Pass The Mic: 10 Dalit Women Speakers Everyone Must Be Listening To Right Now
National outrage against rape crimes has only been mounting in the aftermath of the death of the Dalit woman who died recently succumbing to the injuries inflicted by four upper-caste men who gangraped her in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. Unfortunately, it took the death of a young woman to serve as a moment of upheaval in the collective consciousness of people and jolt them to the vicious intersection of caste and gender-based crimes in India.
The caste hierarchy is one of those structures that are still tethering India to a deep-set foundation of patriarchy, misogyny, power politics, and social discrimination. The idea of caste is rudimentary and represents a social divide that has been impossible to mend in India even in the 21st century. But why does traditional social exclusion still plague us? One of the prime reasons for this is the lack of diverse voices in the mainstream.
The need of the hour is to clear the area and give maximum space to Dalit women to speak. Here are some who are actively spearheading the fight against caste and are vocal in public forums. Their social media handles have been linked for you to follow:
1. Cynthia Stephen (@cynstepin)
Cynthia Stephen is an independent researcher on gender, poverty, development, and policy. Based in Bangalore, she is an activist and writer, with over 30 years of experience. During her leadership tenure with the Karnataka government, Stephen was always a strong advocate of ensuring equal policy, and has championed the rights of Dalit women on various committees.
In the aftermath of the Hathras gangrape incident, Stephen in an article Why We Face An Uphill Battle For Citizenship And Dignity for Dalit Women published on SheThePeople wrote, “The life of a human being varies with their position in the caste hierarchy. Women are only objects who fulfil domestic, ritual and reproductive roles in a patriarchal family. The untouchables don’t even figure in the law book as they are outside the pale of the four castes. Women and Dalits are non-citizens, non-people as far as it (the Indian state) is concerned… This is the core reason for the ever-burgeoning crimes against Dalits in India. There are plenty of laws on paper to protect them from exploitation but the crimes continue.”
2. Kiruba Munusamy (@kirubamunusamy)
An advocate in the Supreme Court of India, Munusamy’s is a significant anti-caste voice in the country. As a writer, researcher, and founder of organisations promoting equality, she describes herself as “A judicial activist striving for social justice by eliminating all forms of discriminations, oppressions and inequalities in the society.”
In an interview with SheThePeople, Munusamy emphasised on the need for giving Dalit women space to speak. “I have seen many upper-caste liberals who participate in protests or movements which are seen as ‘decent’. They also don’t know how to pass the mic and sit back, and not take the reward for what they have been doing. If they are a true ally, they would work even if they are not rewarded. I, as a Dalit woman, am not invited to Dalit collectives, but Brahmin women are sitting there. How?”
Speaking about casteist policies which are fuelled through administrative policies, she says, “All of us need to stand against women’s oppression, Islamophobia, violation of the LGBTQIA community. This has to become an anti-status quo revolutionary movement. It has to have leadership from the oppressed community.”
3. Ruth Manorama
With over 40 years of fight for equality, Dr Ruth Manorama is one of the longest-standing activists for Dalit rights, with a deep focus on women from the community, and rights for unorganised labour in India. She has done monumental work as a writer and researcher over decades on Dalit women under the draconian caste hierarchy. Based in Bangalore, Manorama has served in organiser and leadership positions on seats with the National Federation of Dalit Women (NFDW) and Women’s Voice.
She was also awarded the prestigious Right Livelihood Award, also known as the “alternative Nobel prize” for human rights, in 2006.
Speaking on the Hathras case, Manorama said, “I feel very humiliated and angry… Dalit women are like fodder in all kinds of atrocities. They violate Dalit women’s dignity in order to shame the whole community. There is a connivance between the state and the powerful upper caste non-state actors. How long can one tolerate such things?”
4. Radhika Vemula (@vemula_radhika)
Radhika Vemula is the mother of Rohith Vemula, PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad, who reportedly died by suicide in 2016 following his suspension by authorities, and targeting by other students at the university. In the deeply reflective suicide note he left behind, Vemula had mentioned, “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility… My birth is my fatal accident.”
His death had sparked off nationwide protests and calls-to-action of ending caste discrimination at the university and institutional level in India, with Radhika Vemula at the forefront. In the four years since her son’s death, she has emerged as a torchbearer of social activism started by her son, saying, “Rohith left me a huge responsibility. I will not rest until I have fulfilled it. As a mother, I am still experiencing grief. But that will not stop me or even slow me down.”
