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Born At The Intersection Of Caste And Gender, Here’s Why Dalit Feminism Is Important

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By Gracy Singh

Feminist theories, in an all-embracing way, talk about equality of the sexes in all spheres; they accord importance to ‘difference’ as it is the different experiences of women with respect to the systematic domination faced by them in the patriarchal society that adds up to the feminist body of thought.

There are various streams in feminism: Black feminism, Liberal, Marxist, Post-structuralist etc.

Similarly, Dalit feminism is a stream of feminism that came into light with the rise of the Third World feminist struggles. Dalit feminists argue that women, and in particular Dalit women, are the worst sufferers of the structural domination of men over women, they are dual victims to both patriarchy and the evil of caste. Dalit feminism largely captures the individual experiences of marginalized women within the larger social structures.

Representational image.

Dual Victims Of Caste And Patriarchy

The movement of Dalit feminism can be traced back to Jyotiba Phule’s writings on how the Brahmanical patriarchy oppressed women. However, it was only in the 1990s when Dalit women advocated that their concerns and ideologies were different from that of the ‘upper caste women’. All women face the brunt of the patriarchal society but the very nature of this structural violence is more extreme with respect to women belonging to the lower castes, they are oppressed not only by the men in their own caste but also by the men who belong to the ‘upper caste’.

This point is validated by the very nature of sexual violence that Dalit women are subjected to wherein most of these cases the perpetrators belong to the upper caste. In contemporary times, the infamous Hathras case reflects how even those who are responsible for the maintenance of law and order turn a blind eye towards the concerns of a woman belonging to the lower caste.

It is this very essence of caste and gender that Dalit feminism captures. Just like Black feminism, Dalit feminism has an emancipatory potential wherein the concerns of caste and gender get transformed as the main facets of Dalit women’s mobilization.
The movement found its first autonomous expression with the formation of the National Federation of Dalit Women in New Delhi in 1995. Since then, there have been a number of Dalit women organizations that have come up asserting the cause of recognition of the experiences of Dalit women and call for a notion of equality that takes into account not only gender but also the very caste-based experiences of these women.
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  1. Inayat kapoor

    The issue of ‘Dalit feminism’, raised here is a major concern. Such concerns are somewhat not proritized and are ignored at times. When we are battling to actually, remove the caste distinctions from the mindsets and hearts of people, thus it is very important to point out such difficulties faced by people. Women are much more oppressed in such communities. This, calls for collaborative efforts to come up with awareness creating programmes.
    Thus, this issue raised in the article is valid and should be rectified.

  2. Reva Agrawal

    Firstly, I would like to appreciate your effort in writing such an informative and well-written article. This is a very thought-provoking post and makes us realize the hardships of women in Dalit communities. These women not only become victims of patriarchy but also have to face the evil nature of caste discrimination. We need to stand up for these women and spread awareness in our society so that people start conversations about such issues which will lead to fair justice for these oppressed women. The recent Hathras case highlights the immediate need for attention this issue requires.

  3. Agrima Ghai

    This is an extremely well written and thoroughly explained article which not only throws light on gender inequality but also casteism. Today feminism plays a vital role in the society but we mustn’t forget that what may be easier for one might not be similar for another. The cast system has been prevalent in our country since time immemorial and is still a pressing concern. Hence considering the position and status of Dalit women is integral. As discussed in the article, they not only have been subjected to discrimination on the basis of caste but also their gender. This does not mean that women of the ‘upper castes’ have had it any easier, but in most cases they haven’t had to encounter caste discrimination. As a country which boasts about its rapid development, we still have a long and hard struggle to tackle Casteism and Gender inequality.

  4. Shirley Khurana

    The way in which people express their gender identity, and how gender roles may constraint their lives, is also determined by factors like race, caste, socio-economic class, religion, ethnicity, etc. For example, the feminist struggles of an ‘upper caste’ woman living in a metropolitan Indian city may differ from the experiences of a ‘lower caste’ Dalit woman. Dalit women are victims of both- patriarchy and caste-based discrimination. It’s imperative to go beyond the social, political and economic disadvantages faced by women based on their gender identity alone, and understand that the caste struggles of Dalit women and women belonging to other marginalised groups may reinforce and exacerbate the setbacks they may face for simply being women.

