Anandita Pan’s Mapping Dalit Feminism: Towards an Intersectional Standpoint is a book that aims to develop a Dalit feminist intersectional standpoint that looks at how Dalit omen are affected by the simultaneous functioning of the systems of caste and gender. It criticises both, mainstream feminism for its ignorance of caste and the Dalit movement for remaining patriarchal. Intersectionality as a framework that recognises multiple axes of oppression is useful in challenging this homogeneity. The book attempts to give critical understanding of the various contours of caste-based and gender-based oppression.
The first chapter of Mapping Dalit Feminism explores the use of intersectionality as a theoretical framework by discussing Black Feminism and how it challenges the marginalisation of the black women within the Western feminist movement. Next, the book explores the ‘Dalit woman’ identity as understood by Dalit feminism through an analysis of autobiographies wherein Dalit women construct their identities in ways that are different from ‘Indian women’ and ‘Dalit’.
In Mapping Dalit Feminism, Pan takes a critical look at Indian women’s narratives from the nineteenth century, such as Rassundari Devi’s Amar Jiban (1876), as dominant representations of womanhood that homogenise Indian women in India as a single group and invisibilise women belonging to marginalised groups. Similarly, she analyses multiple autobiographies written by Dalit men, like Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan as an articulation of a Dalit ‘self’ that is primarily male and often invisibilises the patriarchal oppression of Dalit women.
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Pan juxtaposes these with Dalit women’s autobiographies from different times and regions, including Baby Kamble’s The Prisons We Broke which documents her experience with the Ambedkarite movement. The discussions on the specific consequences of Partition for Dalit women in the book was particularly insightful. This was analysed in the context of Kalyani Thakur Charal’s Ami Keno Charal Likhi which explores her identity as a Dalit refugee in Bengal. These writings challenge the single axis formulation of ‘Dalit’ and ‘woman’ and give different perspectives on issues such as education, sexuality and emancipation.
Mapping Dalit Feminism also often uses the term ‘dual patriarchies’ to articulate patriarchies as experienced distinctly by women from, an experience that lies in ‘contradistinction’ to that of Dalit men or women from dominant castes. Through an analysis of Dalit women characters in literature, she foregrounds the need to look beyond the binary victimhood and complete resistance and understand Dalit women’s resistance as a negotiation with caste and gender based power structures.
In Mapping Dalit Feminism, Pan foregrounds the need to see gender through the lens of caste by questioning the applicability of mainstream feminist notions of sexual liberation and economic agency to Dalit women. She argues that Dalit feminism recognises that Dalit women have been historically forced into casteist and sexist forms of labour. Her argument is substantiated by a detailed analysis of the distinct responses of mainstream feminists and Dalit feminists to the depiction of the protagonist in the movie The Dirty Picture (2011) and the debate around the Mumbai Dance Bar ban in 2005.
She also highlights the need to see caste through a gendered lens by discussing how sexual violence against Dalit women is a mean of exercising Brahminical control over Dalit people. She looks at the Khairlanji massacre (2006) where the public rape and murder of Dalit women was seen as either caste atrocity or gender-based violence and not the result of both forms of oppression. Pan is calling for an intersectional Dalit feminist representation, exemplified by the documentary Kakkoos (2017) which represents Dalit women’s experience of manual scavenging as different from that of Dalit men, marred by sexual violence inflicted by dominant caste men and emotional violence.
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The fifth chapter of Mapping Dalit Feminism is particulary informative, it looks at history as recovered by Dalit feminism and its reinterpretation of mainstream feminist and Dalit historiography. For instance, she argues that while mainstream Indian feminist historiography emphasises on Savitribai Phule and her identity as a woman and dalit, historiography hails her as the icon of wifehood, a Dalit feminist intersectional standpoint sees her as a writer, a thinker and a teacher. Similarly, she presents a Dalit Feminist reading of the Ambedkarite movement, Periyar’s Self-respect movement and the Telangana Peasants’ Revolt of 1946-51 where she discusses the limits of the Marxist approach in addressing caste or gender.
However, Mapping Dalit Feminism is not an all encompassing account of the Dalit women’s movement (if that is what you are looking for). Pan is simply developing an intersectional Dalit feminist standpoint by emphasising on the need for a Dalit feminist historiography that creates new knowledge.
As a liberal arts student (from a privileged background), reading Mapping Dalit Feminism, seemed to fill a gap in my formal education, wherein the canon largely invisibilised Dalit women’s perspectives. The book ends by addressing the question of who is/can be a Dalit feminist. For Pan, Dalit feminism is about recognising the intersection of caste and gender and is not restrictive to Dalit women only.
While she says that there is a possibility of building solidarities across caste and class as well, she acknowledges the problems of building such solidarities and does not address these problems in much detail. Its clear conceptualisation of intersectionality and well-rounded arguments makes the book an important read for those of us who identify as intersectional feminists and for those who are keen on understanding intersectional feminism.