Dalit Women Had a Conference. Now What?

The Dalit Women Speak Out conference brought together over 400 delegates from across the country. What was our intent, and where do go from here?

In reality, though, despite facing a lack of class, caste and gender privilege, relative to their non-Dalit/male peers, Dalit women break barriers and cross milestones in different domains every other day. Credit: dalitwomenspeakout.com

The Dalit Women Speak Out conference that took place December 19-20, 2017, brought together over 400 delegates from across the country to the SavitiriBai Phule University in Pune, India.

This historic conference comes at a time when Dalit women are being killed, violated, and denied their most basic of rights. For 2016 only, the National Crime Records Bureau reported that most crimes committed against Dalits were crimes against Dalit women. The report also showed that the rate of atrocities against Dalits in cities were not significantly different from those of rural areas; proving that urbanisation, and with it, the shift towards cosmopolitanism, does not necessarily eliminate caste-based violence or discrimination. In the more sophisticated of spaces, such as the media, the academia, the bureaucracy, and the corporate, Dalit women are shamed for standing up, denied growth opportunities, and excluded at every rung of the progression ladder. This, although undeniable, has resulted in the perception that Dalit women are only victims, not capable of experiencing (or deserving) the many facets of life.

In reality, though, despite facing a lack of class, caste and gender privilege, relative to their non-Dalit/male peers, Dalit women break barriers and cross milestones in different domains every other day. There are Dalit women thinkers, writers and orators; there are Dalit women that work in academia, the corporate sector, government, the courts, and the bureaucracy; there are sportswomen, journalists, and actors; there are artists, poets, and musicians. Dalit History Month, a global participatory project curated by #dalitwomenfight and Equality Labs in 2015, brought to light the lives of various Dalit women, both contemporary and of the past. From Jhalkaribai to Sivakami, from Phoolan Devi to Urmila Pawar, Dalit women have, and are, redefining resilience, strength, and passion, in our personal, professional, and political lives. In recognition of this, the conference sought out to challenge our oft-projected image of victimhood, help construct an independent space led and held by us, and answer questions pertaining to our everyday lives.

Of Dalit women, by Dalit women, for Dalit women

The plenaries and the sessions for the two-day conference were designed keeping in mind the need for Dalit women to envision what transformative politics looks like. The current political landscape, both in-country and globally, is not offering respite or safety for Dalit women, who are navigating several forms of discrimination while attempting to achieve socio-economic stability for themselves and their families. There is also a severe lack of resources and spaces to help with our issues, which are most often unique to the contexts we operate in. This is not surprising since most discourses, feminist and anti-caste, are being led only by non-Dalit entities, with us as subjects of academic exercises or numbers on statistics. Seldom has the discourse been led by Dalit women, for Dalit women, in a safe space that is free from observer perspectives. Relevant questions that do actually matter have not been asked. This conference was thus set up to stop, once for all, the practice of creating an industry out of our suffering, with non-Dalits presenting academic papers, speaking on our behalf, seeking out networks, and creating careers.

The plenary on the first day focused on the need for building a transformed nation for Dalit women, while the second day delved into the importance of journeying from pain to power. Breakout sessions dug deeper into the challenges faced by Dalit women in local governance, helped understand sex-work as caste-based sexual exploitation, and elucidated the ways forward for access to justice in the face of state impunity. There were also discussions on entrepreneurship and economic sustenance, challenges faced by Dalit women in Brahminical spaces including academia, and intersections with disability and LGBT rights. Dalit women led conversations on the relevance of womanism and feminism, in addition to exploring how best to engage with Dalit men and boys. A series of moderated workshops were also held including those for digital activism, writing, film making, theatre, puppetry, and visual art. The ‘care-corner’ focused on methods for self-care, held survivor workshops, and explored questions on dating and relationships.

