The Global #MeToo Movement is a collection of essays from 48 authors from 28 countries on how social media driven a social movement against sexual harassment contributed to shifts in law, culture and politics. The collection of essays features women of colour, many a part of the new generation of young women bringing new insights to the fight against discrimination and harassment. The diversity of views featured in the collection shows in multiplicity of voices and opinions, on intersectionality, law, as well as struggle against sexual harassment that has long preceded #MeToo, and the gaps that #MeToo needs to address in areas of queer politics, disability and caste. Produced by the Berkeley Center on Comparative Equality & Anti-Discrimination Law, this collection is a remarkable anthology of voices from across the globe, that include include leading university professors, NGO activists, and government officials, and a member of the Irish Senate.
Here is an excerpt from the book, from the chapter by Shreya Atrey, “From Me to We: Locating dalit women in #MeToo”, that highlights the timelessness of invisibility of accounts of violence faced by Dalit women.
On December 22, 1963, Yedu Kale and a group of men approached Kishan’s hut armed with sticks. Not finding Kishan, the men started beating his father, Vithal Amrit. They then found Kishan’s mother, Laxmibai, and later Sonabai, who were both beaten, stripped naked, dragged, paraded around the streets, and taken to the village entrance, yes, to be exhibited. Another group of men found Kishan’s sisters-in-law, Kadubai and Sakrabai, who too were beaten, disrobed, and paraded to the ves while passing Yedu’s house so Shevantibai could see them being punished for her ignominy. The four women returned home that evening wrapped in a single sari someone had thrown at them.
While asked to settle the matter within the village, Kishan’s family preferred legal recourse and against all odds, managed to lodge a complaint for crimes including rioting, intent to hurt, house trespass, and “outraging the modesty of a woman.”1 The act of stripping and parading naked was recorded only later, initially ignored by the police and downplayed by the Dalit women themselves due to humiliation. Despite a botched investigation, such was the evidence that the Magistrate found the men guilty and the District Judge upheld the conviction. The accused were sentenced to forty-three months’ imprison- ment and a fine of 300 rupees. Vithal Amrita received 1,000 rupees in damages.2
The full story of Sirasgaon — the historical relations between Dalits and caste Hindus in Maharashtra, the way in which the incident unraveled legally and was covered by the media, and how it changed the lives of those involved and the entire village in fact — is a story of how class, caste, and patriarchy prevail in rural India. It is the story of casteist patriarchy that plays out in the theatre of everyday lives of Dalit women, whose rights and opportunities are dictated by the intersection of poverty, patriarchy, and the caste system, all of them at the same time. These factors’ full intersectional force can be reckoned in four ways in which casteist patriarchy transpires.
First, Sirasgaon’s story shows that sexual harassment of Dalit women is inseparable from casteism. Dalit women are targeted not only because of their sex or gender but because they are Dalit. Thus, the form of sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual behavior does not explain the causality of it. The four women in Sirasgaon were targeted in unequivocally “sexual” ways of being stripped and paraded naked, but the primary reason they were targeted was because they were women outside of the Hindu caste system. The exhibition of naked Dalit women is a form of sexual harassment specific to them alone. Dalit women’s bodies serve as the site for caste lessons to be imparted, for Dalit men like Kishan to learn the cost of their transgressions like asking a landlord’s upper-caste wife to empathize with his sister, a Dalit woman, being violated by the landlord. Kishan relied on his maleness to make a point that he too could violate a woman but did not factor in his caste. The cost of his behavior — which was also a form of sexual harassment against Shevantibai — was ultimately borne by his mother, sister, and sisters-in-law. The difference in the form of and reasons for sexual harass- ment of upper-caste women and Dalit women are apparent. While Shevantibai was improperly questioned by Kishan, it was Sonabai, Laxmibai, Kadubai, and Sakrabai who were dragged out of their homes, beaten, stripped, and paraded naked around the village for his infraction. Saying that both an upper-caste woman and Dalit women suffered sexual harassment would then be saying too little about the reason why sexual harassment came about: caste.
