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Fight of the Suppressed for Equality- Feminism among Dalit Women

Feminism among Dalit women is topic that deserves to get a considerable amount of limelight or attention, considering the fact the women in this section of the society faced suppression not only due to the gender they belong to, rather more of their struggle was focused on paving a way out of the extreme discrimination they faced on the basis of their oppressed caste.

Dalit women compared to women of upper caste faced greater intensity of violence and discrimination as there existed certain specific violence that were committed only against women of the Dalit community. Certain types of forced prostitution such as the devadasi or yogini system are reserved specifically for Dalit women.

Women of this community also were posed with the issue of having very limited means to express their sufferings and reach out to the public regarding their problems. Moreover, the inadequate knowledge of victims regarding the law and rights they can use to protect themselves from such violence and sufferings pull them back even more from moving forward from the oppressed society.

This paper aims at understanding the history of feminism among Dalit women and also understand the perspectives of various renowned individuals involved in the movement. The paper also aims to include a comparative analysis of male and female perspective towards the same movement. For the same purpose the researcher has referred to literature works including The Prisons We Broke by Baby Kamble, Bama’s Sangati and also scholarly articles about Dr.B.R. Ambedkar’s viewpoint regarding feminism and the significance of the role he played in the movement.

Intersectionality is yet another emerging idea coming up in feminism that requires to be understood to understand the prevalence of existing oppression against women in the contemporary society.

Intersectionality
Intersectionality is an emerging concept in the ideology of feminism. Intersectionality as defined by Merriam Webster dictionary is ‘the complex, cumulative manner in which the effects of different kinds of discrimination combine, overlap, and intersect. In simple term, it attempts to say that gender discrimination does not exist in a protective shell always, various other kind of discrimination are simultaneously aimed at the same individual.

The term intersectionality was first used by Kimberle Crenshaw in one of her very crucial term paper for the University of Chicago Legal Forum. According to her, ‘Intersectionality’ was a concept that was in prevalence since very long but it was given attention and a term describing the concept was coined very recently. Her research revolved Feminism among Black and she explained intersectionality by stating that gender and racial discrimination were considered two separate issues and this separation made no sense as it was merely a woman of color being doubly discriminated.

The entire feminism movement is in threat of losing its momentum if it fails to recognize that not every feminist is white skinned, completely abled and belongs to the upper caste. The entire feministic movement goes pointless if it fails to recognize women other than those who belong to the above-mentioned categories and this is to an extent, what has taken place in case of Dalit women.

Even when the entire India had taken up the idea of feministic movement, the voices of Dalit women were gone unheard which led to prolongation of their sufferings and oppression. The discrimination they faced were of greater intensity as they were doubly discriminated, one for being a woman and secondly for belonging to a lower caste. Since the concept of Intersectionality was not in prevalence during that period, they had to fight both the suppressions differently which led to a bigger obstacle they had to surpass.

Recognizing the importance of intersectionality as a notion in Feminism, various activist has put in efforts to uphold it. In today’s society, this notion is widely used to explain the relationship that exist between different kinds of discrimination that takes place together. Discrimination on the basis of gender, race, age, caste, financial status, physical or mental ability, religion, if occurs together, is to a large extent analyzed from the Intersectionality point of view.

History of Dalit Feminism
India has a considerably long history of suffering of the Dalit women, they have been considered the Harijan’s of the society. Dalit in general were considered socially out caste, culturally backwards, politically weak and economically unstable. By just being born into the Dalit community, women have suffered double the intensity of discrimination than the discrimination suffered by women of upper caste. The most vulnerable section of the society comprises of dalit women who are uneducated, powerless, poor and they become the easiest target of sexual violence and exploitation.

The oldest form of oppression was faced by Dalit women was the ‘devadasi system’.Under Devadasi system, a scheduled caste family dedicates its young daughter to the village goddess, and when the girl reaches puberty, she becomes an available sexual partner for the priest and all upper caste men in the village. It should be also noted that in India, most of the crimes against Dalit women are not reported to the police for the fear of social ostracism and threat to personal safety and security especially Dalit women.

