Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

Dalit Feminist Thought

in partnership with South Asia Center and the Penn History Department

Shailaja Paik
Associate Professor of History, University of Cincinnati
Thursday, November 5, 2020 - 12:00
A Virtual CASI Seminar via Zoom — 12 Noon EST | 10:30pm IST

(English captions & Hindi subtitles available)

About the Seminar:

Who is a Dalit feminist? What does feminism, womanhood, and gender look like from the vantage point of Dalit women, that is, women who are most tyrannized by caste and sexist oppression and beaten down mentally, spiritually, and physically? What are the specific contours of feminist consciousness from the perspective of Dalit women who are not considered “women” or measure up to the benchmarks of “human”? This seminar engages these questions, to rethink and revitalize feminist theory and praxis, by centering Dalit women’s lived experiences under excess dis­crimination, hurt, and humiliation. Prof. Paik deploys Dalits' experiences as epistemic spaces to create conceptual and theoretical frameworks to analyze the materiality of caste, class, gender, sexuality, local economy, and power relationships, both within and outside of the Dalit community. In so doing, she enables difficult but necessary dialogues across communities to work on different potentials, hopes, and futures.

About the Speaker:

Shailaja Paik is Associate Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati and the author of Dalit Women’s Education in Modern India: Double Discrimination (London and New York: Routledge, 2014). Paik’s current research is funded by the American Council of Learned Societies Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship, Stanford Humanities Center, and the National Endowment for the Humanities-American Institute of Indian Studies Senior Fellowship. Her scholarship and research interests are concerned with contributing to and furthering the dialogue in human rights, anti-colonial struggles, transnational women’s history, women-of-color feminisms, and particularly on gendering caste, and subaltern history.


Tariq Thachil:

Hi everyone, welcome again to CASI, the Center for Advanced Study of India here at the University of Pennsylvania. My name is Tariq Thachil, and I'm the director of the Center. Thank you for joining us for another one of our weekly seminar series, and in this case taking a much-needed break from frantically checking on the electoral returns, much as all of us here at CASI are doing in the pivotal city of Philadelphia. So, we're very delighted to have a welcome respite from that and to welcome Dr. Shailaja Paik, who is associate professor of history at the University of Cincinnati.

Professor Paik received her PhD in 2007 from the University of Warwick, and has previously taught at Emory University Union College and Yale University, where I had the pleasure of being colleagues with her. Her work focuses on the social, intellectual, and cultural history of modern India and has been supported by the ACLS, National Endowment for the Humanities, and various other fellowships including currently at Stanford University, where she's speaking to us from. Her first book, published in 2014, was Dalit Women's Education in Modern India: Double Discrimination, which was lauded by many reviews, including by the historian Rupa Viswanath, who in the American historical review noted that it was a work that heralded a transformation of signal importance in South Asian historiography, in its primary focus on Dalit women and how they negotiate this double discrimination that they face along gender and caste lines.

In this book Paik draws on oral history interviews with Dalit women in Maharashtra to examine the ways in which education transformed, but also ways it was unable to transform the lives of Dalit women, and in doing so, it compels us to consider inequities both across and within Suvarna and Dalit communities. She's published a wide array of articles on diverse topics, including a piece on articulating Dalit and African American women solidarity in Women's Studies Quarterly, and the rise of new Dalit women in Indian historiography that was published in History Compass in 2018. Her second book, which she's currently completing on this fellowship, focuses on the social history of Tamasha, and examines the politics of caste, class, gender, sexuality, and popular culture in modern Maharashtra. We're delighted to have Professor Paiks speak with us on the important subject of Dalit feminist thought and to have her talk co-sponsored by the Penn History Department and South Asia Center.

Shailaja welcome, it's a delight to have you. Before I give you over the screen, everybody, please remember that for your Q&A, please enter your question to me Tariq Thachil or in the chat box, and I'll put you in a queue. I will try and get to as many as I can, and I will have you ask your question directly to Shailaja. So, I'll direct you to ask it, but please do enter your question in advance in the chat box so that I can know and keep a list of questions as we go forward. And as always, please do try and keep your questions brief and to the point so that we can get to as many of them as possible. With that, thank you again. Shailaja the floor is yours. Thanks again.

Shailaja Paik:

Thank you very much. Thank you very much for the generous introduction, Tariq. And thank you for organizing my talk [Cassiem 00:03:15], and especially [Naveen 00:03:16], who has been in touch for several months and working on another various logistics for my talk. I'm very happy to reconnect with everybody. I know it's Zoom, but here we are. So, my talk is based on forthcoming book chapter. This is the Routledge Handbook for Gender in South Asia, and I'm contributing my thoughts on Dalit feminism. I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity, and I look forward to your questions, and comments, and to discuss the ways I am building on my previous work.

