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Indian History

The #MeToo movement, intersectionality, and its implications for Dalit women

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The phrase ‘Me Too’ originated with Tarana Burke, an African American civil rights activist, to raise awareness of the magnitude of sexual harassment and assault among women of colour.  Yet the recent upsurge in its use, and the face of the Hollywood movement, has been spearheaded by Western (and mostly white) celebrities.

Their campaigning has undoubtedly exposed the severity of sexual harassment in the film industry, but it has raised some troubling questions about the influence of race on perceptions of violence and the granting of support to its victims.

These questions have opened a vital dialogue about the importance of intersectionality in the feminist movement and of making space for women from vulnerable minorities who face discrimination on multiple axes.#MeToo revealed the everyday (and sadly unexceptional) nature of sexual harassment, whilst providing women with a safe platform to voice their experience, without having to disclose explicit details.

Yet for many women, including those living in stigmatised Dalit (‘Untouchable’) communities in postcolonial India, this sort of platform remains largely unavailable. Their low status in the caste system and position within economically impoverished communities exacerbates their vulnerability to severe discrimination. The small distance separating women from their attackers, and from the violent repercussions of men surrounding them, further restricts their ability to seek support and refuge.

Notions of purity are essential to the caste system and rest exclusively on female behaviour, marriage practices and reproduction. Transgressions from social norms frequently lead to the gendered humiliation of Dalit women, which presents a means of collectively punishing the family and wider community. [1] This ranges from verbal abuse and harassment, to violent physical and sexual assault.

The distance separating Dalit communities from caste Hindus and Muslims makes them easily identifiable, and they often become the sites of violence. A letter sent to the secretary of the Home Department of Bombay in 1928 outlines the violence inflicted on a group of Dalits within their own village, as punishment for refusing to continue customary ‘untouchable’ practices. [2]

Historians like Nicholas Dirks have done much to emphasise the role played by colonial administration in the construction of the caste system. Vast ethnographic volumes and official censuses were produced for the colonial government, categorising groups according to their perceived varna status. By doing this, the British imprisoned their Indian subjects into castes, whilst largely granting political representation to higher caste groups that controlled access to material resources. [3]

Historian Rupa Viswanath, in particular, has documented the increasing influence of ‘untouchability’ in the public consciousness since the late nineteenth century. [4] Such narratives demonstrate the historical construction of caste and lend understanding to the problems afflicting Indian society today. The use of caste in the Census of India was withdrawn by 1931, but its rigid hierarchical organisation continues to influence discriminatory practices against lower caste groups. [5] Dalit communities remain bound to the bottom of caste and class hierarchies, separated both spatially and economically from caste Hindu villages.

The denial of basic resources such as water requires Dalit women to leave their homes to provide for their families in a way that upper caste women avoid. [6] Without access to toilet facilities, they are forced to defecate openly, and often at night, away from their homes. The distance this demands leaves them vulnerable to humiliation and harassment from upper caste individuals and groups.

Physical and sexual violence against Dalit women is so common place that it receives very little attention. In contrast, cases involving the rape of higher caste and middle class women, such as the Jyoti Singh case in 2012, are given significant attention in international media coverage. This disparity begs a comparison between the influence of racial and caste prejudice in responses to gendered violence.

Utilising a discourse of human rights legislation, academics are beginning to draw comparative histories that categorise caste and race under ‘descent-based discrimination’. [7] This presents a vital development in widening understanding of caste issues by placing them within a global context.

The persecution women face is exacerbated by patriarchal practices within the home. Dalit men often enforce their own superiority within these rigid social hierarchies by subordinating women in their own communities. In interviews conducted with 400 Dalit couples in Tiruppur district, Tamil Nadu, between 2009-2010, over 60% of the women reported high male alcohol consumption and violence. [8]

The complications of reporting sexual violence when it occurs at the intersection of several spheres of loyalty was emphasised in Burke’s original MeToo campaign. African American women were much less likely to report violence committed against them when they risked incriminating men within their already-vulnerable homes and communities. [9] The position of Dalit women presents a similar problem and one that requires a unique human rights discourse.

The rise of international online movements such as #MeToo present a promising shift for women working in established industries. Yet for those trapped at the bottom of caste, class, and gender hierarchies, in economically impoverished communities in postcolonial India, the sentiment of the movement is lost. The violence faced by Dalit women is a relentless, everyday occurrence deeply embedded within the socio-religious framework that dominates Indian society.

Raising awareness of the historical context behind contemporary discrimination is vital. However, more needs to be done to make international women’s movements and the contemporary human rights discourse inclusive for those facing violence and persecution under vastly different circumstances.

 

Frances Hargreaves is an undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield. Her interests lie in gender history in late colonial and postcolonial South Asia.

 

[1] Anupama Rao, The Caste Question: Dalits and the politics of modern India (California, 2009), p. 222

[2] Letter available in the India Office Records at the British Library, London. File L/PJ/6/1959.

[3] Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the making of modern India (Princeton, 2001), p. 5

[4] Rupa Viswanath, The Pariah Problem (New York, 2014)

[5] Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the making of modern India (Princeton, 2001), p. 16

[6] Aloysius S.J Iruduyam, Jayshree P. Mangubhai and Joel G. Lee, Dalit women speak out: caste, class and gender violence in India (New Delhi, 2014), p.12

[7] Deepa S. Reddy, ‘The Ethnicity of Caste’, Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 78, No. 3 (Summer, 2005), pp. 543-584

[8] Nitya Rao, Marriage, Violence and Choice, Gender and Society, Vol. 29 Issue 3 (2015), p. 428

 

Feature Image: https://pixabay.com/en/india-wedding-saree-women-978488/

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