Second, the stark difference can also be recounted in terms of the sheer extremity of violence accompanying Dalit women’s sexual harassment. Thus, the difference in the form of sexual harassment against Dalit women is both sub- stantive and scalar. Sexual assault, rape, gang-rape, mutilation, stoning, pulling out of nails, forced prostitution, sexual slavery, bondage, and exploitation, are forms of sexual harassment visited upon Dalit women at a considerably higher rate than upper-caste women.3 Sexual harassment of Dalit women far exceeds a mere infraction or transgression and can only be properly characterized as an “atrocity.”4
Third, sexual harassment of Dalit women is uniquely accepted as a manifestation of caste relations that inhabits the public space. Take for example the practice of dedicating Dalit women to temples as devdasis, joginis, or muralis, who are essentially “temple prostitutes.” The practice provides unfettered access to Dalit women dedicated to the sexual service of upper-caste men, sanctioned by religion and society. Although seemingly banned, the practice appears to be alive and well today.5 There is unquestioned acceptance and hence invisibility of sexual harassment against Dalit women when it takes place openly and freely, often seen as necessitated in a caste society, like the Sirasgaon incident where Dalit women were made examples to Dalit men breaching caste codes. This is the ironic duality of public, yet invisible, sexual harassment suffered by Dalit women.
Finally, lest Sirasgaon seem like a distant memory, sexual harassment against Dalit women has continued unabated in postcolonial constitutional society in India. Identical incidents are recorded frequently; recently, in Mulgaon, Maharashtra, a Dalit woman was beaten and paraded naked by upper- caste women when her son eloped with an upper-caste girl in 2012. Similar incidents have occurred in Jalalabad, Punjab where a woman was stripped naked and beaten while tied to a tree when her son propositioned an upper-caste girl in 2013; in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh where five Dalit women were paraded naked and caned when a girl eloped with a Dalit boy in 2015; in Mudwara, Madhya Pradesh where a Dalit woman was stripped and forced fed with urine by an upper-caste man and his wife when she tried to resist his acquisition of land that legally belonged to her in 2015; and in Kurara, Uttar Pradesh where a Dalit woman was thrashed, her private parts mutilated and paraded naked when she complained of being gang-raped by upper-caste men in 2018. But Sir- asgaon is exceptional. Although it represents routine forms of sexual harassment and violence deployed against Dalit women, it is nonetheless a rare occasion where sexual harassment was acknowledged even if described as caste violence against Dalit men and families to assert community honor and pride rather than squarely as sexual harassment against Dalit women. In fact, it was Vithal Amrita, Kishan’s father, who ended up receiving damages for all that happened in Sirasgaon in December 1963. Since then, while Dalit women have continued to resist and mobilize against sexual harassment and violence, the impunity for violations too has continued unencumbered, with less than 1 percent of Dalit women’s complaints resulting in convictions compared to 25 percent of cases involving upper-caste women.6 Compare this to the fact that nearly 50 percent of the Dalit women in India experience sexual harassment and violence on an everyday basis and 99 percent of the incidents go unreported.7 Even the partial redress of the Sirasgaon atrocity appears like a staggering feat against this.
So where are Dalit women in #MeTooIndia? In October 2018, Google created a visualization of who was searching for “#MeToo” in India, and the entire map of the country lit up.8 #MeToo was not merely a movement of the urban elite but meant something to everyone. Surely, one would think, Dalit women would have been part of everyone finally coming together in solidarity against sexual harassment.
This rendering obscures how Dalit women have engaged with movements and resisted sexual harassment in modern India. Long before middle-class, upper-caste women started resisting sexual harassment in homes, on the streets, and in workplaces, Dalit women’s resistance to sexual harassment and violence defined the women’s movement in India since the 1970s. The first notable nationwide agitation was because of the custodial rape of Mathura, a young tribal girl who had been gang-raped by two police men in 1972.9 That led to significant amendments in Indian rape law in 1983,10 though none recognized age, class, caste, or tribe as an aggravating factor that fundamentally changed the nature of sexual harassment in the ways described above. The second wave of agitation followed the gang-rape of Bhanwari Devi, a Dalit woman, who was punished by upper-caste men for having campaigned in her capacity as a gov- ernment worker against child marriage in 1992. That led the Supreme Court of India to formulate the first ever Sexual Harassment at Workplace Guidelines in the case of Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan 1997 AIR 3011, which eventually became the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013. Once again, neither the guidelines nor the act acknowledged caste as what dictated the experience of women like Bhanwari Devi. Dimensions of caste, tribe, class, age, rurality, etc. were flattened into sex or gender, considered as the defining characteristic of sexual harassment. Thus, while Dalit women’s experiences had furnished the basis for the organization of the women’s movement against sexual harassment, the experiences themselves were sidelined as mere data or story, their implications failed to be understood and ultimately, redressed and reversed.11
That said, Dalit women have always protested sexual harassment meted out to them. They have spoken in loud and clear terms about their experiences of sexual harassment and violence, pointing out its intersectional nature and how it differs for women of caste. Yet their stories remain marginal. They may light up a whole map and continue to express solidarity with all women, but their experiences of sexual harassment, just like the Sirasgaon incident, get little attention for what they are and are not generally considered to constitute “real” sexual harassment. Instead, their presence is co-opted as signifying shared experiences of sexual harassment rather than as diversifying what counts as women’s experiences of sexual harassment in the first place. The result is that despite the awakening in #MeToo, few incidents like Sirasgaon have been brought forth, reckoned with, and made central to the case against sexual harassment of Indian women. In fact, we continue to lack a comprehensive understanding of the reasons for and forms of intersectional sexual harassment that occurs not only because of women’s sex or gender, but because of their religion, race, color, caste, class, age, disability, sexual orientation, region, language, etc.