Also, the legal proceedings are so complicated, tiring, elongated, costly and unfriendly to Dalits that usually they do not approach courts or other law enforcing agencies for their redressal. [1] They were also thrown obstacles like child marriage, physical assault, verbalabuse, sexual harassment, rape, sexual exploitation, prostitution etc.

Child marriage often led to child sexual abuse and this mostly involved girl children of the dalit community below the age of 16 years.

The involvement of various bold lower caste female personalities has given a great rate of momentum to the movement and has played a remarkable role in the progress of the movement.
  • Sant Soyarabi – Mahar community

    Sant soyarabi was played an integral part of the dalit feminism movement through the abhangs she wrote about freedom amidst daily life and devotion. Her writings evidently show that she was acutely aware of the gender and caste differences that prevailed in the society. She was praised for her boldness to not bother with the differences and discrimination against her and went forward claiming her own spiritual space
     
  • Nangeli – Ezhava Community

    Nangeli is considered the brave hearted women from lower caste, who in protest to the breast tax cut her own breast off and presented it to the tax collectors in a banana leaf. The women of ezhava community was expected to pay an amount as tax to the upper caste members of the society in order to cover their breast and the amount to be paid was decided by the size of the women’s breast. Nangeli in protest to this practice, protested with her own blood and was bled to death.
     
  • Uda Devi- Dalit Pasi community

    Uda Devi played a very significant role in India’s freedom fight. She was an integral part of the war against British East India Company. With the assistance of Begum Hazrat Mahal, she formed women’s battalion that operated under her command. She avenged the death of the martyred husband and led a fierce attack against British.
     
  • Santabhai Dhanaji Dani – mahar community
    Santabhai Dhanaji Dani had her complete life woven into Ambedkarite movement and was involved in several phases of the movement against the Pune Pact. She held the role of secretary of the Schedule Caste federation. Her struggle is emblematic of the Dalit women participation in ambedkarite movement.
     
  • Mukta Sarvagod’

    Mukta Sarvagod used her exceptional skills in literature to fight against suppression and oppression aimed at them. She rendered community service at Baba Amte’s ashram in Anandvan. She also authored the book ‘Closed Doors’ sharing the experiences and life as one of the lower castes.
Dr.B.R. Ambedkar’s contribution to the movement has also given a magnificent momentum to it which will be explained in further chapters.

Expression of suffering from different perspectives
Dalit women due to their suppressed position in the society, hardly had any means to put forward their thoughts, ideas and problems. They had obstacles and restrictions from all over the society which silenced them and led to most of them suffering in pain for more than a decade. It was far later that a few educated women from the community started expressing and voicing their issues through the means of literature.

Though a large number of literature work were suppressed at a very early stage and critiqued overly negative by certain members of the community as well as higher caste communities. But a few pieces of work overcame this and made its way to the readers which made an impact and gave a momentum to a movement long in queue for initiation. Literature work that actually made a mark in the movement include ‘The Prisons We Broke’ by Baby Kamble and Bama’s Sangati.

Though men too were involved in the movement to liberate Dalit women, observers and analyzers state that male writers did not take on serious note the literary output made by female writers. Renowned Indian feminist scholar Sharmila Rege argued that in order to achieve the ultimate goal of equality for Dalit women there needs to be a “a transformation of ‘their cause’ into ‘our case’ [2]

Men who wrote aboutwomen portrayed them as either victims or mothers. They continued describing women according to the ideal belief and socially followed stereotypes which included them being kind, sacrificing, naïve, etc. Sharan Kumar Limbale’s Akkarmashi was one such work that involved two female protagonists in which Santmai, the mother represents the ideal nature of sacrificing women who feeds the family using her own share when insufficiency arises and remains the source of inspiration.

Dalit women put forward a completely different perspective on their idea of what aspire to achieve in the name of equality. Their writings put limelight on the agony, distress and violence these women were put through. They narrated their struggle and protest through songs and folktales. Their writings portrayed their outrage towards the Dalit patriarchy, extreme criticism of mainstream feminism in India.

