Read along for some thoughts from Sharmila Rege — who was a renowned Indian sociologist, feminist scholar and author.

Sharmila Rege introduced the Dalit Feminist Standpoint in her book ‘Writing Caste Writing Gender.’ She argued that anti-caste work is predominantly male-serving and male-led. Inspired by Dr BR Ambedkar’s definition of caste, she further argued that the structures of caste will continue to prevail while men continue to control women’s sexuality and women’s reproduction.

Her body of work has provided invaluable ideas to intersectional feminism and been foundational for gender and caste discourse. Read on to understand more.

The problem of caste status affects all women, but compounding marginalized identities affects lower caste (Dalit) women to a greater extent. Brahminism, or the hierarchy of casteism births several forms of patriarchies. Higher caste women cannot hold public or productive jobs, while lower caste women are pawns controlled and utilized by both lower caste men (as their conduct reflects on the men they serve) and by higher caste men and women to serve as religious and political justification of superiority

Ambika Venkatakrishnan summarising Sharmila Rege’s Dalit Feminist Standpoint

Since many of the vocal feminists of the 1970s were white, middle class and university educated, it was their experience which came to be universalized as ‘women’s experience’. . . The ambivalence of the left towards women’s issues was thus countered by an assertion that women essentially connected with other women; the ‘subjective experiences of knowledge’ became the basis of the theorizing universal experience of womanhood. ‘Experience’ thus became the base for personal politics as well as the only reliable methodological tool for defining oppression.

From such an epistemological position, there was either a complete invisibility of the experiences of dalit women or at best only a token representation of their voices. There was thus a masculinization of dalithood and a savarnisation of womanhood, leading to a classical exclusion of dalit womanhood.

Sharmila Rege

It must be underlined that many of the feminist groups broadly agreed that in the Indian context a materialistic framework was central to the analysis of women’s oppression. However, in keeping with their roots within the ‘class’ framework, they made greater effort to draw commonalities across class than caste or community.

The absence of an analytical frame, which in the tradition of Phule and Ambedkar viewed caste hierarchies and patriarchies as intrinsically linked, is apparent in the in the anti-dowry, anti-rape and anti-violence struggles of the women’s movement.

An analysis of the practices of the caste basis of violence against women reveals that while the incidence of dowry deaths and violent control and regulation of their mobility and sexuality by the family is frequent among the dominant upper castes, dalit women are more likely to face the collective and public threat of rape, sexual assault and physical violence at the workplace and in public.

Sharmila Rege

The relative absence of caste as a category in the feminist discourse on violence has also led to the encapsulation of the Muslim and Christian women within the understanding of ‘talaq’ and ‘divorce’. In retrospect, it is clear that while the left party based women’s organizations collapsed caste into class, the autonomous women’s groups collapsed caste into sisterhood, both leaving Brahminism unchallenged. Though the movement did address issues concerning women of the dalit, tribal and minority communities and has made substantial gains, a feminist politics centring around the women of the most marginalized communities could not emerge.

The history of agitations and struggles of the second wave of the women’s movement is a history of articulations of strong anti-patriarchal positions on different issues. Issues of sexuality and sexual politics, which are crucial for a feminist politics, remained largely within an individualistic and lifestyle frame. Since issues of sexuality are intrinsically linked to caste, addressing sexual politics without challenging Brahminism results in lifestyle feminism.

Sharmila Rege

A dalit feminist standpoint is viewed as emancipatory since the subject of its knowledge is embodied and visible (i.e. the thought begins from the lives of dalit women and these lives are present and visible in the results of the thought).

It emphasizes individual experiences within socially constructed groups and focuses on the hierarchical, multiple, changing structural power relations of caste, class and ethnicity which construct such groups. It is obvious that the subject/agent of dalit women’s standpoint is multiple, heterogeneous and even contradictory, i.e., the category ‘dalit woman’ is not homogenous.

Such a recognition underlines the fact that the subject of dalit feminist’s liberatory knowledge must also be the subject of every other liberatory project and this requires a sharp focus on the processes by which gender, race, class, caste, and sexuality all construct each other. Thus, the dalit feminist standpoint itself is open to liberatory interrogations and revisions.

Sharmila Rege