Cynthia Stephen is a Dalit activist, writer, social policy researcher, and an independent journalist. She works in the areas of Dalit studies, affirmative action and educational policy. She has written many articles and contributed chapters for books on issues of Dalit women, Brahmanical patriarchy, caste discrimination, and many more. She is the president of the Training, Editorial and Development Services Trust (TEDS) and lives in Bangalore, India.
Alice Abraham: Can you tell us about your experience growing up as a Dalit Christian?
Cynthia Stephen: That’s an interesting question. The thing is I didn’t grow up as a Dalit. It is an interesting trajectory. My Dalit consciousness was lacking or absent because we were brought up in a family that never told us about our Dalit ancestry. My parents were well placed. My mother was a teacher at one of the best schools and my father, though he died at a young age, was an engineer. So, we grew up privileged. It was in my forties I understood it myself.
Earlier I used to think of Dalit as something outside of me, which has nothing to do with me. However, since I grew up in a rural area among the poor, and also because my mother was a well-grounded person who grew up in poverty, she brought us up very strictly with hardworking and ethical values. Though we had privilege, we were taught to be independent.
Are Dalit feminists in the mainstream feminist movement? Have they been accepted and given space? I don’t think so.
Then in my forties, a series of events happened which made me reflect. Once, I was an ideal candidate for a job and was very confident about getting that job, a young Brahmin woman with no experience was hired. Then I started exploring the question.
When I had submitted my biodata one woman in the office had told me, “We don’t talk about Dalits in our organisation”. I didn’t realise why she mentioned that at that point. It took me years to unravel my Dalit identity. Even though not all my grandparents were Dalits, we were treated as one by the establishment. At that point I didn’t realise why this was happening. After I learned about it, my life took a turn. Then I began to interact on Dalit Christian issues. After I moved to Bangalore, I began working with the CSI church and different Christian organisations of liberal thought.
AA: What were the major influences in your life? Any people or books that influenced you to work for your community?
CS: Of course, the greatest influence is Babasaheb Ambedkar. Also, Jyotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule. When I was studying in sixth standard, my mother had bought me a book which was the biography of Pandita Ramabai and she has always been an inspiration for me for working towards women’s empowerment.
AA: What do you think are the problems of mainstream feminism in India right now? Do you think #Metoo movement was inclusive of everyone?
CS: The thing is, those who already had a voice come forward prominently and is listened to by everyone. #MeToo was a powerful movement in my opinion. But like every other issue, voices being heard were only of the dominant caste and class. At the bottom of it were women from marginalised sections, whether it is Tarana Burke in the United States or Raya Sarkar (who is from a Dalit background) in the Indian context. And those women who triggered important developments in the movement were Dalits.
Even in a larger context in India, the law reforms related to women were framed because of the fight by women from marginalised communities. The Adivasi girl Mathura who fought for justice against her custodial rape and the furore caused to rewrite rape laws to be more women friendly. This was an important paradigmatic shift.
Another important person is, Bhanwari Devi, a Dalit woman activist who worked with state government service. She had complained about a child marriage but was gang raped for doing her job. Even an adverse judgement came saying she wasn’t raped because she was an untouchable. Her fight for justice resulted in the framing of Visakha guidelines and the Prevention of Sexual Harrassment of Women at Workplace Act. Dalit women’s lives and experiences have thus been crucial in the struggle for gender justice but that is not acknowledged and is ignored. In the #MeToo movement, this has happened again.
AA: So do you think a separate Dalit feminist movement is required? And what you think of the term ‘Dalit feminism’?
CS: The answer is obvious. Are Dalit feminists in the mainstream feminist movement? Have they been accepted and given space? I don’t think so. This is seen from the beginning. Women from marginalised sections who have been in various movements have always been pushed to the rank and file. The leadership and agenda setting are done by the dominant group. People like myself, Ruth Manorama, Fatima Bernard and others got in and started questioning and raised issues related to Dalit women which were not discussed by the dominant caste women led feminist groups. Then a consciousness about our problems being different from mainstream movement began to grow.
I propose something called the ‘marginalised Indian womanism’ which encapsulate the experiences and perception of women from different marginalised sections in India.
In the mainstream feminism the beginning and end of discussions were patriarchy and violence. But our analysis was much more nuanced and vibrant. Our solution seeking is also much more grounded. That doesn’t mean that I am critical of the mainstream feminist movement for whatever they have already done and achieved in areas of employment, property rights, and many more. But what about women who don’t own property? Thus, Dalit women need a different language.
Black women who have faced racism in the White feminist movement proposed the term ‘womanism’. Latina women also have a term ‘Mujerism’, where ‘mujer’ means woman. Earlier I proposed a term, ‘Dalit womanism’ then I realised it was not inclusive enough. So, I am proposing something called the ‘marginalised Indian womanism’. This tries to encapsulate the experiences and perception of women from different marginalised sections in India.
AA: So my next question is about the recent Twitter row over the use of the term ‘Brahminical patriarchy’? Most of the outrage came from the well-educated section. Why do you think people are still unaccepting of the relationship between caste and patriarchy? What’s your take on that?
CS: I am very thrilled that this issue happened. Because after the initial outrage, everyone started explaining and exploring this. Works of Ambedkar, Phule, Savitribai Phule, Sharmila Rege and others began to be widely discussed. Even one of my old articles from ten years back on the matter is being discussed in a news channel. The point is Brahminical patriarchy have been discussed for many years. Uma Chakravarty had pioneered the discussion on the term, but it was mostly in the academic groups.
I think the Twitter issue was an excellent development as it began conversations in the public domain and a debate was started. Many students, activists and the general public have begun to understand that Brahminical patriarchy is not just about caste but is an ideology. There was a cultivated silence around it and finally the silence has been broken.
AA: What is your opinion on reservation for Dalit Christians?
CS: That is a right has been denied to us by a wrongly passed ordinance which was one of the first things that Brahminical establishment did to the constitution just eight months after the constitution was formulated. Even though it should have been redressed, the legal challenge is still pending. During the UPA term, there was a lot of push for it from the Christian community. In spite of all that, the government kept delaying a positive response and a huge opportunity to correct a historical wrong against Dalit Christians was lost. The government can’t punish people for exercising their freedom of religion particularly the marginalised section and those converting to minority religions. But our fight will continue.
AA: What are your future goals for your community?
CS: My life goal has always been the empowerment of women especially from the marginalised communities. Economic as well as political empowerment is what I am aiming for these women. I am trying to build institutions which will empower women economically by promoting entrepreneurship and also to build them at a personal level. Though my projects are mostly in and around Karnataka I have always worked all over the country because of my language skills. I can speak five languages. I also plan to do more writing in the professional field as well as creative field. I have written several poems and I hope to write more poems as well as fiction.
I am also doing translation from regional languages to English. I am taking works from English into bhasha languages. Currently I am doing three projects in Kannada and one in Telugu, one in Hindi and one in Tamil and one in Marathi. My aim is to translate the works of the anti-caste movement, so I hope more people can read them.
FII thanks Cynthia Stephen for taking out time to do the interview.
Featured Image Source: Indian Women Blog