Unveiling marginalised Indian womanism: Review of ‘Dalit Feminist Theory’ 

The book challenges traditional academic perspectives on feminism with a focus on the lived realities of Dalit women in India.

Published : Apr 24, 2023 19:02 IST - 15 MINS READ

A woman drinks water on a very hot day, during a Dalits’ dharna demanding regularisation of land on which their huts are built, on the occasion of Babu Jagjivan Ram’s 99th birth anniversary in Hyderabad in April 2006.

A woman drinks water on a very hot day, during a Dalits’ dharna demanding regularisation of land on which their huts are built, on the occasion of Babu Jagjivan Ram’s 99th birth anniversary in Hyderabad in April 2006. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Congratulations are due to editors Sunaina Arya and Aakash Singh Rathore on the publication of their book, dedicated to all Dalit women, including Bhanwari Devi, Delta Meghwal, Disha, and Payal Tadvi, the last three being women who lost their lives due to the casteist system.

Dalit Feminist Theory: A Reader
Edited by Sunaina Arya and Aakash Singh Rathore
Routledge India
Pages: 246
Price: Rs. 895

As a self-taught academic, reviewing a book on theory was daunting for me, as I do not have the years of engagement with ideas that regular academics do. My own engagement is intermittent, with more time spent working on the ground, thinking, and talking with subjects in the field.

As I began writing this essay, the image of Pushpa came to mind. Pushpa is a mother of four, married to a drinking, philandering construction worker. She is not literate and migrated from her native state to another State capital. Pushpa has worked all her life as a domestic worker. Her two older daughters completed school—the eldest is a divorcee and a single mother of one, working as a receptionist, trying to rebuild her life. The second daughter is a mother of two toddlers, married to an auto driver who was injured in a road accident and works only infrequently, so she does domestic work to support the family, just like her mother. Pushpa’s third child is a boy who has completed high school but is reluctant to work due to the trauma of being dragged off by the police when some relatives tried to grab the house left to them by their grandmother. The fourth child is a daughter in the first year of college, who works part-time in an office. Her salary is used to repay some of the debts the family incurred during the lockdown.

I sought, like Diogenes, to connect the lived realities of Pushpa and her family with the contents of this reader. I felt the need to hold up a mirror to our scholars and challenge them to be relevant to the lived realities of the people whose lives they theorise about and on which they build their academic careers. However, in vain did I seek in the book the voices of women who still do the caste-ordained work of manual scavenging or forced institutional prostitution, the women who declared “we also made history”, or the women who sing their dreams in essays. Women who work in the unorganised sector and organise and mobilise for justice, the people’s bards who sing the lives of Phoolan and Jhalkari.

Redefining perspectives on Dalit women’s lives and experiences

In fact, the book brings together the voices and work (mostly) of women in the academic field, some of whom are Dalit. The term “Dalit Feminism” is attributed to Dr. Sharmile Rege, a respected scholar and an ally of Dalit women. The term caught on, and many Dalit women, especially from Maharashtra, use the term comfortably as it was coined by a respected mentor. But the first time I heard it in the late 1990s, I experienced an inexplicable gut-level rejection which took me several weeks, if not months, to decipher: I slowly realised that all I had known hitherto about feminism and the women’s movement in India - I was part of the country-wide mobilisation for the 4th UN World Conference on Women in Beijing 1995 and had worked in NGOs for 15 years by then - and all I knew about Dalit women and their lives told me that the term was an oxymoron. According to my subconscious understanding, the concepts “Dalit” and “Feminism” are mutually exclusive.

And then began my years-long search for a term that would more accurately depict the perspective and encapsulate the reality of Dalit women’s lives and experiences. It culminated in my discovery of the term “Womanist” coined by Black women who were part of the leadership in the Civil Rights movement in the US, as a response to the exclusion of women’s experience from the formulation of Black Theology—a liberative theology pioneered by the male leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the US. The women leaders in the movement, though theologians themselves and leaders, found themselves marginalised, their lives and experiences not sufficiently included in the narratives of the Civil Rights Movement. Their term to encapsulate their experiences was “Womanist Theology”. This was later modified by Alice Walker in 1978 into Womanism; she first used it in a story and later in a wider context to the lives of all Black women.

