Considering women as category “internal” to a community is not based on Ambedkarite politics but the framework of a Brahminical family model.

Stylised image of Sowjanya Tamalapakula an Assistant Professor at the School of Gender Studies Tata Institute of Social Sciences HyderabadPhoto by arrangement. Image editing: Jaseem Ali
Voices Opinion Monday, December 07, 2020 - 17:46

I am both an interloper and an outsider in two political groups – namely, feminist organisations and the Dalit movement. I repudiate certain aspects of both the groups but keep receding and relying on both. Some of my works critique the feminist movement for not addressing the caste question. I have questioned on various occasions the very image of a ‘feminist’ being a Brahmin/dominant-caste woman. I have also been critical about the Dalit movement for not addressing gender issues. Whenever I need to support my ideologies or activism on queer, gender and sexuality issues, I invariably rely on the support from feminist and queer friends. However, most of them do not believe caste unleashes rape and sexual violence against women or plays a role in queer intimacy. (Ponniah, Tamalapakula, 2020)

In Hyderabad, many feminist organisations work closely with Dalit organisations as well as Dalit academics and scholars. Similarly, Dalit scholars and activists do take part in queer pride marches or attend (as invited) to talks/seminars/conferences organised by feminist groups run by Savarna women. However, ideologically these two groups are only ‘supportive’ to each other – but do not subsume each other’s ideologies and theoretical framework.

Both the groups respect each other but would also want to continue as separate disconnected groups without even drawing parallels at the ideological level.

This disjoined condition is the result of the belief that the structures of gender and caste are not linked/intertwined in Brahminical society. At least these two ideological groups are not ready to theorize the connection between caste and violence against women. Neither the Dalit movement nor the feminist movement have thought about where Dalit women as a category – oppressed both by gender and caste structures – stand in terms of their political location.

Dalit women being sexually harassed by Dalit men is not a new story. Almost all my Dalit women friends have expressed their helplessness with regard to sexual harassment at the hands of Dalit men because most of these sexual predators pass for Dalit student-leaders, activists, poets etc. Dalit women being sexually harassed by Dalit student-leaders, Dalit academics, activists, and lawyers is considered an “internal matter” and a “minor concern” within Dalit activist circles. These issues are mostly dealt by Dalit scholars or activists, where Dalit women are pressured to not put the Dalit men through due process since such an act is considered a “betrayal” to the Dalit movement.

“It’s unfair to put Dalit men through due process” was an axiomatic expression commonly used by Savarna feminists in Hyderabad. It cannot hold the same value when Dalit women are entering into academic and political spaces, and at times pushed out due to sexual harassment.

There were Dalit academics and feminist faculty who reprimanded me for bringing out the issues of sexual harassment on campus. They find it difficult to deal with the complexities of intersectional oppression as they want to see caste and patriarchy as two disjoined, one-dimensional factors. For them, Dalit men and Savarna women are oppressed and subjugated respectively by caste and patriarchy. No other category is even visible to them. Most of them are comfortable with the binaries such as Brahmin man/Dalit man, Hindu/Muslim, Man/Woman. When it comes to issues of Man/Woman, they do not have caste. When it comes to Hindu/Muslim, you can’t question whether they are a Brahmin/Muslim or Dalit/Muslim.

Considering women as category “internal” to a community is not based on Ambedkarite politics but the framework of a Brahminical family model. In a Brahminical patriarchal family, women are made to sacrifice their rights for the sake of husband and children. Food allocation, access to property, access to resources, space and mobility are various aspects of gender-discrimination that women face in the Brahminical family. The ideology of wifely-devotion (Pativrata Dharma), motherhood, sexual purity and caste purity are used to subjugate women. If Dalit women’s issues are considered “internal” to the Dalit movement, the Dalit movement is modeled upon the Brahminical family structure.

Caste and Brahminical Patriarchy must be deconstructed in order to annihilate caste. Moreover, many Dalit ideologues denigrate Brahmin men for the practices of Sati and dowry violence and valorize the Dalit community for the absence of such practices. They even go further to claim that Dalit women beat/beat back their husbands. The construction of Brahmin women as pure victims and Dalit women as free from patriarchy is a distorted notion disseminated by the male dominant Dalit movement.

Constructing privileged dominant-caste and Brahmin women as “worse victims” is similar to Betty Freidan’s construction of white American middle-class women as “worse victims” than Black women in The Feminine Mystique, in The Problem That Has No Name. (bell hooks, 2000) Dalit women who suffer graded patriarchies of upper-caste dominance, caste discrimination, as well as sexism within Dalit families/movement are always at the receiving end of oppression.

