Being born a woman comes with its host of struggles. Being born a Dalit woman and subjected to many forms of discrimination only adds to these struggles by leaps and bounds.
CHENNAI: Being born a woman comes with its host of struggles. Being born a Dalit woman and subjected to many forms of discrimination only adds to these struggles by leaps and bounds. But, all this adversity only serves to make us stronger, said Semmalar Jebaraj, offering a lived-in perspective about the life of an average Dalit woman and particularly, that of a Dalit woman leader in the last session of Prajnya’s Equality Colloquium Series.
Having been invited to speak about Dalit Women’s Movements: A Journey Towards Gender Justice, the professor of Social Work at Loyola College put forth extraordinary reformists like Sathyavani Muthu and Annai Meenambal Shivraj as wholesome embodiments of this way of life.
Starting with the basics
In the spirit of honouring the chronology of things, there’s much that set the stage for gender justice movements from Dalit grassroots. “We cannot talk about patriarchy or women’s liberation without talking about caste oppression or Varnashram. It’s the Manusmrithi and Vedas that have particularly laid down the principles for women’s oppression in a structured way.
We see that to be the background of ‘honour’ killings till this day. So, before we talk about Dalit women’s liberation or feminism, it is important to see who stepped up for women’s liberation. And some of the most important work was that of Dr Ambedkar,” she said.
It is for this reason that feminist groups and those working for women’s rights (particularly in the mainstream) should question ourselves to see how far we are using Ambedkar in our movements, she suggested. Similarly, leading the fight here was Thanthai Periyar. While today, there might be this misplaced narrative that he did little for the welfare of Dalits, he worked to tear down the superstitions that formed the basis of gender and caste-based oppression, she pointed out.
Dalit women of yore
There were many a Dalit woman who led the fight at a time when merely being a Dalit woman was struggle enough. “Annai Meenambal, even as she travelled alongside Periyar, she worked with leadership over him too. In those days, when among people in the self-respect movement who only put forth the cause of caste eradication, it was she who did the work of organising the oppressed population.
When leaders like Gandhi and Nehru were opposed to the Simon Commission, she took the stand that this is where they should talk about affirmative action and ensure education for the oppressed people. She was of such intellectual strength,” she narrated. Sathyavani Muthu was the first woman to have opposed the kula kalvi practice. “After having held several posts in the DMK, she contested in the independent ticket from Perambur constituency and won in 1957.
This might not be of much importance to the casual observer but to have done this as a Dalit woman and without any party support is no mean feat. Despite her few failures in politics, she managed to do much during her term as minister (ICDS, student scholarships, working women’s hostels, SC/ ST hostels, importance of savings for women),” said Semmalar, pointing out that it was she who helped establish the Dr Ambedkar Government Arts College in Vyasarpadi.
It was in the 90s that the Dalit movements truly built momentum. And people like Dr Ruth Manorama represented Dalit women’s issues in the international arena as well, sociologist and scholar Sharmila Rege leading the theoretical reform, and Bama breaching the literary society. It was during this period that Dalit women’s feminism diverged from that of upper- caste women’s and this is where Brahminical patriarchy comes into question.
“It’s not like Dalit men do not oppress Dalit women. While that has to be addressed, it’s Brahminical patriarchy that has entire feminists movements not raise a voice even when Dalit women were abused or gang-raped. Besides, there is still the mindset that holds on to the Aryans vs Dravidian politics and blames Brahmins for everything.
But, most of the violence meted out to Dalits are by people of backward castes defined as Shudras in the Varna system. However, this too is a manifestation of Brahminism,” she reasoned. This effectively turns even backward caste women against Dalit women, for their internalised doctrines of patriarchy, and leaves the Dalit women to wage their own battles, she pointed out, adding that it is a sad state of affairs that we as women have never been able to present solidarity in the face of it all.
Courtesy : The New Indian Express