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Deepthy R Chandran

Deepthy R Chandran: Dalit Women in Tamil Nadu

Karukku by Bama

Dalit Women- Inside and Outside Caste
A Study of Dalit Women in Tamil Nadu with reference to Karukku

Patriarchy has wrecked the lives of women in India and it affects the social, political and economic scenario badly. For centuries, woman is considered lower than men in every sphere of society. The general notion of society is that, woman’s sphere of action is essentially limited by the horizons of the small family world. The preliminary duty of woman is supposed to be towards her family. Women are always under the strict rules of men who rule the family. “Patriarchy in its wider definition means the manifestation and institutionalisation of male dominance over women in society in general. It implies that men hold power in all the important institutions of society and that women are deprived of access to such power” (Singh 1990: 3). The politics of patriarchy lies in the fact that the family, caste, religion and the dominant value system are surcharged with the spirit of male superiority. Patriarchal society binds women’s movement by perceptions and prohibitions. She is considered to be the unpaid labourer (maid) of a family. Women do not enjoy equality with men in social, economic, political or cultural sectors. Women activists and feminists for years have been racing their voices against this unequal patriarchal system that prevails; but it has never been resolved which itself appears to be rigidly patriarchal. Educated women are also tied down by the same feudal and patriarchal norms.

Religion, politics, and law are all manipulated and manoeuvred by the ‘normative structure’, which is highly patriarchal. Feminist movements in India have posed challenges to established patriarchal institutions such as the family, and to dominant social values and structures, most significantly in the arena of legal interventions in the areas of violence against women. Against this established system of patriarchy, various women’s organisations and feminist movements have fought, but still it remains as it was.

Women’s organisations and movements always emerged as a branch of the main movements like nationalist or caste movements. In the nineteenth century, there were very few women’s movements, which were organised for women, by women, usually they were organised by men for women. Therefore, these women’s organisations were strictly patriarchal and were controlled by men. The main organisations and nationalist groups have accused feminists of prioritising gender over nation or class. This was a great challenge to the women’s movements. Moreover feminist movements depicted their lives and ignored minority and Dalit women’s struggles. Hence the women’s organisations also got split up based on caste and religion and class which resulted in dilution of their power.

Women in every strata of society are prey to this patriarchal anarchism. But the most struggling sections among these are the women who face double marginalisation because of their caste and of their gender. The person who belongs to a lower caste or dalit is exploited in the society because of his/her caste. And the plight of a dalit woman is unimaginable to the upper caste women and to the educated Dalit women living in urban areas. Though the system of patriarchy is structured by ancient Hindu texts especially Vedas, Dalits who stand out of the so-called ‘Vedic structure’ also facilitate the patriarchal norms in their society. It is an irony that the lower castes or Dalits who are fighting against the Hindu norms practice such inequalities upon their womenfolk. Hence Dalit women’s assertion for their rights and identity goes without any results. Dalit women’s movements for their rights fail to shed light upon their identity as a Dalit or as a woman.

Having been a victim of two exploitations is a hard thing. A Dalit girl is chained from her childhood onwards under this double threat of caste and gender. From her childhood onwards, she has been socialised into ‘accepting the male hegemony as well as the caste hierarchy’. Even among women she is perceived as the ‘other’. “She is at the perceiving end of a long, socially-engineered pecking order, which asserts the relative ‘superiority’ of one category of human being over another” ( The men of the higher castes and the majority groups rape Dalit women. Rape becomes a political tool to keep the economically poorer sections in their pre-destined place. “This is one of the effective ways to crush and silence the brewing dissent of the underdogs, because women happen to be the custodians of honour of their menfolk. In urban areas women dare not move in the night in fear of the lurking patriarchal lecher. It does not mean that day time is safe” Singh 1990: 13). Dalit women are deprived physically due to malnourishment, educationally, culturally and politically. They have been denied systematically of their human rights to education, properly equal wages and for employment. Dalit women suffer the lowest status in society and are brutally marginalised in social hierarchy.

The caste system declares Dalit women as ‘impure’ and are considered in the same way, by Dalit men also. Dalit men fight against Brahmins when they are outside the family; and when they are inside the family; they impose the same ‘Brahmanical system to their women. This is referred as ‘Sanskritisation’ by M N Srinivas. “Sanskritisation is the process by which a ‘low’ Hindu caste, or tribal or other group, changes its customs, ritual, ideology and the way of life in the direction of a high and frequently ‘twice-born’ caste. The Sanskritisation of a group has usually the effect of improving its position in the caste hierarchy” (Srinivas 1996: 77).

The plight of Dalit women in Tamil Nadu is not different from the above description. In Tamil Nadu, the rights of Dalit liberation and assertion started with the Non-Brahman movements as in Maharashtra.