What does feminism, womanhood, and gender look like from the vantage point of Dalit women? That is women who are most tyrannized by caste and sexist oppression, and beaten down mentally, spiritually, and physically. What are the specific contours of feminist consciousness from the perspective of Dalit women, who are not considered women, or measure up to the benchmarks of the human? So, my talk today will engage these questions by centering Dalits' lived experiences under excess discrimination, hurt and humiliation. In my previous work, I elaborate on Dalit women's contribution. I once again reiterate that Dalit women are at the core of Indian feminist politics and history. Dalit history and women's history belong to the same field of Indian and South Asian history. Dalit women created new knowledge and consciousness from ground up.

Yet except a few notable examples, their contributions to Indian studies, and specifically South Asian feminism, are rarely acknowledged by intellectuals and academics. Analyzing Dalit women's lives, and the feminist consciousness, and empowering capacities they created needs epistemological shifts. In my first book, I analyzed how these shifts took place, especially historically, when Dalit radicals deployed gender as a generative activity to constitute a new Dalit womanhood in colonial India. In my talk today I build up on my previous analysis to also frame this as a Dalit womanist or womanism, humanism. And to do so, I'm specifically going to focus on three themes. First I will try to contextualize what, and the content of Dalit feminism, and Dalit studies. Then I'll move on to talk about Dalit womanism humanism, and my third and the last theme for today would be double patriarchy. That is the private and public patriarchy that Dalit women experience.

Dalit studies is a critical site for centering Dalits’ life worlds and the question of caste in building solidarity across various movements for social justice. As an intellectual inquiry Dalit studies is a conjuncture, a potentially productive site of diverse perspectives that can initiate dialogue between disciplines and scholarships, and bring together disparate analytical categories and conceptual tools to illuminate cultural, economic, environmental, political, and social issues, as well as the lives of marginalized people in various parts of the world. Some scholars and activists have been responsible for making caste only valid. They have transformed the caste question into the Dalit question alone. As such, they have completely ignored the relationality between Suvarnas and Dalits.

They're remarkably silent on Suvarna anxieties about caste sociality, which serve to mark other Indian communities as violent, anti-national, and foreign. They are thus complicit in perpetuating the myth of perceived unmarkedness as castelessness and thereby becoming casteless and burdening Dalits with caste. The larger society has also invisible eyes to contributions of Dalit women and suppressed her ideas and intellectual activism. As a result, many Dalits are frustrated and angry that some Suvarna scholars build their careers in Dalit studies, without serious engagement with Dalit lives, or commitment to Dalit politics and social change. Some Dalits argue that Dalit politics is their exclusive realm and Suvarnas have nothing to do with this. This position has sharpened in the 2020 context of Black Lives Matter in the US. Dalits blocking genuine Suvarna support is also deeply problematic. This narrow vision will confine Dalits to their own communities.

Dalits will be better served in allying with different communities to work on transformative agendas. Dalits have toiled endlessly and given their bodies and souls to work towards freedom and equality. I hope that Suvarnas will interrogate their social advantage and expand their mental faculties to challenge their inherited privilege and power. Certainly, this is a difficult task because as Audrey Lorde reminds us, “The master's tools will never dismantle the master's House.” Nevertheless, many Suvarnas are committed to annihilating caste and working with Dalits. Solidarity can be achieved by working through difference, and reflexibility on parts of both Dalits and Suvarnas. Certainly, Dalits are not homogeneous group, and there is no one Dalit authentic subject. While extremely important, Dalit marginality and direct biological experience may not be the only essential and exclusive method of creating knowledge.

Multiple sites of Dalit subjugation always become and are seeking to create new relations and new realities, yet ideas cannot be completely isolated from the social groups and situated historical context that create them. Dalits provide a unique vision, consciousness and nuanced understandings, and create new interpretations and knowledges. However, scholars have offered different standpoints, for example, Gopal Guru emphasized authenticity of experience as Dalits, and the feminist scholar Sharmila Rege called upon Suvarna women to reinvent themselves as Dalits. Both positions are not without problems. Dalit feminism consciously centers the theoretical interpretations, world views, and interests of Dalit women. Intensive engagement with incremental interlocking technologies of gender, class, sexuality, family and the nation are at the core of Dalit feminism, and this is something that I have already analyzed in my first book. Dalit women's consciousness is created through Dalit women's response to hegemonic and dominant discourses. Dalit women's discourses provide immense possibilities to them as well as touchables. Dalit women are complex agents, and their subject positions are created by their particular lived caste, gender and sexual experiences. Certainly, not all Dalit women contribute to Dalit consciousness, or feminism, or share them equally. Dalit feminism is not a homogeneous category. It is a tenuous, heterogeneous concept thwarted by caste, sex and sexuality, and class differences.

