What It Means To Be An ‘Elite Dalit’ Woman

You should write about your Dalit experience, said my friend, your elite Dalit experience, to which I almost nodded in agreement, instantly realizing, how furious it made me.

Yes, for a Dalit woman, I live a very privileged life, but what does my privilege exactly include? As far as I know, I am just a regular working class educated woman living an independent life. Apparently meeting the basic requirements of life makes me elite and in my case an elite Dalit woman, however, when the same applied to a ‘Savarna’ (upper caste) woman, it qualifies her as a ‘normal’ girl.

Just the thought of trying to de-construct “Elite Dalit woman” seems daunting, it is indeed a profound almost soul searching task, but I am ready today.

What Makes Me An Elite (Dalit woman) and Them Not So Elite?

So what is it that makes me an elite (Dalit woman) and them not so elite?

The point that I am trying to make here is that Dalit Elite is an oxymoron. It is intrinsically and fundamentally against the notion of being a Dalit in Indian society.

Yes, I accept that I am privileged when compared to other women from my community. Yes, my privilege has allowed me to enter spaces unimaginable to a Dalit, leave alone a Dalit woman.

I learnt to talk like the ‘Savarnas’, I learnt to walk like the ‘Savarna‘, I learnt to eat like the ‘Savarnas’, but I couldn’t learn to think like the ‘Savarnas‘. From centuries of ostracization, no access to knowledge systems, inadequate resources, I couldn’t think like the Savarnas, my struggle is of a very different kind, even with the badge of ‘privilege’.

My privilege led me to Savarna social circles and I ended up dating Savarna boys, one of them I almost got married to, almost because, “Joota chahe sone ka bhi ho, pehna pairon mein hee jata hai (Even if a shoe is made of gold, it’s still worn on the feet),” said his parents.

Caste Identity

According to Ambedkar, the only way caste could be eradicated from the Indian social fabric was through inter-caste marriages, it’s 2019 and I am still not quite sure about this.

For the first time ever in my life, I was suddenly slapped with this new imposed identity of mine. I recalled my mother’s words to me as a child, “Beta pyar sirf bade logo (read upper caste/class) ke liye hota hai, not for us (Daughter, love is only for people from the upper castes).”

The definition of what it meant to be ‘us’, was once again slapped across my face 20+ years later. Over the next few years, I don’t know if I fell out of love or if that is even possible but I was NOT going to be okay with being treated like a second class citizen especially in the name of love, and honestly, I was way out of this Savarna boy’s league.

Economic Privilege

I am also miserably judged for coming from a very cool hip family as my parents had lived abroad and till the age of 18, I had mostly lived in and out of the country since my father was in the foreign services. Imagine a Dalit man’s experience as a diplomat. As part of the diplomatic culture, there are a lot of parties that happen. Imagine that Dalit man’s experience who never feasted on the other side of the table, but always at the receiving end of one.

Imagine a Dalit woman’s experience, a woman, who doesn’t know how to read, write, or speak English. She had to host parties where one had to engage with the educated, the elite, the rich and she had no idea what it meant to be either one of them.

As a kid, I would always wonder how my parents never had any friends or social life. As I have grown older, I have understood that it is very very difficult to engage with the world from that space of mind. Ever wondered, why Dalits, Muslims or people from other marginalised communities live in ghettos, that’s exactly why. It feels good, it feels comfortable.

My parents have seen the world, but they chose to go back to their community because as a Dalit person, the world outside can be lonely and very alienating. Rarely does it happen that anyone understands or empathizes with your experiences. On the other hand, what happens is #metoo, how Brahmanical patriarchy has also ostracized Brahmin women!

The Dalit Body

I come from a farming community or semi-farming with people in government jobs here and there. Genetically speaking, farming yes, it reflects in our eating habits, it reflects in the way we look, it reflects in the way we live.

I am thin because for centuries we didn’t have enough to eat. I am thin because when we didn’t have enough to eat, we didn’t have exquisite Nani aur Dadi ki recipes. Of course, I can afford to dine like a pig now but I choose not to.

I must admit though that, centuries of having no food culture has made us pretty healthy people I must say. Especially coming from the semi-agricultural family that I belong to, my father has always laid great emphasis on seasonal vegetables, grains and fruits.

So, if you were to randomly pick words, like fit, organic, tall, slim, healthy, I sound like an organic tea from a chic south Delhi store, bourgeois indeed.

The world Dalit makes you uncomfortable and the word ‘elite’ makes us uncomfortable.

I must confess though, that I never really felt deeply rooted in my Dalit identity. However, over the years, as I was forced to take my rose-tinted glasses off, I was almost coerced to face my identity as a Dalit woman in today’s time. As if fighting patriarchy wasn’t exhausting enough.

The fact that my Instagram bio reads, #thirdculturekid today is because I am a second generation reservation kid, my father cleared the SSC exams because of which I got the life that was given to me, which I am certainly grateful for, otherwise, there is no way you would have been reading this blog today! And as they say, “until the lions learn how to speak, history will always glorify the hunter.”

There aren’t too many public spaces, conducive spaces where I can share my Dalit experience, in fact, these conversations mostly happen in really intimate settings and writing happens to be one of those spaces.

Certainly, no one in my entire family (from both sides) is educated enough. So much so that I am the first woman to have completed their bachelor’s degree and the first person to have completed their masters.

I sit comfortably, at the age of 30, typing on a MacBook Air trying to comprehend what it means to be a Dalit woman in today’s time.

First, I fight racism, then I fight patriarchy, then I fight casteism and then you ask me, why the resting bitch face?

Elite Dalit Woman

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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