Scholarly article on topic 'When Feminism Overpowers Caste Marginalisation: A Study of the Feminist Agenda of Female Paraiyar Writers'

When Feminism Overpowers Caste Marginalisation: A Study of the Feminist Agenda of Female Paraiyar Writers Academic research paper on "Law"

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{Paraiyar / "Dalit writers" / Untouchability / Feminism / "Dalit Feminism" / Oppression / Pollution}

Abstract of research paper on Law, author of scientific article — Indrani Rama Chandran, Ruzy Suliza Hashim

Abstract Writings on caste-based marginalization are highly experiential in nature, and are almost always written by those who are born as outcastes themselves. Objectivity, however, becomes a problematic issue where such writings are concerned, since narratives which are written on the basis of personal experience and memory tend to be intensely personal and emotional in nature, and generally exhibit traces of personal bias, as in the case of female Paraiyar writers in Tamil Nadu, who are better known in the literary world as Tamil Dalit writers. Although widely acknowledged as the mouthpiece of Paraiyar/Dalit aspirations in the media and in academic circles, female Paraiyar writers tend to exhibit a fixated inclination towards issues of female marginalisation alone, instead of representing the cause as a whole, thus creating an element of disunity among Paraiyar writers who are supposedly working together towards emancipating their people from the clutches of caste-based oppression. Driven by such concerns, this paper seeks to analyse the novel, Sangati, written by a leading Paraiyar writer cum activist, Bama Faustina who is said to have provided Dalit women with an authentic voice and affirmative presence, with the aim of investigating the stand female Paraiyar writers take on the issue of caste marginalization on the whole, and the reasons why they tend to prioritise the sufferings of Paraiyar women over that of the Paraiyar community on the whole.

Academic research paper on topic "When Feminism Overpowers Caste Marginalisation: A Study of the Feminist Agenda of Female Paraiyar Writers"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 118 (2014) 383 - 388

SoLLs.INTEC.13: International Conference on Knowledge-Innovation-Excellence: Synergy in

Language Research and Practice

When Feminism Overpowers Caste Marginalisation: A Study of the Feminist Agenda of Female Paraiyar Writers

Indrani Rama Chandrana*, Ruzy Suliza, Hashimb

,baUniversiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Bangi 43600, Malaysia

Abstract

Writings on caste-based marginalization are highly experiential in nature, and are almost always written by those who are born as outcastes themselves. Objectivity, however, becomes a problematic issue where such writings are concerned, since narratives which are written on the basis of personal experience and memory tend to be intensely personal and emotional in nature, and generally exhibit traces of personal bias, as in the case of female Paraiyar writers in Tamil Nadu, who are better known in the literary world as Tamil Dalit writers. Although widely acknowledged as the mouthpiece of Paraiyar/Dalit aspirations in the media and in academic circles, female Paraiyar writers tend to exhibit a fixated inclination towards issues of female marginalisation alone, instead of representing the cause as a whole, thus creating an element of disunity among Paraiyar writers who are supposedly working together towards emancipating their people from the clutches of caste-based oppression. Driven by such concerns, this paper seeks to analyse the novel, Sangati, written by a leading Paraiyar writer cum activist, Bama Faustina who is said to have provided Dalit women with an authentic voice and affirmative presence, with the aim of investigating the stand female Paraiyar writers take on the issue of caste marginalization on the whole, and the reasons why they tend to prioritise the sufferings of Paraiyar women over that of the Paraiyar community on the whole.

© 2013 The Authors.Publishedby ElsevierLtd.

Selection and peer-reviewunderresponsibility ofUniversitiKebangsaanMalaysia. Keywords : Paraiyar; Dalit writers; Untouchability; Feminism; Dalit Feminism; Oppression; Pollution

l.Writing about Pain and Suffering

* Corresponding author. Tel.: +603-89216458; fax: +0-000-000-0000 . E-mail address: indraram@gmail.com

1877-0428 © 2013 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Selection and peer-review under responsibility of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.02.053

