This interview by Rucha Chitnis (@RuchaChitnis) originally appeared in Yes! Magazine on October 23, 2016.
Asha Kowtal and the Dalit Women’s Self-Respect March traveled across Northern India to document the ongoing violence against women who were once branded as “untouchable.” Now, they’re raising new leaders, and finding allies in Black Lives Matter.
“Untouchability has ruined the untouchables, the Hindus and ultimately the nation as well,” noted the late B. R. Ambedkar, an iconic Dalit leader and architect of India’s constitution. Despite India’s race into the 21st century with an accelerating economy and a narrative of acche din aane wale hai (good days are coming), the pernicious shadow of the caste system lingers. India is home to nearly 200 million Dalits, and the fetters of its deeply entrenched social hierarchy continue to repress many, none more than Dalit women.
“The reality of Dalit women and girls is one of exclusion and marginalization, which perpetuates their subordinate position in society and increases their vulnerability, throughout generations,” noted Rashida Manjoo, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. Dalit women face widespread discrimination, much of it at the intersection of gender, caste, and economic disadvantage, leaving them acutely vulnerable. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, four Dalit women are raped every day in India.
In the face of the staggering caste-based violence, an emerging movement called The All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (All India Dalit Women’s Rights Forum, or AIDMAM) is resisting the culture of violence that subjugates Dalit women. Led by the ingenuity and creativity of Dalit women themselves, many of whom are survivors of violence, this movement is challenging gender-based violence that is rooted in caste. This new generation of frontline human rights defenders has given a voice to women in rural and urban spheres to frame their own narratives of resistance and share stories of struggle.
In 2014, Dalit women activists traveled across several states in Northern India as part of Dalit Women’s Self-Respect Yatra to document the salvo of violence against Dalit women, build solidarity, and connect with survivors and witness their trauma and grief. The march documented how caste dynamics unleash a barbarous range of violence against Dalit women—gang rapes, public stripping and parading and branding of Dalit women as witches, while privileging and shielding the perpetrators of heinous crimes.
In 2015, AIDMAM went on a North American tour to “break the silence on caste apartheid and caste rape” and engage with women activists in the U.S. who are also speaking out against state violence. I spoke with Asha Kowtal, AIDMAM’s general secretary, who has propelled this critical dialogue around caste and its deep links with gender-based violence.
Rucha Chitnis: Could you share the history of Dalit women’s resistance in India, and the evolution of AIDMAM as a movement that was founded and led by Dalit women?
Asha Kowtal: The Dalit movement in India has a huge legacy, strong resistance, its own evolution over several decades now, where Dalit women played a significant role—particularly women who wrote books, songs, poems, and were part of the cultural resistance of that time. And yet, we don’t get to read about our own cultural history in India. At the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, we had a discussion to look specifically at Dalit women’s issues. We needed a women’s movement because of various challenges—the lack of resources, patriarchy within the movement itself—and we needed a vision for what it meant to organize independently as women.
Slowly we began to grasp the situational analysis more deeply in Northern India in states, like Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and it took some time to look at the context in the field and understand who were our allies in Delhi and beyond. We covered a lot of ground and began to identify new activists. The big shift happened in 2012. A few months before the Delhi gang rape, which captured the world’s attention, we received reports of 22 gang rapes of Dalit women in Haryana alone. The frequency of the crimes was staggering, and our movement galvanized into a stronger force. We were eight to ten Dalit women leaders, and we decided to travel to ten districts in Haryana, village-to-village, to meet survivors and their families in November, 2012. And then in December, the whole world woke up to news of the Delhi gang rape.
Rucha Chitnis: What was the conversation around violence against women in feminist spaces in India after the Delhi gang rape?
Asha Kowtal: It opened up a lot of discussions among feminist groups. We decided to use this space to bring [up] issues of gender and caste, and repeatedly highlighted that we cannot talk about gender justice without looking at the structure of caste. How long can you ignore this? We are the only Dalit women’s group that is consistently raising this issue. We would often receive a sympathy response from mainstream feminists, but what we wanted was a real political analysis keeping caste at the core to understand violence against women. Every year in India, women’s groups celebrate International Women’s Day. But, we wonder why specific issues of Dalit women involved in manual scavenging work never appear in the agenda. How can gender justice be achieved when millions of women remain under the shackles of deep-seated caste apartheid?
Rucha Chitnis: Last year, the Dalit Women’s Self-Respect Yatra traveled across several states in Northern India to understand the context and realities of violence facing Dalit women. What did your fact-finding visits reveal?
Asha Kowtal: After the first yatra (march) in Haryana in 2012, we felt is was a powerful strategy to connect with Dalit women and a community that was so thirsty to have someone talk to them, even if it meant comforting them, talking to their families, taking their petitions to the district collector. We had public meetings, awareness programs, street theater, cultural programs, and hundreds of people started gathering. Dalit women were leading this process. All of a sudden Dalit women were on the stage and communities were gathering at our meetings, and this changed the equation and put Dalit women as state and national leaders.