She says her fight is now not just for Dalit students and women, but ostracised minorities across India: “It’s no longer about just my son. I will raise my voice for all oppressed people and I will not let another Rohith die.”
5. Yashica Dutt (@YashicaDutt)
Dutt is a writer-journalist currently based in New York City. A Columbia School graduate, Dutt has previously worked with publications like Hindustan Times and Asian Age. She has authored the book Coming out as Dalit, and is a vocal leader of Dalit activism on social media.
In talk surrounding the Hathras case, she has actively been taking the baton of logical conversation forward. On Twitter, she wrote, “What’s wrong is our adherence to caste supremacy allowing ‘upper’ caste men to mutilate the bodies of Dalit women for sport or to teach the community a lesson in never forgetting their place at the bottom. And the willful ignorance of the rest of us who refuse to accept that.”
6. Vijayashanthi Murthy (@neelavaanam_vs)
Vijayashanthi Murthy is currently an Assistant Professor at St. Joseph’s College, Bengaluru. She has previously held teaching positions at Jain University and Baduku Community College, both in Bengaluru as well. Through her teaching career, she has attempted to keep her students sensitised and aware as to the atrocities the Dalit community is subjected to, keeping her classrooms open to discussion always.
In a discussion on caste-based violence against women conducted by SheThePeople, Murthy noted how the hierarchy works in such bureaucratic systems: “People from Dalit and other communities who get into these systems, more often than not get spaces in the lower ranks of the structure. The power rests in the hands of dominant castes. In the police for instance… it’s not a functional hierarchy; it’s an evident caste hierarchy. Or in the judiciary – How many High Court judges have been from the Dalit community? How many women have we had? Or media or academia.”
7. Grace Banu (@thirunangai)
Along with being a Dalit rights activist, Grace Banu is also a historic woman by virtue of being the first transgender person to be admitted to an engineering college in Tamil Nadu and also India’s first trans engineer. Banu has been vocal about her life experiences as a Dalit woman, saying that she was subjected to untouchability during her school years, and then later faced rejection by her family upon coming out with her sexual orientation.
She has been a staunch supporter of the Reservations system, believing that it is necessary for the inclusion of oppressed communities like Dalits and transpersons into the fold of mainstream. She said in an interview, “No amount of temporary governmental and non-governmental schemes can have the transgenerational impact that reservations can have. Reservations are the only way.”
8. Riya Singh (@Dalit_Swag)
Riya Singh is a doctoral researcher at Delhi’s Ambedkar University. She works as the Research and Advocacy Officer at Dalit Women Fight, which is India’s largest Dalit women-led collective that wants to “effectively challenge,tackle, and solve caste-based violence and discrimination.” Her work with victims of caste atrocities has been expansive. In a recent article, she pointed out the problem of calling the Hathras victim “another Nirbhaya”, as the media and several protestors have been doing.
During a panel by SheThePeople, Singh emphasised, “I’ve never understood the need of explaining why caste is important in a caste-based crime. Caste is right in front of our eyes… The first thing people ask is what is your name? If you give your first name, they’ll ask you – aage kya hai? (for surname). But Indian society is hesitant about claiming caste pride when it is about bad things.”
9. Beena Pallical (@sitara1)
Beena Pallical is a Dalit activist currently serving as the General Secretary of Economic and Educational Rights for the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR). She has previously occupied roles in several leadership positions in both the state and central governments, working towards gender equality and caste annihilation. Through her groundwork, she has actively trained and advised Adivasi and Dalit women in becoming financially independent. She is a major voice of the voiceless communities in India, having represented them on multiple forums.
On how to begin reforming the injustices of caste hierarchy, Pallical said, “As long as the mindset of discrimination and untouchability exist, violence will continue. The only way we can undo is by implementing the existing policies.”
10. Meena Kandasamy (@meenakandasamy)
Meena Kandasamy is a poet, columnist, translator, and activist, who has authored multiple significant works on the condition and experiences of Dalits in India. She writes for various international publications and her novel When I Hit You was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018.
Kandasamy has been open about her family background being constantly infringed courtesy the caste system, and how her parents’ involvement in the anti-caste fight is the undercurrent to all the work she has done. In as early as her teens, she served as the editor of The Dalit, “a bimonthly that provided a platform to record atrocities, condemn oppressive hierarchies and document the forgotten heritage.” Her debut poetry collection titled Touch is an exploration of untouchability, casteism, and feminism in India.
In the aftermath of Hathras, Kandasamy wrote a poem Rape Nation on atrocities against Dalit women and their identity, which was widely circulated on social media:
Views expressed are the author’s own.