IntersectionalityCaste Invisibilised By Caste and Patriarchy: Women Farmers In India

Invisibilised By Caste and Patriarchy: Women Farmers In India

Even though women farmers majotiry of whom are Dalit and Backward Castes, does lots of work in the field their work remains invisible and men get more visibility

Until today, farmers have never come out, but now farmers won’t go back without their rights. We will go back only when they repeal these backward laws. Even if it takes years, we will peacefully fight for our rights,” said a woman farmer protestor while talking to VICE News. They are protesting against the three controversial farm acts implemented by the BJP government. The farmers’ protest has seen a significant number of women participating in it, but even today when we think of farmers, we always imagine a male farmer. Even though women farmers do a lot of field work, their work remains invisible and male farmers get more visibility in media.

Image source: The Wire

Leelabai Totawar, a 63-year-old woman from a small village of Yavatmal district Vidarbha, yields 40 acres of land on her own since a very young age. Her story attracted media attention because she successfully yielded cotton and soybean even in the years of major crop failure in the district. But the media focused and gave credit to her husband, thus making him a famous farmer in the region. In a report published in The Hindu, she said, “I am the farmer, he did no farming. He only moons over his cattle, he loves those cows. Men hang around the village, women are in the fields.” Her story is a classic example of how women farmers are excluded.

The data indicates that the participation of women in agriculture is highest among Dalit castes than male workers and more to field labourers.

Farming is an old and traditional occupation of a large population of India. As Indian society is based on caste system, most farming work is done by Shudra and Ati Shudra castes and the land ownership is highly unequal among different castes. Gail Omvedt, in her book ‘Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr Ambedkar and the Dalit movement in Colonial India‘, mentions that the Shudra cultivator status was linked with a more liberal treatment of women, as compared to other upper castes. The majority of village cultivators had independent women from peasant caste who worked in the field and who played important economic and even managerial roles.

The data provided by Gail Omvedt in the same book indicates that the work participation of Brahmin women in farming is very low as compared to that of the women among peasant castes. The data also indicates that the participation of women in agriculture is highest among Dalit castes than male workers and more to field labourers. Clearly, women are a significant economic producer along with men. 

Central Province and Berar(1921)Percentage of female to male workerCultivatorField Labourers
Mahar/mehra(Cotton Weaver)91.2816.5660.25
Bombay Presidency(1921)
Brahman, Chitpavan153.141.54
Table 1:Participation of women in agrarian work

The above data indicates that women have been doing agricultural work but their role in agriculture remains invisible.

Also read: Women & The Farmers’ Protests: Intersectional Politics & Dissent

Women Farmer and Structure of Family

In the book ‘Women Farmer of India‘, Maithreyi Krishnaraj says, “The actual situation on the ground could involve higher participation of women than even the census figures indicate because it is highly likely that women are counted as family labour even when they are entirely managing farms and men may be recorded as cultivator even when they are barely in it.” The census data produced by the state could not recognise women’s work as that of a ‘farmer’ and they also have been taken for granted in the name of family labour similar to unpaid domestic work. This shows how social relationships of power and inequality shape the hierarchy of workers.

The reportInvisible Women Farmers’ by Indian Express states that from preparing the land, selecting seeds, sowing, transplanting, seeding, applying manure/fertilisers/pesticides and then harvesting, winnowing and threshing, women work harder and longer than male farmers. They also take responsibility for animal husbandry, fodder collection, cleaning of animal sheds, grazing and processing milk products. Jayati Ghosh in her paper Unseen Workers: Women in Indian Agriculture said, “The tasks of keeping milch animals, backyard poultry (which can be important sources of supplementary income for poor farm families and agricultural labourers) are typically performed by women in the household.” This shows how women do a large amount of work and yet their work remains invisible in the public domain.

Women cultivators do double shifts, ie., both in the fields and in households, along with reproductive work seen as fundamental to her gender. Even when they contribute to agriculture, the responsibility of raising children and taking care of other family members is considered solely theirs. 

In the first five years plan after independence the policies framed for women in India were however through a patriarchal gaze which Considered women as homemakers responsible for the family’s development, health and nutrition.

The gendered division of labour can be the reason behind the ignorance of recognition of women’s work on the farm. While discussing the gendered division of labour, Maria Mies in her bookPatriarchy and accumulation on a world scale: Women in the international division of labour‘ mentioned Women’s share in the production and reproduction of life is usually defined as a function of their biology or ‘nature’. Due to the biological definition of women’s interaction with nature, her work both in giving birth and raising children as well as the rest of domestic work does not appear as work or labour.’ In the case of women from Shudra farming castes where land is owned by their husbands or other male family members. her work there is considered domestic work. 

Also read: Women Contribute Hugely In Agriculture, But Are Still Overlooked As ‘Farmers’

Women Farmer and the State

We can see the same approach in state policies for the agricultural sector of India. If we look at the land reforms done by the state after independence, it indicates how women were ignored. In the first five years plan after independence, the policies framed for women in India were through a patriarchal gaze which considered women as homemakers responsible for the family’s development, health and nutrition.

