Men from subaltern communities must confront the violence that tears apart some of their homes and families

The two books under review are quite dissimilar in what they set out to do. Dalit Women Speak Out comprises a detailed review of a set of related studies carried out in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh on the violence endured by Dalit women. It revisits the notion of ‘atrocity' both in terms of specific events, as well as the ingrained violence that attends Dalit lives, especially Dalit women's lives on a daily basis. Women of Honour by Karin M Polit is an ethnographic investigation of Himalayan Garwahli communities that are labelled Dalit (intriguingly, some of the communities she studies turn out to be artisanal castes, including carpenters and blacksmiths).

Mix of concepts

Polit works with a mix of concepts, drawn from classic anthropological studies on kinship and community, and from Pierre Bourdieu's theoretical universe on the one hand and from the rather obscure yet compelling discourses that have emerged around Judith Butler's work on gender on the other. These are used to foreground and analyse rather familiar realities: poverty, embattled conjugality domestic discontent, anxiety over questions of honour and child-bearing

Thus, Women of Honour considers the many ways in which women come to perform their gendered roles, as they labour, marry, have children and raise them. Polit works with the notion of performativity or the manner in which we make gender happen, and makes it evident that gender is not so much a given category, but a shifting one that gets ‘fixed' in our doing, which includes negotiating, contesting as well as conforming to norms that are set out for us. Thus women, we realise, are neither completely oppressed nor are they consistently defiant — rather they occupy a middle zone of living and acting, taking their cues from what their life situations allow them, and pushing limits and boundaries where they see fit.

What is lost though in this account is the intentionality of power, whether wielded by men over women or older women over younger women and by families over individuals. Also lost is an understanding of social and economic power: the societies Polit studies are not shown in relation to other societies or to larger realities and when these are hinted at, such as the changes wrought by education or migration, they are not granted their conceptual due.

Polit's study references other studies of women's lives in north India, and in her arguments she moves easily from large generalisations gleaned from these studies to particular descriptions that pertain to her own. Consequently she does not always mark the differences that structure Dalit women's lives — this is, to say the least, confusing. One wonders too if this is because she does not draw upon the wealth of concepts generated by scholars working on Dalit lives and histories. For the lives she narrates are, in the ultimate analysis, not very different from the lives of other poor communities, except where she invokes Dalit cultural worlds, deities, sacrifices and beliefs.

The strength of her book lies in her accounts of marriage practices amongst the so-called lower castes, the absence of hypergamy, the importance of bride price and its eventual substitution by dowry. She shows how these practices and their changed form determine women's status. Yet here again, her study would have been richer had she placed it in the context of feminist scholarship — one thinks of Prem Chowdhry's fantastic work on changing gender relations in Haryana, for instance, and how she works with notions of caste, gender, labour and economic change.

In a sense, Dalit Women Speak does all that Polit's book does not wish to do. It not only indexes in painful and sad detail the kinds of violence endured by Dalit women, both outside and in their homes, but accounts for them. Working with police and crime records, interviews with hurt women, available statistics on violence and caste, and the literature generated by human rights groups on this subject, the book maps the links between caste status, landed power and state authority on the one hand and Dalit poverty, female labour and sexual violence on the other.

A distinctive feature of this book is its focus on domestic violence, from female foeticide to wife beating, from child sexual abuse to sexual hurt within the Dalit family. At the same time, it offers a reading of Dalit masculinity in terms of its forced complicity with the patriarchal caste order — just as upper caste women are complicit in and earn their rewards from assenting to the persistence of caste differences and hierarchy, so do Dalit men, choicelessly without social authority and power reproduce the violence that they endure in their own homes.

Taxonomy of violence

A remarkable feature of this study is its attempt to evolve a taxonomy of violence — verbal, physical, sexual and so on. The attempt gets mired in its own efforts because the violence that Dalit women face is never this or that, mandated by either poverty or caste, or their age or location: it is on account of being considered non-human, of being seen as workers without value, whose very being is refused validity. It is personhood that is at stake here, and the manner in which Dalit women work to preserve a sense of the self in the midst of all works against such an effort is moving and humbling.

While the nature of atrocities directed against Dalit women, the circumstances that shape them and the historical and cultural logic that legitimise them have all been sufficiently well documented in several studies, this one does more: it combines argument, analysis as well as a wealth of empirical information. Its intent is to persuade and establish the justice claims of the cause it espouses, and to argue for ways and means to produce a more humane and just social order. In this sense, it has a normative edge, and functions as a veritable catechism in the cause of the most oppressed among Dalits.

Having said this, I would like to point to three concerns that are not sufficiently addressed in this book: working with data from different states allows the authors to point to the enduring and pervasive nature of violence against Dalit women but it is equally important to mark differences between regions, given their varied histories, the nature of governance in each of them and the many and diverse traditions of struggle and resistance.

For unless one contextualises and historicises violence, it remains too much of a self-referential phenomena — to be sure we are told of resistance, and Dalit women's own words testify to this, but this is still at the level of individual courage and we need to understand what makes for change, resistance in a collective sense and equally what remains intransigent to change. Likewise, it would have helped to know if all Dalit castes are oppressed in exactly the same way, or if helps to be numerically large, decisive in electoral politics and so on, since many of these reasons could impact on strategy when it comes to collective action.

Lastly, the violence that Dalit women endure in their families: it is as pervasive as that which greets them in the outside world. In this sense, it does not seem enough to mark Dalit male behaviour as being complicit in an ‘imposed' patriarchy. Patriarchy works with notions of power and authority that are masculinised to the point of being available as a general resource to all who wish to wield them — and the complicity of Dalit men cannot only be seen as ‘imposed'. Just as upper caste women must be made responsible for their casteism, irrespective of their embattled gender status, so must men from subaltern communities confront the violence that tears some of their homes and families apart.

We have seen Dalit intellectuals fulminate rightly against an unmarked and global feminism, and now it seems important that they examine their own complicity with the violent politics of caste patriarchy and masculinity.

WOMEN OF HONOUR — Gender and Agency among Dalit Women in the Central Himalayas: Karin M. Polit; Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd., 1/24, Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 750.

DALIT WOMEN SPEAK OUT — Caste, Class and Gender Violence in India: Aloysius Irudayam S.J., Jayshree P. Mangubhai, Joel G. Lee; Zubaan, 128 B, I Floor, Shahpur Jat, New Delhi-110049. Rs. 695.

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