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This essay puts forward a series of accounts centred around the different manifestations of sexual violence in the lives of Dalit women. Unlike in the legal world, in these accounts lines between methods of assault and degrees of injury emerge blurred, and many of them remain unreported or have otherwise not been disclosed by the survivors.
Exposing the vulnerability of Dalit women to both gender-based exploitation and caste-based violence, the essay investigates the threats that follow the women into their homes, their workplace, and the streets. It also looks at the ways in which the survivors’ voice is silenced, time and again, by the authority of the ruling caste. Covering the many different structures that enable and even perpetuate such violence, the essay focuses in particular on the jogini system that legitimises prostitution even as it creates a circle of exploitation and social discrimination. This leads to an analysis not only of the incidents and functions of sexual violence, but also of the consequences that have to be borne by the survivors alone.
The authors explore different kinds of exploitative structures to identify ways in which they hamper women's claims over their bodily integrity, dignity and privacy. They show how the upper-caste discourse of a Dalit woman's sexual availability, along with the impunity for sexual crimes committed against them, is dangerous on multiple levels. It is the study of the contributing factors to this discourse, coupled with the functions and social effects of this particular kind of sexual violence, that the essay concerns itself with.
A qualitative as well as quantitative ethnography of 500 Dalit women who had been subjected to verbal, sexual and physical violence by men of the dominant castes, this essay starts as a narrative of individual Dalit women and moves towards an analysis of the reasons for the kinds of responses these women received when they tried to seek justice.
The essence of the essay’s argument is that despite the existence of adequate legal measures, Dalit women still face insurmountable obstacles while getting those measures implemented, assuming of course that they know that what has been perpetrated against them is legally actionable.
Typically, the responses to such violence include the women not seeking legal remedies in the first place; women getting blocked at the community level (by perpetrators, by the dominant caste community, by dominant caste Panchayats, by their own families, or by Dalit panchayats) from accessing legal remedies; women receiving some informal, inadequate form of justice by NGOs or panchayats; and women getting blocked by the police from accessing legal remedies.
The author finds that state impunity, dominant caste impunity and the collusion between the two is the central reason for Dalit women not being able to receive the formal redress that they ought to. To that effect, the author suggests that challenging this impunity will be the primary task of organizations seeking Dalit women’s empowerment.
Chakravarti’s essay counters the claim that in the pre-colonial period, a ‘fixed’ Hindu law didn’t exist because of multiple caste laws, by arguing instead that even those separate caste laws were bound by a broader rational framework, enforced as such by the Peshwai.
Chakravarti analyses the three legal issues of widow remarriage, conjugality and the age of consent to explore how the colonial laws affected women; the relationship between the caste panchayat and the larger legal culture of the second half of the nineteenth century, and whether the textual law was more or less repressive than customary law.
Women came under the purview of the colonial law because of a weakening of the caste panchayats, and the new British administration gave men a choice of forum through which to enforce patriarchy.
They were also brought under the colonial state through criminal cases against them, such as those for prostitution and abortion. The colonial state was able to do this effectively because the patriarchal Indian community also had the same goals. Despite the inherently patriarchal nature of colonial laws, women also sought the system out for cases of adoption and rights over their parents’ property.
The essay also points to how cultural nationalism unified ‘Hindus’, placing a Brahmanical patriarchal notion of womanhood instead of caste and regional differences, raising important questions about the relationship among the colonial state, law, family, caste panchayats and gender in the nineteenth century.
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