In Tamil Nadu, the movement for dalit liberation and assertion was also strictly male-oriented, though Periyar E V Ramasami Naicker fought for liberation of dalit women. One can hardly find a Dalit woman leader before 1990’s. Iyothee Thass, Erattaimalai Srinivasan, M C Rajah, Iravath Nair, L.C.Guruswamy, Dr.P.Varadarajuly Naidu, N.Sivaraj, L.Elayaperumal Vai, T.B.Pandian, Periyar E.V.Ramaswamy and Balasundaram are some of the leaders associated with Tamil Dalit movement at various stages.

The early phase of non-Brahmin movement took the form of an organisation formed by the people who are not Brahmins, against the brahmanical supremacy. The non-Brahmin movement never voiced the sufferings of the depressed classes of the society. They revolted against the Brahmins and the movement powered in the hands of Nadars and other upper caste leaders. Within the non-Brahmin movement, there existed an inequality between the non-Brahmin upper castes and the lower-castes, which finally resulted in the Dalit movements and organisations.

In Tamil Nadu, the non-Brahmin movement took place only after the 1900s. But long before it, people started their revolt against the Brahmins. The non-Brahmin movement cannot be considered as a movement for rights or of equality for the Dalits. The non-Brahmin movement was led by the rich and powerful backward classes like Reddys, Kammar etc. They declared themselves as Dravidians and branded the Brahmins as Aryans. The movement has nothing to do with the Depressed Classes. The non-Brahmin movement sometimes includes or excludes Dalits from themselves. Their sole aim was to oppose the Brahmins and the brahmanical system. For that, they sometimes included Dalits to gain political strength for themselves.

The neglect of Dalits continued until in 1923 when M C Rajah, prominent Dalit leader accused non-Brahmin movement of ignoring the claims of Dalits and he asked for adequate number of scholarships for them. This resulted in the formation of ‘Adi-Dravida Mahajan Sabha’ and they demanded for a department for Depressed Classes Welfare. The period 1926-1937 lend non-Brahmin movement a more egalitarian and radical character as there was the rise of Self-Respect movement which helps to detach the Panchamas or the lower caste people from the ‘upper caste non-Brahmin’ (Geetha 2011: 200). The Self- Respect movement of the state represented by Periyar E V Ramasami Naicker was directed against Brahmin dominance.

The Dalit Panther movement, probably the best known and most discussed Dalit movement in India, was formed in Maharashtra in the late 1970’s by a young group of Dalits who were disillusioned with the existing SC parties and leaders. They drew inspiration from the Black Panthers movement in the United States (Gorringe 2005: 53). The Dalit Panther movement in Tamil Nadu split into several camps and some of them joined to form Dalit Panther Iyyakam (DPI). In 1982 in Madurai, a group of disaffected Dalits led by M Malaichami formed the Dalit Panther Iyyakam which is also known as the Liberation Panthers. Later, R Thirumavalavan became the DPI leader.

Many organisations including local Christian NGO’s also significantly were involved in Dalit politics. The Social Action Movement (SAM), the Dalit Resource Centre (DRC) and The Institute of Development, Education, Action and Studies (IDEAS) are among some of these. Tamil Nadu Harijan Sevak Sangh, Adi-Dravida Mahajan Sabha, Devendra Kula Mahajan Sabha also were organised by Dalits. All these organisations and their efforts resulted in developing the conscience of Dalits. The process of socialisation was done through these organisations.

All these movements articulate only the interests of some specific groups and were not interested in the social life of people who were really backward and especially the women minorities. This negligence led to the formation of women’s group for the backward classes. The highly patriarchal movements like Non-Brahmanism and Dalit movement was inadequate and incapable to fight for women’s assertion. The inability to trace the name of a single woman leader of these movements underlines the condition of women. Until the year of 1990’s not a single organisation for Dalit women’s rights has been formed in Tamil Nadu. Dalit women’s organisations also face severe difficulty from upper caste feminists movements, and from Dalit movements led by men. Dalit men activists considered their agitations for self as anti-casteism. Men called the women as betrayals as for neglecting their caste and for agitating for something they felt as ‘silly’ things.

Women hardly had any help either from any authorities that either work for the Dalits or for women’s welfare. The women’s movements in most cases were hardly approachable and were not a permanently felt presence. They also seldom took caste issues seriously. Mainstream Indian Feminism was not framed for the upliftment of Dalit society or Dalit women. The demands of these feminists’ movements were not the actual demands of the Dalit women. Dalit women’s society is framed with a different set of notions of inequality. They face the discrimination shown by the upper caste men, from upper caste women within the womanhood and from Dalit men within the Dalithood. The need for a separate Dalit women’s movement arises here. (Rao 2005: 58).

