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The violence of Dalit feminist standpoint and Dalit patriarchy

The violence of Dalit feminist standpoint and Dalit patriarchy

sruthi soas


Sruthi Herbert

sruthi soas(Round Table India and SAVARI have been hosting a series of online talks by activists and thinkers on issues of importance to the Bahujan. This is the transcript of Dr Sruthi Herbert’s talk on June 13th, 2020)

Hi everyone! Thank you all for being here to have this discussion. The topic for today is the academic violence of Dalit Feminist Standpoint (DFS) and Dalit patriarchy. I think it is necessary for us to get a good grasp of academic terminologies that are thrown about casually on social media these days mainly to put the Dalitbahujan on the defence. This is why I thought I will speak about this topic today. It certainly is not my favourite topic. In fact, I have hardly written about this. However, for the sake of clarity, especially to clarify what I think about this in the light of numerous discussions we have seen on social media, I will speak a little about Dalit Feminist Standpoint and Dalit patriarchy.

To start with, let us briefly discuss Patriarchy, specifically its origins.

Patriarchy: Its origins

Patriarchy is now so widely used in English that we somewhat understand it. What is patriarchy? I will give a generic definition (many can be found online). It is a system and an institutional manifestation of power that privileges men, that normalises male dominance and therefore makes it difficult for women to equally access resources and partake in the social and cultural life.

But there is a more important question: Where does this patriarchy come from? What is its origin?

Broadly, propositions about the origins of patriarchy can be categorised into two viewpoints: the sociobiological and social constructionist views.1 (At this point, we have to bear in mind that these are not truths, but merely viewpoints, because patriarchy, as used in feminism, has a theoretical understanding and the discussions around it too are primarily of a theoretical nature.)

The sociobiological views about patriarchy are those for which scientists could use evolution, genetic differences, etc., to explain the differences between men and women and use this to account for male dominance. The evolutionary viewpoint, for example, says that male dominance is natural – and therefore patriarchy is something that is inevitable. You can see this view sounded by a lot of people. It is not something I want to devote more time to but if you are interested in this view, you can read up on this (and hopefully dismiss this as the best/only explanation for what we see around us).

The social constructionist views come from the idea that social institutions and knowledge are created by actors within the system, rather than having any inherent truth on their own1.

One social constructionist viewpoint that comes from the famous 1884 book of Friedrich Engels (The origin of the Family, Private property, and the state) is this – ownership of private property leads to the development of patriarchy (to protect property). This is because it is necessary to control women and their sexual activities to ensure that wealth could be passed down the family line by the bourgeoisie. Therefore, patriarchy evolved to protect class interests. Understood this way, women’s oppression is a result of the evolution and maintenance of class relationships. From the perspective of left politics then, a proletariat revolution (or whatever revolution that will happen) – will abolish class oppression and also (incidentally), emancipate women. This is a simplified version of this view (and there are rich debates within various strands of Marxism and feminism).

Another proposition is by Gerda Lerner, the well-known feminist who wrote the book called the Creation of Patriarchy in 1986. Her proposition, again in very simplistic terms is this: what first came about was the sexual division of labour which led to male dominance that became institutionalised eventually leading to a society where it was more advantageous to be a man. Women became the first property that was owned, and it is after women were owned by men that the notion of ownership of the property arises, which eventually gives rise to class societies and the ideas of enslavement. Therefore, oppression of women predates other forms of private property and slavery. Also, it is in the interests of the upper-class women to cooperate with men to keep this institutionalised patriarchy going. Therefore, she understands that there is also an antagonism between upper-class women’s interests and the enslaved people.

So, we can have this debate within these two social constructionist viewpoints itself about the origins of patriarchy – which is somewhat a chicken and egg kind of situation – did gender-based oppression evolve first, or did ownership of property originate first? This is a question that is at a theoretical level for which there will be no conclusive answer that we can call the truth – you will believe what you want from your personal ideological position.

Now, whatever the answer to this question, it will be probably immaterial for the Dalitbahujan at this point. Because the caste system has evolved to be more sophisticated than merely class and gender relationship – if you read Babasaheb, he identifies endogamy (and, of course, a superimposition of endogamy on exogamy) and enclosed classes or castes, forming in response to the formation of the brahmin class. Pinpointing endogamy as a key feature of caste makes the relationship between men and women of the same group central to the formation and continuation of caste. In his work ‘Castes in India,’ he writes that to make sure the enclosed class is not compromised, brahmins devised 1) Sati, 2) enforced Widowhood by not allowing remarriage, and 3) marriage of the girl child. Of course, he is aware that men have an upper hand in society, which is what he identifies as the reason for women being immolated in the practice of sati, not men. So, he acknowledges that there were pre-existing unequal gender relations before the formation of this enclosed class. But the answer to the chicken and egg situation is somewhat immaterial at this point. Because if we follow this thought, there is no way, to bring about gender equality without annihilation of caste.

