The violence of caste and the violence in homes

By V Geetha

A dalit woman can be humiliated for daring to cross a dominant caste woman on the road, for refusing the sexual advances of a dominant caste male, or for protesting her subordinate status. In these instances, the very fact of being dalit seems enough to invite violence -- it is as if dalits are made to suffer an ‘ontological’ wounding

This last decade and more have seen a burgeoning of literature on rights issues, especially to do with gender and caste. A substantial portion of this literature has drawn from studies conducted across India on dalit lives, livelihood concerns and the myriad forms of social oppression that continue to dominate their every day.  

The violence that dalit women endure and resist constitutes a major feature of these studies. Reports from the ground on this subject make for very painful and often shameful reading -- indicting as they do all of us, non-dalits, for our silent complicity in a cruel and unjust social order. It is not that civil society has not protested the more horrific instances of humiliation and violence that dalits, particularly dalit women, are subject to, but such efforts do not in any substantial measure challenge social and birth privilege and the attendant class and political hegemony that go with either. Those of us who protest do not risk losing our positions of privilege, whereas dalits who resist the indignity and violence heaped on them often have to suffer social ostracism, state bullying and political ennui.  

Given this context within which our efforts at mending, reforming and overthrowing this social order unfold, it becomes important to understand in all its detail and nuance the nature of the violence which dalits experience. In what follows, I shall draw on a recent study (2006) undertaken in select regions of India, titled ‘Dalit Women Speak Out’. The results of this study make for thoughtful, sober and, in the end, extremely sad reading. (The study is now available as a book that bears the same title and is published by Zubaan Books.) 

The violations enumerated in this study defy all norms of decency and are occasioned by any or all of the following circumstances: 

Violence is often gratuitous too; a dalit woman can be humiliated for daring to cross a dominant caste woman on the road, for letting her cattle stray into a dominant caste landlord’s field and so on. In these instances, the very fact of being dalit seems enough to invite violence -- it is as if dalits are made to suffer an ‘ontological’ wounding, to borrow a concept from the thought world of African-American philosopher Cornel West. 

Sadly, dalit women endure a fair amount of hurt and pain in their homes as well. ‘Dalit Women Speak Out’ lists a formidable catalogue of contexts and reasons for the domestic abuse inflicted on dalit women. This listing is depressingly familiar -- or at least ought to be to women’s groups that have worked on family and spousal violence these last three decades -- and includes dowry, conjugal mistrust, sexual jealousy, suspicion, inability to bear male children, male drunkenness. The only startlingly different reasons for the violence that dalit women suffer at home have to do with their social status -- when they marry men from other castes, they stand to be taunted, abused and are often threatened by their marital kin.  

In this context, it is important that we understand the power and authority wielded by dalit men in their homes. Some of it, the authors of the study note, is on account of ‘internalised’ and ‘imposed’ patriarchal norms, while in other instances dalit male authority is contingent, having to do with particular contexts and circumstances. Dalit male intellectuals, commenting on patriarchal dalit men, have noted that while such men do exist, dalit women do not take kindly to them, and resist more than women from the dominant castes do. They have also pointed to instances of dalit men sharing household tasks with dalit women, and argued that dalit households are less marked and defined by a sexual division of labour and that gender roles in the dalit family are far more flexible than one is likely to grant. Dalit women writers have been less reluctant to admit to and condemn dalit patriarchy, but they also insist on the importance of a shared life-world that both dalit men and women inhabit and have made their own.  

Here we need to take on board the fact that dalit men are as subject to distinctive and gendered abuse as women. Only, in their case, their ‘masculinity’ is called into question and they are berated for not being ‘men’ enough, or for being men of a ‘certain’ kind. A Tamil Nadu study on the 1989 Act to Prevent Atrocities Against Scheduled Castes and Tribes has gathered a list of verbal offences against dalits, both men and women. (The study, which came out in 2007, was carried out by a dalit research and culture group, the Dr Ambedkar Cultural Centre, Madurai.) Words used to damn, humiliate and hurt dalit men call into question the sexual propriety of their mothers, accuse them of being ‘faggots’, thus breathing homophobic hatred, and insist that they have designs on dominant caste women. The actual words are crude, violent and very damning to a person’s sense of self, directed as they are against one’s most intimate sensibility, one’s inviolate privacy of being.  

