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  • On Caste and Patriarchy: An Interview with Ruth Manorama

    Meena KandasamyRUTH MANORAMA (1964) IS winner of the 2006 Right Livelihood Award, widely considered as the Alternative Nobel Prize. She is President of the National Federation of Dalit Women and is widely known in India for her contributions in highlighting the precarious situation of Dalit women. Ruth has also contributed enormously to breaking the upper-class, upper-caste image of the women’s movement in India.

    In this interview with me, she talks of why its necessary for all Indian women to address the issue of caste.

    Meena Kandasamy: You have long been associated with feminism and the women’s movement in India. What made you disassociate yourself from the so-called mainstream women’s movement?

    Ruth Manorama: I have been associated with the Indian feminist movement since the 1970s. Let me tell you something: women in the women’s movement lack a good understanding of feminism. Feminism opposes all kinds of inequalities and injustices. It looks for equality between men and women. In such a circumstance, it is required of feminism to see caste as an inequality, as an institution of inequality. Then why do the feminists not refuse and resist caste? This was a big question for me. Next, if you look at the question of mobilization in the women’s movement you can see that poor working women, women agricultural labourers, Dalit women and Adivasi women are the ones who attend meetings in large numbers. But they aren’t given leadership roles, perhaps because there are not many educated women from these sections. Even if these women have the capacity to run a movement, they are not given the responsibility. They are only seen as followers. Was this not casteist? And these two questions troubled me no end.

    Meena: You are alleging that since caste seeped into the feminist movement, it ensued in certain vital issues not being addressed. Patriarchy puts individuals in graded hierarchies, while caste put whole communities into graded hierarchies. Was that why you became a Dalit feminist?

    Ruth: Once we realize how patriarchy affects women, we cannot not realize that the other side of the coin is definitely caste oppression. They are both two sides of the same coin. With the so-called mainstream Indian feminists, I observed a lot of hollowness in their thinking, as well as in their analysis and in the content of the feminist movement. It’s true that Dalit women didn’t have the resources to become leaders, but then, it’s also true that there were no women in the feminist movement who would mobilize Dalit women and give them an analysis or perspective.

    Then, I happened to meet Gail Omvedt. I started talking to her about my problems with these issues. She said, “Ruth I am interested in what you are interested!” She took me to Maharashtra and introduced me to leaders there who were associated with Ambedkar and his movement. Then I strongly felt that there should be a platform for Dalit women. We are not only women who really get oppressed by gender inequalities, but there are other dimensions to this too. That is class and caste. So, I used to say that Dalit women are thrice alienated. Just to make a powerful point that Dalit women have many more problems than other women. This is because we come from the cheri [Tamil word to denote the separate Dalit settlement outside the caste-Hindu village]; we come from segregated settlements.”
    “No, no, all women are the same. Women should not separate themselves.” This was the argument extended against me. And I would retort, “No, we are not separating anybody. We are only hailing from a society that has been a victim of segregation and separation.” Then I really began to feel that we, as Dalit women, should form a platform for ourselves, we should articulate our own concerns, our problems so that we can achieve equality. That is how the National Federation of Dalit Women was born in 1987.

    Meena: You are trying to do to Indian feminism what the Black women’s movement did to Western feminism. . .

    Ruth: I was influenced by the Black women’s movement in America. I was looking at why these Black women were organizing themselves differently. Why were they separate? Then, I understood the racist notions of purity and pollution that operates there. Just like our situation, the Black women don’t have leadership in the mainstream women’s movement. The White women were not going to solve the problems of Black women. Black women had their own struggles; they had their own history of resistance. It was really motivating. I felt that we could do it in India too. The Black women said that they were part of the feminist movement in America. And yet, as women who have been oppressed by racism, they wanted to have their separate organization. That was how the Black women’s movement came into being. I also read books by Black feminists. They not only wrote about the racist inequality, but they spoke about the class struggle, they outlined the economic oppression, the absence of land and resources. There are so many connections between the Dalits and the Blacks. The young Black men where exactly like our (Dalit) young men; they boozed and whiled away their time because they lacked employment. We shared similar problems.

    Meena: And how was the response from our men. . .

