Monday, September 14, 2009

Untouchable: Dalit women in India

by Laura Smith-Gary

Earlier this summer, in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and the home of over 190 million individuals, fury and small-scale violence erupted when a Brahmin (upper-caste) political opponent of the state’s Chief Minister appeared to suggest the Chief Minister, a Dalit woman (that is, from the lowest case, often known as “untouchable” because contact with members of this caste was thought to be contaminating), be raped in order to understand the pain of rape victims. Chief Minister Mayawati had been holding public ceremonies in which Dalit rape victims were given a small amount of compensation money (the equivalent of about $500) by government officials. Rita Bahuguna Joshi, a Brahmin (upper-caste) woman who is the leader of an opposing party, said that the women should “throw the money at Mayawati’s face and tell her ‘you should also be raped and I will give you ten million rupees’”.

Joshi was arrested on charges of promoting social enmity, insulting a woman’s modesty and insulting a person of lower caste. Riots erupted, and protesters set fire to her house. The charges against her carry a possible sentence of ten years in prison.

When I read what had happened, my first thought was that while inappropriate, Joshi's comments were actually defending rape victims. She said, according to the Associated Press via MSNBC, that she was trying to "expose a chief minister who has no sympathy for women." It does seem that Mayawati could be using rape victims for her own grandstanding, and capitalizing on Joshi's remarks to inflame Dalit voters, her main constituency. She has been accused of playing up caste divisions to garner support. Her denunciation of Joshi's words is particularly questionable given that she herself had said a similar thing about a political rival several months ago, announcing that his nieces would receive compensation if they were raped.

One of the problems I often run into when trying to understand international events and write about the underlying gender issues is my own ignorance -- there's so much I just don't know, and a few hours of research can't possibly allow me to understand the intersectionality of gender and the caste system, or the complex dynamics of Indian politics, which are often inflammatory. However, I do want to try to tease out this story a bit, as I think my initial instinct that this is fundamentally a story about political power plays was mistaken.

Over at Feministing, Samhita posted about this story, and while I was happy to see her covering it, based on my reading I think she missed the point. She wrote, “The crime however was not hatespeech, it was violating a woman’s modesty, or suggesting that she is not modest.” She pointed out, rightfully, that focusing on a woman's modesty smacks strongly of victim-blaming, and that the wording of the law is problematic. The problem with her statement is that while the wording of the charge might not make it clear, the crime was hate speech. The law under which Joshi will prosecuted, the Schedule Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, is one that was intended to prevent (or at least, make prosecutable) atrocities against Dalits, members of India's lowest castes.

Joshi is a Brahmin, a member of the priestly, scholarly caste. The AP article I linked to above to states that Dalits have been "treated with disdain and contempt" by upper castes, particularly Brahmins, but this is an incredible understatement. Although India's caste system has officially been dismantled, Dalits have been and continue to be oppressed, crushed, terrorized, kept out of public life, and consigned to the most repulsive, dangerous and difficult work available. "Disdain and contempt" makes me think of an "east coast liberal" turning hir nose up at a "Nascar Dad" -- not centuries of near slavery, starvation, physical abuse and social ostracization, centuries of being seen as trash. (Human Rights Watch details some of the continuing discrimination against Dalits here.)

There is a strong pattern in India of sexual violence against Dalit women by members of upper castes -- raping them, mutilating them, parading them naked through the streets, and "insulting their modesty" in order to humiliate and degrade them. The bitter irony of the often used term "Untouchable" to refer to Dalits is that they have been seen as so contaminating that some upper caste members wouldn't eat food a Dalit's shadow had touched, they were never excluded from the most sexually violating forms of touch. This is paired, all too often, with blatant inaction on the part of police and officials. In the beginning of 2009 Mayawati ordered police to pay special attention to crimes against Dalits in Uttar Pradesh, and the number of reported crimes rose sharply, with 139 rapes and murders alone being reported in four months -- a fact which even the police themselves attribute to increased attentiveness on their part and increased willingness by Dalits to report crimes.

A quick search on google or wikipedia turns up a stomach-churning list of headlines from the past few months:

[Trigger warning]

Policeman suspended for not registering Dalit's gangrape

Dalit woman gangraped, beaten to death

Teenage Dalit girl gangraped in Uttar Pradesh

And from the past few years:

Dalit rape victim burned to death by high-caste rapist

6 Hindu teachers rape Dalit girl daily

Dalit woman paraded naked in Punjab village

Savage rape & killing of Dalit family wake-up call for India

Dalit woman tied naked to a tree in Punjab

The threat of raping a Dalit woman, then, seems to not only be a gendered insult but to bear the weight of a long history of rape and sexual oppression. While Joshi might insist that she was calling for compassion toward rape victims, a Brahmin woman bringing up the possibility a Dalit woman could be raped feels sinister, a reminder of her traditional power. Mayawati is India's most powerful Dalit politician, and whatever Joshi's intent her words could easily be read by the Dalit community as an attempt to force an "uppity" low-caste woman back into her historical place -- a place of sexual vulnerability without legal recourse.

I want to end by putting the focus on the people who should not be left out of this story: the Dalit women who have been raped. Mayawati was sending her Director General of Police Vikram Singh to the places where violent crimes had been committed against Dalits in order to raise awareness that under the Scheduled Castes/Sceduled Tribes Act, victims are entitled to compensation; Singh's visits also demonstrated to the public of Uttar Pradesh that the government and police force were committed to fighting violence against Dalits (see again). However, victim's advocates have objected (see the AP story), pointing out that these public ceremonies can stigmatize the women who have been raped and call unwanted attention to them. Others have objected to the compensation altogether -- feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia has said that compensation to those who have been raped reinforces their "victimhood" status and reinforces the idea that rape is inevitable and will not be addressed legally. Now, in the firestorm following Joshi's remarks, the Dalit women who have been assaulted have disappeared from the story, once again erased by those in power. Untouchable.

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