Who is a Dalit woman? What are her characteristics? How is she different from the rest of the women in India? These are some of the common questions that many have whenever Dalit women meet as a single entity during a conference or a public meeting.
Writer, activist and journalist Cynthia Stephen has talked about how our nation is imagined to be Mother India, a woman representing fertility and prosperity, but does that image fit the Dalit woman whose life experiences are full of hurt and abandonment? Definitely not, because it’s a patriarchal and Brahmanical image of a women created by patriarchal Brahmanical men who led the Indian freedom movement.
Often all her identities are complex, like the identity of any group that undergoes multiple forms of oppression. This does not make her a confusing personality but rather the best suited person for leadership. Because the Dalit woman does not only talk about gender but also about class and caste and ableism and all other intersectionality that exists in a society as complex as ours.
Knowing the pain of exclusion throughout history from the men of her own community, from the men and women of other castes, from the state, at the workplace etc. she understands, represents and fights for every oppressed community with which she comes into contact. With this in mind, we organised the “Dalit Women in Politics” panel in Chennai on the 18th of February where more than 60 Dalit women across the nation gathered together to discuss politics.
Asha Kowtal, General Secretary, All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch
Why politics? Simply because we are so tired of discussing gender and caste and every other issue that is not only our problem but the society’s problem at large. It is tiring to explain again and again why we need reservations or why we need a Special Act for Honour Killings (caste killings) while the rest of the society turns a deaf ear to us. So, we decided that it's high time we talk politics and power.
Also, I noticed that most women never discuss politics. It is not their thing, they say. Whereas men disuss politics everywhere they go, however unneccessar or inappropriate it is. But what women don’t understand is that their mere existence is a political act. When demonetisation was implemented, wasn’t it the Dalit woman in the slum who was running from pillar to post to make ends meet? When the slums are evicted, isn’t it the Dalit woman who faces the maximum brunt of of it? So isn’t it her right to be in any key decision making process that affects her and her marginalised sisters?
Activist Dr Ruth Manorama, the keynote speaker, said that women represent only 11% of the Indian parliament. Dalit women are nowhere in this percentage. She said that even the 11% of women are from privileged backgrounds. "In politics, power is inherited," she said. She demanded that the state should give separate funds to facilitate Dalit women’s entry into politics.
Sujatha Surepally had terrible experiences when she contested on a BSP ticket from the Chennur district of Telangana. She has faced every possible discrimination during the election process. Many asked her how it was possible to contest in elections without money. “Money plays a key role in elections”, she said. This is another reason that makes it the most important task of the day for women to enter politics. For too long, it has been the playing ground of upper caste, upper class men who had muscle and money to support them. Dalit women’s leadership can change this tremendously because, as Ruth Manorama rightly pointed out, Dalit feminism is an anti-caste, anti-class project.
Bhavani Ilavenil of Dr. Ambedkar Makkal Mandram
Women’s political leadership will make it a level playing ground again and make political spaces open to the common men and women. While the panel was discussing the importance of Dalit women role models in politics, Bhavani Ilavenil from Dr.Ambedkar Makkal Mandram in Tamil Nadu, pointed out that Dalit women have been the lynchpins of many political movements in India.
In Tamil Nadu, Annai Meenambal, Sathya Vani Muthu etc. have been in active politics since the 1920s. Sathyavani Muthu has been one of the founding members of the biggest regional party in India, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). She was associated with Periyar himself and has met Queen Elizabeth when she was the Union Minister. But her entire history was erased by DMK’s leaders. “It is the need of the hour to identify and bring forth grassroot women leaders in politics," said Bhavani Ilavenil.
There are two major problems in movements in India; one is that they totally ignore the concept of intersectionality. Dr.Aishwarya Rao and trans rights activist Grace Banu pointed out the fact that social justice movements themselves do not talk about many issues such as ableism, gender identity etc.
“Being disabled is a great risk for a Dalit woman," said Dr Aiswarya Rao. She stated that 35-45 percent of all disabled people are Dalits. Many Dalit movements themselves ignore this huge chunk of their community. Similarly, Grace Banu pointed out the fact that Dalit trans women are the most oppressed section within the trans women community. And they have been kept out of the Dalit movement for a long time.
Dr. Aiswarya Rao, Public Health Advisor
The other problem within our movements is that many of us are not self-critical. Many strongly believe that all our ideologies and all our movement are for the betterment of the society while ignoring the fact that we as humans might be flawed, too. Often, we do things in the name of good, but without self-realisation and deep understanding, we will not move far as a society.
Vedha from the Thendral Movement in Vellore said that Ambedkar and Buddha have done their half for the Dalit community and it's high time that the Dalit women leaders contribute the remaining half in ideology and power.So, it is important to self-correct and update our movements to be more inclusive and fight for justice for all. In times of fascism and hate speeches, it would be appropriate to spread some love instead of hate. Like Che Guevara said, “A true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love”.
The panel ended on a happy note with many of our sisters opening up about their wish to enter politics in the next few years and many others promising to be propagandists for fellow sister.
Priyadarshini is a Chennai-based independent filmmaker who is also the founder of The Blue Club, an anti-caste initiative that organises filmmaking workshops and mentors women. All images courtesy: Priyadarshini.