Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 34, March 2014

Reconciling Feminist and Anti-Caste Analyses
in Studies of Indian Dalit-Bahujan Women

Elen Turner

  1. In the west the catchphrase 'all the women are white, all the blacks are men' came to capture black women's feelings that they were alienated from both the feminist movement and the black civil rights movement. In India, there has been a 'masculinization of dalithood and a savarnisation [upper-casteing] of womanhood.'[1] This paper examines three book-length studies of women's involvement in anti-caste struggles that go some way in reconciling feminist and anti-caste positions concerning dalit-bahujan women:[2] We Also Made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement, by Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon (Zubaan, 2008), Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Reading Dalit Women's Testimonios by Sharmila Rege (Zubaan, 2006), and The Other Half of the Coconut: Women Write Self-Respect History, edited by K. Srilata (Kali for Women, 2003). All three books were published by leading Indian feminist presses. This paratextual fact is central to a key argument of mine—that recent, feminist-inspired histories of dalit-bahujan women are trying to reconcile the fissures between feminist and anti-caste analyses, but are not always entirely successful because one of the two modes of analysis remains dominant over the other. Feminist and anti-caste modes of analysis have not always complemented each other in activism or scholarly discourse, with 'mainstream' feminists often believing that their movement is caste-neutral, and lower-caste women believing that the feminist movement does not provide a space for their particular grievances, heavily marked by caste. I argue that these feminist studies attempt to reconcile a feminist analysis with an anti-caste one—that is, the authors and views expounded in the texts are informed by feminist and anti-caste positions. But, it is still evident that the two modes of analysis have an ambivalent relationship with each other. 'Feminist' often remains synonymous with 'upper-caste.'
  2. I begin with an introduction to dalit-bahujan feminism, and how this has had an uneasy relationship with mainstream feminism. I then discuss the key texts in turn. These books were selected specifically because of their combination of feminist and anti-caste modes of analysis. Published by feminist presses Kali for Women and Zubaan, they are framed as feminist studies of dalit-bahujan women. These books are not the only publications that study dalit-bahujan women from a feminist perspective, as there are other presses, both mainstream-academic (such as Oxford University Press India) and caste-studies focused (such as Samya or Navayana) that are very much open to feminist readings of caste. However, the overtly feminist framing of these texts makes them particularly illuminating in trying to discern how effectively feminism and anti-caste analyses meet and interact. A broader study of all publications on caste and women may result in different conclusions, but as the feminist presses under discussion are well-known mediators of certain sections of the Indian feminist movement—particularly those that can be described as mainstream, being urban-based, educated and middle-class—a study of their publications can tell us how a mainstream version of feminism interacts with caste.

    Dalit-bahujan women, feminism, and minority histories
  3. Prior to the 1980s, feminists largely felt that the state was their main target as they believed law reform would realise many of their demands. Their priority was tackling violence against women, but this largely centred on the ways violence manifested in the lives of middle-class, upper-caste women. Early Indian feminist activists largely came from these sections of society, and prioritised women's identity as women above other categories.[3] The universalising of 'woman' ignores the workings of other identity markers such as caste, religion, class or sexuality.[4] This resulted in what has been called 'Brahmanical feminism,' which, according to Anupama Rao, 'is the possibility of occupying a feminist position outside caste: the possibility of denying caste as a problem for gender [emphasis in original].'[5] During the 1980s, particularly with the rise of communalism and identity politics in India, feminists realised that there was not one state entity to be targeted for reform, and women themselves held multiple identities. More than simply adding caste awareness to pre-existing feminist thought was necessary. Sharmila Rege points out that 'just adding to an axis of patriarchy an axis of caste oppression, assumes that gender can be isolated from caste and that…there is something (some form of oppression) that is “common” to all women.'[6] Though women of all castes can be subject to gender discrimination and violence from men, dalit-bahujan women are susceptible to domination by upper-caste men and women.[7]
  4. Dalit-bahujan feminist groups became increasingly active from the 1990s. They have suggested that the genealogy of Indian feminism needs to be rethought 'in order to engage meaningfully with dalit women's "difference" from the ideal subjects of feminist politics.'[8] Dalit-bahujan feminists have pointed out that they suffer oppression in three distinct yet overlapping ways: first, they are subject to caste oppression at the hands of the upper-castes; second, a large number of them are involved in manual labouring and as such are subject to class-based oppression, also mainly at the hands of the landowning upper-castes; and third, as women they experience patriarchal oppression at the hands of men of all castes, including their own.[9] Mainstream feminism has been inadequate for dalit-bahujan women, and the male-dominated anti-caste movements have also proven themselves narrow. They have not necessarily accorded women the ability to speak for themselves, or taken their particular grievances as women into account. For instance, dalit-bahujan scholar Kancha Ilaiah has stated that, 'among the [upper-caste] Hindus the man-woman relationship is conditioned by manipulation and deceptivity [sic]. Dalitbahujan relationships on the other hand are based on openness.'[10] This assumption that dalit-bahujan women somehow have a privileged position as women within their own communities is not uncommon, even amongst feminists.[11] Some upper-caste feminists have stated that dalit-bahujan women are freer than upper-caste women because they have more mobility outside of the home and usually undertake paid work. Shailaja Paik, in attacking this notion, does not restrict her criticism to upper-caste feminists, but points out that some dalit feminists are also guilty of romanticising dalit women's lives, claiming that 'dalit patriarchy is more democratic than Hindu patriarchy.'[12] But as Paik states:

