Intersectional feminism: Dalit Womanism

(Written By- Vanshika Bhagat, Student at Miranda House)

The concept of intersectionality originated in Black feminist theory. It is attributed to Kimberle Crenshaw, a Black American scholar of race, gender, and critical race theory. However, it alludes to a problem whose recognition has older antecedents.

Crenshaw begins her 1989 article by citing the title of the first volume on Black Women’s Studies, “All the women are white, all the blacks are men, but some of us are brave” to succinctly elucidate the problem.

The concept of intersectionality bears irrefutable applicability in the Indian context because of its recognition of a junctional point- intersection, where multiple axes of oppression meet. The salient issues of gender injustice are indecipherable via class analysis alone- a moot point offered by mainstream Indian feminists. The reluctance of mainstream Indian feminists to take intersectionality vis-à-vis the caste axis seriously, points to a flagrant denial of the many privileges of caste dominance.

The Brahmanical caste system transcends religious, philosophical, and academic boundaries. It permeates the various intricacies of everyday existence. The caste system has survived thousands of years through wars, political upheavals, and constitutional amendments to end caste-based discrimination, the worst victims of which have been Dalit women.

Dalit women are singularly positioned at the bottom of India’s caste, class, community, and gender hierarchies. They are largely uneducated and consistently paid less than their male counterparts. They make up the majority of landless labourers and scavengers, and a significant percentage of the women forced into sex work in rural areas or sold into urban brothels. They are most prone to systematic subjugation through untouchability, labour control, gender control, denial of access to basic resources for human development, and control on sexuality, which define their everyday hierarchical relationships with the dominant castes, as well as with Dalit cisgender men.

The multiple axes of oppression pronounce treble and quadruple burdens on this section of the population. However, the idea of being ‘multiple’ misleadingly suggests that identities are formed by adding together various structures or axes that contribute to them.

In such a view, Dalit women’s identities become an amalgamation of being Dalit and being women. A close analysis of the Dalit women’s experience shows that in the double jeopardy of being Dalit and women, the multiple structures of oppression make these experiences qualitatively different. Therefore, the ordeal of Dalit women can not be addressed at the discursive levels of casteism (where Dalit men are the implicit norm) and sexism (where Savarna women are the implicit norm).

To put it arithmetically, the additive equation of Dalit woman which means Dalit + woman actually translates to Dalit woman= Dalit man + Savarna woman. This understanding is deeply flawed. Three interlocking systems of caste, class, and patriarchy create a multidimensionality, simultaneity, and intensity of oppression, which is destructive to the experiences of Dalit women and qualitatively different from the added experiences of Dalit men and Savarna women.

In this sense, therefore, intersectionality is not merely a solution but the very statement of the problem of Dalit women.

Reformers, as well as scholars, have signified Brahmin women’s problems as those of Hindus, and therefore of Indians. There is a substantial discourse in modern India that tends to focus on the tribulations of Savarna women, and most significantly Brahmin women, in terms of Sati, widow remarriage, enforcement of widowhood, child marriage, age of consent, etc.

In a similar fashion, women’s movements in post-colonial India downplayed caste technologies to focus on the purported ‘unity’ among women as victims. During this process, Savarna women took the lead in demanding rights for women and constructed liberal feminism which reflected their concerns. They set the norms which produced further contestations from subaltern quarters. The tensions and failure in Indian feminism laid out the conditions for the emergence of Dalit subjectivity, agency, and separate Dalit Womanism.

The term ‘Womanism’ was coined by Alice Walker in 1893. Womanism defined as consciousness, incorporates racial, cultural, sexual, national, economic, and political considerations of the concerned category of women. Dalit Womanism is supposed to emanate from the lived realities and realizations of Dalit women. Dalit Womanism asserts that Dalit women have the right to be seen as subjects and not as objects, who play an active role in the betterment of not only themselves but also their whole community. Dalit women’s consciousness is created through their response to hegemonic and dominant discourses.

Dalit women’s discourses provide immense possibilities to them as well as Savarnas. All Dalit women can not contribute to the evolution of Dalit consciousness or feminism equally. Moreover, Dalit feminism should not be held as an entirely homogeneous category. It is a nebulous, heterogeneous concept thwarted by various defining factors like sex and sexuality, and class differences.

It is crucial to recognize the central relationship of power and privilege that sustains Indian feminism and the marked advantage of being the dominant, the nominative, and hence the mainstream.

Dalit feminism often considered the ‘discourse of discontent,’ ‘discourse of the rebels’, etc is distinctive from mainstream Indian feminism. However, it is possible for the outsider to develop empathy towards the suffering and oppression that being Dalit entails, thus building many bridges across feminist movements and Dalit movements.

Dalit feminist framework of subalternity provides the possibility of interpersonal understanding of differently disadvantaged lives and allows for a broad feminist, anti-patriarchal, anti-caste, anti-untouchability, and anti-racist analysis.

Dalit women’s fragmented, flawed, complex, and contradictory lives cannot be confined to linear understandings. The sweeping statements made in the West like ‘All women are Niggers’ are often imported to the Indian context with little or no space for nuances as ‘All women are Dalits.’ Such an import is harmful since it relegates the specific experiences of Dalit women to the margins which are disparate from that of Savarna women who enjoy enormous caste and class privilege. Instead of reinventing as Dalit women, oppressor caste women ought to make concerted efforts towards standing with their oppressed caste counterparts.

Dalit feminist discourses not only question the mainstream Indian feminist hegemony in claiming to speak for all women, but also the patriarchy of Dalit cisgender men that allows them to speak on behalf of Dalit women. Therefore, mainstream Indian feminism should shoulder Dalit feminism in challenging the conceptions of genderless caste and casteless gender. True liberation can only be achieved through large-scale consensual allyship to dismantle all structures of oppression at all levels.



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