Dalit literature itself is considered a movement that has made a mark. Literature provided the only sole means for women suffering to put forward their problems and therefore literature contained the entire pain, hardships, questions and answers the Dalit women possessed. Dalit literature possessed the exclusive ability to give out to the reader a sense or feeling of what the narrator has been going through.

Dalit authors violates the usual norms of ‘aesthetic’ writing and rather aims at bringing out a real-life experience which does not fit the mainstream idea of ‘pleasurable reading’. Dalit literature included a number of pictures and terminologies and situations, a normal reader would find disturbing or uncomfortable, but the very fact that every Dalit woman goes through such situations serves the purpose of making people aware of the kind of suppression faced by women of the Dalit. The two novels referred in this paper which includes, ‘The Prisons we Broke’-Baby Kamble and Bama’s Sangati depicts two different moods [3]

The prisons we broke gives out a more optimistic look and outcasted the hope and energy the movement upheld and the determination put forward by various Dalit female writers who actively participated in Ambedkarite movements. Bama’s Sangati on the other hand covers a pessimistic attitude that was upheld by the movement.

Torchbearers of the movement
The Dalit women’s quest for freedom was led by a number of notable personalities but, most of the members of the Dalit community considered Dr.B.R. Ambedkar as the torchbearer of the movement. As mentioned in the previous chapter, Baby Kamble and Bama through their literature also put forward their protest against the oppression their community faced.

Dr.B. R Ambedkar
B.R Ambedkar has been an integral part of the movement since the very beginning of it and is said to have attempted to bring in ‘Gender-just’ laws every chance he encountered. As a member of the Legislative Council of Bombay he was in full support of the bill granting paid maternity leave to women working in industrial factories. He believed since the employer procured their profit through women’s labor, it should take the basic responsibility to support them financially in such a situation. Dr. Ambedkar believed that such a bill should not, at first place create a controversy nor have oppositions as maternity leave pay, should be borne by government. He says:
It is in the interests of the nation that the mother ought to get a certain amount of rest during the pre-natal period and also subsequently.[4]

Dr Ambedkar greatly spoke in favor of women’s reproductive rights and reproductive freedom. At a later point, in the same Legislative assembly of Bombay, Ambedkar proposed that birth control facilities be made available to women in case she was not in a position to bear child or take proper care of its upbringing, she must have proper help to prevent conception. He stated that, this must completely be the choice of the women.

Ambedkar’s sensitivity in the matter of gender can be drawn from his personal experience being a part of the ‘untouchable, his theoretical understanding, and his leadership with women’s organization. He himself has been in humiliating situations and experienced the horror of being discriminated. In his famous address before Untouchable women during the Mahad Satyagraha in 1927, he said in anguish:
You have given birth to us men. You know how other people consider us lower than animals. In some places even our shadow is not acceptable. Other people get respectable jobs in courts and offices, but the sons born of your wombs are held in such contempt that we cannot get a job as a lowly peon in the police department. If someone asks you why you gave birth to us, what answer will you give? What is the difference between us and the children born of Kayastha and other caste Hindu women sitting in this meeting? [5]

It was pretty easy for Ambedkar to connect the condition of his caste to women’s subjugation under patriarchy.

Ambedkar is known for his intellectual superiority and assiduousness. This nature of his led him to draw a connection between gender and caste. This linkage opened up a new arena of discussion and thoughts, pooling in ideas on how to take forward the movement simultaneously fight against both kinds of discrimination.

Baby Kamble
Literature work by Baby Kamble has created wonders in the entire Dalit feminism movement and was one of the first set of work that actually created an impact among the reader population. As mentioned in previous chapters, she adopted an optimistic and positive style of writing and expressing the problems. In her book, she talks about her caste with such pride. She says, ‘Today, our young educated people are ashamed of being called a Mahar. But what is there tobe ashamed of?