As I explored this idea, I chanced upon the term “Mujerista”, coined by Maria Isasi Dias, a Latin American scholar and organiser. She found the term “Feminista” was not suitable for the experiences of working-class women: the term “Mujer” (pronounced as Mu-her) in Spanish meant Women. She applied it to her own category of working-class Latina. Being a theologian, she also theorised “Mujerista Theology” in which the lives of the women were defined by a sense of engagement, community, care, and oneness.

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I applied this to the Indian context, and the term “Dalit Womanism” was born. The first article on this was published on the website of the Women’s Studies department of the United Theological College in 2006, as the DAWNS statement, an outcome of a two-day symposium held there under the aegis of the Women’s Studies department. However, I soon realised that the term lacked the inclusionary ethos that Womanism embodied. Hence, for a while, I used “Subaltern Indian Womanism,” but being aware of the contested and possibly pejorative understanding of the term “Subaltern”, I now use the term “Marginalised Indian Womanism,” since we are focused on the aspect of marginalisation in Indian society. An updated version of the DAWNS statement is found at medium.com.

Exploring the differences

It is noteworthy that this discourse and theorising, which is several decades old and by one of our own, does not appear in this book, which aims to bring together a collection of essays, excerpts, and discussions on Dalit Feminism, with some success. The word “Womanist” does not appear even once in the book, nor are the histories, concerns, or voices of black and Latina working-class sisters’ struggles part of this discussion.

Therefore, it is necessary to distinguish between the two terms, with the most significant difference being perspective between “Feminism” and “Womanism.” While the former focuses more on the individual, the latter views the individual as part of a collective that includes not only other women but also the family and the larger community. There is a hint of this perspective in the book as well. In her discussion of the relationship between Ramabai and Ambedkar, Sharmila Rege notes: “In the musical compositions of the life of Ambedkar and Ramabai, companionship transcends the realm of the private. It suggests that the community, the household, and the political realm are inseparable.” Rege documents the life histories of the Ambedkar household, where the simple, unlettered Ramaai rebels against literacy but later sells her gold bangles to facilitate the Rajagriha library. She goes from supporting the Mahad tank agitation by working in the community kitchen to becoming Ramaai, the mother figure of the political community. Rege believes that the Ambedkar household provides dynamic models to make and remake public and private selves.

Thus, the composite and inclusive nature of human relationships typified by the communitarian focus of womanism contrasts with the somewhat exclusionary and often adversarial relationships more commonly seen in feminist discourses.

Another important theme discussed in the book is Intersectionality. An essay by Kimberley Crenshaw, a professor of law who pioneered the application of Intersectionality in the fight for the legal rights of a black woman employed in an automotive plant, is included here.

In their introduction, the editors critique Nivedita Menon’s rejection of the idea of intersectionality on the grounds that it is not applicable to the “non-West,” as it is based on “Western experience.” In response, Mary E John states that intersectionality demands engagement, and the idea of multiple identities is an advance over the term “multiple burden,” and thus a realistic approach to the situation of women in general and Dalit women in particular. Furthermore, as Meena Gopal points out, Menon’s claim that mainstream Indian feminists argue that “single-axis thinking” is absent in their study and therefore redundant in the Indian context is a simplification that “dehistoricises the trajectory of the women’s movement and the socio-political discourses that shaped it and continue to do so.”

However, this reviewer contends that a language to describe the multilayered forms of exclusions and deprivation faced by Dalits in general and Dalit women in particular has yet to be found. How does one fully articulate what women like Pushpa and now her daughters are undergoing, will undergo, and will achieve in the future?

