DR GAIL OMVEDT (1941) is an American-born Indian sociologist and human rights activist. Some of her notable books are: We Shall Smash This Prison: Indian Women in Struggle (1979), Gender and Technology: Emerging Asian Visions (1994), Dalits and the Democratic Revolution (1994), and Dalit Visions: the Anticaste movement and Indian Cultural Identity (1994).
In this short email interview, Gail responds to questions on caste and gender.
Meena Kandasamy: In our interview-series we had Ruth Manorama speaking to us of her setting up the National Federation of Dalit Women. And your name Gail, was mentioned incessantly as her source of inspiration, her guiding spirit. What made you play such a pivotal role and be so encouraging to establishing a Dalit Women’s movement? How do you historically view this?
Gail Omvedt: I was also interested and involved with the Black movement (that was before they started calling themselves African-Americans; in the 1970s “Black” meant pride) and although I’m a “honky” — that’s the nasty term that used to get used for “whites” — I made a lot of friends. Black women’s writing was always an inspiration, from Angela Davis through Toni Morrison and Alice Walker….beautiful stuff. I can’t read Marathi or other languages quite as well, but I know that you all have so many things to say. bell hooks (another Black woman — she spells her name without capitals) — wrote a book Feminist Theory from Margin to Centre, meaning that people at the margins, the edges, can actually see the farthest and the best. I think she’s right. So who else but Dalit women? So many obstacles and barriers to overcome, so much to do — but I know you can do it!
Another friend here was recently telling me how, in spite of being a Christian, she realized finally that she was being treated as a Dalit and dark — I find the obsession in India with light skin to be ridiculous. All the goddesses are black, aren’t they?
Meena: Today, Mayawati is seen as once of the most powerful symbols of Dalits, as well as women. But otherwise, how do you think the electoral success of the BSP, and the enormous popularity of Mayawati, has influenced Dalit women in general?
Gail: You can answer that better than I can. I suppose women must have identified with her! I liked Kanshi Ram better as a person, but Mayawati also had a great image; I liked her short hair for instance. I had a fight about that with Madhu Kishwar because I said “upper-caste” Hindu women politicians couldn’t get away with short hair but Dalits didn’t mind — I was thinking of Sushma Swaraj and all — she denied it, but I still feel I am right. The “caste-Hindu mind” still wants women to fit the traditional image. Dalits are more open generally, I hope, especially the women.
Meena: Dr Ambedkar said that women were the gateways of the caste system. What are the various dimensions in which caste and sexuality are inter-linked?
Gail: Caste can only survive if women’s sexuality is controlled! To keep the jati identity you have to keep marriages within the jati. In Marathi it’s said roti-beti-vyavahar, “exchange of bread and girls” has to be within the caste. For that to happen, girls have to be guarded and married off when they’re pre-puberty, so there’s no danger to the caste. The man is not polluted if he has sex with anyone, because the semen goes out; the woman is polluted because she takes it in. (This is the way many anthropologists analyze it). So — Manu says, “Women when young must be under control of their father, when adults under control of their husbands, when old under control of their sons, women must never be independent.”
Meena: Dalit women’s autobiographies have made a mark in Marathi literature. Gail, how do you view literature as a liberating tool for women who are otherwise denied the public (political) space?
Gail: Literature has to reach people — it can reach people — and we can make it a “public” space. The political space is only one of many; it can even be damaging to women if the political women support tradition. Individual women can be freer than political women, and they can through writing express revolutionary ideas. The problem we have now is “publishing” — in every sense: how to get our ideas out, how to communicate.
Meena: What is your message to all the young Indian women out there?
Gail: Ambedkar’s words, “educate, agitate, organize” – still hold good for all of us. And women should fight for their land rights; the only reason they don’t have these rights is that the whole system is so patriarchal that only men are viewed as heirs of names, property, and land. This is part of caste-patriarchal oppression and we have to fight together to end it.