Claim your anti-caste intersectional feminism: A Dalit woman’s reflections on feminism

Dalit women Fieldwork 2009 Beed

I have had the privilege to learn from a diverse group of active individuals and communities from marginalized locations. These interactions have pushed me to think further and critically. My reflections are a product of years of discomfort and dilemmas I have grappled with, as a Dalit woman with a multifaceted identity that inherent disadvantages but also newly acquired privileges. These dilemmas have led to rigorous intellectual exercise to understand what feminism means to me and my commitment towards gender justice and equality as an anti-caste activist and researcher operating in upper caste, white and colonial spaces.

In this essay, I have tried to address a series of questions and presented my reflections and views on them. These questions emerged from my personal reflections around Dalit feminism and also from my readings on Intersectionality over the past 13 years and of Sandra Harding’s writings on objectivity and diversity in scientific research.

The questions are simple but I urge the readers to think about these basic but pertinent questions. These are the foundation for why Dalit feminism is a legitimate entity, what Dalit feminists have done thus far, and the challenges that lay ahead of us. I will conclude with a glimpse of what a possible future should look like within Dalit feminist-intersectional theory and praxis.

My first question is What is Dalit feminism?

In describing what Dalit feminism is, I contest the chronological writing where ‘identity politics’, diversity, and entry of marginalized groups into feminist ideology is seen as situated in one time period, as though no ‘feminist thoughts’ existed in the margins before. I am going to refrain from giving one chronological historical account of Dalit women’s engagement with feminism and certainly not put it in the context of ‘the waves’. For there are multiple roots to how marginalized people, women have expressed intellectually and fought against their marginality. Before even feminism and the three waves were theorized, women from marginal locations spoke about inherent discrepancies to the idea that all women experience oppression in the same way. African-American scholar Ange-Marie Hancock calls these articulations ‘intersectionality like thought’. While Maria Stewart in the American continent was speaking about laboring Black men and women and their wretched lives in the 1830s, Dalit women like Mukta Salve wrote about the plight of oppressed caste women and men in 1855. These are not isolated singular accounts in history. There is a long-standing legacy to these distinct thoughts and articulations.

Women from margins have articulated their specific locations in the written word and spoken word. Calling it feminist or intersectional may not be historically correct for these terms didn’t exist then but surely we can acknowledge them and trace them as ‘intersectionality like thoughts’. When in ‘Castes in India’ Dr. Ambedkar theorized that control over women’s sexuality is key to maintaining caste hierarchy, he was essentially arguing that patriarchy as an oppressive system emerged out of and for maintaining caste supremacy. So caste supremacy is at the origins of gender-based oppression in the Indian context and the same goes for race supremacy and its violent preservation by criminalizing and killing black bodies. Patriarchy is an equally oppressive power structure that needs to be dealt with along with caste annihilation. The interaction of these systems of oppressions cocreates specific burdens for those who are at the intersections. Thus, Dalit feminism emerges as a critique of the casteist patriarchal society that invisibilizes the experiences and rights of Dalit women.

I contest the popular belief that university-educated, middle-class Dalit women get naively influenced by feminism. This idea denies us our independent intellectual standing and our agency. This argument is rooted in casteist and patriarchal belief systems. Dalit women are routinely reprimanded and their commitment to caste annihilation is questioned when they talk about Dalit women’s specific oppression. When they bring up their caste-based oppression in upper-caste women’s spaces, they are seen as playing divisive identity politics. Within the Dalit movement, Dalit woman’s assertion is seen as a threat to the movement. Their demand for equality and questioning the inherent patriarchy within the community is seen as divisive to the movement. This double edge sword rips Dalit women off of their intellectual freedom.

Dalit women are accused of being middle class, university-educated (as though being educated is a curse). When Dalit women enter University spaces, and for that matter when they are pushing their way through masculine, upper-caste dominated spaces they are asking difficult questions and transforming these spaces. The diversity and dialogue about de-casting and de-colonizing the University spaces and sciences is owing to the hard labor of Dalit and anti-caste communities. We have to put a stop to the co-option of Dalit woman’s intellectual labor. We cant make a mistake of looking at the colonial university spaces and the written words therein as representing all women and the lack of diversity in these University spaces misread as feminism not existing in the margins.

The second question is Who can define, what Dalit feminism is, and who can contest the existence of Dalit feminism?

I believe that Dalit women, grassroots activists, researchers, gender fluid persons from the community, and Dalit men who stand for gender justice should all engage in the discussion around feminism, rather than discarding it. Dalit woman’s assertion and commitment for caste annihilation and gender are intersectional and we as a community need to arrive at these reflections together, acknowledging that we are a diverse group. And this intellectual exercise should be done with the responsibility of keeping the interests and fears of the most marginalized within sight.

The third question I have is, is feminism Brahminism?

Those who did women’s studies, gender studies will know that we have been taught the feminist thoughts from a western perspective and we have all studied the waves. As though those three waves rose and fell and in between or before them, no women spoke of their rights elsewhere. If we grant that feminism only means white woman’s demand for equality from her man then we miss out on the richness of complex history from the margins.

‘No feminism’ can talk about women’s rights alone without considering other social inequalities, and this is where the theory and praxis of intersectionality come in. No ideology in the modern world can be essentialist in saying that only class or only gender should be at the center in the struggle to end inequalities.