All these sessions had us sharing our stories, our experiences, and our strategies for the future. This, in itself, is significant. Not only does this challenge the perception that Dalit women are in need of non-Dalit saviors, it also illustrates the depth of our existing wisdom, drawing on the power of our ancestors, our mothers, and our sisterhood.

Dalit women’s lives and dreams matter

We have come to a certain point in history where Dalit women are becoming collectively cognizant of why we deserve to live life fully. Our identity is not the summation of our past or present trauma, and we cannot (and should not) be perceived as products of only our caste contexts. In realising this, I believe we are inching closer to a paradigm shift in the movement.

The time has come to work towards a world where every Dalit woman, girl, and child has stability, security, and happiness. This means that we ensure there is equitable and sustained access to justice, resources, infrastructure and support systems. This means we will be conscious of our contexts, and by extension our micro-privileges, both individually and collectively; we will organise towards a future that is no longer fodder to the Savarna gaze; we will lead discourses on subjects that go beyond caste; we will dismantle and redefine worldviews imposed on us in the name of liberation. We will keep ourselves at the centre, knowing that change is not going to come from the outside, the oppressor or the ally. It is going to from us, the creators of change.

At #dalitwomenfight, we see the movement’s current focus areas as thus:

Work in these areas invariably gives rise to further questions around modes of empowerment, the need for resources and manpower, ally-ship/partnership, as well as methods of advocacy. It is important to note that decisions pertaining to the above, will have to be made only by Dalit women, and as far as possible, collectively. Approaches to our goals also need to go beyond mass mobilisation and public debate.

Our movement-building efforts must emphasise on real world impact, resulting in measurable changes in the lives of Dalit women, so much so that at one point, non-profits will have to become redundant. This demands that we seek newer, more strategic ways of achieving our objectives, such as forging partnerships with allies globally, developing customised tools and resources for self/community-care, internationalising advocacy initiatives, and creating mentorships/peer-support models that are applicable for our women. We would have to reinvent and reimagine what leadership, agency, empowerment, and healing means for us. We would have to interrogate the relevance of neo-feminism in our lives, confront patriarchy from the perspective of the Dalit woman (in context), and engage with men/boys of our communities. We have to take our dreams seriously, as individuals and as collectives. We have to believe in the transforming power of our art and articulations, as we do more of it. Indeed, what we have before us is a long road but that which will lead us to a new world, designed and imagined by us, Dalit women.

In reality, though, despite facing a lack of class, caste and gender privilege, relative to their non-Dalit/male peers, Dalit women break barriers and cross milestones in different domains every other day. Credit: dalitwomenspeakout.com

Call to allies, partners, and communities

Over the years, the Dalit women’s movement has partnered with several organisations and ally groups to further their goals for the community. While some of these partnerships have been successful, some have been ridden with challenges including those of exploitation and appropriation. At present, we are clear about the boundaries we are drawing, the trust we want to build, and the road ahead for our collaborative ventures. We are committed to ending the ally industrial complex made of academics, intellectuals, activists, volunteers, social media torch bearers, media professionals, and others, who have no lived experience but are ever so ready to build their careers on ours. As mentioned elsewhere, real solidarity is action; people with privilege listen to what marginalised groups ask of them and do that.

Our call today is an invitation to marginalised groups that see in us the potential for sisterhood, because of the similarity in the challenges we face; ranging from state impunity and police brutality, to how our battles are often lonely, caught in between the worlds of anti-caste (or race/class) and feminist ideologies. We are seeking solidarity that will help us unpack questions and formulate better strategies. We are looking to partner with men and women from all communities that are serious about ending caste and patriarchy, so Dalit women can visualise a future that is not only free of oppression but also encouraging of our sustained wellbeing.

Christina Thomas Dhanaraj, a third generation Christian Dalit woman from Chennai, is a volunteer consultant for women and minority-led initiatives focusing on social justice, self-determination, and collaborative models of scholarship. She is currently working in Beijing, China. She volunteers for #dalitwomenfight, and was an anchor at the Dalit Women Speak Out conference.