      Educated upper caste women are granted freedom to move and work in the public arena as long as they respect the rules of caste and class endogamy. On the other hand, dalit women do not have many rights, and are vulnerable to state and upper caste domination in the public, and dalit patriarchy in the private.[13]

    As a response to these kinds of romanticised and inadequate attitudes, and to mainstream feminism's narrowness, the National Federation of Dalit Women was established in 1995.
  5. An incident that highlights the deep-rooted connections between feminist and caste politics in India is that of the anti-Mandal protests of 1990. In 1989 the Indian government decided to implement a quota for Other Backward Castes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the recruitment for public service jobs,[14] upon the earlier recommendation of the Mandal Commission which had been established to report to the government on reservation matters.[15] An increase in the proportions of lower-castes and dalits to be recruited inevitably meant the proportion of upper-castes in these jobs would decrease.[16] The changes sparked a 'profound transformation of the political debates about caste and identity'[17] and ushered in the contemporary phase of dalit-bahujan activism. Many young upper-caste female students protested these reservations. Uma Chakravarti points out that what was particularly interesting about these protests from a feminist standpoint was that the placards the young women carried held messages such as 'We don't want unemployed husbands!' But, Chakravarti rhetorically asks, 'who had told them that they could not marry the new entrants into the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) drawn from the "backward" castes?'[18] These young women were proclaiming a self-regulatory code, having internalised the ideology of mandatory endogamous marriage which is a crucial aspect of the caste system.[19] Questions such as Chakravarti's could not have been contemplated because this patriarchal aspect of caste practice—the control over women's sexuality—had been deemed natural.
  6. Mainstream feminists have increasingly realised the importance of listening to dalit-bahujan women's perspectives, especially since the anti-Mandal protests, though the alliances between them can still be strained. Books produced by Indian feminist publishers on dalit-bahujan women are increasing. Echoing feminist literary recovery projects, feminist publishers have tried to bring to the fore the previously silenced voices of dalit-bahujan women. These texts tend to be multi-genre interdisciplinary studies that encompass historical research, literary study and life narrative. Pawar and Moon's We Also Made History is described by the translator as a work of oral history that should 'open up possibilities for further research and exploration of the past.'[20] The Other Half of the Coconut was researched, collated and translated by Srilata because she noticed a lack of historical studies of women in the Self-Respect Movement.[21] These works of dalit-bahujan history are not the last word on what 'really happened,' but resources that bring forth previously unacknowledged, or unknown stories, providing a platform and a basis on which other scholars can build. The writing of dalit-bahujan women's history is politically important and historiographically necessary because conventional archives and mainstream historical narratives have not only neglected but often refused to record dalit-bahujan activities.[22]
  7. Increased scholarly attention to anti-caste histories roughly coincided with Subaltern Studies, and with feminist projects of literary recovery, such as Susie Tharu and K. Lalita's Women Writing in India, both of which had an enormous effect upon the study of various 'minority' voices.[23] Yet not all dalit-bahujan history subscribes to these methodologies. The tensions surrounding the different approaches to history can be seen in dalit-bahujan responses to the Subaltern Studies project. This not only looked to recover minority histories, but to demonstrate how these altered and challenged the very nature of history and historical study. Subaltern Studies did not simply aim to recover the 'neglected underside of human experience,' but to 'rethink the pattern of historical development as a whole,' to interrogate what history and its study actually constitutes, and it is in this that we can draw links to much dalit-bahujan writing.[24] The definitional boundaries between literature and history blur here, as much dalit-bahujan history writing draws upon literary texts (poetry, short stories, novels, testimonials, speeches), and much dalit-bahujan literature is written with the aim of exposing these peoples' contemporary and historical experiences. But, as Toral Jatin Gajarawala emphasises, though one might expect dalit-bahujan history writing to be 'quintessentially subaltern' (dalit-bahujans are, according to Debjani Ganguly, 'those dregs at the bottom of what is still a deeply hierarchical society'), much of it challenges such understandings, levelling a critique at the traditional leftist and Marxist bent of Subaltern Studies 'and their putative conflation of caste and class.'[25] As Gajarawala continues, dalit writing 'has charged itself with both a formalist revolution that stretches the boundaries of the "literary" and a revisionist history that resurrects the Dalit from the abyss of anonymity.'[26]
  8. Another dalit-bahujan critique of Subaltern Studies has been that this history from below has failed, as Ganguly notes, 'to represent within its parameters the dalit movement's own peculiar transactions with colonial modernity and indigenous nationalism.'[27] B.R. Ambedkar and Periyar, two important dalit leaders from the earlier twentieth century, welcomed British colonial intervention in India in some respects because they saw that it could perhaps enable dalits to break with the oppressive traditions that left them subordinate to upper-caste Hindus.[28] Subaltern Studies' Marxist roots, even when diverged from and contested, prevented the intellectual movement from ever really departing from critiques of modernity and modernisation, processes with which Ambedkar and Periyar seemed to unproblematically ally themselves.[29] The appearance of some dalit-bahujan scholars' essays in later volumes of Subaltern Studies only goes so far in connecting the two forms of minority history, as the essays by Vijay Prashad and Kancha Ilaiah do not share Subaltern Studies' investment in epistemological critique.[30] These two scholars do not represent all dalit-bahujan approaches to history writing and literary production, but this example of the disjuncture between Subaltern Studies and dalit-bahujan perspectives does account for other formulations of minority histories.