Until you do not challenge your savarna privilege, you can not call your self a feminist, and you lose a moral standing to talk for all women. The so-called ‘feminists’ who are blind and willfully ignorant of their caste privilege can not monopolize feminism. And if we make a mistake of accepting the argument that feminism is Brahminism we risk ignoring Dalit women’s critical contribution to feminism. Savarna women’s feminism is not feminism. When people from margin articulate they create unique inclusive feminism.

The final question I wish to ask is, does Dalit movement as it stands today represent Dalit women’s issues?

The F word of feminism has been a no go in Dalit intellectual and activists spaces. We need to have that intellectual honesty and ‘strong objectivity’ that comes from critically engaging with one’s own biases and positionality. And in Sandra Hardings’ words, we need to analyze in all our claims, whether the fears, desires, and interests of the most vulnerable are addressed. Have we been fair and responsible? Do we equally acknowledge and analyze our accumulated privilege of class and region, language along with the inherent marginality?

Lastly, I want to speak on the Legacy of Anti-caste intersectional feminism and future

When I call myself a Dalit activist and intersectional feminist, I declare that I am in no way part of a monolithic group. I have a legacy of a movement that believes in equality of gender and sexes. That acknowledges that for all to be free, women and marginalized need to be free. That I recognize the multiple structures of power co-create stronger structures of oppression and burden the marginalized and women in a specific way. But it is important to note that these groups are not disempowered entities, nor are they imitating ‘savarna’ or easily influenced by savarna. They are actively choosing their standpoint. I believe in gender equality, and that Dalit women be equal to the man in their home and man outside, irrespective of his caste. But these stories are not in the archives, in the academic spaces. Because the university spaces need to be decolonized, de-casted.

How do we change that? We need to change our research methods, first and foremost. If we look for evidence of marginalized scholarship in the databases and the university libraries that are not diverse, we will lose on the vast scholarship of feminism from the margin. Dalit women and women from margins are writing, making art, are engaged in critical activism at the grassroots and are shaping themselves as activist academics, they are writing analytically, debunking the previously produced knowledge that claims to be about them but is created ‘from above.’

Annihilation of all forms of oppression must happen together and simultaneously.

Decolonization and de-casting of all the systems and institutions is a mammoth of a task. The burden should be shared equally by those who are engaged in the annihilation of oppressive systems. We can not talk about worker’s rights without acknowledging that workers are divided by caste, race, and gender. And we will have to recognize gender across caste, race, and classes. This reflection emerges only from the margin.

In the end, I want to say that as Dalit women, men, and non-binary gender-fluid people in our commitment to the annihilation of caste and gender justice, we should claim our anti-caste, intersectional feminism. Feminism needs rescuing from the upper caste hands. Such critical reflexivity is fostered in marginalized knowledge communities. But being oppressed does not immune us from internalizing the oppressors’ philosophy and be victims of mental slavery, the revolutionaries of the previous era cautioned us of this. In this sense, men and women of the Dalit-Bahujan communities need to engage in a critical quest to explore and understand how patriarchy and caste-based mindset within the community are affecting our community from evolving further into a political and intellectual force. The Dalit men in the community, activists, leaders, and intellectuals need to participate in respectful, collaborative retrospection on how they have dealt with the issue of gender oppression and women’s leadership in our community. We cant expect this to happen outside and in the savarna spaces.

Within the Dalit-Bahujan communities, we do have a real challenge in front of us in terms of coming together and resolving differences, respecting each-other irrespective of differences and disagreements, and get past these conflicts. Here it is also important to note that Dalit-Bahujans are not a monolithic whole. I am not naively saying that we all can come together in the name of the community and live happily ever after, no. But we do have an ‘imagined collective identity.’ I call it imagined because it was an impossible task to construct such a collective consciousness given the deepened casteist brahminical claws in the Indian society. The revolutionaries worked hard to bring marginalized together, and yet the divisions are still very prevalent. The contemporary politics, social changes, digital media has posed both challenges and opportunities to fostering this identity that is continuously evolving.

Drawing from Ange-Marie Hancock and Patricia Hill Collins Intersectional solidarity is the future from Dalit men and women to achieve the ideals of the annihilation of caste and gender justice.

We need to challenge and come out of the will full blindness of upper-caste women and Dalit men’s exclusive attention to one’s own victimhood with no recognition to the privilege of other categories.

Intersectionality has the potentials to build solidarities. To do so, we need to work on an intellectual history of Dalit feminist thoughts, curated collectively and collaboratively by Dalit women, from grassroots, from vernacular and Dalit women based in the university spaces that take us through the diverse history to this moment. And we should do this, within our diverse marginal groups, of Dalit-Bahujan, Tribal, the stateless among us, the minorities, people of fluid genders, and the diverse religions.

Swati Kamble, a Ph.D. researcher at the University of Geneva. I consider myself a Dalit-Bahujan activist and intersectional feminist. My research interest involves studying the marginalized communities with an intersectional and reflexive lense and commit to bringing their narratives at the forefront both in academia and policy. These narratives are created collaboratively with the marginalized communities being the active agents and in charge. As a person coming from a marginalized community, I find it of utmost importance that my research practice stems from social justice and not that of misappropriation of the knowledge emerging in the communities. My research focuses on studying the impact of Dalit women’s activism on the policy process in Maharashtra. Dalit women’s engagement in anti-caste feminist history has created valuable knowledge that can be instrumental in making the Indian policy process equitable and intersectional. Through my qualitative research, I aim to put forth recommendations to the state government to formulate policies with an intersectional framework.



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