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Ambedkar’s Feminism

Karin Kapadia (kapadiawriting@gmail.com) is a research associate at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford.

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Virtually every day, the most brutal, most gruesome rapes of Indian girls and women fill the headlines. From where does this vicious misogyny come? Why are Indian boys still brought up as little kings, while Indian girls, in sharp contrast, are disciplined to be obedient domestic servants? A profound, deeply ugly bias against women pervades Indian culture, even today. Our political leaders—who are virtually all men—do nothing about it. Why should they? It benefits them, after all.

But we did, once, have a very great leader who was also a passionate feminist. All human rights are closely connected and B R Ambedkar knew this. Thus, while rightly venerated as the great icon of Dalit liberation, he was also strongly and intuitively feminist in his thinking. But, his profound feminism has received surprisingly little attention. It deserves to be widely recognised as central to his humane and enlightened perspective because his feminism is both radical and inspiring.

In his Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar (2016: 213) mockingly asked if the Congress party had discontinued its social conference because very few Congress members were genuinely interested in social reform:

Does it prove conclusively that social reform has no bearing on political reform? It will help us to understand the matter if I state the other side of the case. I will draw upon the treatment of the Untouchables for my facts.

He consistently argued that political change had to start with social reform—social reform had to be at the heart of political reform. His conviction regarding the primacy of social reform in all political transformations indicates why he was an intuitive feminist—he instinctively recognised the profound connections between caste discrimination and gender subordination in India.

Ambedkar was very aware that the patriarchal oppression of Indian women was essential to the continuance of caste. In her excellent collection of Ambedkar’s speeches on Brahminical patriarchy, Rege (2013: 145) points out the centrality of caste intermarriage for Ambedkar: “In Annihilation of Caste, for instance,1 he presents intermarriage as the only real remedy to abolish caste.”

Ambedkar was interested in political/social issues concerning women from an early age. In his early 20s, while studying anthropology (among other subjects) in New York at Columbia University, Ambedkar focused on the position of Indian women in a remarkably feminist dissertation, exploring the patriarchal control over female sexuality in India. He concluded that male control of women’s sexuality was essential to the reproduction of the caste system. Without it, intercaste marriages would ensue and caste identities would slowly wither away.

This crucial insight made him a passionate campaigner for an important feminist principle, namely women’s right to control their own sexuality and to determine their own choices in marriage. This attitude was far ahead of his time and was considered scandalous by the conservative society around him. Disregarding this, in his preface to the third edition of Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar critiqued other reformers’ “preoccupation with interdining as a means of ending untouchability” (Rege 2013: 145) and roundly declared,

To agitate for and to organize inter-caste dinners and [organized] inter-caste marriages is like forced feeding brought about by artificial means. Make every man and woman free from the thraldom of the shastras, cleanse their minds of the pernicious notions founded on the shastras, and he or she will inter-dine and inter-marry, without your telling him or her to do so. (Rege 2013: 145)

Ambedkar’s feminist ideas and his feminist political positions evolved from his relatively limited and conventional views in his early years, to his extremely vanguard and radical-feminist views in the 1950s. His final position is embodied in his 1951 article “The Rise and Fall of the Hindu Woman” (Rege 2013). We will discuss this crucially important article later.

We now move from his dissertation in New York, written in his early 20s, to 1936, when Ambedkar was 45 years old and the acknowledged leader of the Mahar Dalits. In 1936, Ambedkar gave a famous speech in Kamatipura, “the sex workers district of Bombay” (Rege 2013: 145), to women who belonged to a range of Dalit castes that engaged in “hereditary”/“ritualised” female sex work: Vaghyas, Devadasis, Jogtinis, and Aradhis.

Here, we need to first briefly investigate what instigates the involvement of Dalit women in “ritualised” sex work. Very poor Dalit castes have historically been required to manually clean the waterless toilets of “higher castes.” In other words, they have been forced to be “night-soil people” and do the most unpleasant tasks that nobody else wants to do. This filthy, yet poorly paid, work has been demanded of them, and, in recent times, when many of them have refused2 to do this deeply humiliating work, they have been attacked and beaten up by the dominant “caste-Hindus” of their villages.