Tamil Nadu Dalit women’s movement was launched during the year 1997 by SRED (Society for Rural Education and Development) human rights organisation who worked among women for twenty years to promote their rights. The Women’s Movement against poverty and violence (MAPOVI) is a coordinated body of lower caste women from all over Tamil Nadu. The formation of organisations and movements paved the way for a specific type of literature which has the capacity to shake the world of literature; and thus, Dalit women’s literature emerged.

In politics, Dalit women do not have much to say. They were always excluded from decision-making. There are many examples where dalit women had contested for elections, had forced stiff opposition, and were brutally attacked.

In Tamil Dalit literature also, Dalit women face discrimination and oppression, both from outside the caste and from within the caste and this is evident through their writings. In Tamil Dalit literature, women Dalit writers stand out as a distinctive discourse with their self-reflexivity. Poets, play-wrights, writers and novelists repeatedly foreground the gender-caste intersection in Dalit lives. Dalit patriarchy allows Dalit women’s subjugation and perpetuates hierarchical relations within Dalit community. Sexual exploitation of Dalit women workers at workplace and sexual violence at the hands of husbands at home forms a subject of concern in many Dalit writings. The suppression of Dalit women invariably leads to resistance and protest. A Dalit woman has indomitable spirit to bounce back from the patriarchal repression against all odds. The Dalit women writers not only lament their subjugation, but also celebrate their struggles with pride. It took a long time for Dalit women to overcome their oppression as women and to put to use the gains of social and literary movements.

The suppression of Dalit women invariably leads to resistance and protest. A Dalit woman has indomitable spirit to bounce back from the patriarchal repression against all odds. The Dalit women writers not only lament their subjugation, but also celebrate their struggles with pride. It took a long time for Dalit women to overcome their oppression as women and to put use the gains of social and literary movements.

Susie Tharu and K Lalitha, in their work, Women Writing in India (1993), point to the number of autobiographies which appeared in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, heralding the start of a modern genre of creative writing by women. “They comment that many of these texts ‘are a personal testimony of the new sense of worth these women experience as ‘individuals’, whose specific lives were of interest and importance’. There is a striking parallel here with the beginning of self-consciously styled Dalit writing in India, particularly in Marathi” (Thanu and Lalitha: xv).

Autobiographies and testimonies play an important role in the lives of Dalit women. Testimonies play the role of an emancipator who enlightens the path to marginalised people who are struggling in society. Testimony is a collective document that exists at the margins of literature. Dalit women writers feel free to write their life writings as testimonies than as a novel or a drama. The emergence of testimonies confirms a realistic approach of Dalit women towards literature.

Dalit women writers like Sivakami and Bama raise their voice of agitation through their works. Sivakami’s novel Pazhiyana Kazhidalum (1989), prepares the ground for a sustained critique of domestic violence and abuse of Dalit women at home by Dalit men fathers, brothers, sons, father-in-law, brother–in-law, etc. These Dalit women are treated cruelly outside their home and are subjected to sexual harassment from upper castes men also. In her second novel, Aanandayee (1992), Sivakami focuses on violent exploitations of woman’s body and points out how the family as an institution is embedded in patriarchal and oppressive system which is unjust to women. Dalit women’s sexuality is violently contained and is repressed. Sivakami was one of the earliest Tamil writers to draw attention to the dual oppression of Dalit women-on account of their caste and gender; and at the hands of upper caste men as well as Dalit men.

The writings of Sivakami and Bama paved the way for a Dalit Feminism in Tamil literature. These writings not only question Indian feminism but also Dalit men who forgot to speak on behalf of Dalit women. “Bama foregrounds the ‘difference’ of Dalit women from privileged upper caste women and also celebrates their ‘identity’ in their strength, labour and resilience. As a feminist writer, Bama protests against all forms of oppression and relying on the strength and resilience of Dalit women, makes an appeal for change and self-empowerment through education and collective action” (Kumar 2012: 151). Lakshmi Holmstom in her ‘Introduction’ to Sangati (2009) writes that, “By writing in the first half of the last decade, Bama was already formulating ‘Dalit feminism’ which redefined ‘woman’ from the socio-political perspective of a Dalit, and examining caste and gender oppressions together” (xvii).

Bama, a pioneering figure in Tamil Dalit literature, with the enormous background of Dalit movement and Dalit literature in Tamil, undoubtedly emerged as the most celebrated contemporary Dalit woman writer. Bama was introduced to the world of books by her own brother, Raj Gauthaman, also a writer. Raj Gauthaman says, “Dalits, who have for so long been treated as commodities owned by others must shout out their selfhood, their “I”, when they rise up” (Kumar 2012: 290). Bama began her struggle as a Dalit writer with Karukku, influenced by the writings of her brother. While writing Karukku, she aims for the empowerment of her fellow beings. Through her writing, Bama tries to question the attitudes of male patriarchal society. She also challenges the literature that dismisses women’s literature. In her works, she depicts Dalit women’s life as a struggle. Bama, in her second novel, Sangati (1994), depicts the dual oppression of Dalit women. It is the story of an individual struggle to the perception of a community of Paraya women. The theme of Sangati is the growth, decline, culture and liveliness of Dalit women. Both Karukku and Sangati point out the real facts that within the community there is class hierarchy and the power rests with men.