The violence that underpins the social identity granted to dalits then constitutes dalit men as scarred victims, and therefore to assert one’s sense of self, inescapably gravitates towards particular forms of assertive masculine self-expression. In the context of the dalit family and household, such expressions are consequentially gendered: while men seek to be ‘men’, and end up as familiar patriarchs, women rally around the family to keep it cohesive and protected. In the public realm though women break with what is expected of them, and resist. It seems important therefore that dalit men complement their efforts and address the violence that is constitutive of their existence as an important political issue, and examine its implications for their own familial and kin roles.  

We need to think through carefully and meticulously the inexorably gendered nature of the systemic violence directed against dalits. I shall restrict my comments here to verbal insults, always already sexualised, and argue that these provide a clue to the complicated issues at stake. Sexual insults hurled at dalit women have to do with their sexual and reproductive lives and functions -- dalit women’s genitalia is evoked with derision, contempt and hatred. By thus sexualising insults and abuse, the dominant caste man achieves several things: for one, he reiterates the fact of birth-based ‘lowness’ not merely through stating an idea, but by embodying it in terms which make the birth process, and the birth-giver polluting and damned. Secondly, there is a barely concealed vicarious pleasure evident in the constant references to a dalit woman’s sexuality -- as something that may be easily bartered, appropriated, and constant references to the woman’s ‘availability’ end up rendering her a passive object that can be easily acted upon. That this is not true and it is the dalit woman’s resistance to her fate and her defiance that bring about violence is completely fudged in this violent description of her bodily being. 

The mocking anger directed at dalit men fulfils a different purpose: as I have noted earlier, it seeks to ‘emasculate’ them. Reiterative references to dalit men as homosexuals stigmatise them as beings who are fit only to service upper-caste men, since they ‘can’t get it up’ for a woman.  

This brings us to the question of those who cause hurt: the dominant caste Hindu, who hurls these insults, appears beset by a deeply flawed sense of human worth. This is most evident in the hatred and violence the dominant caste Hindu man reserves for dalit women whom he both covets, because he has the authority to do so, but whom he cannot respect. His attitude towards her is thus as much a function of his own alienated sense of self, which needs to indulge in that bit of gratuitous violence, in excess of what the system requires to preserve his hegemony -- for ultimately abuse and attack are largely punitive, they are meant to sustain dominant caste dominance, and increasingly produce it, in the face of dalit mobility and resistance. Such attempts to underscore one’s authority, which clearly lacks customary credibility, seem therefore an expression of a felt worthlessness. More so, because this authority at best is akin to bullying, as is clear from the imprecations directed at not only dalit women but dalit men as well -- it is as if they had to be made to feel ‘emasculated’, to feel they are less than men for the caste Hindu to relish his own virility.  

Dominant caste women, complicit as they are in the violence that their social order invests in to keep dalits down, have a stake in preserving their sense of self -- inviolate, defined by notions of honour and marked by social distance between the castes. Thus, they too participate in the ontological wounding I have referred to above -- perhaps not as equals, but as part of the community that benefits from having a permanent birth-based underclass.  

The fact that dalit women are seeking out secular resources to underscore their needs and demands has proved irksome to the dominant castes. Secular options, guaranteed by law, are a given, and it takes all the force that local caste authority can summon to render the law inoperative -- the fact that dalit women are actively utilising secular options available to them, either through the law or through support groups, indicates that the dominant caste male is up against an anger that has found a guarantee for its expression, whatever the outcome of the latter. Such assertion therefore calls forth an embattled masculine opposition into existence.  

The manner in which dominant caste Hindu sensibility stands delineated by the 1989 Act and by the indictment that dalit testimonies have read out against it is something that we need to understand better. Caste privilege, we need to acknowledge, is gathered around a hollow and degraded sense of self, and one which refuses mutuality, reciprocity and respect. In this sense, the violence that this society inflicts on dalit women bears witness to a deeply flawed and dissembling ruling order and consciousness.

The oppressor is thus not only an ethically shrunken and politically crude creature, but also one that refuses to recognise or acknowledge that his acts place him beyond the pale of what it is to be part of the commonweal. That it is not in his immediate interest to allow such recognition is a truism, and perhaps for this reason alone, it bears reiterating.

(V Geetha is Editor, Tara Publishing, and a writer, translator, social historian, academic and activist. She has written widely, both in Tamil and English, on caste, gender and popular culture)

Infochange News & Features, December 2012