If 'Untouchability' at Sabarimala Makes You Angry, Then Welcome to the World of Dalit Women
By Vijeta Kumar and Sharmishta
I have loved the year 2018 more than I have loved any other year. This is courtesy of Twitter. Two reasons: one is because I got to meet some fabulous Dalit women on Twitter, who have taught me things no one else could have; the other is because Savarna women who have been on Twitter longer than us (like in academia and everywhere else) keep making giant fools of themselves.
Darling Savarnas, who, after years of making money from writing about Dalits, and Dalit “tongue” (Savarnas who have just ‘discovered’ Dalit writers love saying Dalit tongue- ask them what it means baba - it’s not our word) - are now - totally losing it.
Whether it was a blundering holy cow like Amba Azaad who “outed” a queer Dalit writer on Twitter (and did a roundtable of upper caste people) and then decided not to ‘quote’ said Dalit writer anymore, or whether it's the generic Savarna sensitivity of the many who ‘felt attacked’ when Dalit women spoke out against #MeToo - how are you a feminist if you are blind to caste? How are you a feminist if you are summoning caste power to disarm a Dalit person from writing? How are you a feminist if you believe that untouchability is a thing of the past?
What is the point of opposing the Trans bill when you are being more transphobic than the government at this point? Writing about Trans experiences and then having a Brahmin CIS man write a transphobic foreword to such a book?
And today, after having cavalierly used the word ‘untouchability’ to talk about the purification of Sabarimala after two women entered the temple, they have made it clear that caste is not ‘their’ issue to be worried about. It never was. So then what do we do with your dabba feminism that doesn’t want to see caste?
Here are some things that I have been able to gather about Savarna feminism so far:
- It loves explaining (especially things like consent, Ambedkar, and Feminism) to Dalit women.
- It loves coming up with neo/new words to explain these things better.
Essentially -- Savarna feminists are very good at being men.
When is the SC taking note of this alleged “purification” of the #SabarimalaTemple & sacking the priest? Women are untouchables? Absolutely disgusting— Swati Chaturvedi (@bainjal) January 2, 2019
Neo-untouchability means what? That untouchability doesn’t exist anymore? That it is being revived? Which country are you from?
Keep 'purifying'! Your 'sanctum sanctorum' has been polluted forever & forever! Not sure if SC would have guts to penalize this act of neo-untouchability. But Bindu & Kanaka Durga, you've punctured patriarchy where it hurts most. Salutes !❤️https://t.co/PTBojkjFZl#Sabarimala — Meera Sanghamitra (@meeracomposes) January 2, 2019
When you say treating women as polluting is untouchability, you are actually asking, ‘are women as bad as untouchables?’
The onslaught of oppressions, erasures, appropriations and disappointments by upper caste feminists and activists seem endless and are increasingly becoming violent towards Dalit feminist and queer.
In the age of social media and digital activism these experiences towards Dalit women have become routine. Nonetheless, Dalit feminists are also using technologies and new mediums of communication to ‘talk back’ and challenge these everyday oppressions.
Distressingly, these Dalit voices and their vocabularies are either appropriated or ignored, shut down or simply not taken seriously by even those feminists who identify their politics as radical and intersectional.
There are several reasons why these feminists may not want to reform. It would be too hasty to call it as ‘their’ caste arrogance. But one of the strong reasons for this may lie in the trajectory of feminisms/women’s movement in India and the ideological premise on which these feminisms originated. At the foremost, Savarna feminists simply do not invest in understanding the impact of caste system nor do they admit the caste privileges they enjoy as upper caste women.
Secondly, Savarna feminists lack a robust understanding of subaltern histories and the caste question in women’s movement. This kind of feminism fails to understand the varying degrees of oppressions, exploitation, subordinations and violences meted against women collectively and women belonging to social groups/tribes/religions specifically. This feminism therefore is bound to fail as it does not address the ideological and social difference that Dalit Feminists/activists have underlined since the Beijing conference and before.
Today’s historic day of women’s temple entry at Sabarimala is a stark reminder of that fissure and unabated violences on Dalit bodies and their existence. Today’s historic day for India is no lesser than a black day for the Dalit community. To comprehend this one needs to pay attention to words and vocabularies employed by upper caste feminist, social activists and even the jurisprudence.