    We Also Made History
  9. In 1987, one of the first oral histories of women in India was published: life stories of women involved in the Telangana People's Struggle.[31] After its publication, Marathi dalit writer Urmila Pawar was inspired to write a similar account of women's involvement in the Ambedkarite Movement, and collaborated with Meenakshi Moon to write Aamhihi Itihaas Ghadwala: Ambedkari Chalvalitil Streeyancha Sahabhag.[32] Pawar had initially conceived of the research as a Ph.D. project, but was encouraged to write it as a book instead.[33] In her autobiography, Pawar states:

      I had read Dr. Ambedkar's biography and about his work and also about women's participation in this movement. But where were these women? The question began to haunt me. All around me I could see only men. The case was similar vis-à-vis archival material. So I decided to find out more about the women who were a part of the movement.[34]

    This clearly exposes Pawar's 'recovery' aims. It was the first book to examine the contribution women made to the Ambedkarite Movement[35] and, as Rege states, it challenged 'the assumed male identity of the collective subject of the dalit movement'.[36] The Marathi media lauded Pawar and Moon for bringing the contribution of these dalit women to light.[37] In 2008, Zubaan published Wandana Sonalkar's English translation as We Also Made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement.[38]
  10. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956) was a Marathi dalit leader who is still celebrated as a father-figure of anti-caste struggle. He led various agitations such as those to gain access for dalits to public drinking water, and for dalit entry into Hindu temples. He also famously burned a copy of the Laws of Manu, the ancient Hindu text that endorsed the oppression of lower-castes and women, and stated that though he was born a Hindu, he would not die one. Several months before his death he converted to Buddhism, converting around half a million of his followers with him. He was also appointed Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution after Independence. Ambedkar was known to have progressive ideas about women, particularly for his time, yet his primary focus was on untouchability and caste, and questions of gender were secondary to these.[39]
  11. We Also Made History is divided into two sections: the first is an historical account of dalit women's involvement in struggles against untouchability from the early twentieth century, the years of Ambedkar's leadership from the 1920s, and developments in the anti-caste movement after his death in 1956. The second section consists of oral accounts and life sketches of women involved in the movement, who Pawar and Moon located through piecemeal historical records and word-of-mouth accounts.[40] Neither Pawar nor Moon was a professional historian; Pawar being a writer of fiction and Moon having edited a Marathi magazine for dalit women. The non-professionalism of their history is evident in some of the selections and the methodology employed, but it is also important to ask why it was necessary for amateur historians to do this kind of work in the first place, and why there were either no dalit-bahujan or feminist historians who were interested or qualified enough to do this study. Dipesh Chakrabarty, discussing Subaltern Studies' challenge to the disciplinary dictates of history, states, 'Historians, regardless of their ideological moorings, display a remarkable consensus when it comes to defending history's methodological ties to a certain understanding of rationality.'[41] Yet a statement such as this does not necessarily include 'historians' such as Pawar and Moon, who represent a group traditionally excluded from institutions of rational, post-enlightenment influenced learning. Pawar and Moon lie outside this 'consensus' on rationality, partly because they were not trained historians.
  12. These facts result in the reservations that some critics have about the first section of We Also Made History.[42] S. Anandhi states that the first section:

      privileges the dalit identity over the differences based on gender within the community. As the authors narrate the achievements of Mahaars, their patriotic fervour, etc, they insist that the history of dalit women cannot be separated from the history of the community. In short, they sideline differences based on gender in order to highlight the differences based on caste.[43]

    Pawar and Moon were privileging their caste over their gender, but were still trying to raise awareness of the importance of a gender-sensitive historical reading of anti-caste struggles. The first section at times reads as quite naïve. Sonalkar, the English translator, states that 'it largely takes the ideology of the Ambedkar Movement as given; it celebrates women emerging from the multi-layered experience of extreme caste exploitation in a language that follows Ambedkar and the sympathetic, but largely male, leadership of the movement.'[44] A mythologising tone pervades the discussions of Ambedkar. Rao has noted that in much early dalit writing, particularly up until the 1950s, Ambedkar's name 'accumulates a sort of fetish value; it is repeated, circulated, and made to represent the man, the movement, and the Dalit future.'[45] Aspects of this can be seen in Pawar and Moon's work. For instance, when discussing Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism, Pawar and Moon describe him in 'otherworldly' terms:

      Babasaheb was reading out all the pledges without his glasses. This surprised many who were present, as it was widely known that Babasaheb's eyes were weak and that he could not read without spectacles. Yet he swore in all the initiates without his glasses, as if to demonstrate that he was not viewing these ceremonies through prejudiced eyes.[46]

    Whether or not Ambedkar was wearing his glasses is irrelevant to any discussion of the political and historical significance of the events recounted, and adds a mystical aura to Ambedkar. This use of sentimental language could be considered to weaken the tone of the study as a whole, but it is necessary to keep in mind the social and material conditions in which this study was inspired and executed. Studies such as Pawar and Moon's are not necessarily just seeking a place within the existing apparatuses of history (that is, acting as works of recovery), but contributing towards a reconceptualisation of history.
  13. If we read Pawar and Moon's work through a frame that does not privilege caste analysis over feminist analysis, the mythologising tone could be read as detrimental to the development of a distinct dalit-feminist consciousness and scholarship. Srilata, editor of a study of women in another anti-caste struggle, the Tamil Self-Respect Movement (discussed below), makes comments about the representation of its leader, Periyar, which are also pertinent to representations of Ambedkar. She states that though it is necessary and strategic for contemporary scholars sympathetic to the Self-Respect Movement to defend Periyar in the face of upper-caste misrepresentations of the movement's gender politics, it may not always be the most productive practice:

      Granting that Periyar's vision of gender equality was progressive and far ahead of his times, invoking him in a compulsive fashion may well close off other valuable directions in which questions and debates about gender and the Self-Respect Movement could proceed.[47]

    Ambedkar can be substituted for Periyar in the above comments, demonstrating that personal sympathies accompanied by critical distance make for more nuanced studies than those motivated by personal interest alone. Dietrich, while recognising the important early steps that Ambedkar made in raising the status of dalit women, calls for a 'drastic rethinking' of patriarchy from within the dalit movement.[48] This is something that may not be possible if Ambedkar is unquestioningly invoked as proof that the anti-caste movement contains progressive gender ideology.