In a similar way, extremely poor and vulnerable Dalit castes have been “traditionally required” to provide their young women and even their very young daughters for the sexual gratification of their higher caste landlord-employers. These Dalit castes are often bonded agricultural labourers. Dalit women in these bonded labour castes have been unable to refuse to provide sexual services to dominant-caste men because they have been forced into sex work by their own husbands/fathers and sometimes by older women. These practices continue even today (Anandhi 2017; Kapadia 2017).

Significantly, this sexual abuse of even young girls is locally represented as an “offering” to the clan goddess. But, what is actually going on is the organised sexual abuse of female children. This appalling “ritualised” prostitution of female children continues today, even in “progressive” South India, particularly among impoverished rural Dalits in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and northern Tamil Nadu.

‘Come With Us’: Ambedkar at Kamatipura

But, to return to Bombay’s red-light district on 16 June 1936, where Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar stands talking to the Dalit women sex workers. Then, as now, impoverished Dalit women did not willingly “choose” to enter prostitution. These women had been forced into it by circumstances—or by their husbands. This helps explain why Ambedkar chooses to speak to them as he did. What exactly did he say? According to the Times of India of 17 June 1936 Ambedkar said:

But I insist that if you want to be with the rest of us, you must give up your disgraceful life. The Mahar women of Kamatipura are a shame to the community … There are only two ways open to you: either you remain where you are and continue to be despised and shunned, or you give up your disgraceful profession and come with us. You will ask me how to make your living. I am not going to tell you that. There are hundreds of ways of doing it. But I insist that you give up this degraded life. You marry and settle down to normal domestic life as women of other classes do and do not live under conditions which inevitably drag you into prostitution. (Rege 2013: 146)3

We know that these sex worker Dalit communities were highly patriarchal. Therefore, an important subtext to Ambedkar’s words was the collusion of impoverished Dalit men in the prostitution of their women kin. This is a subtext that both Ambedkar and his female audience would have been acutely aware of. Rege (2004) herself has provided us with crucial evidence for the lack of autonomy and the tragic victimhood of many Dalit Mahar women in her important book.4

When discussing Dalit marital relations during this period, her account, based on women’s own “testimonies,” details the extremely brutal punishments that husbands gave supposedly “disobedient” wives, often inflicting dreadful physical mutilations on them (Kapadia 2007). In short, this was not a social context in which women could either “choose” or refuse to become prostitutes. It was usually their male kin who decided this.

Once we recognise the collusion of Dalit men in the sexual trafficking of their female kin as the unspoken backdrop to Ambedkar’s speech, we see how Ambedkar challenges these Dalit women to stand up for their own interests, rather than the interests of their male kin. He, therefore, asks them to quit prostitution altogether. His challenge is uncompromising—he tells the women very plainly, almost harshly, that he will not help them to find other sources of income. They must do this themselves and give up their “disgraceful” sex work in Kamatipura for their own sake.

Ambedkar and the Theris

We now come to 1951 and to Ambedkar’s article, published that year in the Journal of Maha-Bodhi Society, entitled “The Rise and the Fall of the Hindu Woman: Who Was Responsible for It?” (Rege 2013). By this time, Ambedkar was deeply interested in Buddhism, which he took very seriously. He would soon convert to Buddhism on 14 October 1956, having been mentored by the eminent Sri Lankan Buddhist scholar-monk, Venerable Saddhatissa, who was renowned internationally. Some 5,00,000 of his followers converted to Buddhism along with Ambedkar and his wife.

That Ambedkar found joy and liberation in Buddhism is evident in this article in which he shares his delight in the verses written by the Theris, the female Elders of the Buddhist monastic Sangha. These verses, known as the Therigatha, the “Verses of the Theris,” attest to their realisation of enlightenment. Orthodox Brahminical Hinduism has always denied, and continues to do so till this day, that women can attain spiritual enlightenment—they have to be reborn as males to do so because only men can become spiritually enlightened. Buddhism rejected this view totally. Initiating a social revolution, the Buddha opened his Sangha (monastic community) to both Dalits and women, going totally against the established norms of his day.

Ambedkar quotes, in full, the Therigatha verses of two Theris—Mutta (whose name means “liberation”) and Mettika. The Pali Text Society source that Ambedkar referred to provided a short background history of Mutta, the Buddhist nun, before giving the verse she wrote:

Come to proper age, she was given to a hunchbacked Brahmin; but she told him she could not continue in the life of the house, and induced him to consent to her leaving the world. Exercising herself in insight, her thoughts still ran on external objects of interest. So she practised self-control, and repeating her verse, strove after insight till she won Arahantship; then exulting, she repeated

‘O free indeed! O gloriously free

Am I in freedom from three crooked things:

From quern, from mortar, from my crookbacked lord.

