Mainstream, VOL LII, No 16, April 12, 2014
Water and Dalit Women
Saturday 12 April 2014
by Nirupam Hazra
For long, the discourse of women empower-ment and emancipation has generally regarded women as a homogenous, non-hierarchised group; irrespective of the obvious disparity in their social status, economic position, political participation and caste affiliation. Such cons-truction of a woman as a unified homogenous group or entity is based on the male-female gender binary which overlooks the multiple aspects and differences that govern the identity of a woman. As an outcome of this, all the verve and vigour aimed to empower and emancipate women focused on the plight of a particular class, colour and caste.
The history of women’s movement around the world shows that, at the beginning, the movement for equal rights for women had been essentially a movement of a specific section of women, namely—the white (European), educated, middle class women. But it failed to realise the experiences and address the concerns of ‘other’ women who existed beyond the narrow circle that represented ‘universal womanhood’. Judith Butler (1990) argued that women cannot be seen as a unified homogenous group, every woman is a unique individual. Women are not a united group since there are great many differences between them, including class, race and ethnicity. Caste, especially in the Indian context, plays an important role to shape the primary identity of a woman and determines her way of life.
In India movements for the rights of women were initially centred on the plights of upper- class Hindu women. The reform movements, which highlighted and fought against gender-based discriminatory prejudices and practices, raised issues that affected the upper-class, upper- caste Hindu women. For example, in colonial India, sati—the practice of self-immolation of Hindu widows—became one of the major issues which drew attention of the Western colonial masters and Western-educated colonised intel-lectuals. But what was noticeable was that unlike Western movements for women’s rights, Indian women, even those who belonged to so-called higher caste and class, were conspicuous by their absence and silence. Gayatri Spivak described this phenomenon as ‘white men are saving brown women from brown men’ (Spivak, 1994) while the real victim was never allowed to speak.
In independent India, movements for equal rights of women gradually became wider, diverse and nuanced. Even women of the so-called lower class and lower caste started to assert themselves and articulate their aspira-tions. But unfortunately, the life of Dalit women did not undergo any significant change. The discriminatory treatment of Dalit women continued unabated as it received support in the form of overt indifference and conspiratorial silence of society in general. Incidents of rape and violent crimes against Dalit women drew and even now draw scant attention and minimal reaction from the media and civil society. Many of the cases of violence against Dalit woman go unreported and unnoticed. But murder, molestation, rape and other forms of physical violence are not the only ways the Dalit women are subjected to. These are only extreme and visible forms of caste-atrocity. In rural India, for a Dalit woman caste-based discrimination becomes a part of life, a part of existence and nothing illustrates this more clearly than the relationship between the Dalit woman and water.
Water, being one of the most essential and scarce natural resources, is the cause of many contentions and conflicts, especially in rural India where women have to walk for kilometres to fulfil the daily water-needs of their family. It has become increasingly accepted that finding, fetching and managing water is the responsi-bility of women. Though the contribution of the women in managing water resources is highly appreciated, it is also acknowledged that imposing the responsibility solely on a particular gender is a manifestation of gender inequality. In India, rural women are made to spend hours and walk miles to collect water. It severely affects the education, health and well-being of girls and women. What is more ironic is that, in spite of being burdened with the responsibility of collecting and managing water, women are largely excluded from giving shape to the policy related to water and sanitation. Joshi and Fawcett (2005, p. 51) attribute this to a tradition of female exclusion on the ground that “such decision-making is public and socially identified as masculine, the domain of powerful men”.
So, both the choice of responsibility and the power of decision-making are demarcated and determined by the traditions of the patriarchal society; women, irrespective of castes and class, willingly or unwillingly accept their specified gender-roles. But the condition of Dalit women is far worse than their upper-caste counterparts, as it involves multiple factors that go beyond mere availability of resources and its access. In villages across the country, it has been a common practice that the women of the so-called lower caste would stand in a separate queue while taking water from the common source of water in the community. Dalit women are allowed to take water, once the upper-caste women are done with their water needs. In places where discrimination is more deeply entrenched, Dalit women are not even allowed to use common water sources. Hence, they have to either rely on other sources of water which is generally regarded as unclean or have to walk miles to bring safe drinking water.
Water sources, be it natural or government- provisioned, are generally controlled by the upper castes. Even their locations are on the parts of the village dominated by upper castes. So, the physical safety of a Dalit woman and her access to water depend on the mercy and generosity of the upper castes. Dalit women are routinely subjected to verbal and physical abuses. Their buckets and utensils are thrown away and sometimes they are beaten mercilessly if they dare to raise their voice against such injustice. All these atrocities are carried out in the name of purity and impurity. Dalits are treated as impure and pollutants; hence their touch, even their presence, threatens the sanctity of the upper castes. But what is noticeable is that the consciousness of purity and impurity becomes more explicit on certain occasions, especially where Dalits are entitled to equal rights and opportunities as the upper castes.
Another interesting aspect of these kinds of caste-based discrimination and atrocities is the role of patriarchal ideology and how it manipulates the caste identity to pit one group of women against another. The fight over access to water generally starts between the upper caste and Dalit women. But, for the upper-caste woman, it is one of those few occasions or opportunities to assert herself, to show her superiority and strength within patriarchy. Upper-caste women are socialised to associate them more with their caste identity than any other identities. They are taught to be docile women, but of a domineering upper caste. So, what starts as a mere bickering among women over water quickly takes the form of caste discrimination and culminates into rape and other forms of violence.
Violence against Dalit women, especially rapes which hardly trigger national outrage, is routinely perpetrated in rural India to maintain the caste equilibrium. It reinforces the status quo and relegates the Dalit woman and her entire community to their ‘rightful’ place in the hierarchised society. Violence becomes a tool to ‘control’ and ‘contain’ the Dalit community from demanding their share of resources and Dalit women become the most vulnerable victim of this caste struggle as water is part of the day-to-day basic needs. The dominance of the upper castes largely depends on the exclusionary and discriminatory practises and prejudices rooted in tradition and stigmatisation is the first step towards it. But today, it takes a form that is explicitly exploitative. The concept of purity and impurity becomes a mere excuse to maintain the dominance of the upper castes as it allows upper-caste men to rape a Dalit woman, but does not allow a Dalit woman to use the common source of water. The main aim is to perpetuate the oppression of the entire Dalit community and a Dalit woman is the archetypal victim of this entire ceremony of subjugation where caste, class and gender put her in a disadvantageous position.
Butler, Judith (1990), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge: London.
‘Gender and Water’, International Decade for Action‘Water for Life’ 2005-2015. Viewed on February 11, 2014 (https://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/gender.shtml)
Joshi, D. and Fawcett, B. (2005), ‘The Role of Water in an Unequal Social Order in India‘ in A. Coles and T. Wallace (ed.), Gender, Water and Development (39-56), Oxford: Berg.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakraborty (1994), ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Williams, Patrick and Laura Chrisman (ed.), Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, Columbia University Press.
The author is a scholar at the Department of Social Work, University of Delhi and in associated with the National Confedration of Dalit Organisation (NACDOR). He can be contacted at e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org