    Writing Caste/Writing Gender
  14. Dalit-bahujan groups have increasingly, over the past couple of decades, drawn on international human rights legal discourse to articulate their grievances.[49] Life writing and the testimonio genre in particular have been associated with human rights struggles, and these are formats that much dalit-bahujan literature has been presented as. In such narratives, the political is merged with the aesthetic, the moral and the affective.[50] Dalit writing has, in recent years, been likened to testimonio, a form of life writing originating from Latin-American atrocity narratives. George Yudice describes testimonio as a narrative form in which

      the witness portrays his or her own experience as an agent (rather than a representative) of a collective memory and identity. Truth is summoned in the cause of denouncing a present situation of exploitation and oppression or in exorcising and setting aright official history.[51] The narratives in We Also Made History are testimonial accounts of this type, and are in many ways similar to the narratives that appear in Sharmila Rege's Writing Caste/Writing Gender. This is, in effect, an extension of We Also Made History with a more thorough theorisation of the narrative model that is being employed. Yudice's statement that testimonial witnesses are agents rather than representatives is relevant to my analysis of this text, as Rege is successful in demonstrating the individuality of the lives of her subjects, their particular personalities and successes in life, while at the same time demonstrating how they are part of a larger dalit community of women.

  15. The publication and production of dalit-bahujan testimonio has been criticised as sensationalist and overly emotive by some commentators. It has been said that 'the market' loves dalit-bahujan autobiographies or life stories.[52] Anand Teltumbde believes that this popularity is due to its easily digestible nature, in contrast to dalit poetry, novels or short stories which, he states, are higher in literary value, with more nuanced social context and imagery, and therefore are limited in their market potential.[53] Writing Caste/Writing Gender responds to such critiques, formally, if not directly. It contains a long introductory section by Rege in which she theorises her approach to dalit life writing, accounts for her use of the generic term testimonio, and provides some history of dalit women's activism, particularly the Ambedkarite Movement. She gives this history because she believes that reading dalit autobiographies without appropriate contextualisation of the political ideology of anti-caste movements risks 'making a spectacle of dalit suffering and pain for non-dalit readers.'[54] The comment is at the heart of how she structured this book and why. Even when the subjects are recounting painful experiences, they are not made a spectacle of. Their suffering is not de-contextualised or presented as their only life experience. Rege provides a mapping of dalit women's life experiences. Her narratives are not exhaustive of the totality of women's experiences, as in the remainder of the book she provides just eight narratives of women from Maharashtra who had acquired a certain amount of fame or acclaim for their Marathi memoirs. Yet Rege does not make any claims to exhaustiveness. Her mapping demonstrates that these dalit women had successes and failures in life, some caused by caste, others not. This book is an example of the dialogical meeting of feminism and caste analysis, because throughout the narratives the women's caste and gender identities are laid side by side, neither privileged above the other. Each is necessary to inform the other. There is no sense that these are women who happen to be dalits, or dalits who happen to be women. They are dalit women, and Rege demonstrates that these are two strands of identity that equally determine a person's experience.
  16. Rege builds her own narrative structure around a series of translated excerpts and elaboration. She calls this practice 're-rendering,' which is quite different from 'recovery.'[55] The excepts are structured by Rege thematically—the household, food and hunger, community, caste, culture and practices of labour, the school, humiliation, violence, resistance and collective struggles.[56] This book goes a long way in resisting the sensationalism that dalit-bahujan life narratives have often been charged with. The manner in which the narratives are presented—a combination of excerpts from the women's autobiographies/memoirs, and paraphrasing and contextualising information from Rege—creates the sense that the reader is one step removed from the subject. Though this framing perhaps alienates reader from subject, it also resists sensationalising the subject's life. This is not to say that instances of caste-based discrimination and the pain these caused are not recounted. But, they are kept within the larger narrative of the subjects' lives, in which they raise families, become educated, have interesting careers, do social and political work, and so on. Instances of pain and suffering are not privileged above all else in the women's lives. This narrative strategy creates a sense of 'ordinariness,' banality even, in several of the narratives. Yet, even in those particular narratives that seem to consciously resist the sensationalism that is common in dalit writing, it is important to ask the 'significance of this insignificance,' as what may appear banal to one reader is indicative of deep structural discrimination in the lives of dalit-bahujan narrators.[57] Franco Moretti states that a general assumption is that 'a story is worth telling if a rule is broken (a rule of conduct, or probability, or both).'[58] When looking at dalit-bahujan writing, the normal or the everyday—and the rules by which people live—are very different from those pertaining to upper castes. Perhaps the dalit-bahujan stories are marketable because they represent a breaking of upper-caste rules (of literature, of conduct) for the upper-caste reader, which does not, of course, equal the breaking of dalit-bahujan rules. Thus, what is normal or every day to one can be sensational or surprising to another.
  17. Illustrations of this point can be seen in Baby Kamble's narrative, which comprises excerpts from her Marathi autobiography Jinne Amuche.[59] Kamble was an ordinary dalit woman who ran a shop along with her husband. She secretly wrote her memoirs in her spare time. The memoirs read very much like an anthropological study, with thick description of clothing, marriage and birth rituals, food and labour. In fact, in the introduction to Jinne Amuche, Maxine Bernston highlights the sociological, anthropological and historical value of the text.[60] Rege's comments on the importance of reading these dalit women's narratives in social context are particularly evident in Kamble's chapter. For instance, a section is devoted to describing food. One could read this as an ordinary detail about ordinary lives that, when combined with other descriptions of life create a rich picture of what life entailed for the subjects. However, when read in conjunction with the other dalit narratives and the politically and socially contextualising material, these details take on added depth. They do provide the background material for ordinary life that I just outlined, but they also demonstrate the difficulty of everyday life as a result of caste. For instance, Rege retells a scene from Kamble's memoir in which a neighbour of Kamble's had been ill and so cooked some fish to help herself regain strength. Her children nagged her for some so she gave them a small amount. The daughter ate this rare treat quickly, but the son wanted to savour his so tucked a piece of fish into the corner of his mouth to enjoy for longer. In teasing his sister for finishing hers so quickly, the fish fell from his mouth. He screamed so loudly and made such a fuss that the neighbours thought he had been bitten by a snake. This became a neighbourhood joke.[61] It is the kind of amusing incident that makes up everyday life anywhere. But the significance lies in the fact that this fish was so rare to these dalits. An incident that could be laughed off as unimportant to people who are well-nourished and wealthy is memorable and poignant to those who are not. What is commonplace or banal to one can represent a struggle for life and dignity for another. In anecdotes such as these, which comprise the majority of Rege's book, neither the subject's caste nor her gender is privileged above the other. They are dalit women, with each aspect of their identity playing a key role in their life experiences. As a result, Writing Caste/Writing Gender plays an important role in reconciling feminist and anti-caste modes of analysis.

