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Book Excerpt: What Does Dating Mean For A Dalit Woman In India Today?

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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:

Feminist Discourse On Modern Dating

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.

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. Representational image. Image Source: Pexels

Seeking Love When Dalit And Woman

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:

  • Victims: We are primarily viewed as victims and survivors of various kinds of violence. The reification of the Dalit identity has led to the boxing of our existence, whose dimensions are solely defined by the savarna gaze. Our self-assertions of identity are commodified to create a warped limiting of our lives, in effect creating an image that is helpless and voiceless in the minds of our potential suitors. We are not seen as being capable of desire, love, or happiness; we don’t seem to exist as individuals outside of violence.

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.

  • Unfeminine: The Dalit woman is perceived mostly in comparison to her non-Dalit counterpart: the lighter-skinned savarna woman who is pure, quiet and delicate, versus the dark-skinned Dalit woman who is polluting, loud and tough. Pop culture through the ages has helped propagate this dichotomy. By casting only light-skinned savarna women as love interests of the male protagonist, it has implied that the one deserving of love and a happily-ever-after will need to have a certain set of physical attributes and come from a certain social location.

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.

The dichotomy of the Dalit vs. Non-Dalit woman also shapes how the former is perceived and treated sexually. Representational image.

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.

  • Promiscuous: The dichotomy of the Dalit vs. Non-Dalit woman also shapes how the former is perceived and treated sexually. As Rowena points out, the upper-caste woman’s body is regarded as sacred, protected by the men in her family, based on notions of chastity, virginity and docile femininity. But the Dalit woman’s body has traditionally been regarded as a site of sexual pleasure and entertainment without the need for legitimacy. She says, “upper-caste women are constantly imagined and represented as chaste and sexually controlled, in opposition to lower caste women who are repeatedly portrayed as sexually loose, hyper and “immoral,” a process that starts right from the differences in the representations of Sita and Shoorpanakha in the Ramayana.”

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.

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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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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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.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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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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