    Ruth: (Laughs) Oh, they just branded me a feminist. They said, “Ruth speaks like a feminist. She is opposing us.” They asked me, “Is there not equality in our community?” I said, “Yes, there is equality. If there is real equality, both our men and women should get drunk. But what kind of equality is it when you alone get drunk and beat your women?” Then I had more questions to ask: “In our society, why are we not promoting the education of women? Why are we not giving our women equality of opportunity?” Then the men said, “Ruth, you are a feminist.” And I said, “Yes, I am a feminist. You are very correct. But I am a Dalit feminist also.” Though our men are on very good terms with me, they feel that it is the best thing if they keep me at a distance!

    I was with [Ram Vilas] Paswan in the Dalit Sena. I asked him, “Where are Dalit women in the Dalit Sena? Dalit women have led a lot of struggles in India. Take the case of the Tsundur massacre. After the murders and the police atrocities, all the men ran away. Only the women stayed back and saved the community. Only they struggled, only they placed their demands. But where is the women leadership in your organization?” Once in a Dalit Sena meeting someone asked me to hand over a memento (a wristwatch) to the Chief Guest. I said, “I have not come here to present a watch, I have only come here to present an idea. Find some other woman for this role. Why can’t a man take on this flimsy job? I will not do it. I want to speak here.” Then, they gave me only two minutes to speak. But hearing me, Paswan said, “You proceed behen.” And I articulated my feelings and ideas powerfully. “Are there are not women in the Dalit community? You are holding this meeting at twelve in the night, and so many women have come in such large numbers from the villages. But can there not be a single woman on the dais?”

    Meena: But this is not what revolutionary Dr Ambedkar wanted…. His support for the women’s cause is legendary.

    Ruth: I don’t know if these Dalits have read the life history of Dr Ambedkar! Everywhere, whether it is the Nagpur or Kanpur or Bombay convention, he always gave primacy to women. He always separately held preliminary meetings with the women and they made resolutions. There is a book by Urmila Pawar, We Too Have Made History; it carries an introduction by Eleanor Zelliot, a white American professor of history and sociology. I read that book. I could feel the zeal with which these women who met Ambedkar worked for Dalit movement.

    But Dalit leaders complain that there is no women leadership in our community. Or they pathetically say, “If we keep women with us, others think badly of us. Some problems will arise.” (Laughter) They would rather not be troubled with women.

    Meena: Speaking of Dr Ambedkar, he said that women were the gateways of the caste-system; and thus, he linked caste oppression and patriarchy. Can you elaborate on this?

    Ruth: The Dalit women bring a message into the whole feminist movement. If we as women really want to address a question of sexuality: that we are sexually abused, that we have no control over our bodies, and that our bodies are being used; then Dalit women are the living testimonies. The whole issue of sexuality is basically rooted in caste. They control women because only that can ensure pure blood in the lineage. That is why any ‘upper’ caste women can only marry within her kula and gothra, she cannot jump out of that defined box. She should be within that cage. I tell them, the more your sexuality and fertility are being protected, there is going to be greater subjugation on you. You have to come out of it.
    The feminists were very affected because they felt this was a challenge to Brahminism, to the caste system. They felt under attack. When I had not yet said these things, I was only an ordinary everyday feminist. Once I started bombarding them with my ideas, I was called ‘that-great-Dalit-leader Ruth’ by these feminists. They started
    practicing untouchability on me. Till then I had only been a women like all the others.

    Meena: How did the feminists manage to push you to the margins? I mean, Ruth, what makes you feel alienated in mainstream feminism?

    Ruth: Even now, when they introduce me, they say, “Ruth will speak about Dalit women. She is a Dalit activist.” Do you understand? The subtlety, the undertones of what they want to imply.

    In a way, it is a good identity. At the same time, it is also about hierarchy. They view Dalit affairs as something negligible, something that can be allotted to me. The bigger, larger things like nuclear disarmament and globalization are the priorities that they (the ‘upper’ caste women) will address. These kinds of problems are always there. But this challenge awakened me. It has awakened us.

    Meena: Let me end with a cliché of a question: What’s your take on the Women’s Bill and the issue of sub-reservations?

    Ruth: The sooner reservation for women is implemented, the better it is. If the Bill for 33% reservation is passed, then Dalit women will get one-third seats within the Dalit quota. There’s no need for any special legislation for that. Right now, the contentious issue is the reservation for OBC women. A lot of parties have suddenly started thinking about women of their communities, though they have never given any place to women within their parties. But I think they have a justified fear that the upper caste women will appropriate everything if women’s reservation is introduced sans the sub-quotas. I share their apprehension too.