And that is why Dalit women, despite having led the resistance to sexual harassment in India, find themselves wondering about the “Me” in #MeToo- India. There is no doubt that the movement has engendered solidarity that has been unprecedented in going beyond the upper-caste middle-class urban masses. But solidarity without the full understanding of the nature of sexual harassment, especially intersectional sexual harassment, is liable to founder. There is no better time than now to issue a call for #MeToo to diversify and recognize the pain, struggle, and resilience of women who are Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim, disabled, queer, poor, rural, and non-English speaking, and whose accounts remain marginal in the mainstream discourse. This recognition rests on the full comprehension of the specific nature of intersectional sexual harassment running along the four dimensions described above, in terms of its causality, violence, public nature, and endurance. It is only in developing a collective consciousness of experiences dissimilar to our own that we may engender the stuff of true solidarity moving on from Me to We in #MeToo.
- An archaic phrase used to refer to sexual harassment in the Victorian-era legislation, the Indian Penal Code 1860, section 354 and section 509.
- Anupama Rao, The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Mod- ern India 217-240 (2009).
- National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), Report: National Tribunal Violence Against Dalit Women in India (2013), http://www.dalitweb.org/?p=2293
- In fact, that is the official term used in the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Pre- vention of Atrocities) Act 1989. See especially section 3 (xi)-(xii) concerning offenses against Dalit women.
- Devdasi System Continues to Exist Despite Ban, Outlook, May 29, 2016, https:// www.outlookindia.com/newswire/story/devadasi-system-continues-to-exist-despite-ban -book/941639.
- International Dalit Solidarity Network, Dalit Women—Facing Multiple Forms of Discrimination (2014), http://idsn.org/wp-content/uploads/user_folder/pdf/New_files /Key_Issues/Dalit_Women/DALIT_WOMEN_-_IDSN_briefing_paper.pdf; Palak Nandil, Dalit Women Cases: Crime Conviction Rate Poor, Times of India (June 7, 2011), http:// timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/jaipur/Dalit-women-cases-Crime-convictionrate-poor/ articleshow/9131045.cms?referral=PM.
- Sujan Bandyopadhyay, A Closer Look at Statistics on Sexual Violence in India, The Wire, May 8, 2018, https://thewire.in/society/a-closer-look-at-statistics-on-sexual-violence -in-india.
- Sruthi Radhakrishnan, India Glows with #MeToo, The Hindu, Oct. 16, 2018, https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technolog y/internet/india-glows-with-metoo/article 25239194.ece.
- Tuka Ram v. State of Maharashtra 1979 AIR 185 (Supreme Court of India). See especially analysis in Kalpana Kannabiran and Ritu Menon, From Mathura to Manorama: 25 years of Resisting Violence against Women (2007).
- The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1983 (No. 43), among other things, declared it an offence to reveal the identity of rape victims, shifted the burden of proof to the accused when the victim claimed that they had not consented, and deleted the provision allowing references to the character of the prosecutrix in rape cases.
- Sharmila Rege, “Real Feminism” and Dalit Women: Scripts of Denial and Accusation, 35 Econ. & Pol. Wkly. 492 (2000); Sharmila Rege, Dalit Women Talk Differently: A Critique of “Difference” and Towards a Dalit Feminist Standpoint Position, 33 Econ. & Pol. Wkly. 39 (1998).