Why Remembering Unsung Dalit Heroines Is Important
It would be a profound injustice to recognize Babasaheb Ambedkar, whose 131st birthday was recently celebrated, as a Dalit leader only. He also worked hard for the cause of women’s rights, believing that the political, economic and social aspects of a society can only be improved when men and women have equal rights. This piece is therefore a tribute to all the women of the periphery of whom we have not heard or written about but who are important. We cannot celebrate Ambedkar without giving due respect and recognition to these women.
India’s historical and cultural accounts have failed to acknowledge the contributions of women from the margins, as they are either androcentric in their approach or reflect the dominant castes. Remembering unsung Dalit women heroes and their stories of struggle and bravery across the centuries will expand these narratives and help to counter the institutionalized discrimination that Dalit women have faced for centuries.
Sabari’s story from the Ramayana has been used as an example of acceptance, selflessness and unconditional love, and adapted into bhajans and poems. The advent of bhakti saw the emergence of women from the Mahar caste, such as Sant Nirmala and Soyarabai, challenging Hindu orthodoxy. Nangeli fought against the cruel “breast tax” system, which imposed a tax on lower-caste women who covered their breasts. She cut off one of her breasts and presented it to tax collectors, inspiring other women in the community to shamelessly cover their breasts.
Every section of society attempted to combine social and political liberation during the struggle for freedom. Kuyili, who commanded the army of Velu Nachiyar, Queen of Sivaganga in Tamil Nadu, was a Dalit woman who fought against the British around 1780. Jhalkaribai, another fearless Dalit warrior, played a pivotal role in what we called the First War of Independence in 1857, as the most trusted companion and adviser of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi. Born in Ujirao, Lucknow, Uda Devi formed a battalion of Dalit women under the leadership of Begum Hazrat Mahal.
Among the social reformers was Savitribai Phule, a pioneer in Dalit education, who opened a school in 1848 with nine girls. In 1851 this became three schools with about 150 female students. She also opened a school in 1849 with her friend Fatima Sheikh, the Mahila Seva Mandal in 1852 to raise awareness of women’s rights, and the Balahatya Pratibandhak Griha, where widows and rape victims could give birth. Born in the Kaibarta caste community, Rani Rashmoni, protested against practices like sati and child marriage and atrocities against lower caste people and even submitted a plea against polygamy to the Society. Moovalur Ramamirtham Ammaiyar fought against Devadasi OS. In 1936, she published a Tamil novel on Devadasis and wrote the fictional series Damayanthi in 1945.
Dakshayani Velayudhan was the first and only Dalit woman to be elected to the constituent assembly in 1946. She also served in the provisional parliament from 1946 to 1952. Her contribution to civil disobedience and satyagraha is a story that needs to be told. told.
The bravery of Dalit women was not only visible in their deeds but also in the words they wrote. In Maharashtra, writers like Shantabai Kamble, Mallika Amar Sheikh and Kumud Pawde have shed light on Dalit feminism through their autobiographies. In Tamil Nadu, writers like Bama and P Sivakami explored gender discrimination as a double oppression. Marathi writers like Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon have worked to make Dalit women visible in the women’s movement and through their research and testimonies have brought out the grim reality of missing voices. Dalit women like Dulari Devi and Mayawati are also to be celebrated. Her conviction and skills in social engineering have made Mayawati Chief Minister of the UP four times, and through her art, Devi, a Mithila painter from Bihar, follows the interplay between meaning and power within hierarchical structures of religion, caste, gender and politics.
The author is assistant professor, Maitreyi College and founder of DAPSA