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    12 Responses

    1. Congratulations on putting up such a fine piece, it was an eye opener to me. Coming from privileged backgrounds, I feel ignorance (and not necc malice) is a barrier for many feminists like me in looking at alternate perspectives. I have one doubt though. Towards the end, Ruth talks about feminists themselves alienating her by slotting her as a Dalit activist. But, isn’t this a role she has chosen for herself and must be proud of? I mean, you can’t claim that there needs to be a distinct Dalit feminist voice and yet say that such a voice is singled out? The idea I thought was to emerge as a distinct voice for those whose voices are not heard?

    2. Very good interview, Meena! There are many feminisms, and fractures within these many feminisms also, and it’s important to remember that Indian feminism must necessarily be different from other feminisms, because ideology not rooted in reality (actually, make that realities) can only affect change on a superficial level. Caste, culture, religion, communal differences, postcolonialism, etc are all part of Indian women’s lives, and it’s certainly important to incorporate these elements into discourse and action.

      Personally, I can’t understand how a person can defend caste divisions on the one hand and call her/himself a feminist on the other.

    3. Ruth is unabashedly proud of representing her people.. But she feels the voice shouldn’t be singled out… She (and even I) would certainly want women from priveleged backgrounds to tackle the question of caste. And besides, she also feels, being a Dalit feminist must not means that she should be tied down to those issues of caste alone, but she should have her say on the other things as well… after all, how many people out there want to listen to what a fiery Dalit man/woman has to say about the 1-2-3 agreement, or global warming?

      See, Ruth has succeeded in other platforms as well: when she took up the issue of domestic workers, and when she took up the issue of slum-dwellers in the Bangalore city.

      Part of the reason for the confusion is, it is a 10,000 word interview edited for the purpose of this blog-post…

      And that’s my mistake 🙂

    4. Meena,

      “Part of the reason for the confusion is, it is a 10,000 word interview edited for the purpose of this blog-post… “

      Thank you for posting the interview. I would love to read the whole 10,000 word, unabridged version. This is a blog, and unless you all have a word-limit (which is crazy, if you have such a limit) here, I’d say let us read the whole thing.

      Regards, Crazyfinger

    5. Wow, interesting stuff. I am an Indian American woman and I don’t know much about the women’s movement in India. It was interesting to learn about the connection between black feminism and intersectionality-based feminism in India.

    6. Hi
      a real pleasure to read this interview.

      discrimination against women in Indian society is codified in the Manusmriti.

      If you read it an “upper caste woman” is actually a ‘woman born into an “upper caste family” – she has none of the privileges of the caste, all its punishments, and above all she is a woman with a set of extremely strident rules and regulations that govern her. Even today, she cannot perform a havan, do kanyadaan if she is a widow, perform last rites, wear the sacred thread .

      I am glad that someone is fighting for the innate discrimination against women in our society ….. it would be a mistake to label her purely as a ‘dalit feminist’ . may be a women’s rights activist may be more appropriate.

    7. Thank you for the clarification – I wasn’t aware of the background in terms of the other work she does.

    8. hi

      really good read. I would like to follow up on apu and crazyfinger’s comments and request the entire interview, mainly because I, like apu, did not know of her other work. If it is not possible to publish it here would you mind sending it as an email attachment to me kps80@hotmail.com, thanks

    9. […] And my first post is an interview with Dalit feminist and activist Ruth Manorama, who recently won the Right Livelihood award. Read it here […]

    10. […] Meena Kandaswamy interviews Ruth Manorama, who has ‘contributed enormously to breaking the upper-class, upper-caste image of the women’s movement in India’: “No, no, all women are the same. Women should not separate themselves.” This was the argument extended against me. And I would retort, “No, we are not separating anybody. We are only hailing from a society that has been a victim of segregation and separation.” Then I really began to feel that we, as Dalit women, should form a platform for ourselves, we should articulate our own concerns, our problems so that we can achieve equality. That is how the National Federation of Dalit Women was born in 1987. […]

    11. […] June 16, 2008 Interview with Ruth Manorama […]

    12. […] June 16, 2008 Interview with Ruth Manorama […]

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