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Female and Dalit, the Double Whammy

22 May

Female and Dalit, the Double Whammy

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 nbso online casino reviews 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.

Participating in the Sculptures of Sarah Sze

4 May

Participating in the Sculptures of Sarah Sze

Guest blog writer Emily L. Newman holds a Ph.D. from The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and is currently Assistant Professor of Art History at Texas A&M University – Commerce. Often exploring the intersections between popular culture and art, her research focuses on the way contemporary artists have addressed female body image.

Known for her innovative sculptures of impressive scale, Sarah Sze utilizes paper, string, and various types of discarded or repurposed objects in her art. Recently the subject of a major exhibition “Infinite Line” at the Asia Society in New York City, Sze will represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2013. Born in Boston in 1969, Sze received her B.A. from Yale University and her M.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts in New York. Among the many awards she has received, Sze was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005.

One of the major strengths of Sze’s work is her ability to defy expectations about the artistic process, often by breaking the rules. Not content with frames and pedestals, her works climb up and down the walls and jut out into the viewer’s space. Materiality is a defining characteristic of her work, as she uses found objects, trash, and temporary objects like painter’s tape.

In her show at the Asia Society, Sze’s large, mixed-media sculptures were paired with a selection of drawings and more intimate works on paper. At first glance, the differences between the two groups of works were jarring. The sculptures featured Sze’s customary use of found objects as well as site-specific details like the application of tape, paint, and writing directly on the museum walls and floors. Among the construction materials and objects, Sze included personal items such as credit cards with her name and plane tickets, which specifically connected the viewer to the artist.

Sze follows in the tradition of artists like Marcel Duchamp and Louise Bourgeois, who, through their use of unconventional materials, challenged the art world while challenging identity. Sze incorporates fragments of objects specific to her and her inner circle, but are instantly relatable as symbols of modern identity. Credit cards, airline information, receipts, and discarded scraps of paper all refer to the mundane events of everyday life. Yet, they also refer to the information age, and the large number of people and organizations that have access to personal accounts. Creating modern portraits, Sze encourages the viewer to reflect on the tiny pieces of paper that begin to stand in for important moments and life events.

In addition to her sculptural pieces, her investigation of others’ identities in her drawings is especially poignant. Here, she innovatively transforms personal life events like a pregnancy, a career highlight, and a wedding into architectural elements. Stacking individual memories on top of one another, she creates a biographical tower of her subject’s important moments in graphite. By including these small, specific details throughout her manipulation of space, Sze pulls back from her larger sculptures to focus on the details that define a person’s history.

While the specific, detailed objects often refer to transactions or transportation, the individual artworks themselves require thoughtful investigation and movement to see the intricacies that compose the drawing or sculpture. The viewer must negotiate the terrain of the work, which often begins to resemble a journey. Getting down to look at details on the floor, peering through windows and around walls, and online casino moving in close to read some tiny text, the viewer must investigate the details of the works themselves. It is only then that the work slowly reveals itself.

But whose journey is the viewer experiencing? Is Sze creating a journey for the viewer? Or is it her journey the viewer is on? Does it even matter? With her sculptures, Sze creates an experience that will differ for every viewer-participant. What is remarkable about Sze’s work is that while they may be wedded to their location and installation, Sze creates an experience of not just viewing the work, but also of moving and engaging the work in a very specific way. The works become intricate worlds filled with lines and structures that push the viewer to move in and around the space.

Still Life with Landscape created for the High Line in New York in 2011 (and on display until June 2012) creates habit for a different consumer: birds and insects. The large construction resembles an architectural drawing realized in three dimensions, with various perches, mirrors, and green spaces integrated into the project. Sze even incorporated different types of food into the work, encouraging the birds’ engagement with the piece. Her purpose for creating the piece was to create a space that worked with the park, an abandoned railway track converted to green space. In this video, Sze explains, “I wanted the piece to really be like a site of experimentation, a place where something can happen or not. But the most essential thing really being that you would be reminded that there was the presence of these animals – birds, butterflies, bees – all over the park.” Sze is a conscientious artist who considers not just the environment where her works will be installed but also the way that they can be interacted with. Her selection for the Venice Biennale positions her as one of the best artists in the United States today, with good reason.



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