With conversations around safe abortion rights and the pro-choice movement at its peak, one must not forget the contribution of Dalit Feminism in said subject. In 1932, Periyar EV Ramasamy was the first to bring up birth control in an article published in Kudi Arasu, his magazine focusing on Dalit rights and female emancipation. Dalit women and their contribution to the feminist movement is largely sidestepped; however, a proper nationwide discourse on advocating for birth control was first started by the President of All India Depressed Classes Women Conference, Sulochanabai Dongre.
Sulochanabai Dongre was previously associated with All India Women’s Congress along with other important Dalit Bahujan women leaders such as Ramabai Ambedkar. However, she later disassociated, along with other Dalit feminists, who chose to leave the conference that was very upper-caste dominated. In reality, the exit of Dalit feminists, such as Dongre and Ramabai from the nationalist women’s movement happened at the very outset when they faced vile discriminatory instances at the hands of caste-Hindu women. At an AIWC conference held in 1937, Jaibai Choudhuri had humiliated Dalit women by setting separate seats for them at meals.
A strong, outspoken women who led the All India Depressed Classes Women Congress, she presided over the session of All India Depressed Classes Women’s Conference held at Nagpur on July 20, 1942. The founding of the Dalit Mahila Federation, part of All India Scheduled Castes Federation in 1942, chaired by Sulochanabai Dongre, was the last Dalit feminist group to develop and evolve towards the end of the colonial period.
Sulochanabai Dongre spoke on birth control, something that never came up through the mainstream freedom fighting women’s organisations. Dongre addressed 25,000 women assembled from all over the country. Her address at the conference is seen as abjectly revolutionary. She said, “One important question is of birth control. In this respect, educated women can be successful because they can realize the evils of it. It is no use multiplying sickly, ill-fed and illiterate children at the cost of the mother’s health. To stop this evil every woman should consider this question seriously and should act soon. To solve this problem female education on an extensive scale is essential.”
Not just birth control, the address was multi-faceted, setting up many narratives that were necessary to come along with freedom. Education, for example was a prime focus for Dongre, who said that Dalit women must rise beyond Hinduism. “In the matter of education, we are still very backward. The girl of today is the mother of tomorrow. She who rocks the cradle liberates the world. So it is important to educate the girls. The girl must know how to bring up children. If there is no education, one’s virtues and talents cannot be developed. In matters of religion, we must try and go beyond Hinduism. Our women must be represented in every district and tehsil local board. Among the 20 legislative many have been uneducated men. If some of these seats had been given to our educated women, our situation could have been improved.”
Babasaheb believed in movements run by women. He tried to introduce an all new narrative for the Dalit struggle with his revolutionary stance on women’s emancipation. One of the major successes of the Dalit movement driven by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was the tremendous presence of women and their commitment, an initiative to fight for sexual and reproductive health rights for women. Sexual servitude was seen as a huge roadblock to overcome in those times. This conference also established Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, as the leader for the voices of the Dalit community, making sure that Dalit women dissenters who refused to accept Gandhi as their leader were paid heed to.
The conference chaired by her arrived to spectacular conclusions, something Dalit women needed allover the country. The resolutions were,
- The right of women to divorce her husband is acknowledged by statute. The notion of polygamy in our society is unfair to women and hence the state must make necessary reforms or changes to the law in order to monitor this phenomenon.
- Working conditions to be reinforced for working women in mills and bidi industries, municipalities and railways, etc., such as right to casual leave, sufficient compensation for bodily injury and benefits.
- Appointment of female supervisors for female workers in the mills.
- Seats in all legislative and other representative bodies be reserved for women from Depressed Classes.
- All India Scheduled Caste Women’s Federation be established.
- To improve education level among the depressed classes women:
i. Government must enact laws that enforce mandatory primary education
ii. Each provincial government must run hostels for scheduled caste female students as well as provide scholarships for those among them who are desirous of taking secondary and college education.
Politics of Birth Control in Dalit Feminism
The Dalit feminist movement is deeply entrenched with the Ambedkarite thought of self-assertion, the right to body-representation that transcends the markers of caste identity. Sexual subordination, sexual dignity and, later, gender education and wage equality were key issues for the Dalit Gender Radical Change. In this particular regard, the ‘untouchable ‘ identity of the community—which led both to undue sexualisation and stigmatisation of Dalit women, and particularly their bodies—was important.
Sulochanabai Dongre was very important politically as she made the first nationwide call for birth control and education as major barriers to overcome for achieving parity, post Periyar. Unlike cultural nationalism, which associated (upper-caste women) with religion and tradition, we see that the reform of Dalit women was predicated on the rejection of Hindu tradition that drew inferences from women like Sati and Savitri which supported caste hierarchy and inequality. Unlike the associations of upper-caste women with chastity and purity, lower-caste women (especially Dalit women) do not associate with it.
A very essential component of Dalit women’s critical analysis was thus mobilised around the issue of sexuality and sexual abuse as an aspect not only of patriarchal power, but also of caste power; hence education and birth control were seen as important parts of the new narrative brought onto light by Dongre.