Image Source: SheThePeople

Another example is that of Ujjwala Yojana in which LPG connections were issued in the name of women of the households. The government says that this scheme was launched for the empowerment of women. This shows that the state assumes women not as individuals but only as wives and mothers. Women in India do not own land or any other property, due to which they are not listed as primary earners and they are excluded from decision making activities like getting loans, participating in mandi panchayats, assessing and deciding the crop patterns, liaising with the district officials, bank managers and political representatives and bargaining for MSPs (minimum support prices), loans and subsidies. 

Many women from rural areas are generally from lower castes and work as agricultural labourers in others’ farmlands and get paid for their work but the cost of labour always remains lower than the wages paid to male labourers. In addition, the women’s household work also gets neglected. Maria Mies states this as the problem of capitalism where even though women perform labour generating surplus-value, the concept of labour is associated with men because under capitalism women are defined as non-workers or housewives.

Women Farmer and the community

In a caste-based society like India, the upper caste population have a higher literacy rate, economic resources, viable nepotic networks and large land ownership. Tribal groups and scheduled castes have a majority of people who are landless or own small plots of land that are marginal farmers. Among this, landless and marginalised farmer women remain at the receiving end of the oppression. The caste identity influences the frequency of the women’s outside work as mentioned in table.1 where we can see that frequency of participation of women in work increases with decreasing rank of the caste.

Dixon R. in ‘Mobilizing Women for Rural Employment in South Asia: Issues of Class, Caste, and Patronage. Economic Development and Cultural Change’ writes that the caste identity not only influences the frequency of women’s work outside but also the type of work women have to do. As in the caste system, most unclean tasks or occupation had been allocated to the lower caste, the women farm labourers from lower caste are allocated those tasks that are considered as most unclean, for example tasks such as sweeping, washing, fishing, herding, etc. 

Within the caste system, power relations exist among men and men of different castes, men and women and also among women of a different castes. Even within the lower caste, there is a difference between wages given to men and women. The Hindu report published in 2013 states that the wages paid to men for agricultural work such as ploughing was 70% higher than wages paid to women in 2004-05 and the difference kept on increasing each year. The difference rose to 93.6% in the year 2013-14. 

Also read: The Impact Of Customary Laws On Women Farmers In India

Women Farmer and Agrarian Crisis

Currently, India is facing an agrarian crisis in response to neoliberal reform policies that have left the farmer dependent on expensive, genetically modified seeds, vulnerable on the global market and trapped in a cycle of debt, resulting in the suicide of a farmer in the country. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, a total of 2,96,438 farmers have committed suicide in India since 1995. Maharashtra crosses 60,000 farm suicides since 1995. Needless to say, women farmers also get affected, which gets neglected by the media even while covering the news of farmer suicides. The distress of the women farmers rarely gets captured in the news reports, women from the farming communities are often presented as widows or mothers of the farmers who killed themselves. 

The plight of the deceased farmers’ wives get overlooked. Often, it becomes difficult for them to get the compensation meant for the families of the farmers’ who died by suicide, thus affected the family. Also, after the farmers’ death, the wives have to carry the burden of repaying loans. 

Ranjana Padhi in her book ‘Those Who Did Not Wie’ on farmer suicides and their affected families, writes, “The gendered spaces between public and the private are costly and tragic. It is the false dichotomy between the social and economic or family and work that continues to inform perception, attitudes, policies, development programs and hence resources allocations. The ideological underpinnings of this dichotomy make things far too severe for women, especially those surviving the impact of husband’s suicide.”

The paper ‘Lives in Debt’ published by Economic & Political Weekly mentions that 27 per cent of the victims of farmer suicides were from the lower castes. More than 36 per cent of the deceased small farmers belonged to the castes like the Mahars, Nav-Buddha, Matangs, Chamars and Dhangars. This shows that women from these lower castes suffer more under the double burden of caste and gender.

Also read: As Protests Continue, India’s Rural Women Farmers Fight Invisible Battles

Re-imagining and Re-claiming the Relationships and Structures of the Family, Community or State in India

The patriarchal structure of the family, state and community lead to the neglection of the lives and labour of women farmers. While reimagining this structure we have to look at them not from the point of view of the dominant but the point of view of the oppressed. Women’s work should be considered as work inside as well as outside the family. We should challenge the present structure of the family where the head of the family is always a man.

According to socialist-feminist Maria Mies, labour which is spent in the production of life or subsistence production, largely non-wage labour mainly done by women, should be defined as work and not as ‘unconscious natural’ activity. Another socialist feminist Alexandra Kollontai believed that women’s rights were closely related to the rights of the working class as a whole. She argued that women were not enslaved by economic conditions alone but also by social and psychological factors. 

In the Indian context, while re-imagining society, social reform is necessary for bringing the equal position of women in the family and society. The rights of Dalits, women, minorities and labourers are violated within the caste system. For reimagining every aspect of society we have to look at Ambedkar’s concept of distributive justice which was based on a casteless society.

If liberty means the destruction of dominion which one man holds over another then obviously it cannot be insisted upon that economic reform must be one kind of reform worthy pursuit. If the source of power and dominion is at any given time or in any given society social and religious then social reform must be accepted as the necessary sort of reform.” – Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in Annihilation of Caste, 1979

Featured Image Source: The Express Tribune

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