Now that we have briefly discussed the origins of patriarchy and how the social structure of a caste soceity is different from the point at which that debate stands, I will discuss the idea of Dalit Feminist Standpoint proposed by Sharmila Rege and the larger idea of dalit patriarchy.

Dalit feminist standpoint

First of all, what is the feminist standpoint? Standpoint theory evolved in the West in the 1970s and 1980s. This is about the standpoint from which you understand the social world. It is a feminist critical theory about relations between the productions of knowledge and practices of power and sought to be an opposition to ‘androcentric, economically advantaged, racist, Eurocentric, and heterosexist conceptual frameworks’ (Harding 2004). When used by groups that faced multiple marginalization – of class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. – to generate knowledge, this was an important shift in how you understand knowledge production. Patricia Hill Collins has expanded her ideas about Black Feminist standpoint in her 1990 book Black Feminist Thought. Now, feminist standpoint that comes to India through Sharmila Rege in a 1998 EPW paper, and it is a version sthat she calls the Dalit Feminist Standpoint (DFS). This was written in response to Gopal Guru’s 1995 EPW paper titled ‘Dalit women talk differently’. Guru, in his paper, claims that feminism in India, due to its upper caste and upper-class nature, did not capture the realities of Dalit women in India. So Sharmila Rege writes a response to this in 1998, three years after Guru wrote that piece. This is what she wrote about DFS:

“Though …we agree that dalit women must name the difference, to privilege knowledge claims on the basis of direct experience on claims of authenticity may lead to a narrow identity politics. Such a narrow frame may in fact limit the emancipatory potential of the dalit women’s organisations and also their epistemological standpoints… The dalit feminist standpoint which emerges from the practices and struggles of dalit woman, we recognise, may originate in the works of dalit feminist intellectuals but it cannot flourish if isolated from the experiences and ideas of other groups who must educate themselves about the histories, the preferred social relations and utopias and the struggles of the marginalised. A transformation from ‘their cause’ to ‘our cause’ is possible for subjectivities can be transformed. By this we do not argue that non-dalit feminists can ‘speak as’ or ‘for the’ dalit women but they can ‘reinvent themselves as dalit feminists’. Such a position, therefore avoids the narrow alley of direct experience based ‘authenticity’ and narrow ‘identity politics’. For many of us non- dalit feminists, such a standpoint is more emancipatory in that it rejects more completely the relations of rule in which we participated.” (Rege, 1998, p. WS 45).

This is the rather brief formulation of DFS that Rege offers. What is surprising is that *this is all* as a way of a theoretical exposition. (There is another paper by Rege available online on India-seminar or some other site but that too doesn’t provide a really in-depth or nuanced theoretical discussion.) But this paper seems to herald the ‘intersectional’ idea of dalit feminism really.

What I am comparing it with is a huge number of books that have been written about feminist standpoint by white feminists and non-white feminists. So, feminist standpoint is actually a huge branch of epistemological debate that has majorly influenced feminist thinking and practice. However, when you come to Dalit Feminist Standipoint, there is just one paragraph! You can’t just write one paragraph and propose something called Dalit Feminist Standpoint. And with this standpoint, you are creating and talking about some category called Dalit feminists (that includes Sharmila Rege). And now, two decades down the line there are many people who identify as dalit feminists. So you have to admit that this paper has had some impact. Which is why it is important to discuss some of the questions that this paper begs.

  • Firstly, what is Rege’s own vision about social relations created by caste? This is completely absent in the articulation about Dalit feminist standpoint. Instead the discussion in her paper is more about what Dalit feminist groups have said or what they have done or what Dalit feminist intellectuals have said. This leads to the second question.
  •  Who are these intellectuals she is citing? We don’t know because nobody is named. Some organizations are named but who are these Dalit feminist intellectuals? You can look at the references at the end of the paper. Not one Dalit feminist is cited! So, who are these uncited intellectuals whose articulation is claimed to have created something called Dalit Feminist Standpoint which we have to now take at face value because it is written in EPW by Sharmila Rege?
  •  The third question that I have that logically follows this is, she uses the word ‘we’ to speak of something that emerged out of Dalit women’s articulations and says that ‘these women have put forward this position as a resistance’. Now, is it a position actually what these Dalit women have said, or is it Rege’s interpretation of what these women have said? It is possible that they have been selectively cited or misinterpreted. How do we know, we don’t have any references for that?
  •  Fourthly, has Sharmila Rege already transcended being a Brahmin, and has she become a legitimate voice for Dalit women? How did she do it? What is the process that she underwent in this transformation? And is it possible for everyone to do it? Can all Brahmin women now become Dalit feminists? From this paper, it looks like they can. You can find Latha P.M., who has written about this on Savari asking some of these questions. She identifies as a Bahujan woman and she asked whether Rege who is an upper-caste feminist is representing the mainstream upper-caste women. She writes that when Sharmila Rege presents herself as a non-Dalit representative of the so-called main branch of the feminist frame, she tries to free the other upper-class upper-caste feminists from their calculated silence on caste. So, is Rege trying to free everyone from their silence on caste and trying to say that we all (upper caste feminists) understand Dalit women’s situation?