Thus, different Dalit women talk, respond and act in a variety of ways to pursue their goals. As a result, we need to examine Dalit women's multiple standpoints. Dalit feminism is enriched by dialogues and coalitions with other marginalized and oppressed communities. Women share common experiences as female sex and as woman caste. The experiences of non-Dalits and Dalit women are different in terms of historical, regional, cultural and political locations. Non-Dalits contribute to Dalit feminist thought through their positionality, that is, basically by analyzing the systems of oppression rooted in caste, privilege, gender and sexual oppression, material conditions accompanying these social conditions, and they develop empathy towards suffering that being a Dalit entails. However, non-Dalits could move beyond and through empathy to work on political responsibility and solidarity. I emphasize such an inclusive and expansive view to create bonds and build bridges across different communities.

Now I want to move on to my second theme of Dalit womanist-humanist. Dalit women live in a crisis marked as female, sexualized and without personhood, protection and rights. They were constituted simultaneously as caste Dalit and sexed female within the particular economy of caste. It is in this specific context that I situate Dalit feminism as a womanist-humanist complex, centering the lived experiences, specific context, and contradictions of Dalit women who have not been considered women or human. Dalit feminism, it would sprout and emerge, produce the most exclusive democratic and productive politics, and develop new theoretical frameworks, as well as critical decoding of systematic power structures. Suvarnas deployed the caste mechanism to exclude Dalit women from aspiring the status of women, that is, as potential wives and bearers of children. Many Dalit women were negated choice about reproduction, caste, sanction ritual, sexual injury and violation of the Dalit women, as if Dalit women are the property of Suvarna men. Suvarnas and the state have been complicit in the erasure of sexual violence that endangered Dalit femaleness.

Along with fighting sexism, Dalit women also have to struggle against caste and class oppression. We need to pay attention to the broader struggles for a comprehensive understanding of the world inhabited by Dalit women. Dalit women's precarity of life provides a vantage point from which to analyze the deep and common continuities of structures of caste, gender, law, culture, capital, and human rights. Different Dalit women inhabit a variety of conflicting spaces from where they speak. A Dalit womanist is also committed to her particular perspective on the tenuous category of humanism. Ambedkar constituted a new Dalit woman through the interrelated categories of swabhimana, that is, self-respect and swavalamban, which is self-reliance, [Iḍajhāka 00:16:21] which is honor and dignity. He used these vernacular concepts and categories to connect with universal global humanity and humanitarianism that would allow Dalits to recuperate their personhood and basic human dignity. Dalits infused humanism with new knowledge and understandings. This moral sensibility is absent in Suvarna-dominant world that excluded Dalits from becoming fully human. The moralities of the dominant and the dominated were distinctly different. Nevertheless, they can be bridged. Civilized humanity was most important for stigmatized Dalit women to carve out a space for them in the larger modern Indian nation.

It would eventually end their otherness and grant them citizenship in modern India. Dalit women deployed a robust body politics and morality of basic human dignity, self-respect and self-reliance to repossess their bodies, become independent, and [practically] refashioned Dalit women's emotional and corporeal selves. Ambedkar reinforced Dalit women's agency to fight their stigma and assert themselves in their struggle to achieve a revolutionary modernity and to simultaneously fight against the violence of caste discrimination and untouchability. Radical Dalits were also at the same time ambiguous regarding Dalit women's roles. For Dalits there was no contradiction between the self and community. They use Marathi collectives like [foreign language 00:18:13], which is we, or [foreign language 00:18:15] which is ours, caste and gender-neutral categories such as [foreign language 00:18:20] which is women and men and build bridges across communities. To them their personal was political, and as such there was no distinction between the private and the public. At the same time Dalits also understood the fragility and instability of the community. Constructing solidarity was tenuous in practice because Dalits were fractured along lines of linguistic, cultural, regional and caste differences. Yet a collective mentality favored Dalit militancy and a united struggle for the [foreign language 00:18:58] this community of the boycotted, especially in the existing contingent political conditions, which was fraught with contradictions was important.

Historically, both nationalist and feminist reformers, as well as the scholarly historiography, has neglected the presence of caste communities to focus on gender categories. Feminist scholars and women activists have also made gender-based oppression normative, thus excluding Dalit communities altogether. In so doing, feminists actually mask the ways class, gender and sexuality intersected with caste oppression and constructed a homogeneous Indian woman. Although some elite Suvarna women were sympathetic to the cause of Dalit women, the former were also constrained by their caste locations, and many were complicit in reinforcing structures of difference and differentiation between castes and classes. As a result, Suvarnas brought about a culturalization of caste that reified caste difference and also hid their complicity in its production. The caste mechanism itself demanded the production and performance of difference. There was also a real fear of transgressing caste boundaries for respectable Suvarna elite women in colonial India. Many Suvarna feminists have failed to mobilize or even deconstruct difference as a tool to initiate change.

Instead, they have insisted on a monolithic Indian feminism, thus making gender oppression the basis of a natural bond between women in post-colonial times. A few feminists have analyzed the vulnerable location of Dalit women, and critiqued the elitist rhetorical homogenization of all women. A few argued that Dalit women's first loyalty must be to their gender and urged the latter to see the way in which they are being exploited by their own fathers, husbands and brothers. As a result, scholars working through their Suvarna bias ignored the gendering of the caste question, especially as it affected Dalit women.