Through these journeys across states, we were able to reflect, look at the geo-contextual situation of each state. In Bihar, we saw how violence against women was connected to access to land and resources. We saw how Dalit families’ land struggles were leading to backlash and violence. Ninety percent of land is owned by 10 percent of people in Bihar—this is the kind of unequal structure in these communities. We began to understand the root causes of violence against Dalit women. We saw that when Dalit women were participating in the panchayat (village self-governing systems), they were largely either proxy to male members of the family or a dominant caste person. We saw how much Dalit women faced violence as elected representatives. In spite of all the laws, there was a culture of impunity.
The situation in the state of Orissa was mind-blowing. We were there for 10 days and saw the full spectrum of violence, whether it was untouchability, Dalits not allowed to enter temples, children discriminated [against] in schools, women being stripped and paraded naked, women branded as witches and killed. The silencing of the violence was rampant when the police and civil society are repressive in a dominant Hindu and Brahmanized culture. In Bundelkhund, we went to a village, where not a single person has gone to school, where women were raped and could not go to the police station. We witnessed the thick-skinned wall of impunity.
Rucha Chitnis: How did the yatra shape the movement’s trajectory?
Asha Kowtal: We wondered if the institutions that were mandated to give us justice can really serve us. We had an interaction with Rashida Manjoo, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, and she wrote how structural overhaul is needed in India to address violence against women. Navi Pillay, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights also wrote how India needs to tear down the barriers of caste. The impunity that we see in police officers is the same impunity we see in highest diplomatic officers, who don’t acknowledge caste in international human rights discourse. India has successfully avoided the use of the terminology of caste.
Rucha Chitnis: Tell us about the conceptualization of #DalitWomenFight and how this has provided a powerful lexicon to tell the stories of Dalit women’s powerful resistance.
Asha Kowtal: We created #DalitWomenFight toward the end of 2013, and decided to do social media trainings for our girls so that this message could be heard across the world. We began to have a discussion around building solidarity. Who will stand shoulder to shoulder with us? We started expanding our horizons, and in 2014 we spoke at the Women in the World Summit. This was the first time they had a panel on Dalit women. We also went to the Color of Violence conference in Chicago, where we met many women of color, queer and gender non-conforming people and indigenous women. The discussions were amazing. We also started Dalit History Month, because we realized that Dalits needed to rewrite their own history. This was powerful as it was conceived and implemented by the minds and knowledge systems of Dalit women.
Rucha Chitnis: How does the Dalit women’s movement define leadership? How do you empower and support frontline Dalit activists, many of whom are survivors of violence?
Asha Kowtal: It’s a difficult and precious process. There is a lot investment to build women’s leadership because the context and circumstances we come from are so difficult—extreme deprivation and poverty is one thing. But what it does to our own confidence and agency is very challenging, for myself and for other younger leaders. I realized that there is no other way—if we don’t mentor these young leaders now, then we can’t move forward in the face of fundamentalism and leftist feminism. Many of them are young students, and we offered trainings, workshops on human rights instruments, legal monitoring, how to understand law, gender and sexuality. We also had writing and history workshops, personal leadership trainings, where women could share their fears and insecurities. Now we are also focusing on digital security, direct action, Wikipedia, and self-defense trainings. We are starting to have a conversation on self-care as many of us are carrying a lot of trauma and pain. Also without resources and infrastructure, self-care is meaningless to us. We nurture relationships. We are like a family that wants to collectively take this resistance forward.
Rucha Chitnis: During the North America tour of #DalitWomenFight, you had dialogues with women from Black Lives Matter and #SayHerName action in San Francisco. What did these dialogues reveal for AIDMAM members on the tour?
Asha Kowtal: We met women from Black Lives Matter and learned how they built their campaign. We also met Angela Davis and presented our poster to her and shared about our struggle. It was good to see the sharp perspective of these women. We had an intimate conversation at a home with women from #SayHerName action, which was powerful. We shared our vulnerabilities as oppressed women, and we also saw the strengths of our collectives. We saw so many parallels in our struggles, while recognizing the differences of race and caste. We realized the similarities of the impunity of state violence that denies us justice, dignity and respect. We talked about how brownness in India is also whiteness through Brahmin and upper-caste privilege. We talked about solidarity, how we unpack these questions that are very important to us, and now we have amazing new sisters and allies.
For more information, check out the documentary by Dalit-American transmedia artist Thenmozhi Soundararajan, below.
Rucha is a San Francisco-based photojournalist and writer, whose stories highlight the power, dignity and counter narratives of women and grassroots movements. Her photo essays explore how women of color, indigenous peoples and farmers are reclaiming their stories, debunking the dominant victimization narrative and are shaping their futures and destinies by promoting women’s and indigenous rights, racial justice and people-centered resiliency efforts. You can read her published stories and photo essays at A Woman’s Lens. Follow her on Twitter: @RuchaChitnis.
Featured Image Credit: Thenmozhi Soundararajan