    The Other Half of the Coconut
  18. Education and teaching careers are recurring themes in Rege's book. Who controls the production of knowledge, and what is considered valid knowledge in the first place, are important questions for feminists and for dalit-bahujan activists. Aditya Nigam explicitly connects the production of knowledge on dalits and on women:

      Dalit histories, dalit accounts of the past, like feminist ones, raise a fundamental question about the possibility of the 'knowing subject' who stands outside the so-called object whose history she writes and about whom this subject 'produces knowledge'.… That no dalit histories could be produced till dalits themselves started writing their own history—much like the feminists—points to a deeper problem with academic histories written from the distance of a scientist, ever unable to share the experience of oppression.[62]

    Control over the production of knowledge has been important to anti-caste movements for a long time. One of the primary aims of the pre-independence non-Brahmin Tamil Self-Respect Movement was the creation of their own print media.[63] V. Geetha and S.V. Rajadurai point out that to members of the movement, most active in the 1920s and 1930s, 'the single most secular index of brahmin power in…modern times was the newspaper.'[64] This recognition of the power that control over the written word represented led them to establish their own newspapers.[65]
  19. The Tamil Self-Respect Movement is the subject of The Other Half of the Coconut, edited by Srilata. The Self-Respect Movement (Suyamariathai Iyakkam in Tamil) was initiated by E.V. Ramasami Naicker, commonly known as Periyar, in 1926, in what was then Madras Presidency. It drew attention to the ways in which the lower castes (or Dravidians as they referred to themselves) had been systematically excluded from the Indian nation and constructed as the 'others' of the Brahmins (or the Aryans, as they called them).[66] It is one particularly radical phase[67] of the broader Dravidian, or non-Brahmin,[68] political movement, which continues to dominate politics in Tamil Nadu.[69] The Self-Respect Movement mainly comprised women, lower-castes, rickshaw pullers, weavers, peasants, factory workers and other 'dregs of society.'[70] The movement represented a means for these subaltern peoples to gain control over the production of knowledge. Much like the Ambedkarite Movement in Maharashtra, the leaders of the Self-Respect Movement set themselves in opposition to Gandhi, the Congress Party and the nationalist movement, which they considered pro-Brahmin.[71]
  20. The movement, and the way it has been remembered in subsequent years, has other parallels with the Ambedkarite Movement. Periyar had progressive attitudes towards women and their role in society, and a major part of the Self-Respect Movement was the reform of marriage to free it of Hindu rituals, make it more just for women, and to encourage widow remarriage and devadasi (sacred prostitute) marriage.[72] Women in the Self-Respect Movement have generally been presented as objects of political action, mobilisable by men.[73] In 1991 Anandhi S. wrote, 'A striking feature of the existing studies on the Self Respect Movement is their silence on its consistent struggle against women's oppression and its attempt to dismantle the ubiquitous structure of patriarchy in Tamil society.'[74] This collection contains articles that appeared in Self-Respect journals (mainly Kumaran) and fictional writings by women involved in the movement, translated from Tamil, that

      should enable us to read against the grain of existing historiography which sees women Self-Respecters as having been acted on by the male leader, as having had their consciousness 'raised', as having provided support roles to what was essentially a male cause, the cause of the 'larger' movement [emphasis in original].[75]

    It contains diverse voices from across the political spectrum, united by 'allegiance to a larger Self-Respect universe.'[76]
  21. Though primarily a study of a relatively contained historical movement, Srilata draws the reader's attention to the contemporary relevance of a collection such as The Other Half.

