The Stonewall Riots for LGBTQ rights were started in 1960 by two trans women of colour, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.
“Me Too” was a campaign against sexual harassment started in 2007 by a Black woman activist, Tarana Burke.
The media expose of sexual harassment in workplaces India was started by a Dalit woman, Raya Sarkar, in 2017. Yet the #Metoo movement has apparently only arrived in India last month.
Do you see the similarities yet?
I could talk about endless things, but I will start from a personal experience. I am a writer of science fiction and fantasy, a genre of literature that’s not very popular in India outside its small, specific communities. I have been writing for years, but I was thrown into wider public attention only earlier this year, when I became the first Indian to be nominated for the prestigious Hugo Award.
Being the first person from the country to achieve something is an immense honour, I immediately faced backlash from a section of the science fiction community in India: “Why her? Why did it have to be this Dalit woman?” This did not make mainstream news, because the internal workings of the science fiction community doesn’t often make mainstream news in India. But I am still hearing slander from my social and professional networks back home: “We do not like her; she doesn’t represent us; she cheated her way into this achievement; she’s an attention seeker…” Slander from people I don’t personally know, people who have never worked or even interacted with me.
None of these words is unfamiliar to me. Today, I want to know: Why are Savarna Indians so reluctant to be represented by a Dalit woman, even someone who is a stranger, someone whose work is not specifically for or about Dalits? Nobody says Leander Paes is a Christian or Kalpana Chawla is a Haryanvi—they don’t represent me. Raya Sarkar’s list wasn’t only for Dalit women, yet Savarna India needed a new, unrelated #Metoo movement to feel comfortable talking about large-scale sexual harassment. What message does that send to us Dalit women?
The message it sends us is the message that our mothers and grandmothers have whispered to us for generations. It’s the message that the rest of India has not only refused to listen, but also actively silenced.
For generations in India, Dalits have been actively stopped from speaking. It’s a marvellous nexus—the actively casteist population doesn’t even consider us human enough, and the population that pretends to be anti-caste forcefully silences us. Every time we try to make a point about our different experiences, liberal Savarnas shut us up with scoldings of “We don’t believe in caste! There is no different experience! You are just trying to get attention!” Every time we try to raise our voices within a movement, we are told we’re trying to be “divisive” and that “This is not the right time.”
This is what our mothers and grandmothers have taught us: It is never the right time in India to care about our oppressions. There are movements and protests that benefit Savarnas, and whatever little we can glean from them we will receive, but we are not allowed to mention what we didn’t get. We are never welcome to start anything, because we don’t represent you, we are just the silent numbers you can either oppress, ignore or “uplift” for your causes.
How come we have always had these different experiences, and liberal Savarnas are still being shaken out of wide-eyed innocence each time they hear about it? Let me tell you about the myth of the “privileged Dalit”.
The one person Savarnas traditionally cannot stand is the Dalit who can speak. That person is therefore no longer a “real Dalit.” So all the Dalits who are well-educated, articulate, have enough social safety—the only ones of us who have the power and skills to raise their voice and criticise the Savarna hegemony—are effectively delegitimised from speaking for our community. Raya or Meena or Christina or Thenmozhi or Sujatha or I are not the “right” kind of Dalit for liberal Savarna tastes. The “right” kind of Dalit is the body that was pulled down from the tree or fished out of the sewer, because that one is no longer squeaking.
I want to know: What does this country tell Dalit women when casteists get away with leading its liberal feminist discourse? What does the country tell us when we receive discriminations no matter what, but are not allowed to mention it unless we present some ridiculous piece of paper called a “caste certificate”, in a country where over half the population doesn’t have birth certificates or voter ID cards, and the bureaucracy that delivers these papers is a huge mess of corruption and red tape? What does the country tell us when Savarna women and the Savarna media erase the movement one of us created—single-handedly, bearing great personal risk to themselves, and not only for Dalit women—to build another movement of their own? Does it tell us that the country cares about our narratives or our safety?
The most important feature of the #Metoo movement is that it is built on trust. A woman who has much less power than her abuser and often no documentation that would hold up in a court comes out to the public with her narrative, trusting that people would believe her experience. That when it comes to her-word-against-his situations, people would believe the woman’s word. If people don’t extend that belief the entire process backfires on the woman, who risks losing personal and professional safety, possibly for life.
We Dalits, and especially Dalit women, are not accustomed to receiving that kind of belief from Savarna social systems, or even our own Savarna friends. You have always told us that our experiences were false, mistaken, divisive, bids for attention. One doesn’t have to be an activist or scholar to know this. Our mothers and grandmothers have warned us, because they received these betrayals again and again, and they’ve only been allowed to exist next to you in your societies because they silenced themselves. We have been present for your fights, and then you let us down and told us to shut up when your own purpose was served. You have never protected us from abusers, often even thrown us at abusers to protect yourselves. We do not trust you.
I also have a #Metoo story, but Savarna India will not hear it today. I will not confide in you the horror, pain and trauma with which I am still living every day, only to watch you form a protective ring around one of your own and call me a liar. I will not present my “caste certificate” and the detailed histories of my parents, relatives and ancestors for the entertainment of your sordid “liberal feminists” and their supporters. I will not throw into your ring my education, professional credibility, romantic history, every single achievement for which I had to struggle twice as hard against your reluctance and ridicule, so that you can label me an attention seeker once again. If you want to genuinely include Dalit women in your movements, Savarna India, you have to do better.