Sexual violence is incomprehensible to me and as such I must avoid thinking aloud on this subject as it has been outside of my personal experience or study. But I do want to understand what is that I perceive and process while reading, hearing and seeing images of sexual violence, particularly related to dalit women.
My involvement with dalit issues keeps sending me down paths that invariably vortex into sexual violence. There are surprisingly few texts that have researched the sexual politics of dalits. Though the words ‘dalit women and sexual abuse’ are almost synonymous in the popular media as well as in serious writings.
I am particularly intrigued by a couple of paragraphs from two books that dwell at some length on this topic in different ways, one by Vidyut Bhagwat and the other by Kalpana and Vasantha Kannabhiran on dalit women.
One paragraph relates to the supposed ‘silence’ of dalit women and the other to the supposed ‘manhood’ of lower caste men.
Vidyut’s observation of dalit women in rural and urban centers.
First she states:
Women who are part of toiling masses are leading their life as beasts of burden and often as victims of dominant caste onslaught. It is but natural they are mute.
And then wonders:
But dalit women in urban centres taking care of homes and children at times teaching in schools and colleges or most of the time playing the role of housewives have not yet come out. We do not know how they perceive themselves and the world around them. Particularly, wives of political leaders, professors, doctors, executives are strangely silent.
In the categorical statement “it is but natural they are mute” is she talking of verbal silence, silence in the popular language or is she saying that there is no reaction to circumstances and resistance to injustice and violence?
For me, verbal silence can sometimes be very loud and menacing. I have used it to get my way through many passive-aggressive battles quite effectively. However, in those instances, the ones at whom it was aimed at astutely perceived my silence. No outsider could have probed the silent struggle and be able to give weightage to the outcome. In that respect what does Vidyut’s observation of ‘mute’ actually mean?
Mute because they don’t revolt physically, individually or in groups? For that I ask you to look at the image of Lalgarh protest here, and does one see resistance? Is it silent or loud, armed resistance or a democratic protest?
In this image I do see and hear a loud silence. Media being a beast of burden, toiling to keep the governments happy, it is but natural they are mute. Academicians, liberals, feminists, activists in designer khadi are also strangely silent. Should one wonder about this?
The protest intermixed with many other issues was also about physical abuse of both men and women.
To read, toiling masses as silent masses is extremely simplistic. How does one reduce a human being as complex as the next one, to something like an unreacting mass of living cells? That is an incorrect analogy, even cultures of cells in a petridish will react to adversity; resist, learn, adapt and by these actions over a period of time they will change the effect of the adversity or die out.
Now lets take her wonderment at urban dalit women’s silence:
Does the movement from rural to urban and becoming professionals and wives of professionals guarantee articulation? If this is a general rule or observation with all women, then we truly have to wonder why this is so with dalit women? How is the perceived silence among rural women connected to the urban women’s silence (again perceived)?
Could it be the memories of rural oppression persists even as they move out into a different cultural, political and economic space? Is there a collective memory operating among dalit women about oppression and methods of resistance, and how deep and complex is it?
The sensitivity and should I say the caliber to read into the psyche of the dalit woman and her response to sexual violence is missing, evident in such blanket statements.
Lets go over to the Kannabhirans reading of the Chilakurti atrocity:
Gender within caste society is thus defined and structured in such a manner that the ‘manhood’ of the caste is defined both by the degree of control men exercise over women and the degree of passivity of the women of the caste. By the same argument, demonstrating control by humiliating women of another caste is a certain way of reducing the ‘manhood’ of those castes. This is why. While Muthamma was paraded naked in the streets of Chilakurti, the men of her caste who unable to bear the sight covered their eyes, were derided by the aggressors who said, ‘open your eyes. Are there no men amongst you? This insult is double edged. On the one hand gender is defined by the capacity for aggression and appropriation of the other. On the other hand the lower-caste man could only cover his eyes because the structure of relations in caste society castrates him through the expropriation of his women.
This on the face of it seems like pretty sound explanation, so with a magic wand if we push the upper caste down the ladder, upper caste men lose their ‘manhood’ when their women are appropriated and humiliated, right? Any caste that finds itself at the bottom of things, will experience it, any human aggregation that finds itself stripped of its protection from civil society; such as during war and unrest, experiences this.
Substitute caste in that paragraph with war, and nothing changes.
The uniqueness of caste being that the forces keeps it in a war like exploitative situation. It must be the longest war in the history of mankind, and with that -the longest history of resistance. Dalits did not die out, that is the proof of their resistance and also proof of the pace at which the aggression keeps evolving.
The Chilakurti analysis is not specific to the dalit man being unable to protect and the dalit women being appropriated and humiliated, I see it as a general explanation for any man and woman, high or low caste, Asian, African or Caucasian finding themselves pitted against a horrific oppressor. The burly Scotsman would have shut his eyes when his clanswomen were humiliated by the English. Any man, anywhere loses his ‘manhood’. Any woman. anywhere becomes ‘silent’ just arrive at the right concoction of factors that lead up to to it. A variation of what happens between Tutsis and Hutus, Serbs and Bosnians, Gujarat Hindus and Muslims. The amazing aspect of dalit atrocities is that it does not peak, it remains as a constant background noise.
I learn nothing from these observations and analysis in these books except a lot of recycled academic verbiage. Articulation delivered through unseeing eyes and deafened ears only indicates the comfort of safe jobs and privilege of the authors.
So does it matter what gets written about dalit women in dusty academic books? Yes, it does, as one can see bits and pieces are taken out from these books and find their way into the public sphere, extended by journalists who attach these sentences to their daily bread articles on atrocities. And I run into variations of these statements by loud ‘feminists’ on the web routinely. Tiresome and mediocre! Repeated with such conviction and surety, that I loathe the thought of a dialog with them. Another instance of silence, perhaps?
May I gently suggest, please turn your weak analytical skills and the light on the perpetrators of the evil. They require reformation.
We will describe ourselves. Leave it to us.
Image: Sanhati website
Sources: a) Dalit Women in India: Issues and perspective. b) De-Eroticizing Assault: Essays on Modesty, Honour and Power.