There is much scholarship on women in modern India that tends to focus on the concerns of Suvarna women, and most significantly Brahmin women, in terms of [sati 00:21:36] enforcement of widowhood, widow remarriage, child marriage, age of consent and so on. Reformers, as well as scholars have re-signified Brahmin women's problems as those of Hindus, and therefore of Indians. In the similar way in even women's movements in post-colonial India downplayed caste technologies to focus on the unity among women as victims. By affixing Brahmin women and Brahminy practices as Indian, some scholars have subsumed the powerful collusion of caste, class and patriarchy into Indian identity itself. During this process, Suvarna women took the lead in demanding rights for women and constructed liberal feminism which reflected their concerns. They set the norms which produced further contestations. The tensions and failure in Indian feminism laid out the conditions for the emergence of Dalit subjectivity, agency and separate Dalit women's organizations since colonial times. To achieve this Dalit womanist-humanist complex that I'm talking about, we also need to move beyond certain binaries of Dalit women as victims or heroes.

So, this is the other problem that lies in scholarly analysis, which is basically a unilinear, one-sided reading of Dalit women's lives as vulnerable victims or heroines. Unfortunately, the dominant renderings of mainstream historiography of both India and the Dalit women's movement cast Dalit women as the laboring poor, or unfortunate and lowly. We need to prize open these gaps in scholarship and dichotomies to illuminate Dalit women's fragmented, flawed, complex and contradictory lives that cannot be confined to linear readings. So, I've done this in my first book and I continue to build on my work. We need to pay attention to the deeper complexities and paradoxes of Dalit women subjectivities as both victims and transgressive agents.

That brings me to my third and last theme for today, which is double patriarchy and the sexual economy of caste. The sexual economy of caste denies protection, personhood, property and prosperity for Dalit women. Dalit women fight double patriarchy in private and public. Historically, Suvarnas [inaudible 00:24:18] sexuality and subordination of Dalits in securing the social relations of the caste mechanism. They use social violence and rape against Dalit women to entrench caste hierarchies. Colonial perception and civilizing Suvarnas stereotyped Dalits as inherently menial, inferior, childlike, docile, dirty, ugly, and males as sexually potent. This strategy created Dalit women as promiscuous, and Dalit men as predatory. Historically, the sexual economy of caste granted Suvarnas sexual rights to enjoy and rape Dalit women, thereby reproducing caste hierarchies. In the process, Dalit women became available to Suvarnas. In the Suvarna discourse of the progress of culture and civilization, Suvarna women were pitted against lower class, and especially Dalit women, to protect and amplify the former's sexuality and honor, they constructed the dangerous and sexually motivated Dalit man and the depicted Dalit women, working in the public realm, as inherently less civilized because they were always, already unregulated, unruly, disorderly and sexually promiscuous. Though not all women fit this description, yet the stereotype forcefully represented Dalit women.

As a result, Dalit women's behavior now emerged as lascivious and therefore not necessary of protection from rape or from rape law. To Suvarna men, unlike their women, Dalit women inhabited sexual excess, that is, overabundant and immoderate sexuality, and therefore Dalit women lacked virtue. Suvarnas repeatedly claimed Dalit women's bodies to deploy Suvarna caste privilege and power and re-inscribe caste hierarchies. According to Suvarnas, Dalit women were already in the public gaze and need not concern themselves with issues of dignity and honor. Paradoxically, then, while their femaleness made them sexually vulnerable to caste domination, their Dalitness also effective denied them any protection. Dalit women are not raped simply because they are women, but specifically because they are Dalit women. Where Dalit makes explicit reference to the caste system, many women thus do not have the right to privacy or to protection against sexual exploitation. Rape of Dalit women is thus not about sexual exploitation, but a reproduction of Suvarna caste privilege, power and vengeance as we have seen in the [Hut Trust 00:27:28] case, the recent one.

Along with this we also see private patriarchy in Dalit communities. There are also inter-caste rivalries, and the Dalits are segregated on lines of class. Upper class Dalits look down upon lower class Dalits. For example, some so-called respectable educated elite Dalit women condemned lowly educated Dalit women. They consider them as pathological cases. Respectable Dalits and some scholars also do not approve of, for example, Tamasha women. So, I just want to very quickly also talk about my second book project, where I'm focusing on the social history of Tamasha, which is popular theater in Maharashtra, and this is again a contested terrain, and I know now that I'm talking about this, it also reveals the internal contradiction and contestations inside the Dalit community. To respectable Dalits Tamasha, or farmers, [inaudible 00:28:46], or [inaudible 00:28:47] are basically surplus women of no significance. Tamasha is a popular performative genre rooted in the feudal patriarchal caste structure. Hence, to many Dalit interlocutors and intellectuals, Tamasha, or [love me 00:29:04], and even [bar dances 00:29:06] is continuing stigmatized caste labor, sexual exploitation, and sexual subjugation of Dalit women. Their position reinforces the almost century-old Ambedkar's arguments regarding abandoning, humiliating, caste-marked degrading practices to regenerate Dalits, and not merely reform them as touchables believed.