      The legacies that women Self-Respecters have left behind are precious to us as feminists, not just because they are important documents from the past or from the history of the women's movement, but because they speak to us with a peculiar urgency today, in a context where we feel the necessity to critique feminisms that draw exclusively on upper-caste, upper-class perspectives.[77]

    Particularly interesting in reference to the above quote is the fact that The Other Half contains a couple of pieces by a Brahmin woman, and one by a Muslim woman. The Brahmin woman states that she has endured many hardships because '[t]he Brahmins, you see, oppress their own kind.'[78] One did not themselves need to be lower-caste to share the Self-Respect Movement's anti-Brahmin ideology. This logic can be extended to the contemporary feminist movement, in that challenging the patriarchal underpinnings of caste and their attendant oppressions need not be a project restricted to dalit-bahujan women. In fact, it is important that it be realised that not just dalit-bahujan women have a caste identity.[79] Like Rege's Writing Caste/Writing Gender, this book engages in a dialogue between feminist and caste analyses, privileging neither above the other, each being necessary to understand the other. The writing included in The Other Half was not written by the 'average' women who happened to be a part of this movement, but educated and highly motivated women; those 'who marked the outer limit[s] to which a woman activist of the movement could reach out.'[80] So, Srilata's choice of entries in this book represents a call to action that women Self-Respecters were engaged in. Like Rege's book, neither the caste nor the female identity of the subjects is dominant over the other, and The Other Half of the Coconut represents another step in reconciling feminist and anti-caste analysis.

  22. In keeping with Srilata's suggestion that The Other Half has contemporary feminist relevance, this call to action need not be restricted to this one historical period. It can be extended to mean that all feminists or feminist sympathisers with progressive ideas about social justice should ally around anti-caste issues. But, as Pawar and Moon's We Also Made History demonstrates, the privileging of one mode of analysis (anti-caste) above the other (feminist) can actually weaken the discursive power of both. Unquestioningly following the anti-caste rhetoric and leaders of anti-caste movements may result in the neglect of the particular problems faced by dalit-bahujan women, as men—of subaltern or hegemonic classes or castes—have a tendency to consider themselves the norm to which their women must adhere. Therefore, what my discussion of We Also Made History, Writing Caste/Writing Gender and The Other Half of the Coconut has demonstrated is that an integration of feminist and anti-caste analyses may be the most productive method for tackling dalit-bahujan women's concerns, practically and discursively. This is not yet the sole language by which mainstream feminism relates to caste, but there is no valid reason why Indian feminism must remain a preserve of the upper-castes, and my discussion of these texts demonstrates that the two forms of social justice activism can be more closely allied.


    [1] Sharmila Rege, 'A dalit feminist standpoint,' in Gender and Caste, ed. Anupama Rao, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2003, pp. 90–101, p. 74.

    [2] A note on terminology: 'Dalit' is the term most commonly used across India to refer to those who lie outside of the traditional four-tier Hindu caste system, historically referred to as 'untouchables'. It is estimated that there are around one hundred and sixty million dalits in India. (See Clifford Bob, '"Dalit rights are human rights": caste discrimination, international activism, and the construction of a new human rights issue,' Human Rights Quarterly vol. 29 (2007): 167–93, p. 168.) The terminology of caste is complex, as caste names vary regionally, as does the relative majority or minority of different castes. In reality, caste and untouchability are not restricted to Hindus, with some Indian Christian, Muslim and Sikh communities practicing them as well. 'Dalit' derives from Marathi and was popularised by the dalit leader Ambedkar, and roughly means broken up, ground to pieces or oppressed (Bob, '"Dalit rights are human rights,"' p. 168.) It is the preferred term within most anti-caste struggles, activism and writing, and 'represents a deliberate and deeply felt rejection of the vocabulary employed by the caste Hindus,' such as Gandhi's harijan (meaning 'children of god') which is considered patronising and paternalistic. (See Vidyut Bhagwat, 'Marathi literature as a source for contemporary feminism,' Economic and Political Weekly vol. 30, no. 17 (1995): WS24 –29, WS29.) In politics dalit is often paired with bahujan, meaning 'majority.' Dalit-bahujan refers to a political discourse that includes lower castes, dalits, peasants, adivasis, women, and sometimes Muslims. (See K. A. Geetha, 'Representation and resistance: strategies in Bama's Karukku and Raj Gautaman's Siluvai Raj Sarithiram,' Journal of Postcolonial Writing (2011): 1 –10, p. 8.) Bahujan was coined as a way of politically mobilising people of various castes and communities under one identity. (See Badri Narayan, 'National past and political present,' Economic and Political Weekly vol. 39, no. 31 (2004): 3533–540, p. 3538.)

    [3] Shailaja Paik, 'Amchya Jalmachi Chittarkatha (The Bioscope of Our Lives): who is my ally?,' Economic and Political Weekly vol. xliv, no. 40 (2009): 39–47, p. 41.

    [4] Paik, 'Amchya Jalmachi Chittarkatha,' p. 41.

    [5] Anupama Rao, 'Understanding Sirasgaon: notes towards conceptualizing the role of law, caste and gender in a case of "atrocity",' in States of Trauma: Gender and Violence in South Asia, ed. Piya Chatterjee, Manali Desai and Parama Roy, New Delhi: Zubaan, 2009, pp. 52–90, p. 55.

    [6] Sharmila Rege, Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Reading Dalit Women's Testimonios, New Delhi: Zubaan, 2006, p. 74.

    [7] Aloysius Irudayam S.J., Jayasree P. Mangubhai and Joel G. Lee, Dalit Women Speak Out: Caste, Class and Gender Violence in India, New Delhi: Zubaan, 2011, pp. 53–54.

    [8] Anupama Rao, 'Introduction: caste, gender and Indian feminism,' in Gender and Caste, ed. Anupama Rao, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2003, pp. 1–47, p. 2.

