The fabric of resistance: Dalit women's deaths and lives

Last Updated: Tue, Jan 30, 2018 17:05 hrs
Hindu dalits pray during a mass conversion to Buddhism ceremony in Mumbai, 27 May 2007

In Karnataka, a young Dalit woman accused by Hindu rightwing goons of being seen with Muslims and humiliated in front of (and possibly also by) her family commits suicide and another woman in Sringeri threatens to. In Orissa, a minor girl raped by men in uniform commits suicide.

In Uttar Pradesh, a woman writes a letter in blood to the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh threatening to commit suicide if her powerful rapists are not booked.

Some years ago, Dalit women in Coimbatore threatened mass suicide because of police harassment. Every week, news of more suicides pours in.

Alongside the rape pandemic in contemporary India, there is also a suicide pandemic and it is rarely talked about. This is perhaps because of the unstated caste and class dimensions of it, apart from the gendered burden of shame that women disproportionately carry already.

Why is it that Dalit women think of suicide as the first option? In their study Dalit Women Speak Out, authors Irudayam, Jayshree, Mangubhai and Lee inform us that almost one tenth of the women in their study have contemplated and continue to contemplate suicide as a result of violence of one kind or another. Why is it that structural violence makes these women turn the violence upon themselves? What makes their anger and desperation turn inward?

To be sure, it is not only Dalit women who choose suicide. Dalit men do it too. A Tamil doctor-in-training attempted suicide after two years of systemic and systematic harassment and humiliation earlier this month in Gujarat. A constable in Rajasthan killed himself and his whole family – wife and small children – over harassment again last week. But the particularly intractable relationship is that between caste and gender that leads to the immediate decision to commit suicide. While Dalit leaders like Jignesh Mewani and Chandrashekhar Azad, in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh respectively, are taking women along in their struggles for the reclaiming of land due to Dalits or in education to bring girls into the classroom, this is not enough. What is needed is a strong forming of the female psyche from childhood that does not involve the internalisation of ideas of shame, guilt and self-erasure. But how is this to be done and who is going to do it?

The how question is difficult because the structures of patriarchy dominate Dalit society as much as that of any other caste, if not more. The burdens placed on Dalit women are like those on women of any other caste and often worse because the oppression they face as gendered subjects is at the hands of upper caste men, upper caste women and their own men and women. It is a multi-layered burden that would break anyone.

Whom do Dalit women turn to? Their families? The very same families that oppress them? Their communities? The very same communities who are first to judge them? The law? The law is a distant dream and as Pratiksha Baxi in her chapter on the gendered account of the Dalit Atrocities Act in her book Public Secrets of Law has shown us, almost never guarantees them justice. Indeed, even within the ambit of the Act, sexual atrocities are barely recognised let alone explicitly dealt with.

The who will do it question can only be answered with: Dalit women themselves. S. Anandhi and Karin Kapadia have recently assembled a collection of ethnographic essays that suggest that Dalit women are taking on the challenge.

As the book’s title puts it Dalit Women: Vanguard of an Alternative Politics. Perhaps vanguard overstates the case and apart from the fact that vanguards are often dangerous, this is perhaps to put another burden on Dalit women. But many of the stories in the book show that the answer is in the quotidian, in the everyday lives of women, and that the process of self-transformation is slow.

There is much to be done to stem the flow of suicides among Dalit women. The anger, the shame, the guilt, the frustration has to be turned outward in a condemnation of the social and not inward to the broken self. The strength to do that has to come from within. It cannot be only the overtly political and oppositional language of the Alisamma Dalit women’s collective in Hyderabad or the Pentecostal vision of Christian Dalit women in Tami Nadu (two of the many examples of powerful gendered voices in the book), important as these are. These are stories with a telos and narrative that come from elsewhere and are taken up as offering hope.

It has to be woven together from the divisions and breaches in Dalit women’s psyches, born of the pain and suffering. A psychoanalytic reading of that idea of weaving is to acknowledge that languages of rights or religion are not enough to effect the true transformation of the subject. That can only happen when Dalit women are able to take the pieces of themselves and stitch them into a fabric that holds them in their struggles in the world rather than make of them a shroud.

More columns by Ashley Tellis:

The failed dream of Aruvi

Gauri Lankesh's life a battle against men trying to silence her

Pissing in the wind against the Notinmyname campaign

What Justice Karnan case reveals about the Judiciary

Shah Bano to Shayara Bano: Religious laws fail women

Should 'gruesome' images be shared? Yes.

Ashley Tellis is a freelance academic and writer