Female and Dalit, the Double Whammy

22 May

Guest blogger Matilda Branson is a passionate feminist and human rights advocate from Australia with a background in gender and development. She is currently working with a feminist non-government organisation in Nepal.

In my current job working with Dalit women in Nepal, I frequently find myself thinking of feisty ole Crenshaw’s (1989) sociological theory of intersectionality — how categories of identity such as gender, class, ethnicity, and ability — can create, through their interrelation, an intersection of multiple forms of discrimination that can hit just one person with one hell of a punch. In this case, gender and caste in Nepal create a deadly combo.

Who are Dalits? It is a bitter irony that more people know well the Daleks from the British science fiction television series Doctor Who, but have never heard of the term “Dalit.” To understand the term “Dalit,” consider the hierarchical caste system of India, a tool of social stratification dating back centuries. The caste system in Nepal mirrors that of its giant neighbour India. Separated into four levels the Brahmins, traditionally priests, scholars and educators, occupy the top rung of society, while the lowest rung is occupied by “untouchables,” the Dalits.

The term “Dalit” means “ground,” “suppressed,” and “broken” in Sanskrit, which is frankly too close to the truth in terms of the social status they hold in Nepal and in many South East Asian countries, including India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, among others. Many theories, too many to analyse within a humble blog post, abound as to the formation of their “untouchable” status in the caste system. Many relate to the occupations Dalits traditionally fulfilled as labourers, removing animals carcasses, rubbish, and waste, and as butchers, among others, and were consequently regarded as ritually impure, which over time through notions of pollution, purity, and impurity, contributed to their untouchable status. Today, Dalits are discriminated against because of this notion of untouchability.

What forms of discrimination do they face? Dalit discrimination and their consequent disempowerment is social, political, cultural and economic. If you are a woman and Dalit, the discrimination compounds, and this is where Crenshaw’s theory comes to mind. A Dalit friend of mine was alerted to her Dalit status at the age of six, when her teacher yelled at her in front of her class for drinking from the same water tap as the other children and later sent home. Another has had to move four times in the last year, as when her landlords discover she is Dalit, they kick her out. Another is in love with a boy from the highest caste, Brahmin, but must marry another from her own caste. In 2010 Kalli Biswokarma, a 47-year-old woman from Pyutar, a village 40 kilometres south of Kathmandu, was accused of witchcraft and tortured by neighbours for two days and forced to eat human excrement. Her case is just one of many documented. Discrimination against Dalits persists in every facet of their lives; many lack the basic human rights they deserve and are regarded as sub-human by wider society.

I currently work with an organisation, the Feminist Dalit Organisation (FEDO), dedicated to advocating for the rights of Dalit women within a human-rights-meets-fundamental-feminist framework. The people – both men and women – whom I work with are amazing. On my first day of work, half of the Senior Executive of FEDO were arrested by police after conducting a peaceful sit-down protest in central Kathmandu. From there, the admiration I hold for Dalit advocates has grown from the admiration I feel for my colleagues, their boundless passion and belief in what they are fighting for. The day after their release, my colleagues were back, campaigning, risking arrest once more. Dalits have faced so many varying forms of discrimination in their lives, growing up, fighting for first a primary, then secondary and finally tertiary education, and are now fighting to obtain rights for their fellow, less fortunate Dalits, with particular focus on Dalit women’s rights. Old school advocates, in a sense.

A range of Dalit organisations exist in Nepal doing admirable work in advocacy, social welfare, and development. As an Australian and a complete and utter outsider, I can only imagine the difficulty in being a Dalit woman, to be discriminated against through sheer accident of birth, sex, and a rigid hierarchical caste system.

What strikes me is that there seem to be only two approaches through which Dalit organisations operate: through the portrayal of Dalits as pitiful, downtrodden and voiceless victims, or as rebellious revolutionaries engaged in political activism. This has become particularly evident as Nepal’s long-awaited Constitution is prepared, to be released on May 27, 2012, with every minority and disenfranchised group in the country, including Dalit women, vying to pressure the current government to include their rights in the new Constitution.

For a long time I was confused by these somewhat contradicting points – victim or rebel, with little in-between. I yearned to hear of any kind of positive celebration of what it is to be Dalit, the nobility of Dalit women in adversity, pride in “being Dalit.” Even an “I Love Dalit” T-shirt would do.

I feared the danger of victimising Dalit women, that it may adversely affect their image, contributing further to the internalisation of a stigmatised identity as an “untouchable.” I feared the out-of-touch representation of a few Dalit intellectuals, academics, activists, and political leaders for the majority whose experiences in remote rural Nepal differs vastly from the experiences of the newly formed urban elite.

It took a long time for me to realise that what I am in fact watching is the formation of the collective identity, the group consciousness, of this minority group. What it is to be “Dalit,” let alone a Dalit woman, as yet lacks unity. Even within the overarching label of “Dalit,” there exists a range of “sub-castes,” more than twenty in Nepal, some of which discriminate against others on the basis of specific professions occupied historically, despite all being classified as “Dalit” in the caste system.

Yet I am seeing in my work that the Dalit identity in Nepal, particularly that of Dalit women, is growing — daily, weekly — and gaining strength and support. To even have educated Dalit women at the higher levels representing Dalit women’s interests creates a positive representation of Dalits as role models and trailblazers. This helped me realise that such representation over time will help foster more positive attitudes toward Dalit women and Dalits generally, and that the positive celebration of their social identity will indeed come, bit by bit.

Reference: Crenshaw, K. (1989) Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics. 1989 University of Chicago Legal Forum, 139. He picked up the alto sax while still in school and mastered it almost immediately, earning a spot in the school’s uncommon source marching band

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