Fictionalising pain and suffering is quite a formidable task, especially so in situations where the trials and tribulations depicted are based on the personal experience of the writer. More often than not, such writings bear strong traces of autobiographical elements related to the writers' past, so much so that distinction between fiction and fact becomes almost obscure, and objectivity in representations, questionable. When drawing on bitter memories and writing about them, the tendency to reconstruct instead of resurrecting the past is inevitable (Whitehead, 2009:126). In the process of reconstructing, writers may choose to restructure and present events or experiences according to the importance that they deem appropriate. In the case of female writers in India who write about the marginalisation and oppression of those who belong to the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system (who are formally known as Scheduled Caste, or popularly as Dalits) a distinct trend is apparent. Although writing under the collective banner of caste-based oppression, these female writers exhibit a strong leaning towards feminist issues despite having a larger issue at hand. Patil attributes this need for female Dalit writers to limit their focus on feminist issues to the fact that "expressions of marginalisation of the Dalits are manifested through their women." (2013:142). Although a little far-fetched, Patil's observation may have a basis, seeing that Dalit women undergo triple exploitation based on caste, class and gender (Patil, 2013), as compared to their male counterparts. Since ancient times, the patriarchal Indian social structure has always placed women at the bottom of the order with men positioned above them (Singh, 2011). However, the question as to whether female Dalit writers should overlook the indispensable significance of overall caste-based oppression in the pursuit of justice for Dalit women alone, definitely begs inquiry.

While the term Dalit which means "ground down", "oppressed" or "rejected" is used widely, both in India and on a global level, to represent the people at the lowest ladder of the Hindu caste hierarchy, it is in essence merely a socio-political term that collectively represents the experiences of marginalisation of the low caste people in India. In reality, each caste has its own ethnic name that reflects the cultural characteristics of the community in question. The text, writer and context of novel in analysis for this paper are Tamil in origin. The setting is Tamil Nadu where members of the Scheduled Caste or Dalits are known by their individual caste names. In Tamil Nadu, there are seventy-seven outcaste sub-groups, under the umbrella of three main groups, the Paraiyars, Pallars and Arunthathiyars. (Arun, 2007: 35) Of the three, the Paraiyars form the highest population, and they are the subject of the novel in analysis, Sangati (Events).

2.Lived Experiences of the Writer

Sangati was written by Bama Faustina, a leading Tamil writer of Paraiyar origins. Since the publication of her first autobiographical novel, Karukku, Bama has undertaken a commanding role as the voice of Paraiyar women in Tamil Nadu, and of Dalit women throughout India. Bama writes in Tamil and her immense popularity as a leading female voice against caste oppression, and as a writer who has provided caste-oppressed women with "an authentic voice and affirmative presence" (Mangalam, 2007: 2), has resulted in her novels being translated into English. Sangati (Events)is one such translated piece of work. Bama's representation of Paraiyar women in Sangati serves as the basis of discussion of this paper.

Bama's Paraiyar origin makes her a perfect candidate as the voice of the caste-oppressed women. Raj Gauthaman, a leading literary critic and Dalit scholar, writes the following in response to a question on who are Paraiyar/Dalit writers, "Who has the right to write about Paraiyar/Dalits? Of course, one who is born a Paraiyar/Dalit has the birth right." (1995: 98) It is this birth right that creates in writers such as Bama the self-assertion and burning drive to fiercely challenge the oppression and marginalisation of upper caste predators. This is reinforced by her gender which provides her with a natural empathy for her

kind, and drives her to empower fellow Paraiyar women to "rise up with fervour and walk towards victory as they begin their struggle as pioneers of anew society." (Bama : 2005: ix) Sangati is described as a "seminal Paraiyar (Dalit) feminist text which, through tales of different women, explores the ill effects of caste victimisation and patriarchal disabilities" (Singh, 2011:131). Writings by Bama are often semi-autobiographical in nature. Sangati, for instance, is based on actual events in Bama's life when she lived with her family amidst the Paraiyar community. Stories that are told depict everyday lives of Paraiyar women, and of the oppression and marginalisation that they face from within, and outside the community, a fact which is aptly observed by Mangalam who characterises Sangati as a "cultural biography of a community." (2007:4)

Sangati is probably Bama's way of giving back to the women and girls amidst whom she grew up. Her characters are lively and rebellious and they live their lives as they will despite the oppressive situations that they are constantly exposed to as a result of their low caste. She expresses her sentiments about the womenfolk in the acknowledgement section of the novel,

My mind is crowded with many anecdotes: stories not only about the sorrows and tears of Paraiyar women, but also about their lively and rebellious culture, their eagerness not to let life crush or shatter them, but to swim vigorously against the tide; about the self-confidence and self-respect that enables them to leap over threatening adversities by laughing and ridiculing them; about their passion to live life with vitality, truth, and enjoyment, about their hard labour. I wanted to shout out these stories. I was eager that through them, everyone should know about us and our lives. (Bama, 2005 : ix)

The above excerpt gives a probable indication as to why Bama chose to focus on feminist issues instead of representing the cause on the whole. The womenfolk were people she connected with on a very personal level. As a writer, she probably understood their predicament better than she did of the male members of the community. One cannot help wonder if the patriarchal environment that she lived amidst could have contributed to Bama's conscious efforts to celebrate the Paraiyar women. In fact, Bama's depiction appears to be more of a rebellious celebration of the women, probably in response to the pain, humiliation and harassment that these women are sometimes made to undergo by men from their own community.