We are the great race of the Mahars of Maharashtra. We are its real original inhabitants, the songs of the soil. The name of this land is also derived from our name. I love our caste name, Mahar—it flows in my veins, in my blood, and reminds me of our terrific struggle for truth’[6]

Such pride about her own suppressed low caste, she accepts came about as a result of Dr Ambedkar’s idea about holding up one’s self respect. In fact, the entire work of Baby Kamble being closely linked to the participation of Dalit women in the Ambedkarite movement, came about as he extreme devotion to the ideas and thoughts of Dr. Ambedkar.

Baby Kamble segregates her community women’s experiences as those within her own household and those faced outside in the society. Kamble in her book, says how her father took extreme pride in keeping her mother a housewife, restricted to the four walls of the kitchen. Men at home considered it one of the biggest achievements to keep women under their threshold and control. This type of internal patriarchy was an imitation of what they have been observing from the higher caste men.

The Dalit community too developed certain unique forms of patriarchy that involved marrying off young girls at a very early age and becoming subjected to torture at the husband’s house.
Kamble puts forward these experiences not as a mute acceptance of fate but rather as self-expression aiming to put out the rage of the women towards the discrimination surrounding them.

Baby Kamble had an immense amount of devotion towards Ambedkar and she accepts that, it was his words and ideas that inculcated the seed of rage in her for attainment of equality.

Bama’s Sangati.
“My mind is crowded with many anecdotes: stories not only about the sorrows and tears of Dalit women, but also about their lively and rebellious culture, their eagerness not to let life crush or shatter them, but to swim vigorously against the tide; about theself-confidence and self-respect that enables them to leap over threatening adversitiesby laughing at and ridiculing them . . .. I want to shout out these stories.”[7]

As previously mentioned, Bama expresses her anger and grief in the most pessimistic tone. She is over-raged. Her literature holds a unique importance in the among other writings because it collectively talks about various women suffering and not a single protagonist.

The likelihood of the third hub of man-controlled society in Sangati exists in the depreciation of dalit ladies' financial freedom. The very certainty that dalit ladies cross the limits of home and gain cash without anyone else, gives them a higher validity and a more favored position than the Brahmin ladies who remain financially subject to their dads, or spouses, or children. Notwithstanding, the dalit ladies face physical maltreatment consistently from the men in their familiesHere we have a case of how dalit male controlled society oppresses the dalit ladies, not by emulating the upper standing men, however by making it into a regular practice.

Conclusion

The chapters above give a clear picture on how the fight for equality and justice among dalit women have gained momentum from the olden times. With the help of literature, dalit women have made tremendous progress up till the 21st century. Comparing the ideas put forward by Ambedkar and Baby Kamble, we see Kamble wants to progress from the most basic level of discrimination and puts forward ideas and thoughts in order to achieve this.

On contrary Ambedkar has taken his ideologies a step forward, thoughts put forward by him would only come into use once the dalit women facing suppression succumb the basic level of discrimination faced by them. Hence, we could conclude the Dr. Ambedkar and Baby Kamble have aim at the same goal but they work from the opposite extremes. Once the ideas and the results of both attain the mid-point, we can conclude that fight for equality and justice among women of the dalit community has resulted in success.

End-Notes
  1. Dalit women and Feminism in India- Priyadarshini Samantaray
  2. Rege, p.45
  3. Pan, Anandita. "Now the Powerless Speaks: A Study of Bama's Sangati and Baby Kambale’s 'The Prisons We Broke' From a Dalit Feminist Standpoint." Academia.edu - Share Research. Accessed March 05, 2019. http://www.academia.edu/33580971/ Now_the_Powerless_Speaks_A_Study_of_Bamas_Sangati_and_Baby_Kambles_The_Prisons_We_Broke_From_a_Dalit_Feminist_Standpoint.
  4. Dr.B. R Ambedkar – Legislative Council of Bombay.
  5. B.R. Ambedkar – Mahad Satyagraha 1972.
  6. The Prisons We Broke – Baby Kamble-xiii
  7. Acknowledgement-Bama’s Sangati

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