To Ambedkar and Dalit radicals, it would be Dalits who would be leading these regenerative activities. On the first glance, these strategies seem to collude with those of Suvarnas, yet they distinctly depart from Suvarna gradual reformism. Time and again, Ambedkar reminded Dalits, “Ours is a fight for [foreigh language 00:30:00], which is basic human dignity." To recuperate their humanity, Dalits would have to cut off from caste-marked duties. This would enable Dalits to become self-reliant and own self-respect through alternative and respectful livelihoods. These strategies, culminating in the angulation of caste were at the core of building dignified humanity for all Dalits. Yet these strategies also did not pay attention to economic exigencies of many Dalits. As a result, not all Dalits agreed with Ambedkar’s path towards freedom.

They were reluctant to abandon bondage and forced labor, for example, in caste [inaudible 00:30:48], sanitation labor, and similar occupations, that paradoxically degrading, also provided them everyday survival. This refusal of many Dalits has led some scholars to romanticize cultural practices of dedicating daughters as [foreign language 00:31:06]. They argue that dedication provides livelihoods to women and families dependent on them. In my work, I offer caution against both positions, the romanticization of alternative lifestyle of [foreign language 00:31:22], as well as the uncritical celebration of Ambedkar. There are tensions, and both positions are not without problems. I reiterate that the lives of Tamasha women are located in certain caste communities and they are tenuous. There are no binaries of victimhood, or agency, or independence, and subjugation. Dalit women are vulnerable victims as well as transgressive agents and, paradoxically, Tamasha women are financially independent, yet vulnerable to, and subject to hurt, and humiliation of the extreme kind. Tamasha empowers them through economic resources. It provides them wealth, land, and property, yet it also creates difficulties for them. Their individual success, and creating value for themselves, and their families denigrates the status of the community as a whole. Suvarnas use this very form to reinforce Dalitness.

Tamasha women also become the property of powerful Suvarna and Dalit men, and such terror is a part and parcel of the caste mechanism. So along with this public patriarchy, Dalit women are also affected by private patriarchy, patriarchy in their domestic households. In her autobiography, published after her husband's death, [Urmelotai Povar 00:33:09] described the turmoil in her marriage, and her husband's discomfort with her growing awareness of her rights, “On the one hand, he admired my writing and my public speaking skills, often expressed this to his friends and relatives. On the other hand, these very things upset him immensely. They made him angry. This led to quarrels between us. I would make him understand. See, I'm also a human being. I also work like you. I also get tired. My work and I have the same value just as yours, but I could feel that it was nothing to him. He used to say, ‘Look at our women in the villages, they get up when the husband tells them to and sit down when he allows them to. Don't they manage their families well and good?’”

[Urmelotai 00:34:17] described her husband's questioning of her abandoning the traditional duties of Indian womanhood. He had been accustomed to some particularly womanly duties since his childhood. Here Indian is also important because some women and men think of women's liberation and feminism as a particularly Western phenomenon. Hence, since colonial times there has been a struggle to protect Indian values and Indian women's purity from a Western attack. Urmelotai’s husband witnessed changes in her thoughts. He often wondered about the process of his wife's development of these new [foreign language 00:35:02] or [horns 00:35:02] which is a derogatory word in Marathi that actively means in developing radical ideas.

“These must be cut off,” he must have thought. "These should be nipped in the bud at the appropriate time." Secretively, however, Urmelotai rejoiced in the fact that he was too weak to do so because her horns had far outgrown his reach. Urmelotai analyzes her struggles of attaining her ordinary rights as an individual. She describes that when these ideas started taking root in her mind, she was often admonished by her husband and maybe by other Dalit men. Except for some notable examples in general, Dalit men have spoken for their caste, but have failed to seriously engage with women's experiences. By failing to prize open the constitutive role of patriarchy in shaping and maintaining caste, many intellectuals have lost the opportunity to comprehend the wider structural logic that sustains caste [disdaineries 00:36:14] in societies. For most of them, caste depression is the primary challenge and gender and class divisions figure tangentially at best.

These leaders argued that specifically speaking of women's exploitation within the community will further split the community and threaten organization and solidarity. Significantly like some men in their communities, even some mainstream feminists have socially excluded Dalit women. Thus, uncertainties, anxieties, and ambiguities threatened Dalit radicalism at particular conjunctures. As caste continues to trump gender, the emphasis on violence against the community silences critics of domestic violence. Like some feminist scholars, although for different purposes, some Dalit men tried to subsume gender oppression inside the community and failed to seriously engage with Dalit women's experiences. By failing to prize open the constitutive role of patriarchy in shaping and maintaining caste, they've lost the opportunity to engage with Dalit women's lived experiences.