    [9] Uma Chakravarti, Gendering Caste through a Feminist Lens, Kolkata: Stree, 2006, p. 142.

    [10] Kancha Ilaiah, 'Why I am not a Hindu,' in Gender and Caste, ed. Anupama Rao, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2003, pp. 86–89, p. 88.

    [11] For instance, Gabriele Dietrich has stated: 'Cases of dowry connected with torture and murder are more frequent among upper castes and it is probably not exaggerated to say that family violence among upper castes tends to be quite systematic. Thus type of systematised family violence occurs much less among backward castes and Dalits unless they have become economically prosperous and try to imitate upper caste values, which is very rare. Dalit women are not under the ideology of husband-worship and if they face violence within the family, they may fight back.' See Dietrich, 'Dalit movements and women's movements,' in Gender and Caste, ed. Anupama Rao, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2003, pp. 57–79, p. 58.

    [12] Paik, 'Amchya Jalmachi Chittarkatha,' p. 40.

    [13] Paik, 'Amchya Jalmachi Chittarkatha,' p. 40.

    [14] In legal discourse, Scheduled Castes (SCs), Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) are the official terms. SC is usually synonymous with dalit. ( See Geetha, 'Representation and resistance,' p. 9.) So, although according to Hinduism there is a difference between the lower castes (such as shudras) and those outside of the caste system (untouchables, or dalits), in contemporary political discourse there is much overlap between the various oppressed groups.

    [15] Uma Chakravarti, 'Through another lens: men, women and caste,' in Translating Caste, ed. Tapan Basu, New Delhi: Katha, 2002, pp. 198–218, p. 198.

    [16] Chakravarti, 'Through another lens,' p. 198.

    [17] Rao, 'Introduction: caste, gender and Indian feminism,' p. 3.

    [18] Chakravarti, 'Through another lens,' p. 199.

    [19] Chakravarti, 'Through another lens,' p. 199. Endogamous marriage (the practice of marrying within the caste group) continues to be the normal practice, despite Ambedkar's belief that only inter-caste marriage would finally end caste-based discrimination.

    [20] Wandana Sonalkar, 'Translator's introduction,' in We Also Made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement, ed. Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon, New Delhi: Zubaan, 2008, pp. 1–37, p. 20.

    [21] K. Srilata, 'Preface,' in The Other Half of the Coconut: Women Writing Self-Respect History: An Anthology of Self-Respect Literature (1928–36), ed. K. Srilata, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2003, pp. xiii–xix, p. xv.

    [22] S. Anandhi, 'Writing the history of the invisible,' Economic and Political Weekly vol. xliv, no. 6 (2009): 52–53, p. 52.

    [23] Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, Women Writing in India: 600 BC to the Present, 2 vols, New York: The Feminist Press, 1991 and 1993.

    [24] Gyanendra Pandey, 'Introduction: the subaltern as subaltern citizen,' Subaltern Citizens and Their Histories: Investigations from India and the USA, ed. Pandey, London and New York: Routledge, 2010, pp. 1–12, p. 3.

    [25] Debjani Ganguly, Caste and Dalit Lifeworlds: Postcolonial Perspectives, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2005, p. 115; Toral Jatin Gajarawala, 'Some time between revisionist and revolutionary: unreading history in Dalit literature,' PMLA vol. 126, no. 3 (2011): 575–91, p. 576.

    [26] Gajarawala, 'Some time,' p. 577.

    [27] Ganguly, Caste and Dalit Lifeworlds, p. 115.

    [28] Ganguly, Caste and Dalit Lifeworlds, p. 115.

    [29] Ganguly, Caste and Dalit Lifeworlds, p. 115.

    [30] Ganguly, Caste and Dalit Lifeworlds, pp. 116–17. Despite this difference in approach, Ganguly suggests that the two dalit-bahujan essays were included as a 'capitulation to the demands of critics like [Sumit] Sarkar who use the term "subaltern" as a stick with which to beat what they see as the elitist intellectual indulgences of SS. The assumption appears to be that all problems of representation will be taken care of once SS extends its ambit to include all that it has previously been accused of occluding.' (See Ganguly, Caste and Dalit Lifeworlds, p. 117.)

    [31] Stree Shatki Sanghatana, 'We Were Making History...' Life Stories of Women in the Telangana People's Struggle, London: Zed Books, 1989.

    [32] Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon Aamhihi Itihaas Ghadwala: Ambedkari Chalvalitil Streeyancha Sahabhag, Stree Uvacha, 1989.

    [33] Urmila Pawar, The Weave of My Life: A Dalit Woman's Memoirs, trans. Maya Pandit from Marathi, Kolkata: Stree, 2008, p. 293.

    [34] Pawar, The Weave of My Life, p. 293.

    [35] Vasant Moon, 'Reply to inappropriate Foreword,' in We Also Made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement, ed. Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon, New Delhi: Zubaan, 2008, pp. 49–50, p. 49.

    [36] Rege, Writing Caste/Writing Gender, p. 71.

    [37] Pawar, The Weave of My Life, p. 296.

    [38] Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon, We Also Made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement, trans. Wandana Sonalkar from Marathi, New Delhi: Zubaan, 2008.

    [39] Eleanor Zelliot, 'Dr Ambedkar and the empowerment of women,' in Gender and Caste, ed. Anupama Rao, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2003, pp. 204–17, p. 215.

    [40] Sonalkar, 'Translator's introduction,' p. 6.

    [41] Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, p. 99.