HH Dhanajay Chandrachud underscores Article 17 (Prohibition of Untouchability) and the words that have been deployed generously by upper caste feminists are: impurity/ purity/pollution, neo-untouchability, untouchables and the latest - purification. Sociologically and culturally speaking, the notion of pollution as marking of caste bodies is intertwined with civil disabilities imposed on untouchable castes and lower castes.
Historically, the concept of purity comes from race/caste purity, according to Jotirao Phule’s extensive analysis of racial purity and the caste-gender relations. Besides being a social radical, Phule analysed race, and women’s sexualities and how it is intertwined with Brahmanical supremacy and its oppression of lower castes, untouchables (Dalit women included) and upper caste women.
In addition to Phule, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar has extensively analysed several aspects of caste, gender, sexualities. The most significant acts related to his radical feminist politics was theorizing caste and its genesis from gendered lenses, Hindu Code Bill and burning of the law-book of caste misogyny.
Manu Smriti is the most ancient source to understand sexualities under caste order or to revisit our historical past, culture and how some of its oppressive codes are still practised in Indian society. What is of critical significance is that in order to preserve caste purity women’s sexuality was codified and severely controlled. Women’s sexualities and unparalleled control over women’s bodies was (and is) central to continuation of caste as a social order.
The hate towards inter-caste marriage and genitals are indicators of disgust against human bodies and particularly polluting bodies, whether lower castes, women or untouchables. Therefore, for caste patriarchies and its governing social institution (religion) therefore control over sex and biological development such as puberty, menstruation, including the desire for sex itself are stages under which control over women and lower castes are to be tightened. Therefore, caste interferes with rituals, dictates and sets moral, ritual, social codes of what is permissible, offensive, with long prescriptive measures for condemnation and punishment and this is mostly practised through women’s bodies.
Menstrual blood, post pregnancy month, saliva, shadow, food, crematoriums are some of the sources and sites pollution & even justified. During menstruation, women cannot cook, or enter religious places, and sexual intercourse is not permissible. Sex is a taboo, and forbidden, according to Manu Smriti. The menstruating woman is thus an active carrier of impurity, a source of pollution. Leela Dube, a sociologist has documented the rituals, mores, customs, traditions and such extensive practises and its linkages as the repertoire of management of female sexuality (under the caste patriarchy emphasis mine). But Dube also equates this as a form of ‘untouchability’
It makes sense to revolt and crush such caste governed misogynist traditions but it is overstretched imagination to equate this as neo-untouchability. How does one therefore explain when a Dalit child cannot enter a temple? When Dalits cannot become priests? Or when Dalit women, whether menstruating or not, cannot enter inner sanctum but forced into temple prostitution? The simultaneity of touch/untouch is most critical.
It appears that the contemporary feminist activists, upper caste progressive are not only insensitive but extremely violent in their denial of caste hierarchies, distinctions of touchable/upper/lower castes/untouchable castes and heinous practices of untouchability (ies) widely practised across India.
Consider then how this would sound to a Dalit woman, “Women are not untouchables?” Are these activists suggesting the archaic assumption, that all women are Savarnas and have forgotten there are already untouchable castes/Dalits and untouchability is widely prevalent despite its prohibition under Article 17?
Sample another caste concept deployed intrinsically connected to Dalit history—
In the light of several atrocities (at the fingertip of google search) untouchables/Dalits have been maimed, raped, murdered, lynched, violated for crossing the caste regulations be it for entering temples or schools and for falling in love/marrying a partner of one’s choice. Temporary untouchability is not the same as the longer traditon of untouchability practised against Dalits/Untouchables regardless of gender, age, regions and religions across India. Such assertions by upper caste feminist/activist are not only misleading but violent erasures and instances of appropriation of Dalit oppression.
The unabashed audacity, insensitivity towards the ‘untouchable castes’ and their struggle, their histories of embodied and lived experiences and constitutional provisions to safeguard their life and dignity are casually appropriated without any critical reflection. These are the new forms of upper caste feminist violences in its erasure, appropriation and denials.
This may be a golden day for some women— mostly savarna women but it is certainly a black day for those who are still fighting caste and untouchability. And for those who deny caste and untouchability, a well-researched work on forms of rural untouchability edited by Ghansham Shah et al. can be referred.
(Vijeta Kumar teaches English at St. Joseph's College, Bangalore.)
(Sharmishta is a writer and a Dalit Feminist.)