 Dalit Patriarchy

Now, I will speak a bit about this idea that is circulating freely on social media. Given patriarchy is a concept that has been discussed to death theoretically (some of it explained earlier), the least you expect is a proper theoretical explanation and discussion of this term ‘dalit patriarchy’ that is floating around on the social media. However, when you look for it, you will be surprised that you will not find a proper theoretical explanation of Dalit patriarchy anywhere. So where does it come from? This comes from one paper by Gopal Guru, the same one titled ‘Dalit Women Speak Differently’ to which Sharmila Rege responded coining the phrase ‘Dalit Feminist Standpoint’.

Before I go into that paper, I will speak briefly about some debates within feminism in India relevant to our discussion here. In the 1980s, feminism and patriarchy start being talked about in plural. That is, it is not feminism or patriarchy; it is ‘feminisms’ and ‘patriarchies’. This was to account for the “different kinds of relationships of patriarchal practices with class, nationalist reform, social movements and colonization” (Sangari and Vaid 1990). And there were a lot of dilemmas about caste and gender, especially in the 1990s post-Mandal period. One of the early considerations about this issue reflects in the 1993 paper by Uma Chakravarti on Brahminical Patriarchy. Chakravarti says that patriarchal caste based social and political arrangements control upper-caste women’s sexuality by placing the premium on idealization of chastity and wifely fidelity in women. So, the ideal (woman) is the pativrita who is rewarded by social honour. The ensuing system then made women complicit in their own subordination and this was called Brahminical patriarchy by Chakravarti. There are other feminists like Susie Tharu, Tejaswini Niranjana, Anupama Rao etc., who also write about the challenge that caste posed to the rather monolithic understanding of ‘women’ and patriarchy. Tharu and Nirajana (1996) write that in the feminist movement that there is an identification of upper-caste women as women and lower caste men were men. This is what the later Sharmila Rege also points out later in her paper: that there is a ‘savarnization’ of feminism and masculinization of Dalit men.

That is, in the post-Mondal period, it becomes necessary to be more nuanced. And this is where Guru comes in and writes in 1995 about Dalit women speaking differently. It is his search for the difference that leads Guru to write about the presence of Dalit patriarchy and yes, there you have it! Dalit patriarchy was coined by Gopal Guru. There is just a small paragraph in that paper and you will not find any further exposition on what Dalit patriarchy is. He is anecdotal and he writes about how it manifests in literary movements in Maharashtra. As it is quite anecdotal, you don’t find references, you don’t find detailed theoretical discussion but in a nutshell it is argued that Dalit women feel they are not able to speak out, their voices are not heard because Dalit men are stifling them because of Dalit patriarchy existing in Dalit movements. So, what does Guru write? Here it is:

“it is not only in the political arena that Dalit women face exclusion. In the cultural sphere, for example, Dalit women have criticised their male counterparts dominating the literary scene. Dalit male writers do not take serious note of the literary output of Dalit women and tend to be dismissive of it. Dalit women rightly question why they are not considered for the top positions in Dalit literary conferences and institutions. This dissent brings forth three things: “one, it is not only caste and class identity but also one’s gender positioning that decides the validity of the event. Two, Dalit men are reproducing the same mechanisms against their women which the high caste adversaries have used to dominate them. Three, the experience of Dalit women shows that local resistance within the Dalits is important. The whole situation compels us to defend the claim that Dalit women do talk differently.”

This is what Guru writes and this is the most concrete thing I can find in what he and anyone else has written about Dalit patriarchy. For any researcher, for anyone who is a serious student, this is simply not enough. But that’s all that we have with us. Following this paper, as I said, Rege wrote in 1998, and then she analyses two important movements: Dalit Panthers and Women’s movement in India and she writes that feminism in India was savarnized and Dalit men were masculinized, similar to what I said earlier. Some other researchers were also writing along these lines. With the rise of intersectionality in the west, the idea was duly imported but intersectionality in India came to mean this one thing: discourses around Dalit patriarchy. You become intersectional in your work when you talk about Dalit patriarchy. For instance, there is an edition in EPW, in 2013 I believe, that is devoted to intersectionality and edited by an advisory group of which Rege is a member. The whole edition focused on Dalit women’s situation as part of intersectional framework.