There are instances in the novel where Bama celebrates the women's rough and crude ways, the many shouting matches, public fights and teasing that often occur among the Paraiyar women. Bama claims that these activities are a means of survival for the women who are often immersed in pain, humiliation and discrimination on an almost daily basis. She writes, "if we are to live at all, we have to shout and shriek to keep ourselves sane. Upper-caste women, though, keep it all suppressed; they can become unstable and mentally ill. If you look at it like that, our women have an abundant will to survive however hard they might have to struggle for their least breath. Knowingly or unknowingly, we find ways of coping in the best way we can" (2005:68). By celebrating the women despite their outward crude ways, Bama appears to make her stand that the women are more deserving of her commitment as a writer than the male Paraiyars. Nellie McKay once observed that "for women, there is always a strong female bond that exists, and this invests them with the power to resist, survive and transcend their own oppression," (1990:232) Bama's role as a writer cum spokesperson for the Paraiyar women speaks volumes about such her bond with fellow Paraiyar women.

These are also women who must have inspired Bama in more ways than one, for she describes these characters in a positive light, often with much pride. One of the central characters in Sangati is Paatti (grandmother), the Vellaiyamma Kizhavi (Old Vellaiyamma), a fictionalised version of Bama's

own grandmother. Vellaiyamma is depicted as illiterate but as one who has intuitive knowledge about things; her expertise in midwifery being one of those things. "It seems she could handle even the most difficult cases. It didn't matter if the umbilical cord was twisted around the baby, if the baby lay in a breech position, if it was premature birth, or a case of twins." (Bama, 2005:1) Despite the lack of a respectable position in society due to their low caste, the Paraiyar women appear to be blessed with unique skills, and Bama must indeed be lauded for her conscious efforts to tell the world through her writings, of such distinct details.

And yet, there is no attempt by Bama to glorify characters in Sangati. Bama merely relates their characteristics as she knows them, warts and all. One of the characters in the story, Subbamma laments, "Because we haven't been to school or learnt anything, we go about like slaves all our lives, from the day we are born till the day we die. As if we are blind even though we have eyes." (Bama, 2005:118). Education for women is a key to emancipation, and in patriarchal communities like India, especially in village settings, men are often given preference where provision of education is concerned. Since gender-bias is also practised by the Paraiyar women themselves, as Bama depicts in Sangati, it takes a far-sighted woman like Bama to make a stand on the issue and speak up for the benefit of the future generations of Paraiyar women. Gender-bias practices were common during Bama's younger days, and could be detected even in something as basic as breast-feeding, where "a boy is breast-fed longer, with girls, they wean them off quickly, making them forget the breast." (Bama, 2005 : 7) Instances such as these greatly upset the young Bama character in the novel, and she is quoted as asking her grandmother, "Aren't we (the women) also human beings?" Such practices would be easily overlooked in view of the larger issue of caste marginalisation, but for a female writer like Bama, these small issues possess the capacity to grow into bigger, more serious problems for the womenfolk. If a Paraiyar woman's value is degraded by a fellow Paraiyar woman, would she gain any respect from someone outside the community?

Gender-bias is also apparent in a traditional Paraiyar community where education for women is concerned. To her fellow Paraiyar women who have been deprived of education, Bama has this to say, "we must be strong...we must show by our own resolute lives that we believe ardently in our independence...we must never allow our minds to be worn out, damaged, and broken in the belief that this is our fate. Just as we work hard so long as there is strength in our bodies, so too, must we strengthen our hearts and minds in order to survive."(Bama, 2005:59)