In conclusion, Dalit womanist-humanist perspective and practices are deeply democratic, and as such potentially engaging, inclusive, and productive politics, building solidarities, and reshaping the larger fields of South Asian studies, India studies, Dalit studies and women, gender, and sexuality studies. Dalit women's ethic of care focuses on unity, permits difference and plurality as condition for politics and action, the marked heterogeneity and discontinuity of political communities. It is only by understanding the historical contradictions, pressures, and complexities inherent in Dalit women's location within various incremental, intersecting technologies that Dalit and non-Dalit women and men can devise the most inclusive and productive politics. Dalit women force us to attend to the contingent creation of the woman and human as constituted in the specific context of economies of caste, property, kinship, sexuality and power.

It is crucial to recognize the central relationship of power and privilege that sustains it and the marked advantage of being the dominant, the nominative, and hence the mainstream. Certainly, a Dalit feminist perspective is distinctive. It is possible, however, for the outsider to develop empathy towards the suffering and oppression that being a Dalit entails, thus building many bridges across feminist movements and Dalit movements. Dalit feminism, womanist, humanism complex provides the possibility of interpersonal understanding of differently disadvantaged lives and allows for a broad feminist, anti-patriarchal, anti-caste, anti-untouchability, an anti-racist analysis. I reiterate, we might learn from such comparative transnational exercises, enrich feminist theory, and work towards a greater liberation of all women and men. So instead of reinventing as Dalit women, we welcome you to stand with us alongside us. I thank you all for your attention.

Tariq Thachil:

Shailaja, thank you much for such a rich talk and giving us much to think about. We already have a number of questions. I think what I'm going to do is have some of the questions that are pertaining to specific points you made, and then there are some broader questions about engagement with some of the themes that you raised. Maybe we'll pivot to those after that. The first question comes from Lavanya Gaal. Lavanya would you want to ask your question?

Lavanya Gaal:

Yes. Can you hear me?

Tariq Thachil:

Yes, we can hear you. Go ahead.

Lavanya Gaal:

Okay, cool. Thanks, Shailaja for the talk, like Alex said, a lot to think about. In the context of following and the low female labor force participation in India, again, as you said, I do see that women are seen as one homogeneous group, and I suspect that there are many [inaudible 00:41:10]. So, within the context of low female labor force participation, where do Dalit women figure? If there's any research on this, especially since you did mention that Tamasha women are financially independent. And this is a broader question, second question, so I'm just tagging it along. What would be your advice to young researchers when they think about these topics?

Shailaja Paik:

Tariq, do you want me to take one question at a time?

Tariq Thachil:

Why don't you take this question for now, and then I my group a couple of questions as we go on?

Shailaja Paik:

Okay, good. So Lavanya, I would start with your second question first. Advice to young scholars is just as I mentioned in my talk, looking at the different intersections of variety of categories and processes that have oppressed Dalit women, one. Second is yes, drawing upon scholarship, but at the same time also critically engaging with the works, and to build on, and to provide knew frameworks for thought. For example, because I just talked about it, and these are the new frameworks that I have worked with, and provided, and built upon, so this is what I would advise young researchers. About low female labor participation, I am sorry I am not… I can speak about Tamasha women, but low female participation, especially [inaudible 00:42:55] looking at larger labor question. I cannot speak to that right now. Thank you.

Tariq Thachil:

Okay, we have a couple of questions that I'll ask first. Ramiya do you want to ask your question?


Shailaja hi, nice to see you again. Thank you for this. Here's my question. You argue compellingly for caution against totalizing interpretations from the perspective of caste, or class, or gender as the primary axis of oppression. As I understand it, you're arguing for an increased attention to context contingency for the uneven manner in which caste, gender, class might interact in any given instance. I'd like to hear you say a little more about the archive that you work with, your reflections on its strengths, its limits, what you wish you had more of, reflections about the nature of that archive. Thanks.

Shailaja Paik:

Right, thanks Ramiya. Yes, the archive is very important to me as a historian, and Romeo, being a historian, certainly understands this very well. The archive that I work with are mainly Marathi vernacular materials, and these have been at the core of my research. This is the other thing I would say to Lavanya, the vernacular materials, this is something that we need more work with. The strengths of this archive have really helped me build new, and work through vernacular concepts, and build upon these categories to produce new knowledge and new categories. I think this is where the strength of this vernacular material lies. They very clearly take us away from the limited vision of the Colonial Archive. The Colonial Archive does not even... It's so biased towards women's voices, and especially Dalit women, who never figure in these archives. They may have just numbers or some graphs, but there is no other qualitative in-depth information, so that's the problem. The vernacular archives actually allow me to write richer, deeper analytical histories of Dalits, of women, and gender, and sexuality. However, at the same time there are limits, a lot of limits because clearly these archives are not very well preserved. There is a problem with documentation. There is a problem with preservation of these archives. The University of Mumbai had look at these collections, they are in tatters with worms wriggling in between these pages.