  5. Sparsh Saluja

    In this era feminism plays a vital role in the society but we should not forget what seems easier for another might not be same for another. The caste system was a concern long time ago and is still too. As written in the article the dalit women have been mistreated and discriminated for not only their caste but also their gender. Not only dalit women but also upper caste women have faced discrimination. This article is quite well written and explained and tells that we have a long hard struggle to fight gender equality and casteism

  6. Pearl Khurana

    I acknowledge my privilege of not knowing how it feels to be the minority within a minority. Despite decades of mainstream representation and positive affirmations, (said representation being just for the sake of it, for keeping our ‘upper caste’ heads above water), locating Dalit womxn in the Indian media is crucial and so is their appreciation. Social exclusion on the basis of caste, class and gender has left generations of these womxn vulnerable, and in desperate need of carving out a space for themselves within media, workspace, and this male-dominated society. Manifested prejudices have their roots so deep within the so called high society adult brains that inclusion of such a struggling and large part of humanity doesn’t seem to occur to us very often. Print culture and Dalit literature tend to neglect female experiences in a world framed by patriarchal ideologies. The least expected of us is to acknowledge the differences in the conditions of a general caste womxn and a Dalit womxn. These oppressed voices have fallen on deaf ears in the years past and will continue to do so in the days to come, however, since you and I are here to unlearn, re-learn, re-set and re-imagine, change shall be near.

  7. Himanshu D. Medak

    This post very vividly brought to light the plight of dalit women and recognising their distinct identity of dual marginality, first as a woman and second as a dalit, the brunt of institutional oppression and discrimination of the most marginalized weighs heavily on them, their intersectionality paves the way for experiences that are unique to the dalit woman’s identity which is unlike to that of an upper caste woman, women of all creed are subject to the horrors of patriarchy and sexual violence even more so are the dalit women whose intersectional marginality makes them a target for violence that rarely gets brought to light, dalit feminism is so very important to bring forth such issues to the limelight and fight for the rights of dalit women.

  8. tasneen14

    It is rather important to begin this article with the example of the Indian female who regulated the term feminism in our society in the first place, Savitribai Phule. India’s foremost Dalit feminist icon in India, who, along with her husband Jyotirao Phule, fought tirelessly against the feudal caste system and discrimination. The bizarre occurrence is that none of her accomplishments were taught or even discussed with us in our classrooms even though she played an important role in Indian history. It is only now that I realize why. She belonged to the lower caste or ‘Dalit Society’.

    The criticism of the mainstream women’s movement in India has emerged from Dalit feminism as a perspective, exposing its failure to account for the intersection of caste and gender.
    In terms of the social location, Dalit feminism provides a historical account of how the existence & strength of women’s exploitation shifts and questions the myth that all women are equal and equally oppressed.

    As a separate viewpoint, the need for Dalit feminism is addressed as a way of resolving the disadvantages of those working from a privileged position. It argues that the information derived from powerful locations supports the exploitative process at the level of thinking & practice, even with the ‘best intentions’. This means that certain locations are more likely to produce emancipatory knowledge. However Dalit feminism is not understood as an exclusionary, closed category that does not allow women who are not Dalits to enrich it. Non-Dalit feminists, even from their particular perspectives and experiences, are responsible for challenging caste system as much as Dalit women do. I do not contend that non-Dalit feminists speak on behalf of Dalit women and make their struggles relevant. The argument clearly refers to the fact that all women are oppressed at distinct levels by caste as a framework.
    Thank you!
    -Tasneen Marwaha

  9. Ambar Sarin

    I completely agree, Dalit women have to endure both casteism and sexism.
    Dalits are already considered untouchable and no matter how far we have come people still discriminate them in all ways and use violence against them.

    Being a dalit women comes in with far more problems. They are sexually harassed, physically abused, they face violence on daily basis.
    Sexual violence against dalit women is considered as regular and routine phenomenon of oppression and as rightly said law and order does turn a blind eye towards the concerns of a women belonging to a lower caste, as we saw in the brutal hathras case.

