When the “spotlight feminist” movement gained momentum worldwide, the Indian Feminist movement came to light. In a country where women did not have the right to study, the feminist movement was phenomenal in demanding equal rights in education, politics, wages, and health. But, India is more complicated, given the deep-rooted caste system prevalent in our society. So, casteism played a huge role in shaping society and class structure. And the early advocates of feminism in India represented the Brahmanical and upper-caste society, being relatively ignorant of the marginalized sections and their issues.
Mainstream feminism propagates gender equality, which comes from a privileged point of view, mainly inspired by the west. This privilege means privilege in education and rights, resulting in a privileged perspective, something that the entire Dalit community never had access to. Moreover, Dalit women were/are subjected to dual nature of oppression- one, for being a woman, second, for being a Dalit. This gave rise to the new wave of feminism in India and other south Asian countries- The Dalit Feminism.]
The Dalit Feminist Approach
Dalit Feminism is a feminist approach that demands gender equality among the Dalit community as well as the Brahmanical patriarchy and questions the caste-based discrimination within mainstream feminism. The idea of Dalit Feminism differentiates itself from the feminist thoughts preached and practiced by the upper and middle-class feminists as the issues of suppression of the socially marginalized women are different.
Dalit women were religiously subjugated to mental, physical, and sexual assaults by their husband as well as upper caste, patriarchal community and denied any fundamental rights. In addition, savarnisation left them deeply oppressed to be only referred to as “mother” or “victim.”
Consequently, prolonged dual nature differentiation based on caste and gender led Dalit women to form ethnic feminist perspectives.
Dalit Feminism: Origin and Evolution
The roots of Dalit Feminism can be traced back to 1848 when Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, and Fatima Sheikh inaugurated the first girls’ school in India in Poona, welcoming education for girls irrespective of caste. Savitribai Phule- often referred to as the mother of Indian Feminism, became the first female teacher in India, outraging the patriarchal Indian society but leading the women of all castes to a brighter future. In 1852, she founded Mahila Seva Mandal to raise awareness about women’s rights. She further played a crucial role in grooming the Satyasodhak Samaj (1873), which advocated equality of all classes.
With instilled education, the 1920s and 1930s witnessed active Dalit women’s participation in anti-caste and anti-untouchability movements. In a broader sense, they were a part of the Non-Brahman movement looking to eliminate caste-based discrimination. The early advocates of Dalit Feminism passed several resolutions on subjects like enforced widowhood, child marriages, and dowry.
Dr. B R Ambedkar and Periyar played significant roles in further viewing the “caste” factor and uplifting the women’s movements. Not only through social reforms, but Ambedkar also raised women’s issues through his newspapers ‘Mook Nayak’ (1920) and ‘Bahishkrit Bharat’ (1927). As a radical thinker, Periyar gripped one of the vital principles of Dalit feminism- self-assertion and the right to body representation. He founded the Self-Respect Association in 1926 and questioned the core ideas of patriarchy that limited women to have absolute rights over their own bodies in terms of sexual and reproductive life.
The 20th century also saw the rise of mass communication through various forms of texts and literature. Not only through action but also with the influence of words, Dalit writers stood on their points. For instance, activist and writer Moovalur Ramamirtham Ammaiyar who fought against the Devadasi system wrote her novel “Devadasis” in 1936. In the book’s preface, she wrote that she had taken an oath to work to abolish the Devadasi System.
In 1942, the Dalit women movement escalated further with 25,000 women participating in the All India Depressed Classes Women Conference in Nagpur, presided by Sulochanabai Dongre- an essential name in Dalit feminism. The conference advocated birth control and passed several resolutions encompassing women’s rights to divorce, education, political representation, and denounced polygamy. The year also marked the foundation of the Dalit Mahila Federation, where voices like Keertibai Dongre, Shantabai Dhani, Indirabai Patil, and Sulochanabai Dongre were revolutionary in advocating the education of the marginalized, reservation of seats, and fair working conditions for women. In 1946, Dakshayani Velayudhan became the first and only Dalit woman to be elected to the constituent assembly.
However, it was not until 1990 that the new wave of feminism, Dalit Feminism, was particularly identified as a perspective. With the formation of specialized Dalit Feminist organizations, Dalit women spoke for themselves and the issues faced only by them for being Dalit. In 1993, Dalit women sent their delegates to World Conference Against Racism, and in 1995 to the World Conference on Women, where the issues of discrimination based on caste were acutely placed. This brought an international coverage to the “newly” formed Dalit Feminist approach, but in the true sense, Dalit Feminism had long been in action.
21st Century Dalit Feminism
In state-of-art Dalit feminism, the voices reside in a number of journalists, independent media organizations, writers, and activists who continue to raise the issues faced by Dalit women as well as the Dalit Community in India.
Bama Faustina Soosairaj, widely known as Bama, was a feminist writer who recollects her childhood experiences as a Dalit in her first book Karukku (1992). Similarly, Babytai Kamble wrote several texts to highlight the issues faced by the Mahar community. Several other writers like Kumud Pawade and Sujata Gidla still use words to raise their voices because the act of writing itself is a form of revolution, political act, and weapon.
An unfortunate but not the first of its kind event- the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student who ends his life facing acute casteism in an “inclusive and safe” place called the university. With rising outrage on the matter, a US-based journalist, Yeshica Dutt, came out as a Dalit who was privileged enough to hide her identity. Her contributions to shaping Modern Indian Dalit feminism are remarkable. She also runs a blog, Documents of Dalit Discrimination- a safe place for Dalits to share their feelings.
Likewise, journalists like Cynthia Stephen, a Dalit Christian, continue being a loud voice in 21st Century Dalit feminism with her illustrious work in Dalit studies, social policy research, and activism.
Similarly, several digital organizations fiercely talk about the Dalits and their rights. Again, something that we are motivated to do.
One of the profound advocates of Dalit feminism was founded in 2002. Khabar Lahariya- a newspaper publication house led by Dalit women. Marking a deliberate success, a documentary on the publication “Writing With Fire” was an official Oscar nominee. The newspaper is published in several rural dialects, establishing a robust community of representatives for the Dalit community in India. Moreover, the entirety of operations led by Dalit women is historical and inspiring in itself.
Meanwhile, resolutions, amendments, and bills on Dalit rights are debated upon by upper-caste, patriarchal, and political systems, while the statistics of crime against Dalits, exclusively committed concerning caste, keep emerging.
Disha is a media graduate hailing from Kolkata. She is a writer, reader, and cinema lover.