Sangati, to Bama, is a tool of empowerment; one that she hopes will help shift the mindset of Paraiyar women who are trapped in the claws of caste oppression. Bama's concern is that these women's sense of helplessness has made them believe that the oppressive situations that they find themselves in are forever inevitable. She expresses her fear in an interview, "because Dalits have been told again and again of their degradation, they have come to believe they are degraded; they have reached a stage where they themselves, voluntarily, hold themselves apart. The consequence of all this is that there is no way to find freedom or redemption." (Hariharan, 2003: par.11). In order to empower, Bama has to prove to her fellow Paraiyar women that boldness and resilience in character is absolutely necessary. By bringing to life the strong characters she grew up amidst, Bama attempts to introduce into the lives of Paraiyar women, new ideas for breaking away from the shackles of caste and patriarchal discrimination. Bama relates stories about her grandmother, Vellaiyamma, who was so bold that, despite her uneducated and poor status, found the courage to disregard the common conventions expected of the constitution of marriage and chose to be a single mother. Seeing that her husband Govindan, who went to work in Sri Lanka, showed no sign of returning home, she "waited and waited for Govindan to return, and at last when there was a terrible famine, she took off her tali (a sacred thread worn by a woman as a symbol of her marital status) and sold it.. .after that she never wore a tali ever again." (Bama, 2005:5). Undeniably, Vellaiyama's fierce

sense of practicality in a nation where the tali is regarded as sacred as God should serves as an eye-opener to Paraiyar women to break away from the clutches of caste and patriarchy.

In spite of the positive aspects about Paraiyar women mentioned above, the reality is that womenfolk in Paraiyar families are almost always treated with very little compassion and respect by their own husbands. Husbands expect women to supplement the household income, and at the same time efficiently manage household chores and children. To add to that burden, Paraiyar women are also expected to play their roles as sexual partners to the husbands to perfection. Refusal to abide to the sexual demands of the Paraiyar husbands often result in physical abuse in the form of severe beatings as well as verbal abuse. Paraiyar men possess a tendency for domination; and since they are unable to exhibit their manliness and power in front of upper caste folks who hold control over them, they often take it out on their own women. Bama's mother character in Sangati recounts the story of Thaayi, a victim of extreme domestic violence who once had her hair cut off by her husband and hung in front of the house as a way of taming her pride (Bama, 2005: 43). Karan Singh describes this male reaction as an assertion of masculinity through which Paraiyar/Dalit men uphold their pride and belittle the identity of their women. (2011 : 135)

Interestingly, despite the pain and suffering that they experience, there exists within the Paraiyar women, a motivation to persevere. Some persevere in pain, and continue with the duties that they are obligated to perform, and there are those who resist and find a new meaning to their existence. On many occasions, they find solace in motivating one another, and attempt to reinforce their pride in their cultural roots. In Sangati, the character Rendupalli philosophically proclaims, "even if our children are dark-skinned, their features are good and there's a liveliness about them. Black is strongest and best, like a diamond." (Bama, 2005:114) Finding strength in one's roots is a way of instilling self-respect and pride, and it is such a pride that writers like Bama hope to invoke in Paraiyar women. There is, therefore, a pressing need among writers to remind Paraiyar women of the power that lies within them, and the stories that Sangati depicts reinforce the existence of such a power. Writers like Bama must continue to work towards alleviating the pain and suffering of fellow Paraiyar women, and in order to ensure that they remain steadfastly committed to the cause, it is crucial that they stay focused on the issue of feminism involving the Paraiyar women, instead of spreading their interest to the issue of caste marginalisation.

3.Placing The Rights of Paraiyar Women Ahead of Caste

In order for these women to rise above their pain and suffering, role models and spokespersons are necessary, and it takes a woman who has experienced a similar kind of lifestyle to position herself confidently as the "voice" of these women. For writers like Bama, being in the position of that spokesperson or role model is much more important than being someone who represents the cause of caste marginalisation on the whole. Instances depicted in Sangati clearly prove that Paraiyar women are made to undergo oppression based on their gender, class and caste, and are often ill-treated and harassed not by upper caste men, but also by Paraiyar men themselves. What they need to rise above it all is empowerment from credible writers like Bama.

Bama is a rare example among the Paraiyar women, for she has successfully changed her life around by her boldness and resilience. Through her stories, Bama creates for Paraiyar women a reality of the power and potential that lies within them. The autobiographical mode of her writing is a means of reinforcing in Paraiyar women the feasibility of the empowerment that she is attempting to instill in them through her stories. If Paraiyar women who lived in villages, and who were uneducated could rise above their trials and tribulations to persist with their lives, the present day Paraiyar women could also live similarly exemplary lives if they choose to. For Bama, the rights of her fellow women require greater

attention as compared to the larger issue of caste marginalisation, and her stand becomes quite understandable really, if one were to delve deep into the real-life issues of the Paraiyar women, which does come across as a serious crime against humanity.

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