That is the state of the archives right now. Continuing to work through all of this has been a challenge, but nonetheless we know with whatever I have been able to work with, this is the new knowledge that I provide and also create new frameworks for an analysis. And the other mention is of the oral. Yes, that is also very important. Because the existing official archives are so biased, I have had to depend centrally on oral narratives with Dalits, and I juxtapose these different archives and different epistemologies to write the stories that I want to write.

Tariq Thachil:

The next question we have is from Ania Loomba. Ania, do you want to ask your question? You're on mute.

Ania Loomba:

Yeah, thanks. Shailaja, thank you as usual for a very provocative and rich presentation. One of the most important points that you made is that as scholars, we must, if Dalit feminism is to be more than just another coaptation, must be in dialogue with activists. So to that end, I'd like to ask you about current Dalit feminist formations, and whether a dialogue, or lack of a dialogue with Suvarna feminism… Is there a dialogue firstly, and has it caused any kind of reformulation of the questions that Indian feminists are engaging with? My question is, exactly what you said in the beginning, that we need allies. We need that conversation. If you could just talk to whether that conversation is taking place or not.

Shailaja Paik:

Sure, and these are the challenges that have really forced me to think about this category, and to see as to what I have done, and how we could move forward. I think that's most important. Clearly there is a mistrust between Suvarna and Dalit feminists, and there is a history to this. That is the reason I have tried to record this history as to know what these problems were. This is something that I see even today and in both homes in the US, and in India. I think what feminists on both sides, both scholars and activists need to really take this very seriously. We have to find out ways where we can engage with each other's works, as well as intellectual capacities, and ways we can build solidarities. I have to say this. This is very important. And for me, for myself, to be a Dalit feminist and to work in these intellectual spaces, has also been possible because of my wider community that cuts across castes, races, genders, and sexualities.

I think this is a very significant and positive example, if that is what you want me to talk about. [inaudible 00:50:01] how there are many people who have contributed towards my academic career, and this is where we are. This is the work of political solidarity, and this is how I'm able to build on these lines. This is a very successful example, so I really would appreciate it if there are more of these conversations and deeper engagements, instead of false generosities, and just merely empathy is not going to help.

Ania Loomba:

Thanks Shailaja. There have been, actually, quite a few questions that draw on this response of yours, where we have some, in fact, I think, students who've been listening, who's been trying to think about building on this question of what different forms of engagement might look like. I don't think we're going to be able to ask all of those questions, but I'll just have one person ask one of theirs, and maybe you can respond on that. And I know there's much more that can be said, but since you invited people to think through this…

Tariq Thachil:

Akansha, do you want to ask your question to Shailaja again? Keep it brief, because we do have a couple more questions, several more questions, and not that much time.


Sure, yeah, am I being [inaudible 00:51:23]? I'm actually not sure, but…

Tariq Thachil:

You are.


Is it alright? Okay.

Tariq Thachil:



Hi, thank you so much, professor Shailaja, for that was an incredible talk, and thanks so much for speaking about a lot of things. I especially enjoyed your mention of the Tamasha women, and I'm really excited to read your book about it.

My question was about, basically, in Western feminism itself, or in general in [inaudible 00:51:54] feminism, people are struggling to represent narratives from certain groups margins, and catch up with looking at people as complex subjects, rather than just advancing [inaudible 00:52:05] or victimhood narratives as you mentioned.

So considering there's much heterogeneity among the Dalit women, and among other marginalized women, like other working women [inaudible 00:52:22] and just generally [inaudible 00:52:22] priorities like you mentioned, and professions that you highlighted that already exist. How can [inaudible 00:52:26] creating intersections, Indian feminism, or South Asian feminism exist in working produce organized, working in Western academia do to highlight the voices on the margin, who would like to support the Dalit feminism?

Tariq Thachil:

Before you answer that, Shailaja I'm going to ask a couple more questions, just so you can respond as much as you like to the ones that you would to like to. There's a question that's come in from Reni Thomas, who can't ask the question directly himself, I'm going to ask his question for him. He says, "Thank you for the session. Where do you locate questions that emerge from liberation theology? When we talk about the Dalit feminism in India?" He's thinking about the work of Dalit feminist theologian Cynthia Steven, who uses liberation theology as critique of Brahminical patriarchy in India. What are the possibilities of thinking about the Dalit feminism through spiritual secular critiques? Do you want to take those two questions, and then we'll do one more round before we wrap up?

Shailaja Paik:

Okay, maybe I'll go what to do. I think this is very much online, as I was engaging with Anya's comment and question, that is exactly what I tried to present. Those are some of the lines that I have talked about, that those would be some parts to think things through about what we could do as feminists working in different contexts. We need those engagements.

