THE UNSEEN, UNHEARD DOM WOMEN
he winding alleys behind Manikarnika ghat, where many of these Doms live, are filled with one-roomed houses lined up against each other. Next to some of these houses, there’s a neatly stacked pile of wood that will be used for cremation. There are also half burnt wood logs that the Doms bring back after the funeral is over— these are to be used for cooking.
The young boys run around with a flat tyre, an elderly man wobbles around in his inebriated state even though it’s just 11 am and the women are hunched over their chullah
; they are accompanied by their daughters.
“I love going to school. But if the other girls don’t go, then I am not allowed to go either,” said 15-year-old Muskan. Muskan is in standard VI, but she knows that in about 2-3 years, she will get married. “They have already started looking for a groom for me,” she said.
Every day, at the break of the dawn, Muskan and her sister wake up. They help their mother start the fire and make breakfast for the family. They, then, get ready to go to school. Together.
The days Muskan’s sister is unwell, she can’t go to school either.
“We don’t allow our girls to step out alone,” Vimala Devi said.
Vimala Devi, though not related to Muskan, has taken the role of guardianship for the women of the entire neighbourhood of the Dom community. Explaining the reason behind the strict rule of female members staying indoors, and not stepping out without their family members, Vimala Devi said, “Who knows what goes on inside the head of these upper caste men? We can’t let our daughters roam around alone.” The 56-year-old widow said that it is because of their low caste status that the girls are more vulnerable.
The winding alleys behind Manikarnika Ghat are where many of the Doms live. (Photo: Adrija Bose)
Devi has four daughters and four sons. Her sons who work at Manikarnika Ghat help in the cremation process. One of them sells flowers and sandalwood at a shop next to the ghat. “I had 20 children, they died one after the other,” she said. While three of her daughters are married, she is worried for her youngest 16-year-old daughter. She said that no one wants to marry her daughter because she has ‘dimag ki bimari’
. “Look at her, who will marry her?” she asked pointing at her daughter, as she stood in a corner scared to even raise her head.
Despite her worries, Vimala Devi knows that she will not find a groom for her daughter outside of her caste. “Whatever we earn, we want to stay within our community. This is our family,” she said.
With a strict mindset of not intermingling with other caste, it’s quite common for the Doms to marry among family members as well.
The other women who have gathered around Vimala Devi don’t talk much; they just keep nodding their heads and agreeing with her. “Our women need to stay quiet, we cannot put our lives in danger,” she said.
Talking about this fear, P.S. Krishnan, former Secretary to Union ministry of welfare, and currently a member of the National Monitoring Committee for Education of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, said that the Doms are not aware of their rights and they have been neglected by successive central governments. “They need education to climb up the ladder, and they are entitled to education. They belong to the SC category so they are entitled to reservation. But the government has done very little to provide them with any access to their rights,” he said. “They usually drop out of school in the 5th or 6th grade, so they don’t reach the level of getting reservation in jobs,” Krishnan added.
Gurudev has to be pestered repeatedly before he decides to finally allow me to meet his wife. Maya enters the room, her head covered with a chaddar
that reaches upto her eye. She walks up to her husband, and stands next to him. All my questions to Maya are answered by Gurudev.
has a historical significance. Utpal Pathak, a senior journalist based out of Varanasi, explained that this tradition of covering the head with a black cloth existed in Varanasi during the Mughal period. However, with time, women started dropping the chaddar
. But the women from the Dom community still use it. “Now it has become a symbol for them. That’s how you recognise a Dom woman,” Pathak said.
Maya and Gurudev have been married for 14 years. “I must be 25-26 years old now,” she said.
Gurudev intervenes at this point and said that this is how it works in their community. “Women have to get married early, this is the only way to remain safe,” he said.