    [42] The original Marathi version contained a foreword by Y.D. Phadke which is critical of the selections and omissions contained within the book. Vasant Moon, a Dalit scholar and activist and the husband of Meenakshi Moon, provided a 'Reply to inappropriate Foreword,' in which he defended Pawar and Moon's work. Both of these forewords have been translated into English and appear in the Zubaan publication of Pawar and Moon, We Also Made History.

    [43] Anandhi, 'Writing the history of the invisible,' p. 52.

    [44] Sonalkar, 'Translator's introduction,' p. 9.

    [45] Anupama Rao, 'Who is the Dalit? the emergence of a new political subject,' in Claiming Power from Below: Dalits and the Subaltern Question in India, ed. Manu Bhagavan and Anne Feldhaus, New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2008, pp. 11–27, p. 22.

    [46] Pawar and Moon, We Also Made History, p. 187.

    [47] Srilata, 'Introduction: getting past the legacy of Periyar: women and agency in the Self-Respect Movement,' in The Other Half of the Coconut, ed. Srilata, pp. 3–19, p. 13.

    [48] Gabriele Dietrich, Reflections on the Women's Movement in India: Religion, Ecology, Development, New Delhi: Horizon India Books, 1992, p. 89, cited in Zelliot, 'Dr Ambedkar,' p. 215.

    [49] A thorough outline of these grievances is provided by: Bob, 'Dalit rights are human rights.'

    [50] Pramod K. Nayar, 'Postcolonial affects: victim life narratives and human rights in contemporary India,' Postcolonial Text vol. 5, no. 4 (2009): 1 – 22, p. 6.

    [51] George Yudice, 'Testimonio and postmodernism,' Latin American Perspectives vol. 18, no. 3 (Summer 1991):15–31, cited in M.S.S. Pandian, 'On a Dalit woman's testimonio,' in Gender and Caste, ed. Anupama Rao, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2003, pp. 129–35, p. 129.

    [52] S. Anand, Touchable Tales: Publishing and Reading Dalit Literature, Chennai: Navayana, 2007, p. 2.

    [53] Anand Teltumbde, cited in Anand, Touchable Tales, p. 40.

    [54] Rege, Writing Caste/Writing Gender, p. 15.

    [55] Rege, Writing Caste/Writing Gender, p. 77.

    [56] Rege, Writing Caste/Writing Gender, p. 77.

    [57] I have borrowed this question from Roland Barthes because, although the literary context within which he asks the question is very different from the one to which I refer, I believe that asking this question has helped me think through the reasons why authors provide such seemingly ordinary details. See Roland Barthes, The Rustle of Language, New York: Hill and Wang, 1986, p. 143.

    [58] Franco Moretti, 'Serious century,' in The Novel, ed. Franco Moretti, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006, pp. 364–400, p. 370.

    [59] After Writing Caste/Writing Gender was published, the full-length English translation was published separately. See Baby Kamble (ed.), The Prisons We Broke, Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan, 2009.

    [60] Rege, Writing Caste/Writing Gender, p. 194.

    [61] Rege, Writing Caste/Writing Gender, p. 202.

    [62] Aditya Nigam, 'Secularism, modernity, nation: epistemology of the Dalit critique,' Economic and Political Weekly vol. 35, no. 48 (2000): 4256–268, p. 4256.

    [63] Srilata, 'Preface,' p. xiii.

    [64] V. Geetha and S.V. Rajadurai, Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium: From Iyothee Thass to Periyar, Calcutta: Samya, 1998, p. 56. cited in Nigam, 'Secularism, modernity, nation,' p. 4261.

    [65] Geetha and Rajadurai, Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium, p. 56.

    [66] Srilata, 'Preface,' p. xiii.

    [67] V. Geetha and S.V. Rajadurai, Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium: From Iyothee Thass to Periyar, Calcutta: Samya, 1998, p. xv.

    [68] V. Geetha and S.V. Rajadurai point out that the definition of 'non-brahmin' was not stable or self-evident in its political applications but, generally: 'Sociologically speaking, "non-brahmin" is a genus that includes all castes, high or low in the varna-jati complex, which defer to the Brahmin in sacral matters. Politically, though, a non-brahmin was identifiable, not only by the fact of his or her birth, but also by his and her interest in and commitment to a politics that valued equality, mutuality and self-respect.' (See Geetha and Rajadurai, Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium, p. xiii.)

    [69] Anandhi, 'Women's question in the Dravidian movement c. 1925–1948,' Social Scientist vol. 19, nos 5/6 (1991): 24–41, p. 39.

    [70] Geetha and Rajadurai, Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium, p. 515.

    [71] Srilata, 'Preface,' p. xiii.

    [72] Anandhi, 'Women's question in the Dravidian movement,' p. 28.

    [73] Srilata, 'Introduction: getting past the legacy of Periyar,' p. 13.

    [74] Anandhi, 'Women's question in the Dravidian movement,' p. 24.

    [75] Srilata, 'Introduction: getting past the legacy of Periyar,' p. 13.

    [76] Srilata, 'Preface,' p. xviii.

    [77] Srilata, 'Introduction: getting past the legacy of Periyar,' p. 19.

    [78] Miss and Mrs. Kamalakshi, 'What is in store for us?' in Women Writing Self-Respect History: An Anthology of Self-Respect Literature (1928–36), ed. K. Srilata, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2003, pp. 28–31, p. 28. Though it may appear that this piece has two authors, Miss and Mrs. Kamalakshi was actually a single author who used both titles to indicate that though she was a married woman, her family's financial circumstances meant that she had never been able to live with her husband, and thus also lived the unfulfilled life of an unmarried woman.

    [79] Srilata, 'Preface,' p. xvi.

    [80] Anandhi, 'Women's question in the Dravidian movement,' p. 36.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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