Uma Chakravarti says in her essay Conceptualizing Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India, control over women’s sexuality became crucial in this aspect. Women from upper caste were forbidden to marry or bear the children for the men of lower castes; so as to prevent caste-mobility; on the pretext of maintaining “purity”. Lower caste women were to serve as slaves and Devadasis, and children born to them were to be considered as lowly. Mixing of castes was the worst crime; the matrimonial columns today still bear the testimony of this command. Hereditary occupations thus became obligatory, and thus the Dalits were stuck with illiteracy, poverty and denial of dignity forever.

The Step Sisters: the Caste-Class-Gender Axis in Modern India

The case of the Dalit women is a complex one. Gender equations can’t be simplified solely on the basis of economic factors. For the upper caste women, empowerment ends with the dream of working and earning. However, “going out and earning” has not altered the gender equations within the Dalit community. There, women have no control over their income. Alcoholism and domestic violence very common. But the kind of domestic violence that a Dalit woman faces is very different from that which happens in an upper caste household. The Dalit woman is at the lowest rank in the hierarchy of caste, class and gender: not only does she face caste discrimination, but she also bears the brunt of anger and frustration from men in her community. There are no complaints, because it’s taken for granted that all Dalit women are beaten up and nothing can be done about it.

The workplace is not a promising arena either. Dalit women are always employed in menial jobs. Uneducated and powerless, they are employed for tasks like scavenging, cleaning toilets, carrying bricks, etc. at a lower wage than men. They become easy targets for abduction, rape and molestation by men of both upper and lower castes. Modernization has only opened up new avenues of exploitation for Dalit women. In a study, Joopaka Subhadra observes, the majority of prostitutes and bar dancers in the metropolitan cities come from the Dalit communities. The Devadasi and Yogin customs continue even today in many parts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Of the few who are emancipated, even fewer are rehabilitated, and the rest become prostitutes.

Damsels in Distress

As per the 1981 census, the male-female ratio was particularly low in states like Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, etc with an average of 0.89. The southern states fared better with an average of 0.97. The ratio is lower among the Hindu scheduled castes and Dalits than the Muslims. The phenomenon has been attributed to the practices of female infanticide. Anthropological data confirms that the rites are performed as soon as the child is born, yet records indicate that more female children died (as compared to male children) beyond the age group of female infanticide ;i.e.; between one to 5 years. Moreover, female-male ratio is lower in the 30+ age group. As Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen concludes; this leads to the conclusion that apart from the custom of infanticide, female children die due to neglect and lack of medical attention. Participation of girls in labor-force can be viewed as an additional possible reason. Women also remain deprived of nutrition and related health improvements. This clearly indicates that distribution of resources is in favor of men.

Society and thought

In the field of Education and the Job sector, Dalit presence is almost negligible. Dalit women are even rarer. The few Dalit women who are educated hardly have any influence to facilitate major changes or gender mobilization. The women who belong to affluent Dalit families face a slightly different problem. These families, having improved economically, want social prestige. For that, it is necessary to adopt the upper caste (class) lifestyle. Thus, the fierce patriarchal norms and practices of the upper caste households are fast spreading among the middle class Dalits. This trend is especially dominant in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Thus, like “respectable” upper caste people, Dalit women are now expected to manage the household and remain indoors.

Dalit women enjoy little social prestige and political representation. Hierarchies operate even within Dalit communities, so often, reservation and other facilities are monopolized by the dominant caste. According to many educated Dalit leaders, women should be allowed 50% reservation instead of 33% in the Parliament, and within that, all communities should enjoy proportional representation. Yet, the danger of silence remains: Prof. Yesudasan points out that even with reservation, the voice of the upper caste women are more likely to overshadow that of the Dalits.

The voice of the Dalit woman is a faint cry. Unlike Brahmanical feminism, Dalit feminism is a more complex entity, and cannot be solved by aping the strategies of Women’s liberalization movements of the West. The problems faced by Dalit women are more difficult to address, because they form a minority within a minority; and are stratified within themselves. Given its recent emergence, the Dalit feminist movement has a long way to go. Attempts are made to raise awareness and spread literacy, and several political organizations are being formed to forward their cause and urge for their development. Individuals have emerged, but for the entire community it’s still a distant target to achieve.

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