    Dalit women are considered ‘sexually available’ and it’s considered very normal for them to get sexually abused. They are treated no less than animals. People of higher caste don’t consider them even as human beings! They are not only assaulted by dalit men but even men of upper castes, who think they have a ‘right’ over them. They are not considered equal to anyone and as a result their concerns are not heard.
    Inequality is the root cause for every problem, people are not treated equally just because they are different, they are in a so called lower caste. People die or are raped because of their colour, gender, caste every single day. These societal norms must not exist, we must stop discriminating and hurting people because of their identity.
    – written by Ambar Sarin

  10. Pari Gupta

    Babasaheb Ambedkar, one of the most popular Dalit Activist, has not only been responsible for mobilizing the anti-caste movement for stopping inequality, discrimination and exploitation of non-dominant caste citizens, but also inspiring the feminist discourse of his times, particularly the Dalit Feminist movement, and the Indian Feminist movement in general. Rightly quoted by him “I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress women have achieved.” In my opinion, on one hand a female is treated like a deity by showing respect but on the other our delusional society still considers her behaviour the aspect to be corrected rather than their outlook on women as a whole. We advocate about movements initiated by women and by constantly emphasizing on the fact that with that she is given a voice but forget about the fact that with the existence of patriarchy, that voice was shut out when she spoke. The fight against patriarchy is considered to be the only thing feminism is about which shows are preconceived notions on that as a whole as well. Especially for Dalit women, all the options are laid down in front of her but she was never given a choice to choose what is best for her. These stereotypes have been postponed to be buried in their grave with each generation passing by because they are so rigid and preconceived that they cannot be rewritten or erased. These norms fit into one another and lead to the abandonment of what was rightfully a female’s and have been prevalent because they are passed on from one generation to another without giving a thought whether their existence is needed or rather just a way to plague the society. Here is a poem by me to sum it all up:

    “She was treated like a deity
    She was shown respect
    Inequalities still persisting in our delusional society
    Considering her behavior, the aspect we need to correct
    She was given a voice
    But when she spoke, she was shut out
    Laid the options down in front of her, but never got to pick according to her choice
    The fight against patriarchy considered to be the only thing feminism is about
    They forgot what she gave,
    The blessings she bestowed upon,
    The stereotypes postponed to be buried in their grave
    Lingered through the generations, wishing for them to be gone
    They forgot all they received,
    Just because she asked for a place
    The notions being rigid and preconceived
    They cannot be rewritten or erased
    Just a place in society where she could be and show what she could do
    These norms fitting perfectly, a stitch they do sew
    But was abandoned as she demanded what was rightfully hers
    Passed on from them to us over the generations and years
    But with equality blossoming, the wars will no longer seem so brutal
    One equal for the spectrum of gender
    The scale of differentiations being neutral
    It sure will symbolize a peaceful surrender”

  11. shweta debnath

    B.R Ambedkar said, “I measure the progress of the community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.” In this patriarchal society, feminism in considered a crime. Dalits have been mistreated since the very beginning of history and women have been a victim of both caste and gender. We’ve seen a lot of movies which have portrayed the trials and tribulations women have faced on the basis of caste and gender. Movies like Aarakshan, Bandit Queen, Article 15, etc have shown how women of ‘low-caste’ have been exploited by ‘upper-caste’, honor killing and what not. These movies have made us aware of the root cause of all the oppressions each and every individual is facing under this patriarchic society. We as youth have this power to make the change. To make a change, we need courage. Courage and hope go hand in hand. Courage is what gives youth the confidence to continue challenging themselves. That’s how we can curb out this intersectionality from the face of this earth

  12. Jhanvi Gupta

    Dalit feminism is as important as any other type of feminism because feminism is about having equal rights and opportunities among all genders and Dalit womxn and men are suppressed by upper communities of India for many years because they are being characterized as “untouchables”. To change this, we have to promote and create awareness among Dalit people to fight for their rights and also teach about Dalits in every school of our nation so that they can empathize and help them in bringing change.

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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.

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