Dalit women face gruesome violence at the hands of dominant-caste men and women. Khairlanji is an example of such violence.(Teltumbde, 2008)  Dalit women face domestic violence in families. (Kamble, 2008 and Pawar, 2008) Dalit women face discrimination both from upper-caste feminists and Dalit men in academic and political platforms. Caste-discrimination and public violence is directed more against Dalit women than men. The justification that Dalit men face public violence and redirect/resolve their angst towards Dalit women is a distorted and misplaced concept. Dalit women face more public violence than Dalit men. However, they do not resolve it by redirecting it to their respective husbands.

Also Dalit ideology seems to have constructed Dalit women as mere extensions of their caste-group, and are not ready to respect their sexual choices. It resembles the same Brahminical ideology of gender. I would like to present my views on the gap between Amebdkar’s idea of caste-exogamy and its implementation by Dalit ideologues.

While upholding the idea of inter-caste marriage, the movement has overlooked the position of Dalit women in such political assertion of inter-caste marriage which keeps them at the receiving end of caste oppression and Brahminical patriarchy. Dalit women who suffer various forms of graded patriarchies along with graded inequalities of caste, have faced gruesome violence in inter-caste marriages with dominant caste men. Chandra Sri (Hyderabad-based activist), Radhika Vemula (Rohith Vemula’s mother) are the victims of casteism and untouchability in their matrimonial homes. (Tamalapakula, 2019) Moreover, Dalit activist men seem to be supporting only a Dalit man’s marriage with a dominant-caste woman but not a Dalit woman’s inter-caste marriage.

The idea of annihilation of caste through inter-caste marriage subverts the foundations of caste which is built on caste-endogamy. Caste endogamy, or marriage between men and women who belong to the same caste, helps the perpetuation of the caste-system. However, upholding the ideology of inter-caste marriage unilaterally leads to reconstruction of heterosexual-monogamous-patriarchal marriage as the only viable form of conjugality available to Dalits. 

Marriage is not simply a Brahminical institution but also a patriarchal and heterosexual institution. While questioning casteim and Brahminical aspects of marriage, the Dalit movement condoned the aspects of patriarchy and heteronormativity of the institution of marriage. In an ideal situation, even if caste is annihilated through inter-caste marriage, marriage as an institution still continues to be patriarchal, heterosexual, monogamous and oppressive to women, queer groups, trans men and trans women. For the Dalit movement is built on the experiences of heterosexual Dalit men, Dalit queer persons do not find their voices audible in the Dalit movement.

Marriage as a form of conjugality is about control of sexuality of women. In Brahminical society, it is linked up to maintenance of caste purity and perpetuation of caste. But even in the societies that don't have the caste-system, marriage still suffocates women with subjugation and domestic violence, and it is not an option for gay, lesbian, trans and non-binary persons. There are queer persons who are Dalits, who expereince discrimination based their sexual choices as well as their caste identity. Hence, the Dalit movement has to open up its space to voices of women, queer and disabled Dalits as well.

Most of the Dalit activist men, and some Dalit women activists too, argue that the issues of sexuality are not pertinent to Dalit politics since Dalit politics are all about basic survival and self-respect. They also reprimand Dalit women who uphold radical forms of conjugality. However this idea of self-respect should be free from the claustrophobic Brahminical ideologies of heterosexual-family.

Queerness of Dalits should not be treated as an obstacle to Dalit self-respect. The idea of inter-caste marriage is also an issue of sexuality but largely constructed upon the Dalit masculine desire. (Ponniah, Tamalapakula, 2020) Moreover, the struggle for mere survival and sexual politics do co-exist in one’s life. Taking cues from the politics of trans women, they struggle for survival, queer identity and desire simultaneously. If the sexual freedom and personal choices that some of the Dalit feminists are making are considered to be an impediment to Dalits’ assertion of self-respect, such an idea of self-respect itself is flawed, Brahminical and patriarchal.

The assertion of sexual freedom of Dalit women is at times judged using the lens of Brahminical patriarchy. It is important for the Dalit movement to deconstruct the notions of Brahminical patriarchy with regard to women’s sexual purity, marriage, monogamy and heteronormativity.

Sowjanya Tamalapakula is an Assistant Professor at the School of Gender Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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