Dalit Feminism: Issues, Factors and Concerns

Choo-o, choo-o, na chee! O je chandalini’r jhi!
Noshto hobe je doi, she kotha jaano na ki?
(Don’t touch her, don’t touch her, ugh!
She’s the daughter of a Dalit woman!
Your yogurt will get spoiled, don’t you know?)

-Song from Rabindranath Tagore’s Bengali dance drama Chandalika

In Rabindranath Tagore’s masterpiece Chandalika, Prakrit a young Dalit girl, falls in love with a Buddhistmonk Ananda, who captivates her heart by drinking water from her cup, even as she’s spurred by the rest of the village Subsequently, Ananda leaves on pilgrimage and Prakrit s heart breaks into pieces. She compells her mother to use occult powers to bring him back. The mother brings Ananda back to Parkriti but dies in the process. The grief stricken girl is seen seeking the blessings of Ananda, who consoles and encourages her to take to Buddhism to escape the cycle of degradation.

In its diversity feminism is concerned with the marginalizaion of all women: that is, with their being downgraded to a secondary position. “Most feminists believe that our culture is a patriarchal culture; that is, one organized in favour of the interests of men.” 1 In fact Feminism is a serious attempt to formulate the issues and find solutions to gender problems. It was started by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949) and gained momentum in the 1980. She says “legislators, priest, philosophers, writers and scientists have striven to show that the subordinate position of women is willed in heaven and advantageous on earth.”2

dalit-feminismThe present article makes an attempt to analyze and understand Dalit Feminism from various angles ranging socio-cultural to economic perspectives. In the issue of insight on gender and caste, many articles raise the question alliance-building among various movements, especially between the Dalit movement and the feminist movement. Dalit feminists share a definite sense of identification with many emphatic expressions raised by both these movements. We have achieved a lot from them. While it is significant and methodologically wise to form alliances and build cohesion solidarity with other marginalized groups, it should considered only as a movement.

Dalit (oppressed or ‘broken) is not a new word. Obviously it was used in the 1930s as a Hindi and Marathi translation of ‘depressed classes’. The British used this term for what are now called the Scheduled Caste. Dr. Ambedkar chose the term ‘broken men’, as English translation of Dalit’, to refer to the original ancestors of the untouchables. Dalit anthers, the youth activists from Dalit community revived the term and in their 1973 manifesto expanded its reference to include “The scheduled tribes, neo Buddhists, the working people, the landless and poor peasants, women and also who are being exploited politically, economically in the name of religion.”3

Dalitism essentially refers to conditions of oppression economic, political, social and cultural. Dalitism also embodies different degrees of darkness of destitution and marginalization. It includes not only marginalized status  in the economic sphere but also in cultural, political, religious and social spheres. “That means Dalitism symbolizes poverty and marginalization. It is a well-known fact that marginalization denies basic human rights and social justice.” 4

Dalit women are one of the most marginalized segments in the society. The condition of dalit women is more vulnerable than the non-Dalit women. Dalit women are suffering from multi-disadvantages:

  1. of being Dalit, i.e, socio-economically and culturally marginalized section,
  2. of being women and sharing the gender based inequalities and subordination.

To explore these and other crucial issues concerning Dalit women there is a need to discuss some basic facts concerning the vulnerable situation of Dalit women

Not all Dalit institutions are one, not all female bodies are one. They communicate with each other being caught in a criss-cross of intersecting identities. Dalit men, even those identified with the movement, do not want to see Dalit women as intellectuals. “You are a Dalit body, a Dalit female body. Why can’t I possess it? Why can’t I just come near you”. It is horrible. This happens at a very physical level. To prevent this, one of the strategies that an educated Dalit woman uses, i s to stay with upper-caste women as Dalit men will not dare do express and behave in the same manner with them. In such a situation whom a Dalit woman belong to? The Dalit men, or the upper-caste women? Neither.

It is easy for the historically dominating caste and gender to violate human rights of dalit women who are at the low rung of the hierarchical ladder. The type of violence inflicted on Dalits is in the form of severest violation of human rights. Dalit and tribal women are raped as part of an effort by upper caste leaders, land lords and police to suppress movements to demand payment of minimum.

The main complaints of the poorer Dalit women are that they have no good houses. In urban areas most of them stay in unhygienic slums and in rural areas their houses are away from mainstream society. Under conditions of grinding poverty and severe exploitation at work place, Dalit women also suffer caste specific ban on water access from upper castes and may be beaten up in their own houses as well.


First and foremost, Dalit women are victims of social religious and cultural practices like Devdasis and Jogins. In the name of these practices, village girls are married to God by their helpless parents. These girls are then sexually exploited by the upper caste landlords and rich men and directed in to trafficking and prostitution. In his autobiography, R. Kale has described a ritual called ‘chira’. The literal meaning of the word ‘chira, is to cut or break. In this ritual when a girl from the lower caste community reaches the age of puberty, an elderly prestigious man from the higher caste breaks the hymen of the girl child by sexual act. This ritual is performed in a way to make the girl accept this fact as a routine practice. The 28th report of SC/ST Commission reported that there were about ten thousand Jogins belonging to in Nizamabad district of Andhra Pradesh. The survey submitted by the district collector to Schedule Corporation revealed prevalence of 15,850 cases. “Eighty per cent of these Jogins belonged to SC.”5 This data is just an example of one district of the country. Practices such as Iorins, Devdasi which are prevalent even today are harmful and threaten the dignity of dalit women and their human rights.