The history of subjugation and assertion done by the women in Tamil Nadu can be gathered from Bama’s Karukku. Bama belongs to the lower caste Paraya community in Tamil Nadu. Later, her family converted to Christianity. The waves of the Dalit movement, though had little affect within the Paraya community of Bama’s village, they started to propagate the idea towards self-assertion and education throughout their community. In Bama’s Karukku, she illustrates the sufferings of Dalit women and children. Once she witnessed a fight between the Pallars and the Parayars in her village and it was the women folks who suffered the most because of all these fights. The men-folk after the fight went to hide in forests and would not go for work. In order to keep the living, the women of the family were forced to work at very low wages. Bama used to collect firewood and do other works in the fields during her school days also. The Dalit children accept the humiliations and sufferings as their fate without any protest. Bama says that times have changed by now and the children no longer accept whatever they are told by the elders. The division of labour within the household, women have to suffer more from the lack of access to water, fuel sources, and sanitation facilities, exposing them to humiliation and violence. For Dalit women, access to schools and education is minimal.

Karukku depicts how Dalit Christians are not allowed to sing in the church choir, are forced to sit separately; away from the upper caste Christians and are not allowed to bury their dead in the cemetery within the village but are made to use a graveyard in the outskirts. The Parayars who converted to Christianity in order to escape casteist oppression at the hands of orthodox Hinduism are greatly disillusioned as they are not able the escape the oppression within the church fold. Reservation benefits are also not granted to Dalit Christians as theoretically Christianity does not recognise caste. These converted Dalit Christians lack their original self and neither faith nor belief saves them from their crisis.

In Karukku, Bama brings forth many social issues that distort the everyday lives of Dalit women. Streets are typically gendered spaces. Men and youth inhabit and use streets naturally and forcefully with a sense of belonging, but women often sidle along pavements fully conscious of its being alien, unfriendly territory. The only women who are relatively easy on the streets are vendors, prostitutes, and other women for whom the street is a site of work. When Dalit women step onto the streets in protest, they are seen as transgressing their limits. A woman is also seen as the bearer of tradition and protectors of the honour of their caste. A caste is chastised not just by the exercise of force or violence on the women of that caste but also by the use of violence on children. It is also a violence of patriarchal structured society. The landless are subjected to suffer, the Dalit landless suffer even more and Dalit landless women suffer the most. Dalit women are often forced to work in the fields that belong to upper castes, leaving them susceptible to physical and mental harassment.

Women are generally considered as impure; it is primarily due to the difference in male and female sexuality. Periodical pollution through menstruation and parturition renders women intrinsically less pure than men. The other source of impurity for women is widowhood. Widows are not supposed to perform the puja of family deities; they do not cook the pure food offered to these deities. On the other hand, a man is not similarly affected if he becomes a widower. Such hierarchy between the sexes is more a feature of Brahmin and other ‘clean’ castes. Although Dalit men fight against Brahmanism, they need their women to act like upper caste women. They like to ‘sanskritise’ their women in their community which results in more subjugation for Dalit women. Bama’s Karukku states the difficulties she and her community faces as being a Dalit and being a woman. She is, of course fully marginalised as because of her gender, as a woman, as being a Dalit and also as a converted Christian Dalit. The men indulge in many fights and it ought to be the women in each family who are responsible to look after their children and other household works. Even a pregnant woman is not free from going to work in the fields.

Dual oppression of Dalit women is the important theme of the work. The women in the family always serve the men folks and the children of the family. The women would be the last to eat the meal. As there would not be much food to eat, they would often starve. Without food, they have to go to the fields for work and have to look after the household works. They are not even cared by their own men and are even abused. They are not given education saying that, “But then, my parents wanted to stay back home saying there was no need for me to go to the college or to study any further. In any case, there was no money. Then, they said it would be difficult for me to find a husband in my community if I went in for further education” (74).

At the end of Karukku, Bama says that, at the time of writing Karukku, she was also chained by the authority of patriarchal system. But after the publication of her work, she felt that she became free of that patriarchal structure that binds her. Her work is a call for her women of her community to be out of that chained structure.

To conclude, true emancipation of women is possible only in a ‘depatriarchised socialist democratic society’. Dalit women should come out of their boundaries that were made by the patriarchal society inorder to attain their assertion. The true assertion of Dalit woman is not as a Dalit or as a woman, but as a Dalit woman.

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