About, where do I locate liberation theology? I have to say that I haven't really looked at my work through that lens of liberation theology as such. I am a social historian, and that is how I approach my questions, and that is the analysis that I provide. So, the theological, political question is something that is not within my frame, but at the same time, when I'm looking at this larger woman and the capaciousness of all of this, it will speak to how the spirituality really helps, and this social and political agendas really help women and empower their fights against Brahminical patriarchy.

Tariq Thachil:

We have a question from Usha Iyer. Usha would you like to ask your question?

Usha Iyer:

Sure. Can you hear me?

Tariq Thachil:

We can hear you.

Usha Iyer:

Okay. Shailaja, thank you so much as always. Very briefly, I'd love to hear you speak more about your use of the category of humanism. When you speak about humanist and womanist as these new categories that you want to work with, given the critiques of liberal humanism as enshrined in and born out of white western male positionalities, how does your taking up of this category to discuss Dalit feminism actually reconfigure the category of humanism itself?

Shailaja Paik:

Very much should I- [crosstalk 00:55:41]

Tariq Thachil:

I'll just ask one more question that's trying to group some of the questions that we've got, and I'll add my own to it, which is what this framework does to allow us to think a little about the politicization of caste. You've talked about, you've mentioned the culturization of caste, but part of what you're working, breaking apart the homogeneous category of Dalit. I know, as a political scientist, that extends to the political, to the electoral, the idea of Dalit voters as a homogeneous category. The idea that has been exploded by the tremendous variation we see in support for the BJP, for example, in recent elections but across the country. The reality of politics explodes this myth of homogenization, but at the same time, what does your framework do to think about questions of alliance formation and new kinds of politics within that setting? What does this framework that you've provided us have to say about that since it's such an important domain of current debate within India? If you can take those two questions. They are broad questions. But whatever you can give us would be great.

Shailaja Paik:

Yeah, I have been [inaudible 00:56:50] just trying to look at my page because I have a humanism section. I have to say that this is a new category that I have excavated in Ambedkar’s work. I presented talk at CASI a year and a half ago, where I talked about Ambedkar and the prostitute. This is my forthcoming article, so keep an eye out. This will come out with gender and history and this is the category that I am working with which is [foreign 00:57:28] in Marathi. This is the vernacular concept that Ambedkar uses mostly from the 1920s onwards that captures everything. This is exactly what Dalit humanism, in a doubly colonial context, the Brahmanical and the British context would mean for the Dalits.

So, [foreign 00:57:59], which is basic human dignity, and it is a constellation of a number of constant concepts, which are swavalamban, self-reliance, swabhimana, which is self-respect, [Iḍajhāka 00:58:16] which is honor, and [foreign 00:58:20] your mentality, willpower, daring all of this. I argue that all of these concepts they coalesce around [foreign 00:58:35]. This is what is the valid human to Ambedkar, and I'm following his chain of thought and I'm contributing, even showing what this means for Dalits. In the western humanist and liberal traditions, as we have seen, these traditions have excluded both blacks as well as Dalits. So, I have to say that the Dalit humanism and Ambedkar is very much borrowing from the liberal tradition. But at the same time is coming out very new Dalit [inaudible 00:59:13] . This is not, I have to reinforce, this is not the liberal humanism or universal liberalism. This is a very unique category that is coming from Ambedkar that he is providing us to think through. This is a very assertive humanism that I'm talking about here.

For Tariq, the new political, yes... It's such a contested terrain, and I have to say that these fragmentations amongst Dalits and what they have... It's also depends on how we want to look at it, whether this is co-optation or whether this is a negotiation and manipulation. I think those frames will really help us write a very different story of what the Dalits and other marginalized communities are trying to do. But yes, these fissiparous tendencies have really affected the Dalit movement, and especially in Maharashtra, that is my field of work. So, clearly, and it is showing as to why we have not been able to really come up with rigorous, robust Dalit politics after Ambedkar.

Tariq Thachil:

Thank you so much. We are already at time. I really apologize to everyone. There are so many questions that I could not get to. It speaks to how provocative and stimulating Shailaja’s presentation was. Shailaja, I will save the list of questions and share it with you in case they are helpful to you. May I invite those who had questions maybe, if they would like to, perhaps, follow up with you, if they have thoughts that they would like. Although I don't guarantee that you have to respond since we are all very busy, and you're trying to write your book. But there were many questions that I couldn't get to, and I do apologize to those of you whose question was not asked. But thank you very much for coming and for joining us. Shalaija, thank you so much for taking the time to give us a welcome, as I said at the beginning, a welcome relief from following election returns, and giving us an important reminder of the many worlds that exist beyond county returns in Pennsylvania. So, thank you so much, and everyone, please join me in thanking Doctor Paik and wish her the best year of a fellowship at Stanford in completing her book. Shalaija thank you, good to see you.

Shailaja Paik:

Thank you very, very much. I really appreciate it. It's been wonderful. Thank you.

Tariq Thachil:

Thank you. Thanks everyone.