Exploring Dalit Feminism, intersectionality, and the Devadasi system

Interestingly, the introduction identifies Meena Gopal and Mary E John as Dalit feminist thinkers, in contrast to Nivedita Menon, who is seen as representative of mainstream feminists. This raises the issue of whether the voice and space of Dalit women are being appropriated by non-Dalit women, further contributing to the silencing and invisibilising of younger Dalit women and institutional academics who engage in theoretical work. More on this issue below.

While acknowledging that intersectionality is an improvement on the earlier term “multiple burdens”, we find it still inadequate in reflecting the material and non-material realities of Dalit women’s lives. We provisionally accept it as we continue to seek a more effective language to depict our lived conditions. This is because it is a way to understand the systems that operate upon Dalit women’s lives, rather than the lives themselves. What language will adequately encapsulate the life, for instance, of a young, talented, rural, abandoned Dalit mother of a toddler, who is also pregnant with her second child? What theory can explain the multilayered challenges imposed upon this woman? Lest it be said that this is a stereotype, in the last 25 years, this reviewer has observed that women like Pushpa and her daughters are not stereotypes, but rather typify the harsh reality experienced by many across the country. What resources exist to help them rise above these circumstances? How does Dalit feminism empower them, the subjects of this theorising, to change their lives? The famous Marxist comment, “Philosophers have attempted to understand the world. The point, however, is to change it,” applies here more than ever.

Even as academics continue to debate these issues in papers, seminars, and webinars, Dalit women have refused to be silenced by their lack of social capital or even the basic necessities of life. Taking on the responsibility for their own lives and the lives of their children, they have worked in menial and underpaid jobs, struggled to provide education for their children, battled illness, poor living conditions, and social stigma, all while striving to realise their dreams for the future. They are both the foundation and the superstructure of their community.

A vexing and related question in Indian feminism is the issue of the sexual labor extracted from Dalit women in the form of ritualised, religiously sanctioned, and socially “accepted” Devadasi system. In many ways, this is the central debate in Indian feminism, which pits the sexual autonomy of women against the moralistic and puritanical idea of female purity, while also facilitating the abuse of Dalit women’s bodies. The contention is that the social stigma attached to women in prostitution/sex work is an outcome of this puritanical attitude. However, how does it address the serious charge by Dalit and Bahujan women against mainstream Indian feminism that it facilitates the sexual exploitation of Dalit women by higher caste/class men?

Realities of women in sex work and manual scavenging

The book briefly references this issue in an essay by Menon, who discusses the Autonomous Women’s Conference in Kolkata in 2006 where the issue of “elite” and “subaltern” was debated and critiqued by Mary John as a “misrepresentation.” Menon argues, partly rightly, that there are elites and subalterns on both sides of the question of women in sex work. However, the real struggle for women in sex work must be understood in the context of their own origins. The vast majority of women enter sex work at a young age, many against their will as they are trafficked, with limited access to education or job opportunities. They often come from areas and communities with little access to remunerative labor or land ownership. Thus, circumstances often force them to “choose” sex work as a means of survival.

I was present at the Kolkata discussion and vividly recall the bewildered reaction of women in sex work when Dalit and Bahujan women asked them, “If it is such a good option, why don’t you see the women/donors who support you making the same choice or encouraging their daughters to take up sex work? Their children go to school and college, take up good jobs, while your children may follow you into this work. What do you say to this?”

Even more troubling is the fact that women in manual scavenging and sanitation work are not mentioned at all in this book, which is another clear indication of the disconnect between the subjects of the book and its writers/editors.

In an essay on Phule-Ambedkarite Feminism, Shailaja Paik points out, “Dalit Politics emerged out of negotiating the historically contingent and contrary experiences that required Dalit subjects not to imagine the succession of their past but to recognise unprecedented changes in their present and to build their future...[they] subverted their disadvantages through movements for self-respect and political empowerment as well as engendering cultural transformation.”

Unpacking Brahminical patriarchy

The other theme in the book is Brahminical Patriarchy, which is discussed in an essay by Prof. Y.S. Alone. He writes about how “middle and upper-class women want to overcome their problems with patriarchy but hesitate to see how patriarchy is legitimised through religious practices.” He questions how artists and feminists can navigate such entanglements. Prof. Alone also discusses the attempt by artist Savi Sawarkar to depict the lives of Devadasi women through a series of powerful figurative paintings, one of which is featured on the cover of the compendium. The artist had gained insight into their lives by living amongst them in disguise.

