Illustration by Opashona Ghosh.
In a church adorned with jasmine flowers and fairy lights, I appeared into the eyes of my associate and stated “I will”. It was a couple of weeks earlier than the COVID-19 pandemic, and the pews have been full — my family and friends had flown into Visakhapatnam from all around the nation, and the world, to attend the ceremony. I used to be sporting an off-white brocade sari, a champagne-coloured veil that matched the sari’s zari and a shade of lipstick that was in line with my brown-skinned basis. I favored how I appeared. After reciting my vows, I walked the marriage march holding my associate’s suited elbows — feeling cherished and completed.
This second had been 16 years within the making. After a number of (exhausting) dates, a number of relationships that went nowhere, unspeakable abuse and hours of remedy, I discovered my house in a Dalit man. He got here into my life at a time after I had resigned myself to believing that love was too entangled in caste for it to be true.
My mom — additionally a Dalit feminist in her personal proper — had anticipated this second for fairly a while. This was typical for an Indian Christian household, however there was additionally a special cost to this as a result of I had lost my father 12 years in the past in 2010. His departure meant that my marriage ceremony turned her sole duty, and her lack of social capital would make the pursuit tough. Unlike her friends, she had not coerced me into in search of an organized marriage, and he or she pushed again towards those that undermined my “worth in the marriage market”. She did her half to make me imagine in “true love” and wished that I, too, would discover somebody who cherished me as my father cherished her. The marriage ceremony, thus, was her miracle; a lot in order that she wore flowers in her hair for the primary time after my father’s passing. And to this present day, she retains reminiscing concerning the occasions that led as much as our marriage ceremony, together with the parai attam that kicked off our reception in Chennai.
During my pursuit of this real love, I spent most of my twenties believing that “love conquered everything”. I used to be unaware of my perceptibility as a dark-hued Dalit lady and the implications that held for others round me as I began appearing upon them. “It is a force unlike any other”, I had internalised and argued, a drive that transcended faith, like in Bombay, or caste, like in Kaadhal, or class, like in Maid in Manhattan. And with each bitter expertise, I satisfied myself that my associate was only one date away, one flight away or one swipe away.
I watched the second season of Bridgerton with a lot glee. During one in all her conversations with Anthony, Daphne describes love as this: “If you say she is the one in whose presence, you cannot properly think, or even breathe. If you say you feel that feeling…the one that makes it impossible for you to look away from them at any given moment.” The depiction she gives is actually charming, endearing even. It can be no totally different from what common tradition has dictated about how want feels — this apolitical romantic attraction primarily based on preconceived notions of what a fascinating physique seems to be like. But it doesn’t take into account how want, in and by itself, could possibly be a alternative that’s conditioned, nonetheless private it could seem at first. And regardless that Bridgerton will not be a present I look in the direction of to present me an astute articulation of caste and racial hierarchy constructions, what it does provide is fantasy. But, it does so with out acknowledging that fantasies are sometimes merchandise of systemic forces.
The query then turns into this: is it potential to really feel want if you haven’t already labored in the direction of eager to want that particular person? Haven’t been conditioned into eager to want that particular person, socialised into needing that particular person?
A decade in the past, I met a nadar Christian man on a matrimonial web site. He instructed me it was “fine” that I used to be Dalit, “as long as I did not show it”. The extent of his bigotry and its egregiousness from that time unravelled shortly. Shortly after, he disclosed his perception that Hitler’s thought of Aryan supremacy made full sense and, by extension, so did brahmin superiority — which drew upon the identical logic of hierarchy and subjugation. The very subsequent day he instructed me his household has insisted he marry into the caste. I continued to this point him, and in that, I went by extra emotional abuse that broke down my confidence in methods I may by no means heal from.
When I believe again upon all of it, it strikes me as painful dissonance. To say that I felt lonely as a Dalit lady navigating city areas within the face of an utter lack of relatable views on want, doesn’t cowl a modicum of the despondence I skilled due to the loneliness. On the one hand have been savarna feminists, who have been heralding a brand new world of sexual openness and exploration. They have been pursuing supposedly edgy and aspirational writings concerning the orgasm hole, polyamory and informal intercourse. On the opposite hand, have been the ladies in my household, who have been harping on concerning the significance of morality and modest aesthetics. I turned a dwelling paradox: feeling pressured to discover intimacy in a single second as a result of I used to be a “modern woman” and guilt-ridden within the subsequent as a result of I used to be flouting 100 guidelines of respectability. While rising up, I used to be instructed that essentially the most cardinal of all sins was sexual promiscuity. This instruction, nonetheless, didn’t simply stem from our Christian beliefs however, moderately, from a worry that we may get slut-shamed and the severity of the social penalties that might maintain. The precarity of our lives and reputations could possibly be threatened even by an unfounded hearsay. Our solely supply of social capital — the Tamizh Christian neighborhood — may additional ostracise us along with the discrimination they have been already inflicting. The worry that I could possibly be known as “easy” and the fact that males of all castes interpreted my innocuous gestures as “slutty”, influenced most of my romantic and sexual choices throughout my youth, after I approached want with trepidation.
One of my first understandings of the sort of conservatism I used to be experiencing got here by my friendships. Curious variations between our experiences, regardless of some outward similarities, baffled me. It will not be like my savarna girlfriends didn’t have worry drilled into them too; they got here from households that have been conservative in their very own methods. Yet, their worlds have been starkly totally different from mine.
Most of them recognized as feminists and had the attention to recognise abuse inside intimate relationships, however they didn’t appear to know how energy differentials between companions — particularly when one in all them is a Dalit lady — intensified the potential for violence. They appeared unaware of the ecosystem that was enabling this hurt and would inform me that I used to be too choosy each time I shared my tales of those disappointments. I felt let down by this lack of engagement, to not point out their disinterest in understanding the specificity of my scenario and the stereotypes Dalit ladies should confront.
My expertise with the nadar man, and those that got here each earlier than and after him, felt alien to my savarna pals. In one occasion, within the aftermath of an abusive episode with an ex-boyfriend, I used to be cautioned to “be very sure before I broke up because there was no guarantee I would find someone again”. By not understanding the unfairness inherent to the scenario, they distressed me additional. I clearly knew what I used to be listening to was unfaithful, however due to my poor self-confidence, I used to be unable to brazenly query it. I keep in mind freezing up as my good friend stated these phrases; one in all my fears was being validated by somebody I belief.
Dr Tamalapakula, in her good evaluation of the situations of Dalit ladies on Indian faculty campuses, explains:
While the assertive mainstream feminist is revered, the assertive dalit lady is generally condemned each by upper-castes and dalit male teams. The purpose being the seen assertion of feminist college students is known to be the results of superiority of their caste/class and concrete life […] the place because the dalit center class lady is anticipated to reject sexuality to suit the stereotyped picture of a sufferer of caste primarily based sexual violence.
Regardless of how my savarna girlfriends exercised their sexual freedom (informal intercourse, intercourse with coupled males, queer experiments), they by no means appeared to expire of prospects for courting or marriage. If any of them failed to search out an individual by trendy strategies of courtship, their households have been nonetheless capable of finding them a associate by organized marriage; their “hoe phase”* not coming in the best way of this. They successfully leveraged international discourses on sexual liberation to permit themselves snug selections.
Women’s life-style magazines have been worse; they revealed a number of first-person items about sexual experiences however by no means acknowledged intimate abuse, not to mention delved into its intersections with caste — and the abuse that emerged in that place of intersection. Granted that the knowledge ecosystem in my early twenties was markedly totally different from what it’s at the moment, but it surely additionally reveals how decision-making constructions have been skewed again then. It is no surprise that the experiences of Dalit ladies — in romance, intercourse and want — weren’t of curiosity to editorial groups, which have been principally dominated by savarna women and men. This explains why I didn’t obtain the schooling to critically perceive common tradition and the romantic lives of my savarna friends; it didn’t happen to me till my exes turned specific of their casteism, when the language to know their contempt turned pressing.
Although my publicity to mainstream feminism, which manifested within the media I used to be consuming and thru my pals, made me need to blame the ladies in my household for his or her “regressive positions”, I later understood why they have been so austere when it got here to intercourse and want. They known as themselves “no-nonsense” — a time period that indicated a sure comportment; they hoped it might deter undesirable sexual advances. This determination —made each purposefully and subconsciously, to keep up and venture a morally upright conduct — was essential for his or her survival, particularly amid the prevalence of caste-based sexual violence. They needed to work additional arduous to deal with the impunity with which this violence arose and to come back throughout as “respectable women of value” as a result of Indian societies, by default, ascribe worth to people primarily based on caste.
In a piece I wrote in 2018, I discussed that in Hinduism, the brahmin lady is deemed to be essentially the most worthwhile amongst ladies — adopted by the kshatriya, the vaishya and the shudra. No worth is connected to the Dalit lady; she is considered one of many lowest of life types — polluting and soiled, and on par with wild animals. I had begun investigating the intersection of caste and want in my twenties, and I dug additional into the roots of what’s believed to legitimise violence and discrimination inside Indian courting. The following verses from the Manusmriti illustrate additional:
[Chapter 8: 373] “A double fine should be imposed on a man who has already been convicted and is accused (again) within a year, and it should be just as much for cohabiting with a woman outlaw or a ‘Fierce’ Untouchable woman.”
[Chapter 11: 176] “If a priest unknowingly has sex with ‘Fierce’ Untouchable women or very low-caste women, eats (their food) or accepts (gifts from them), he falls if knowingly, he becomes their equal.”
[Chapter 12: 55] “A priest killer gets the womb of a dog, a pig, a donkey, a camel, a cow, a goat, a sheep, a wild animal, a bird, a ‘Fierce’ Un-touchable, or a ‘Tribal.’”
Dr Roja Singh, whose work I learn final yr, in her ebook Spotted Goddesses: Dalit Women’s Agency-Narratives on Caste and Gender Violence, has commented on these verses:
“In the Manusmriti, a Dalit woman will cause the downfall of a caste person as the reification of curse. The caste person who has intimate relations with her becomes “untouchable” as a result of she pollutes their purity and destroys possibilities of salvation […S]he’s the brute whether or not she is the sufferer or not, and her physique because the curse turns into the premise of victimisation of which caste males must beware. However, the Manusmriti doesn’t state that the untouchable lady may acquire redemption in sexual relations with a caste male embodying “purity” [.…] A Dalit lady is stagnant in her polluted state as “a curse” and “the cursed” as she can’t recess into something worse or grow to be something higher.”
From the above, the distinctive types of aversion and domination reserved for Dalit ladies grow to be very clear. The Hindu texts are derogatory to all ladies, and the Manusmriti, specifically, has been influential in coding caste-wide misogyny into the Indian social system. But topic to the authority of brahmin males, brahmin ladies are nonetheless positioned on the high of the pyramid of Indian womanhood, adopted by kshatriya, vaishya, and shudra ladies — all of whom are beneath the authority of their caste males and people positioned above them. This placement offers them (savarna ladies) sufficient authority to hegemonically dictate what constitutes want and who deserves to be desired.
Dalit ladies, who’re thought-about inferior and untouchable, are positioned thus far beneath within the pyramid, that they’re topic to the authority of everybody above them, together with the ladies that belong to the shudra and dvija* (twice-born) castes. Social media influencers of the Indian diaspora, who’re reclaiming their desi feminist roots, should realise that Hinduism doesn’t take into account “women” as a homogenous class; as an alternative, it prescribes clear distinctions together with energy, labour and sexual self-discipline.
Thus the caste system, or extra appropriately brahminical patriarchy — “a set of rules and institutions in which caste and gender are linked, each shaping the other and where women are crucial in maintaining the boundaries between castes” — each victimises and advantages savarna ladies. Uma Chakravarthy in her seminal paper in Economic and Political Weekly, ‘Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India’, explains that “women’s perpetuation of the caste system was achieved partly through their investment in a structure that rewarded them even as it subordinated them at the same time”. Consequently, their superior caste positions don’t simply entitle savarna ladies with the social energy to subjugate but in addition compel them to embody the traits of “ideal womanhood”, which embrace chastity, purity, modesty, constancy, magnificence and sanctity — all as imagined by the brahmanical thoughts.
Over the ages, this “ideal” has undergone a number of transformations. Due to political, social and ideological interventions within the final century, whether or not it’s calls for for ladies’s schooling and property rights, the affect of Western media and feminist thought, and the participation of savarna ladies in nation-building processes — these mechanisms that sought to manage the id and sexual freedom of sarvana ladies have been disrupted. This shift has enabled them to redefine the very idea and expression of womanhood — from conventional to trendy, from conservative to progressive. But these transitions, whether or not intentional or not, have been tactical, integrating newer feminist parts with older brahmanical notions. ‘An Ode To Modern Indian Woman and All That She Is…’, an article on Medium, places it this manner: “Today’s woman is progressive in thinking but still, has a deep-rooted respect for the Indian culture and traditions.” Priyanka Chopra Jonas reclaiming the mangalsutra – an accepted image of caste endogamy — whereas dealing with no risk to her standing as a “modern feminist icon” is a living proof.
Savarna feminism has thus been designed solely to problem patriarchy, not caste. It allows savarna ladies to train liberal politics, practise sexual freedom, exhibit fascinating aesthetics, entry international literacy and obtain financial success whereas conserving their caste energy and privilege intact. Their feminism doesn’t threaten their caste location and, in lots of situations, is even emboldened by it. This is why the empowered savarna lady archetype, in its many variations, is taken into account aspirational and enticing by the Indian psyche, which has been socialised for hundreds of years to see savarna as superior. It is all of the extra so in our present capitalist actuality, the place one’s caste will be leveraged and downplayed concurrently, in order to create a wholly new however evolving id — the globalised, trendy Indian lady, who’s savarna however cultured sufficient to maintain her caste location refined, worldwide, woke* and realized. This collective accomplishment of savarna ladies, which turns into extra layered with each era, is feasible solely due to their caste energy — one which they didn’t should work for, one which was bestowed upon them at beginning.
In sharp distinction are Dalit and different caste-excluded ladies, whose existence continues to be conceived inside stereotypes. Neither do they possess the caste energy to entry capital and sources nor can they meet the ever-changing cultural mandate for womanhood or wokeness, as outlined by these with caste energy.
In the favored creativeness, Dalit ladies are additionally perceived to be mere victims, as people that may’t exist exterior of violence. Although violence is an inescapable actuality for a lot of Dalit ladies, particularly for many who reside in impoverished and unsafe situations — the amplification of the sufferer stereotype not solely engenders extra violence but in addition normalises it. Within interpersonal contexts, significantly these which are romantic or sexual in nature, the sufferer stereotype interprets into an influence dynamic that has the potential to oppress Dalit ladies.
But what exists in opposition to, and together with, this purported narrative of victimhood, is the overall incredulousness across the crime when it takes place. At a panel dialogue that I used to be half of some years in the past, a communist male chief openly opined that “Dalit women are too scary, we can’t touch them that easily.” No one within the viewers appeared to have an issue with that assertion; they welcomed it as reality. And but, crime statistics say in any other case. The false impression that was disclosed in that panel has not in any means dissuaded perpetrators from inflicting heinous violence on Dalit ladies. But it has discouraged civil society members and lawmakers from taking caste-based sexual violence significantly. Assaulting “scary, tough” Dalit ladies is unfathomable to the minds that imagine they’re too unfeminine to be touched.
Almost each love curiosity of mine has tried to appropriate my behaviour and nudge me in the direction of adopting a extra “ladylike” manner. Some have explicitly in contrast me to their savarna girlfriends or exes, saying that the latter have been womanlier and extra delicate, and, in consequence, evoked intense emotions in them. On their half, tv and cinema have reified this false feminine-unfeminine dichotomy between savarna and Dalit ladies and promoted the concept femininity, as expressed by savarna ladies, is a key ingredient in heterosexual and heteronormative want.
By casting savarna ladies because the love pursuits of its protagonists, common tradition has additionally bolstered that they’re the one ones worthy of affection, lust and legitimacy. Even within the case of Dalit male protagonists, the one that turns into their love curiosity more often than not is a savarna lady (Sairat, Thalapathi, Kaadhal). Dalit ladies, if and when represented, are depicted as offended, loud and verbally abusive. Pa. Ranjith’s Kaala, a 2018 Tamizh movie, is an attention-grabbing instance, nonetheless. Selvi, Kaala’s spouse, is solid as a loud-mouthed homemaker, and Zareena, Kaala’s ex-girlfriend, is solid as a classy activist. While the stereotypes are saved intact, what I discovered refreshing was Kaala’s selecting to be with Selvi, the Dalit lady.
A yr in the past, a good friend shared one in all her conversations with a savarna man, who had spoken at size about his sexual experiences. She recalled him saying that if he knew the girl he was having intercourse with was Dalit, he can be additional tough and do no matter he needed, as towards a savarna lady with whom he can be mild. I wasn’t shocked by his revelation, but it surely triggered me all the identical, taking me again to my very own experiences of sexual exploitation and assault. Sometimes, there’s no arduous proof for example how caste breaches intimate boundaries. It is felt within the predator’s contact, their careless tossing of 1’s physique, their indifference to ache and worry, and their gaze as soon as it’s over — a mixture of lust, disgust and conquest.
It is with this information, context and data that I would like us to re-evaluate our modern understanding of inter-caste love, intercourse positivity, physique politics and legitimacy. The latest slew of social media accounts run by savarna influencers, who’ve monopolised feminist narratives, with no consciousness of how these work together with caste, is a living proof. For occasion, within the aftermath of the 2020 Hathras rape and homicide, in an effort to protest the gruesomeness of the act, a well-liked deal with began a marketing campaign that requested ladies to put up tongue selfies. Other mainstream feminist handles additionally continued to create content material round self-care, vagina appreciation and intercourse positions presently. To Dalit ladies who witnessed this response, and have been reeling with huge grief and anger, such campaigns are at greatest insensitive, detached at worst.
Similarly, common anti-caste discourses that don’t bear in mind how societies undervalue Dalit and different caste-excluded ladies, are equally disempowering. Inter-caste unions, for instance, aren’t at all times anti-caste; it’s extremely potential that one’s option to associate with a savarna lady, who has historically been ascribed greater worth, is motivated extra by social conditioning. It can’t essentially be learn as a want to annihilate caste. It is revolutionary love solely when, as Dr B.R. Ambedkar says: “Make every man and woman free from the thraldom of the Shastras, cleanse their minds of the pernicious notions founded on the Shastras, and he or she will inter-dine and inter-marry, without your telling him or her to do so.”
We want a Dalit feminist standpoint that uproots the complete infrastructure round which concepts of want are being constructed. We want a feminism that interrogates caste as a lot because it does patriarchy.
Dalit ladies ought to be capable to specific their want to anybody, with out feeling insecure about their desirability or having to measure themselves towards a savarna ideally suited — a radical Dalit feminist framework of want would allow that. They have a proper to sexual pleasure, in the best way they think about it, with consent and with out disgrace, which incorporates having satisfactory information about protected intercourse, acquiring entry to contraception, selecting or working towards a most popular sexual orientation, experimenting with out the worry of moralistic judgments, and having the area to speak about sexual pleasure and extra each inside feminist and anti-caste circles. And they need to really feel accepted and cherished in relationships, with out being pressured to consistently show their worth or prone to abuse by advantage of their caste location. And they’ve a proper to hunt marital unions in the event that they so determine, with out being judged by the savarna gaze for making “unfeminist” selections. Constantly prioritising savarna ladies and perceiving them as the one ones worthy of want will proceed to ignore Dalit ladies and, finally, rob them of their proper to like and be cherished.
We should rediscover Dalit love inside our communities. Investing in one another is revolutionary, particularly within the face of caste hatred. It is significant that we reimagine what sisterhood, neighborhood, parenting, friendship, solidarity and household means to us. In a world devoid of recognition, Dalit love will maintain us safe, valued and rooted.
Notes on Terminology:
1. Savarna refers to people or teams belonging to the castes which are a part of varna (caste) system. These embrace the brahmins, the kshtariyas, the vaishyas, and the shudras.
2. Dvija means “twice-born”, which incorporates solely the brahmins, the kshatriyas, and the vaishyas
3. In this essay, “Dalit” refers to solely these people and teams that have been earlier often known as the untouchables. Note that not all Dalits are formally labeled as scheduled castes. This essay additionally doesn’t declare to characterize all Dalit ladies.
4. In this essay, the time period “caste-excluded” refers to avarna (outcastes) communities that weren’t traditionally recognised as being a part of the varna (caste) system.
5. The time period “woke” refers to being conscious of and taking a stand towards social injustices. In the Indian/South Asian context, it’s related to progressive politics and will imply “anti-caste”, “feminist”, “leftist”, or a mix of all three.
6. “Hoe-phase” sometimes refers to a time in an individual’s life when they’re stated to be particularly promiscuous.