Dalit women’s voices have been inadequately represented or sometimes completely erased from the literary canon. Other times, Dalit women have been represented in romanticized narratives, without a real examination of their marginalized position in the hierarchy of caste and gender.
The Dalit feminist struggle began when the upper caste women’s movement discarded the category of caste as impactful of the woman’s position, claiming that caste had been transcended by category of “woman”. Dalit women’s issues did not find a place in that narrative.
The exclusion of Dalit women from the women’s movement gave rise to Dalit feminism.
The 1990s became a crucial decade for feminist politics in India. There was a radical shift in feminism when Dalit women began to vehemently question Indian feminism’s exclusive focus on the issues of upper caste/middle-class women.
1. Shantabai Kamble
Text: Majhya Jalmachi Chittarkatha/The Kaleidoscopic Story Of My Life (1923)
The word chittarkatha in the title means “picture story”. The book is a group of pictures which when put together, take into account the life lived as a Dalit woman. Shantabai Kamble wrote this work at a time when several Dalit men’s autobiographies had been published and discussed. She felt that her experiences also needed to be told. The book recounts her life as lived in the community and the caste. It speaks about the sexual division of labour and the ingrained cultural experiences to life after her marriage to Master Kamble. She talks about food and hunger as faced by her throughout her childhood. This book is one of the first autobiographical accounts of women to come in the forefront, centring the specific experiences Dalit women faced inside and outside the house.
2. Urmila Pawar
Text: Aaidan/ Weave Of My Life (1945)
Pawar’s title is an ode to her mother who brought up the author and her siblings on the meagre wages she earned by weaving bamboo baskets. In this memoir, Pawar compares her act of studying to her mother’s act of weaving the baskets. Pawar was born in a Hindu Mahar family in Maharashtra. Her father died in 1954, wresting a promise from his wife to educate their children. Her autobiography is an account of acute destitution, schooling through hardships, and finally achieving an M.A. in Marathi Literature. Aaidan has also been adapted as a play in Marathi theatre by Sushma Deshpande. Apart from Aaidan, she has published several short story collections which talk about the caste-class and gender axes in everyday life.
3. Babytai Kamble
Text: Jine Amuche/ Prisons We Broke (1929)
Babytai Kamble ran a small provisions store. The only contact she had with books were the old books and newspapers used as wrapping paper to pack groceries. She wrote her book hiding from her husband. Her book has detailed descriptions of a life lived in the poverty of Maharwada. Her descriptions of the houses “decorated with eternal poverty” in the 1920s is emblematic of the hunger, labour and caste ingrained in the lives lived at margins. Her book is also important because even a hundred years after Mukta Salve’s essay voicing the dire conditions of the reproductive health of Mang and Mahar women, Kamble talks about the skewed division of labour in her community. Babytai Kamble’s book is an extremely important read to understand the sexual division of labour that the women in the Dalit community take up, where they are expected to work at home as well as work outside to support the family, even as their reproductive and domestic labour goes unrecognized as real work.
4. Kumud Pawade
Text: Anthaspot/ Thoughtful Outburst (1938)
Kumud Pawade wrote of the double exploitation Dalit women faced due to their gender and their caste. She strongly believed that caste could be excluded to understand a certain community’s humiliation and oppression. Anthaspot literally means “outburst” – not of emotions, but of the ideas and thoughts of women who have long been silenced. To deem women-centric Dalit writings as emotional outbursts in her opinion was to take a patriarchal/male-centric view of women’s narration of their lives as lived and experienced as Dalit women.
5. Gogu Shyamala
Text: Father May Be an Elephant and Mother Only a Small Basket, But… (2012)
Gogu Shyamala was born in a family of farmers. She is now a senior research fellow at Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies in Hyderabad. She was only one among the three siblings to get the opportunity to complete her BA at Bhimrao Ambedkar Open University. Her book ‘Father May Be an Elephant and Mother Only a Small Basket, But… ’ weaves together the struggle of Dalit women living in the magida quarter in a village in Telangana. She builds a portrait of the life lived in the rural community with descriptions of its everyday events and experiences. Shyamala writes about oppression and discrimination faced by the Dalit women in clean short prose and raises questions of the dignity of individuals from communities thus far marginalized.
6. Vijila Chirrappad
Texts: Adukala Illathaa Veedu (A Home without a Kitchen, 2006), Amma Oru Kalpanika Kavitha Alla (Mother Is Not A Poetic Figment Of Our Imagination, 2009)
Vijila Chirrappad uses poetry to put across a story of a life lived on the margins of gender and caste. Using poetry, a rather romanticized genre of writing, she builds a picture of the experiences and the questions felt and lived by women who are doubly marginalized because of their gender and caste in a highly patriarchal system. Born in Kerala, Vijila has been writing poetry since her college days. Her poetry is personal and political – writing of the several instances of discrimination she has faced for being a Dalit woman.
Disclaimer: This list is by no means comprehensive. There is so much literature and poetry available and being written by Dalit women writers in different languages.
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Delhi: Kali for Women
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T. Sowjanya. ‘Understanding Dalit Feminism’.
Guru, Gopal. “Dalit women talk differently.” Economic and Political Weekly (1995): 2548-2550.