Dalit Women’s Agency Is At The Centre Of This Entire Movement
- The biggest advances in women’s rights in India were the rewriting of the rape laws in the 1970s.
- Dalit women's struggles for justice are at the centre of the most important advances in women's human rights in India.
- I call upon all thinking individuals, to become a part of the solution instead of perpetrating false stereotypes.
The #MeToo exposes in India are becoming increasingly widespread. Starting with young women in the film industry – in fact, they started in the Telugu and Malayalam film industries last year but only gained momentum in the mainstream and social media after an actor in the Hindi film industry accused another veteran actor of sexual harassment ten years ago. This snowballed with more names being brought up, and widespread social support to the disclosures.
- #MeToo exposes in India began with women in a number of film industries – Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi – talking about the sexual exploitation of young women.
- Mainstream media picked up stories involving well-known figures in cinema, media, politics.
Dalit women’s struggles for justice are at the centre of the most important advances in women’s human rights in India.
- Mathura, a minor adivasi girl was raped by two policemen in a police station. The Supreme Court, dismissing her appeal, said: “she was habituated to sex”. The resulting furore caused the rape laws to become more women-friendly.
- Bhanvri Devi, a Dalit, was gang-raped as punishment for reporting a child marriage as part of her work. She lost the case, but it became the cause for the framing of the Prevention of Sexual harassment Act 2013.
- Raya Sarkar, a young lawyer who is Dalit, drew up a list of sexual predators in India’s premier academic Institutions based on first-hand accounts by young scholars.
Journalists then started naming their harassers in the industry and now NGOs have begun to let the cat out of the bag. Also with this is the familiar dissenting notes of the Dalits. While mainstream women say that Dalit women, despite having faced a lot of such harassment, are unwilling to come out with their stories, it indicates two things: one, that they do not “hear” the voices of the Dalit women which have been raised asking for justice for their various forms of atrocities they have been facing, and two, that they negate the contributions of Dalit women to the mainstream women’s struggles for gender justice.
India has seen a large number of struggles including the freedom movement, the worker’s movements, Dalit movements, farmer’s movements, students’ struggles, environmental struggles, etc., and law reforms have also been a strong part of the evolution of people’s power as our democracy matured.
The biggest advances in women’s rights in India were the rewriting of the rape laws in the 70s, as an outcome of the independent struggle of one young girl, Mathura, an adivasi in MP.
The biggest advances in women’s rights in India were the rewriting of the rape laws in the 70s, as an outcome of the independent struggle of one young girl, Mathura, an adivasi in MP, who fought right up to the Supreme Court to get justice for the rape she underwent as a minor in a police station. The judgement which was handed down was so atrocious that it outraged a law professor who then wrote an article criticizing it. This was picked up by the women’s groups in Delhi and soon a country-wide agitation forced the law to be changed to shift the onus of proof on the accused.
The other even more influential law reform, involving the prevention of Sexual harassment at the workplace, was triggered by the struggle, in the 90s, of Banvri Devi, from the untouchable Kumhar caste, in Rajasthan, who was subjected to gang rape by men in her village to ‘punish’ her for reporting, in the line of her work, a child marriage in the village she lived and worked in. The ensuing legal battle which was taken up by the women’s groups went on and in 1995 an egregious judgement acquitted the offenders of rap, handing just mild punishments of only nine months for the lesser crimes of assault. Needless to say, the outcry was huge and this forced the state government to appeal in the Supreme court. However, in the 22 years, there has been just one hearing.
But women’s groups approached the Supreme court to “make workplaces …safe for women…and the employer to protect women employee at every step”, resulting in the binding Supreme Court Vishakha guidelines which were later formalized into the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act in 2013, also known as the POSH Act.
In November 2017 Raya Sarkar, a Dalit law student who had earlier studied at an Indian University, drew up a list of known sexual harassers in Indian academia, to basically warn young scholars of their propensities, based on first had accounts by those who had already suffered these predators’ actions. This predictably stirred up a hornet’s nest and split the feminists into pro and anti-list groups. Influential and privileged caste feminists wrote scathing indictments of the list, and in support of their male colleagues and counterparts, clearly setting out where they stood in the scheme of things.
I was contacted by SheThePeople for my reaction to “why Dalit women were not coming out with their own stories of harassment at this time where many women were outing their tormentors.” To correct the prevailing impression that Dalit women were being silent on their oppression, I offered to write this piece to show how their agency is at the centre of this entire move in the country. It is to be noted that even women and media institutions who should know better both fail to acknowledge the central role of the Dalit women in this struggle for gender justice but also negate/deny/silence their role.
We all lose out as a result, and the existing fault lines of class, caste, and privilege will continue to be exploited to further the silencing and invisibilising of the most oppressed but most dynamic oppressed groups in the country, the Dalit women.
I call upon all thinking individuals, and especially all those in the media to become a part of the solution instead of perpetrating false stereotypes which detract from the energy and vigour of the struggle of oppressed human beings everywhere for justice, especially the millions in India itself.
Dalit activist, Cynthia Stephen works in the area of Education policy, Dalit studies and affirmative action. She is an independent writer and a political analyst. The views expressed are the author’s own.