Love is Not a Word: The Culture and Politics of Desire, edited by Debotri Dhar, is an anthology that explores love and relationships in Indian society, from the time of the Kama Sutra, Radha and Krishna, to the times of love jihad and Tinder. Well researched and informative, but readable and accessible, this is a book for those interested in sociological studies as much as for the lay reader.
An excerpt from Christina Dhanraj’s essay, Swipe me Left, I’m Dalit, from the book:
There is also a steady stream of discourse dedicated to how Indian women are gaining sexual agency, in that they are no longer hesitant when it comes to casual sex, being with married men, or having an open relationship. Hook-ups and casual dating, via an app or otherwise, are perceived to be creating a sex-positive culture for Indian women who may otherwise be inhibited from experiencing unbridled sexual pleasure inside or outside of a relationship.
Unsurprisingly, this mainstream feminist discourse is predominantly led by women from upper-caste/bourgeoise locations. Not all Dalit women (cisgender, heterosexual, urban, and educated), who consider dating as a possible route to finding romantic partners, necessarily share the same experience.
At the heart of a good, intimate relationship is the understanding that those involved, in sustaining that bond, are of value. But, how is this value determined and who in the relationship determines it? The highest value, as defined by Hinduism, has traditionally been ascribed to the Brahmin woman, followed by the Kshatriya, the Vaishya, and the Shudra.
The modern-day ideal is also a savarna or a savarna-passing woman, who is typically light-skinned and able-bodied, belonging to a family that has the monetary and social capital, and embodying qualities considered to be feminine. The farther one is from this ideal, the more undervalued she is perceived to be. Within relationships, this perception, albeit external, translates into an unhealthy power imbalance, leading to a potential compromising of one’s rights, desires, and authenticity.
Dalit women who carry the double burden of gender and caste, and are one of the most socially undervalued in India, are therefore under constant pressure to project an acceptable version that mimics the savarna ideal. In a romantic pursuit or a partnership, we are expected to operate along with a behavioural band that is far narrower than what is required of a non-Dalit woman.
Needless to say, the existence of this ever-present mandate to be something one is not, so as to constantly prove one’s value or romantic potential, even in the most personal of spaces that is ideally supposed to feel like home, is unfair at best and cruel at worst. And the price that is asked of us, in return for a semblance of normalcy, is our safety, dignity, and mental health.
While I do not know of every Dalit woman’s experience, I can say (based on mine and that of my friends/ acquaintances) that dating in India overall is nowhere close to the rosy picture characterized by the absence of caste or the prominence of female sexual agency. Dalit women are repeatedly stereotyped as:
Not only does this make us seem unattractive, especially in the context of dating where confidence is generally regarded as an attractive trait, but it also has further implications in an actual romantic or sexual relationship. Because it is assumed that we do not have the power to protect ourselves, our bodies and our labour are grossly undervalued. Intimate violence may follow, whose magnitude is further aggravated by a real (or perceived) lack of monetary and social support in the case of underprivileged Dalit women.
While traditional discourses, most often authored by savarna voices, have concluded that we face intimate violence only at the hands of Dalit men (which in turn has led to the unfair criminalizing of Dalit men and boys), our lived realities today speak of another truth. Non-Dalit male partners are far more likely to inflict violence on us both physically and sexually, for the reason that they face far less legal and social consequences when reported.
Even in the case of Dalit male protagonists, the one who catches his eye or steals his heart is most often not a Dalit woman (Sairat, Thalapathy, Kadhal), who, when represented, is often depicted as loud-mouthed, angry, and verbally abusive in the real world, this translates into an angry Dalit woman stereotype, which lacks femininity and therefore cannot evoke the feeling of romantic love in a heteronormative sexual setting.
Particularly in the case of a politicized Dalit woman who is active on social media and the digital space, this stereotype is repeatedly used against her in an effort to invalidate her political critiques. The mere voicing of her opinions and the vocalizing of her lived experiences invites a barrage of accusations from both Dalits and non-Dalits. If such a woman does succeed in finding a heterosexual romantic partner, she is expected to maintain certain behaviours so as to sustain the relationship. These include subscribing to the ideals of a traditional wife/girlfriend, finding ways to integrate herself into the partner’s social circle, and leaving her ‘identity politics’ outside the door.
Thus, in most cis-hetero relationships, the price paid by a Dalit woman (stereotyped as angry and unfeminine) towards its success is far higher than that required of a non-Dalit woman. The latter can retain her political self and still be perceived as feminine, while the former will have to keep proving her femininity by choosing to not voice her political opinions, which are typically deemed as irrational. Voicing of these opinions, either publicly or privately, means the potential end to a relationship.
Today’s urban Dalit woman navigating the modern dating/matrimonial space is not spared this stereotyping. What the sexually liberated non-Dalit woman does and articulates is accepted as a credible political response, while what the Dalit woman does is perceived as shameful.
Casual sex, being with married men, and having open relationships, which are touted as sexually liberating and indicative of a sex-positive culture, does not hold the same meaning for Dalit women. Particularly in the case of men having savarna women as partners, their interest in Dalit women outside of the legitimate relationship is only an urban/modern version of upper-caste men sexually exploiting disadvantaged Dalit women that work in their fields/houses. In most cases, the savarna partner is not threatened by this arrangement; she continues to be the legitimate entity in the equation while the Dalit woman is relegated to the task of satisfying the man’s unconventional sexual desires.