The lack of understanding of the caste-gender mechanics is reflected in the work of some important upper-caste feminist thinkers like Volga, Vasantha Kannabiran, Kalpana Kannabiran, and Chhaya Datar, who feel that women of all communities and Dalits are both badly victimized and discriminated by the male chauvinists and therefore all women are Dalits! These intellectuals do not, for a moment think of Dalits who are also women. In spite of their awareness that women are divided along caste and class lines, they comfortably draw the parity between ‘women and ‘Dalits’. The social status of upper caste women is totally different from that of Dalit men or women. Patriarchal system, as it functions within and between different castes is decided by the caste identity of individuals. Politics based on difference should be sensitive not only to the difference that matters to them, which they perceive as important but also to other differences.

The aim of identity politics like that of the feminists and Dalits is to ultimately dissolve the maimed effects of cumbersome identities. Asserting an identity is to lay claim on the universal. This universalistic vision can be realized only with the analytical instrument that Dalit feminism provide with. They aim at actively participating in eliminating all forms of violence, intolerance, hierarchy and discrimination in the society. An effective way of achieving this goal is to take ‘difference’ seriously and engage with the politics of difference.


Muktabai, a mang woman, in 1855, wrote about oppression that the poor Mangs and Mahars, especially women, suffered at the hands of the upper castes. She points to how the Mahars have internalized brahminical values and saw themselves as superior to Mangs. Dalit women writers are sensitive to the discriminatory treatment meted out to different subcastes and women within Dalit communities. Muktabai challenges the Brahmins to “try to think about it from your own experience”. According to Muktabai, ‘experience’ and to some extent sense of belongingness has to be the basis of one’s understanding and analysis of the society in general and Dalit womanism in particular.

In her path-breaking essay Dalit women Talk Differently A Critique of ‘Difference’ and Towards a Dalit Feminist Standpoint Position, Sharmila Rege laid the ground for future engagements on caste and gender by arguing for a re-assessment of feminist perspective through a Dalit feminist viewpoint. Distinguishing between a narrow ‘characteristic politics based difference and difference that is historicized or rooted in the ‘long history of lived struggles’; she argues a Dalit feminist standpoint emerges from the endless struggles of Dalit women. She further observes that while non-Dalit feminists can not speak as or for Dalit women, they can re-invent themselves as Dalit feminists, thereby transforming themselves as “Individual feminists” into “oppositional and collective subjects.”6

On the other hand, while dealing with the Dalit feminist standpoint Chhaya Datar argues that a Dalit feminist standpoint can not be comprehend as a standpoint as only those who regenerate both natural and social resources can claim a social resources can claim a standpoint”7 According to her, the Dalit Women’s movement with its focus on a cultural revolt against Brahmnical symbols cannot aspire to a revisioning of society without also talking of the “materiality of the majority of Dalit, marginalized women who lose their livelihood because of environmental degradation.”8

Ruthless patriarchal system within Dalit communities is one issue which repeatedly appears in Dalit feminist dialogues However, the views of Dalit male intellectuals on the conciliation between caste and gender are interesting. Ilaiah compares patriarchy in Dalits and Hindu patriarchy and declares that the former is more liberal and democratic! How can any tyranic and oppressive structure be democratic at all? He elaborates his argument by stating that certain customs like paada pooja (touching the feet) are not observed in Dalit families. He, of course, notices the fact that there nire nractices like wife-battering prevalent in the Dalit families. However, the beaten up wife has a right to make the attack public by shouting, abusing the husband, and if possible by beating the husband in return. The Dalit woman shouts back not because of ‘democratic patriarchy but because of the socio-economic situation she is trapped in.

It is absolutely necessary that common people need to be empathized and sensitized  about the prevailing atrocious exploitation of Dalit women. There is a strong need to seize violation of human rights of Dalit women, so that talent and potential of Dalit women can be used for development of nation. A nation does no prosper only on fertile soil, dense forests and ever flowing rivers. It is the healthy mindset of the people which makes a nation. A society is made up of both men and women from all segments. If women from whichever section of society is weak and exploited, it is not a healthy society. And when a society is healthy, then the nation will march ahead. To fulfil these dreams women in general and particularly from Dalit section need to be empowered for development of the nation


  1. Guerin, Wilfered L., Labor, E., Morgan, L., et. at., A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 4th Edn, Oxford University Press: N.Y. 2003, p. 196.
  2. De beauvoir, Simone, The Second Sex (1949). Reprint Harmonds-worth England : Penguin, 1972
  3. Omvedt, G., Dalit Women and Communalism ( omen, Issues and Perspectives. Gyan Publication: New Delhi, 1995, p. 42.
  4. Punalekar, S., On Dalitism and Gender, (ed.) Joga Dalit Women’s Issues and Perspectives. Gyan Prakas New Delhi, 1995, p. 96
  5. Pal, R. and Bhargav, G., Human Rights of Dalits: Societa 6 Rege, S., “Dalit Women Talk Differently: A Critique o Violation, Gyan Publication: New Delhi, 1999
  6. Difference’ and towards a Dalit Feminist Standpoint Position”.Economic and Political Weekly, October 31, 1998, pp. 41, 42.
  7. 7 Datar, C, “Non-Brahmin Renderings of Feminism” in Maharashra Weekly, October 9, 1999, pp. 296.
  8. 8 Ibid., p. 296.Source: Righting the Wrong Perspectives on Dalit Literature,  Asha Choubey
    Book Enclave Jaipur 2013.


Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 reply

  1. From consulting your website, I learn that there is an immense and vibrant universe of material available that draws attention to thought-provoking, sensitive and enlightening perspectives which some professors at some leading universities continue to ignore. Yet their careers continue unblemished and their perspectives unchallanged. Reward is accorded by their hegemonic standard of scholarship. The fallout and the debris is that those who are deemed to be on the margins, remain there. Thank for all you do, it gives me solace during the frequent bouts of loneliness.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: