NARRATIVES BY DALIT WOMEN WRITERS

 

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The Dalit women are placed at the absolute bottom of the social caste hierarchy as they face systemic and structural discrimination as threefold: as Dalits, as poor, and as women. This paper is the study of how historically through struggles the women writers have arisen to write about their conditions and plight in the Indian society. Wherein, lot of women associations and movements have come up which have try to improve the Dalit women, yet a very nominal section has risen up to have a respectable lifestyle and education. The issues relating to Dalit women most of the time remain voiceless and unheard but the narratives  provided by the educated Dalit writers give us the glimpse of the triple subjugation inflicted upon them. Dalit women for centuries have been subjected to alienation and loneliness, created by the patriarchal and upper caste values at all levels of the society. This in turn has caused them extreme exclusion in the socio political and economic realm. The experiences of Dalit women present clear evidence of widespread exploitation, violence and indecent, inhumane treatment. Tomar mentions that R.S. Khare clearly argues that Dalit woman gear not only the  personal and social dishonour but as well as the physical safety.

 

Dalit woman often suffered from verbal and physical abuse at the hands of their fathers and  brothers, raped by their father-in-law, or brother-in-law, forcefully subjugated to fulfil the  pleasures of their husbands, domestic and sexual violence. They simultaneously dishonoured outside in public realm forced, unpaid in the economic sphere and often compounded by sexual harassment and a real risk to physical life . Thus, violence against Dalit women is most often used as a means of punishment and demonstration of power by the dominant castes towards both the woman herself and her community. The early decades of the 20th century saw protests by 'muralis' against caste-based  prostitution in the campaigns launched by Shivram Janoba Kamble. The resistance against casteism gained momentum when social reformers like Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar came into picture. The 1930‟s saw the organisation of independent meetings and conferences by Dalit women in the Ambedkarite movement. This was an obvious consequence of Ambedkar's practice of organising a women's conference along with every general meeting and Sabha that he called. In these 'parishads' of the 1930s, Dalit women delegates passed resolutions against child marriage, enforced widowhood and dowry; critiquing these practices as Brahmanical. . Women's participation in the Ambedkarite movement must be read in the context of the fact that in Ambedkar's theory of caste there is also a theory of the origins of subordination of women and that he saw the two issues as intrinsically linked. Sharmila Rege mentions that Ambedkar argues in his speeches and writings that practices of sati, enforced widowhood and child marriage come to be prescribed by Brahmanism in order to regulate and control any transgression of boundaries, i e, to say he underlines the fact that the caste system can be maintained only through the controls on women's sexuality and in this sense women are the gateways to the caste system. Conscious efforts were made by these reformists to introduce them to education which they were earlier denied. Phule was, perhaps, the first person in India to set up a school for Dalit girls in 1848 in Poona.

 

“Dalit women who had been privileged to participate in Ambedkar‟s movements later organised Dalit women from across India under the aegis of Dalit women‟s movement. Some of these Dalit women turned to writing. Their articulation of their experiences came to be known as Stri Dalit Sahitya in Marathi”. Apart from education the non- Brahmanic movement also helped the Dalit women to challenge the social  practices which brought changes in their everyday life. For instance, Periyar of southern India worked for the Dalits in general and was concerned about the plight of the Dalit women as well. Being a leader of the Self-Respect Movement, he attacked the caste system and his influence was such that even the upper‟ caste men defied the Brahmanical practices and even went to the extent of marrying lower‟ caste women and this way tried to build up a “new, equal community”.

 

The major drawbacks of the pre- independent non- Brahmanic movements were that they were mainly confined to specific regions and were unable to make them a mass movement. “As a result while Dalit women from Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerela and their neighbouring states became vocal, their counterparts in other states remained still silent” (Kumar). Another major problem was that they mainly dealt with the issues as a whole and did not classify them on the basis of caste, class and gender, thus, still excluding certain concerns relating to Dalit women. The development of a certain section in the society cannot rise without taking the economic aspect into consideration; hence, the socio economic condition after Independence plays an important role in the status of the Dalit women. Our economy was a mixed economy  but on a long run did not yield fruitful results as it failed to generate employment opportunities for the Dalits especially in rural areas. On social and political grounds, though the constitution provided reservation policy for the „schedule caste ‟and abolished untouchability” yet equality was nowhere to be found. The government introduced new schemes and policies for the development of the dalits yet, they failed to be implemented and the condition of the dalits in general remained the same and the dalit woman continued to be doubly marginalised. This was the time when a development of Dalit feminist theory was needed to define this state of being through Dalit female language. In the post-Ambdkarite period women participation almost died down, except the major upsurde during the Dadasaheb Gaikwad led struggle for land rights and Namaantar movement. These movements had regional variations in the patterns of participation on struggles and in a way failed to gather a collective support. Yet the problem of self-articulation persisted until the 1970‟s. The two major movements of the 1970‟s –  the Dalit Panther and the women‟s movement (mainly supported by the Leftist) made a significant contribution to the cultural revolt. The women movements however, in their first phase emphasised on women‟s rights and in the second phase stressed more on women‟s liberation and autonomy. Yet, these movements failed to make a substantial impact on the Dalit, tribal and minority communities. With the emergence of the Dalit Panthers Movement the Dalit Literature‟ came into being which gave voice to the voiceless. Though in the Dalit Panther, both in their writings and their programme - the Dalit women remained encapsulated firmly in the roles of the „mother‟ and the „victimised sexual being‟ (Rege). But it cannot be doubted that it provided a platform for the women writers.

 

With the adoption of Mandal Commission recommendation in the 1980‟s, the struggle and agitation against caste and patriarchy gained momentum and individual articulation came into full shape. In the 1980‟s and 1990‟s there were several independent and autonomous assertions of Dalit women's identity as an individual, where more and more women writers narrated their narratives which were earlier scarce. These narratives by women marked a significant difference when compared to the narratives written by men. The narrative written  by Shantabai Kamble can be traced as the first autobiography in Marathi by a Dalit woman. In The Prisons We Broke  (1986), Kamble exposed the plight of the Mahar women in Maharshtra. She describes how the Dalit women are reduced to inanimate objects and are exempted to even the basic needs of living.

 

“They (Dalit women) could not get even simple rags to clean the flowing blood, this much sinful the public was” (Kamble, 1986). Kamble is more vocal in the criticism of the educated Dalits who forget their roots and ignore the Dalit cause. She is also very critical about the educated Dalits adopting upper caste Hindu ways of life. While this scene is quite common among the educated Tamil Dalits also for various reasons,  Karukku  of Bama focuses more on the suffering of less educated and illiterate Dalits. Kumud Pawde in her book Inner Explosion (1981) presents nine such short particular testimonies as a means for the author to call women to break constraints inherited from the  past: rituals in honour of Savitri with their symbolic import, male dominance prevailing within groups of social activists and meetings of Dalit writers, condition of protected servitude meted out to  – and enjoyed by  –  women as a rule which she equates to the status of servitude assigned to lower castes in general (Poitevin). The narratives by the women writers are significant because they profoundly illustrate the double discrimination they are inflicted upon by the „upper‟ caste men and women and by the dalit men. They mark out woman body as a privileged space for all types of control and oppression to coalesce. This gives women's autobiographies a particular anthropological relevance as well (Poitevin). Interestingly, the autobiographies do display lament, resentment or shame of oneself. There is a certain kind of dignity in their words and the strength to survive the social oppression. They don’t blame their destiny for their deprived and deserted state but fight for their individualism.

 

As rightly put by Guy Poitevin, “women's testimonies make us discover a female world of hidden feelings of dissent and moves of subdued revolt under the yoke of endured humiliations as memories drift back and past days and years are recreated. Specific ways and motives of a shared feminine sensitivity and cultural creativity are highlighted, as nowhere else”.

 

For writers like Faustina Bama, writing is merely literature, it is a medium to critique the Hindu social order. Bama‟s Sangati, her novel explores the idea of transformation of rejection into resistance. In Karukku, there was more emphasis on the relationship between the self and the community but on the other hand, Sanagti is based on the community‟s identity. Women are presented as wage earners and it is upon them to bear the burden of the family and on the other side men can spend their money extravagantly. In addition to this, women are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and harassment. Therefore, the novel creates a Dalit feminist perspective and explores the impact of discrimination compounded above all, by poverty – suffered by Dalit women. The economic precariousness of Dalit women leads to a culture of violence, and this is a theme that runs through the book: the terrible violence and abuse of women by their fathers and husbands, and sometimes even brothers; women fight  back. Sangati is primarily about a community‟s identity; not about the single self. The writings by Dalit writing suffer two drawbacks. Firstly, that their works are mostly in their regional language, which restricts their readership to a certain region.

 

Secondly, since the Dalit women writings are not translated into English, it makes them “faceless and nameless in the so -called mainstream literary circles and more to in the field of English literary criticism”. Also, keeping into account that majority of the Dalit women are illiterate even today, yet it does not stop them from telling their life stories. The collection of “narrated autobiographies” by Sumitra Bhave‟s Pan on Fire,  provided us with the hope that the narratives of the illiterate Dalit women will not go undocumented and unheard. Also, they become significant because it provided the illiterate dalit women a  platform to let out their inner emotions and reflect in their condition. Their stories in a way give us a chance to glance into their world where private is no longer private.

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