Ay, but I’m free from rebirth and from death,

And all that dragged me back is hurled away.’ (Rege 2013)

Thus, Mutta rejoices in her spiritual enlightenment and in her freedom from unpaid domestic work (the pestle and mortar) and her husband. She not only happily turns her back on the conventional life of women, but, in her own words, “hurls it away” with glee. Hers is an exultant celebration of freedom from domesticity and emancipation from the shackles of orthodox Hindu marriage—things that Mutta very explicitly defines as fetters that “dragged her back” to death and the cycle of rebirth.

Significantly, Ambedkar’s quote of Mettika’s enlightenment verse is on the same theme of female emancipation at the crowning moment of spiritual self-realisation. Mettika wrote:

Though I be suffering and weak, and all

My youthful spring be gone, yet have I come, leaning upon my staff, and climbed aloft

The mountain peak.

My cloak thrown off,

My little bowl o’erturned: so sit I here

Upon the rock. And o’er my spirit sweeps

The breath of Liberty! I win, I win

The Triple Lore! The Buddha’s will is done! (Rege 2013)

To win the “Triple Lore” or “Tevijja” is to know that one is enlightened and will not be reborn. In these verses, Ambedkar is celebrating not only female spiritual attainment, but also the Buddhist rejection of the orthodox Brahminical assumption that no woman is capable of attaining enlightenment. He is also, implicitly, together with these exultant Theris, celebrating their rejection of domesticity and marriage as the limits of female existence.

In celebrating the Theris, Ambedkar was, therefore, not only rejoicing in the fact that they were women who had attained enlightenment through the eightfold path shown by the Buddha, but he was also, in a radical-feminist manner, celebrating women who had very explicitly rejected married domesticity and had chosen to walk away from the safety of husbands and homes. In his celebration of the spiritual attainments of the Theris, Ambedkar showed how deeply he empathised with women’s desire to be free to do anything and to be anything—in short, to be wholly emancipated human beings.

Ambedkar clearly saw that caste hierarchy has to be annihilated before we can hope for the emancipation of India’s women. Women can never be liberated as long as the radical inequality of the caste system is protected, as it continues to be today. And, this is why the ghastly rapes and the ugly misogyny will continue in our country until all women and all men, whatever their caste, are seen as of equal worth. Caste hierarchy has to be smashed before we can hope for the emancipation of India’s women. Women can never be liberated as long as the caste system is protected, as it is today. But, if women rebel and reject arranged marriages, choosing their own spouses, this will at least spell the beginning of the end of caste. This is what Ambedkar gave his life for—and this should be our common pursuit.

Notes

1 Rege’s footnote here notes: BAWS (Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches), Vol 1, pp 28–96. See https://www.mea.gov.in/Images/attach/amb/Volume_01.pdf.

2 Note the huge political importance of such refusal in the saga of Dalit struggle.

3 Rege’s own footnote here reads: BAWS, Vol 17, Part 3, 150, emphasis added.

4 Also see Kapadia (2007).

References

Ambedkar, B R (2016): Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition, S Anand (ed), London and New York: Verso.

Anandhi, S (2017): “Gendered Negotiations of Caste Identity: Dalit Women’s Activism in Rural Tamil Nadu,” Dalit Women: Vanguard of an Alternative Politics in India, S Anandhi and Karin Kapadia (eds), London and New York: Routledge, pp 97–130.

Kapadia, Karin (2007): “Reading Dalit Women: Memories of Rural Lives in Maharashtra,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 42, No 50, pp 27–29.

— (2017): “Introduction: We Ask You to Rethink: Different Dalit Women and Their Subaltern Politics,” Dalit Women: Vanguard of an Alternative Politics in India, S Anandhi and Karin Kapadia (eds), Routledge: London and New York, pp 1–50.

Rege, Sharmila (2004): Women Writing Caste: Testimonies of Dalit Women of Maharashtra, New Delhi: Zubaan.

— (ed) (2013) Against the Madness of Manu: B R Ambedkar’s Writings on Brahmanical Patriarchy, 1985, New Delhi: Navayana.

Updated On : 4th Jan, 2020

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