A notable example of this “entanglement” can be seen in the disconnect between the name and logo of the feminist publisher “Kali for Women.” The logo depicts not the fierce Kali, with dark skin, open hair, and a bloody, extruded tongue, but rather goddess Durga, who is fair, calm, beautiful, and popular.

Sharmila Rege’s essay, titled “Debating Dalit Difference,” sets the agenda by quoting Partha Chatterjee to illustrate how the nationalists refused to address women’s issues as part of political negotiations with the colonial state. As a result, subsequent efforts by Dalit and working-class groups to address women’s concerns were precluded, despite the peak of women’s participation in the Ambedkarite movement at that time. Chatterjee’s framework dismissed these movements as “Western-inspired Orientalism.”

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Rege praises Mahatma Jotirao Phule for contesting Brahminism and recognising the material and other consequences of enforced widowhood. Phule conceptualised and actualised a liberatory envisioning of history. In the Ambedkarite movement, Dalit women organised independent conferences encouraged by Ambedkar, passing resolutions against child marriage, enforced widowhood, and dowry, critiquing them as Brahminical practices. Many women supported Dharmantar (Conversion) as a means to adopt a religion that would grant them equal status.

The Dalit Panther movement and other autonomous groups, mostly led by the Left, often portrayed Dalit women as ‘mothers’ and ‘victimised sexual beings.’ While the former saw Brahminism as caste, the latter saw caste as class. All women were viewed as victims, and Dalit women’s issues were subsumed under the ‘larger’ women’s question, assuming that all Dalits were males and women were ‘savarna,’ or upper-caste. This universalising approach tended to privilege the experiences of middle-class upper-caste women and Dalit males.

Navigating marginalisation and knowledge claims

Rege also notes that the feminist discourse on violence has largely ignored caste, resulting in the marginalisation of Muslim and Christian women’s concerns to questions of Talaq and Divorce. However, surveys indicate that Muslim women identify education and occupation as their most pressing concerns, which resonates with the current controversy surrounding the Hijab in educational institutions.

Rege comments on Gopal Guru’s argument that the perception of reality and representation of Dalit group issues by non-Dalits may be less authentic due to differences in social location. She cautions against basing knowledge claims solely on direct experience, as it may lead to narrow identity politics and limit the emancipation potential of Dalit women’s organisations and their epistemological standpoints. However, she later cites feminist standpoint theory, which argues that failure to critically interrogate their advantaged situation leaves dominant groups in a disadvantaged position for generating knowledge. Such accounts may unintentionally legitimise exploitative politics.

Rege further states that Dalit feminist standpoint may originate in the works of Dalit feminist intellectuals but cannot flourish in isolation from the experiences and ideas of other marginalised groups. She argues that non-Dalit feminists can reinvent themselves as Dalit feminists without claiming to speak for Dalit women. This avoids the narrow alley of direct experience-based authenticity and identity politics and instead promotes the transformation of individual feminists into oppositional and collective subjects.

Thus, the lives of the chief protagonists in the Dalit movement, as reflected in the book, such as Ambedkar, Ramabai, and the women within the Ambedkarite movements, come across as more grounded, and their experiences more authentic than those of Dalit scholars and theorists whose notes appear in the book. Even though Paik, Sonalkar, Smita M Patil, and the co-editor write from their Dalit origins, they seem to be somewhat removed from the locality of their predecessors in the Dalit Women’s movement, and more aligned with established feminist thinkers whose thoughts seem to dominate throughout the book. However, this is bound to change as the first generation of young Dalit Women academics gain experience in publishing. May their numbers increase!

Cynthia Stephen is an independent journalist and a gender and social policy analyst who focusses on marginalised groups. She is also the founder director of TEDS Trust, which works with women in distress.

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