I am labouring to reinforce that there are these three papers – the ones by Guru, Rege, and Uma Chakravorty if you will – that you have to read and that is the entire sum and substance of this edifice of Dalit patriarchy and Dalit feminist standpoint and everything that is happening on social media today. That is, there is no real theoretical explanation anywhere by anyone as to what Dalit feminist standpoint or Dalit Patriarchy is.

The problems with Dalit Patriarchy and Dalit Feminist Standpoint

1. First, like I mentioned earlier, we cannot find the Dalit women who are speaking who are referenced clearly. We are led to believe that they were speaking about Dalit men and their communities who are oppressing them. That’s fine. But what were these Dalit women saying about Brahmin women or brahmin men? Did they not say anything? We don’t know. It is unlikely that Dalit women’s only complaint is about the Dalit men (unless we are cherry picking but that is the problem with using anecdotes – who is this woman representative whose experiences we can use to talk about all dalit women?)

 2. Second, these analyses are based on Dalit women’s organizations in Maharashtra. So, are these organizations proxy for all kinds of Dalit women’s articulations across the board in all parts of the country? That is a huge homogenizing of Dalit identities and the Dalitbahujan assertions happening in other parts of India in very different forms.

 3. Now there are many more key theoretical problems with the concept of ‘Dalit patriarchy. This concerns the origins of patriarchy that I discussed at the outset:

  •  First, if patriarchy within caste is understood as arising from institutionalised endogamy and if it is contingent on the desire to protect private property and the hegemony of the upper-castes, then we also know that there existed no material conditions for Dalit patriarchy to emerge. If you do argue that Dalit patriarchy exists, then what are the material or other conditions that existed among the Dalits (and the Bahujan at large) that gives rise to these kinds of specific patriarchies like Dalit patriarchy? They did not have power, nor land, or property. There were of course some individuals as exceptions who might have had access to property. However, on a larger societal scale, material conditions for emergence of Dalit patriarchy did not exist.
  •  Second, the untouchable slave communities until the abolition of slavery were denied a full family experience in most parts of India. The family of the Dalitbahujan is not the same as that of the upper caste/class communities. So, if you accept the relationship between family and women’s oppression (in either of the chicken and egg situation I outlined in the beginning), how can institutionalised oppression called ‘dalit patriarchy’ emerge in these communities? Did the sexual division of labour of the Dalitbahujan give rise to this patriarchy? Or did ownership of property give rise to ownership of Dalit women? What is it? What kind of families existed for this institutionalised oppression to emerge within Dalit communities that you analysed to theorise on Dalit patriarchy?

 4. Terms like Dalit patriarchy are in fact, precluding an understanding of the nature of caste. Now you have Dalit and non-Dalit binary. It does center the Dalit location but the problem is, caste is not about Dalit and non-Dalit binary. Sharmila Rege is not a non-Dalit. She is a Brahmin. I am not Dalit, but I am not a Brahmin. And there are a lot of women and a lot of people who are non-Dalits and non-Brahmins but you can’t just say that all of them are the same oppressors of Dalits. These days, on social media, you see the emergence of things like Bahujan patriarchy as if to make up for that nuanced distinction, but that is clearly drawing from this particular framework of Dalit patirarchy and extrapolating it to Bahujans to say that you have Bahujan patriarchy. This is a lazy, and serious criminal academic endeavour.

 5. What I am trying to emphasise is that if you look at this aspect you will find that the concept of Dalit patriarchy is really ahistoric. It cannot really help us in understanding the caste-specific gender relations that existed in societies. I will go back to the paper by Uma Chakravarti about Brahminical patriarchy. (I remember that Anu had taken down that paper bit by bit about two years ago.) When Chakravarti talks about this idea of pativrata it does not tell us anything to us about patriarchy in India and what it does to the Dalitbahujans. How are Brahmin men exercising this patriarchy and what does it particularly mean for violence on Dalitbahujan women by Brahmin men? You will not find any of this in that paper. You will not even see anything in that paper leading us in that direction. Which is why you will see that despite that paper being written in 1993 there has hardly been any work that seriously discussed it. It is written in a way that kind of stops you from taking the idea of Brahminical patriarchy that she proposes any further. Rege and Guru and Chakravarti’s papers have not really expanded on theoretical understanding of what Dalit patriarchy is or even what patriarchy is in India.

 I think that if you do want to understand patriarchy you have to look at the apex caste. I want to conclude by saying that both Dalit feminist standpoint and Dalit patriarchy are acts of academic dishonesty. They are lazy but use theoretical frameworks which originated in the west to punish lower castes. It is, however, violence that is not confined to the academia. This academic violence translates into, yet another form of caste violence perpetrated against the Dalitbahujans in online spaces. It is dangerous because it comes with academic legitimacy. I will stop here and welcome your views on this.

This is an edited version transcribed by Pushpendra Johar. This article was also published in SAVARI





Sruthi Herbert is a Teaching Fellow at SOAS University of London.